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rites and wrongs of spring
Frank Deford
February 25, 1974
As baseball heads south for the annual invigoration, a fan with a trove of sacred memories mourns the end of an age of wonderful innocence—when hot air from the Grapefruit League wafted up to melt the northern snows
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February 25, 1974

Rites And Wrongs Of Spring

As baseball heads south for the annual invigoration, a fan with a trove of sacred memories mourns the end of an age of wonderful innocence—when hot air from the Grapefruit League wafted up to melt the northern snows

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Florida remains the Mecca of Spring Training, though Texas and the Caribbean have been used in the past, and the Angels train in Palm Springs, Calif. and there are always a handful of teams that work out of Arizona. There is more sunshine in Arizona than in Florida, but as any schoolchild knows, Arizona has light air, so curveballs do not curve and pop flies drift into circuit clouts. The ghastly end result is that the hitters actually get ahead of the pitchers. What kind of spring training is that?

Growing up, I had no appreciation of Florida except that it was warm, it had oranges and it had spring training. I was aware only of the following Sunshine State cities: Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, Fort Myers, Bradenton, West Palm Beach, Sarasota, Lakeland, Vero Beach and Orlando. Wake me up in the middle of the night to this day and whisper " Clearwater" to me, and I will reply "Phillies." Say " Bradenton" and I will say "Braves." I was much more disoriented by the Braves going to West Palm than by their moving from Boston to Milwaukee. I more or less assumed that those 10 cities were the only ones of any importance in Florida, St. Pete being a doubly-blessed leader among equals since it had both the Redbirds and the Bronx Bombers. I gathered that all the towns had been created expressly for the purpose of providing training camp sites, and that they were grouped together within a five-or six-mile radius.

And I often wondered: what does a training camp look like? What does the Grapefruit League look like? What does spring training look like?

And then television and jet airplanes came along and showed me, and it was terribly disillusioning. They took all the exotic mystery out, all the foolish optimism, all the Tinker Bell. Also, by then, the pitchers stayed ahead of the hitters all season long, so what was the point of it? Ptui.

Now spring training is just another amusement park, another Marineland, Alligator Ranch, Snake Farm, Parrot Corral or what-have-you for the cities that have the teams. In some of the larger places spring training is swallowed up altogether by the swirling tourist world—which do you think Orlando prizes more: Harmon Killebrew or Mickey Mouse? Brooks Robinson probably could serve Miami better if he played jai alai. Even in a more sheltered little place like Fort Myers, way down on the Gulf Coast where they do not even have an interstate highway to link them to Tampa or the 1970s, spring training is an unexceptional part of a ribbon landscape. "It's a good, clean industry," is the way Oscar M. Corbin Jr., Fort Myers' handsome mayor, defines it, as if he were talking of zoning an area for baseball.

Fort Myers has been a spring training site for half a century, back to when Connie Mack brought in his A's. Some oldtimers can still recall that Jimmy Foxx used to pack the town kids into his fancy big touring car and drive them about town, and that one year Mickey Cochrane inked his pact over a Coke at Richard's Pharmacy. The Indians came next, briefly, and then the Pirates stayed for many years, until 1968, when Bradenton lured them away with a spanking new facility.

To Fort Myers it was not so much a matter of losing the glamour of a major league team as it was losing a dateline on all the stories that went up north. Fort Myers and Lee County (The Gladiola Capital of the World) are growing rapidly—population has doubled in a decade, values are way up, and traffic is simply frightful. Thomas Edison, who wintered there, as did his pal Henry Ford, once wrote, "There is only one Fort Myers and 90 million people are going to find it out." Today, all 90 million appear to have found it out—and, worse, to have bought mobile homes.

The problem is how to distinguish Fort Myers from any other tourist town. It has sun, yes, and water, and maybe the best weather in the state, but what of those things called Tourist Attractions that bring people running? Well, there are The Edison House, The Waltzing Waters, The Shell Factory and a bush-league dog track down the road, but certainly no Cypress Gardens boffo-type thing. So it helps to keep Fort Myers in the datelines, and to advertise up in Orlando—where every tourist first touches base in the state at Disney World—that Fort Myers has the Kansas City Royals. One exhibition game brought cars from 23 different states and two Canadian provinces to the ball park, a claim very few other clean industries can make.

On the books, spring training is a losing proposition. General Manager Tallis estimates that the Royals spend $150,000 a year on it and lose perhaps $30,000. As for the players, they do not start getting their salaries until the season begins, and have to make do with their per diem and $62 a week of what is called Murphy Money, for incidentals. And, perhaps worst of all, they have to spend the best hours of the sunny days playing baseball.

Tallis selected Florida over Arizona for the Royals in part because he felt Florida weather more closely approximates the humid Kansas City summers. Once having made that decision, he flew all over the state with a man from the Florida Department of Commerce checking possible sites. Fort Myers is out of the way, but it has the weather, a good training facility, and it promised to guarantee $15,000 in ticket sales and to build a new clubhouse.

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