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Scalpers crowded outside Compadre Stadium in Chandler, Ariz., before the Milwaukee Brewers' spring-training home opener on March 5 against the Chicago Cubs. One of them, a college-age youth in khaki shorts and a Brewers cap, was asking a cool $15 for a $3.50 reserved seat. He could hold out for his price because the 5,000 permanent seats at Compadre had been sold long before game time, obliging nearly 4,000 other fans to find a lolling spot on the grassy hillsides that flank that old park's foul lines and lie beyond its outfield fences.
Up the road, in Phoenix, where on the same day the Oakland Athletics were entertaining the Seattle Mariners, surly attendants were enthusiastically clanging shut the gates on the packed 2,200-car parking lot at Phoenix Stadium a full 40 minutes before the first pitch. A crowd of nearly 8,000 filled that once commodious-seeming municipal ballpark until it boiled over the top.
Outside the Kansas City Royals' park near Orlando, Fla., is a sign with arrows pointing toward the Baseball Stadium, Kiddie Park, Batter-Up, Pitching-and-Fielding, Baseball Theater, Chicken 'n' Biscuit and Rest Rooms. The atmosphere around the park—a shiny, new, scaled-down replica of Royals Stadium in Kansas City—is a nightmare of festivity and flashing contraptions. The ball game itself is just another ride in an amusement park.
Can this be spring training as we came to know and love it? Whatever happened to those clubby little crowds of a couple of thousand or so? How come you can't just walk up and buy a ticket on the day of the game without waiting in line for an hour? Why isn't there room enough anymore to stretch bare legs over the row in front? Who are these uniformed fascists grimly checking ticket stubs? And who decided to move the game out of Florida's sandlots and peeling cottages and into those high-tech baseball "complexes," where fans watch furtively from behind chain link fences? What, in short, is going on here? Whatever happened to spring training?
The sad fact is that spring training has gone commercial in a big way. Once only retirees, occasional vacationers and hard-core fans took the trouble to go to those meaningless and dreamy games. Now, alas, they have become fashionable. Hordes of tourists descend on Arizona and Florida every March. Ballparks that only a few years ago were half filled are SRO. The Cubs, playing in HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., drew a modest but respectable 64,884 fans for their 14 home games in the spring of 1984. Last year they attracted a major league spring-record 130,584, or 96% of capacity, for 16 home dates. This season, with a stadium expanded by another 400 seats, they should break that record. In 1984, the Brewers, who then played in Sun City, Ariz., attracted only 34,270 fans to their spring games. Last year they brought in 83,706 to Chandler. The Athletics went from 35,216 in Phoenix in '84 to 85,587 last year. The New York Mets jumped from 49,077 at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg in '84 to 86,661 at their state-of-the-art compound in Port St. Lucie, Fla., last year. "Before we moved here," says Mets senior vice-president Al Harazin, "we didn't even have a staff to take advance ticket sales. Now we do. Spring training has become a phenomenon."
In one sense, the spring-training boom is part of the larger baseball boom of the past decade or so. The major leagues drew a record 52.9 million fans in 1988. But the phenomenon is also part of the general rage for development in Florida, where dozens of formerly drowsy mid-peninsula towns are metamorphosing into mini-Miamis, and in Arizona, where until recently metropolitan Phoenix was one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. Spring training was in the right place at the right time.
As a result it has become big business. According to a report by Arizona governor Rose Mofford's Special Task Force on Cactus League Baseball, the seven teams that train full-time in the state (the California Angels spend half of spring training there, half in Palm Springs) contribute $145 million annually to Arizona's economy in terms of "retail sales, food and beverages, lodging, travel costs, etc." The Cubs alone bring $37.5 million to Mesa. The report says the total economic impact of the 18 teams training in Florida is a whopping $295 million per year.
Those figures do not include the name recognition a major league team can bring to an otherwise largely unknown resort town. Before big league ball clubs moved there in the past five years, the Florida towns of Kissimmee (Houston Astros), Plant City (Cincinnati Reds), Port Charlotte (Texas Rangers) and Port St. Lucie (Mets) were scarcely household names; Baseball City (Astros) didn't even exist. Now, for six weeks or more every spring, they are datelines in major newspapers across the country. "Port St. Lucie is a good example of what a community gets out of a deal," says Ron Safford, director of sports promotion for the state of Florida. "They couldn't have bought for $250 million the publicity that came with the Mets move [see box]. I can't begin to tell you how many condos have been sold down there as a result."
These hamlets not only have lots of land to give away but also lots of money, which is often raised through a so-called tourist or resort tax. They can offer teams freshly built multimillion-dollar complexes that include stadiums with major league conveniences, multiple practice diamonds, clubhouses larger and more lavish than those in most big league stadiums, weight rooms, conference rooms, offices and dining halls large enough to hold wedding receptions. The Royals even have their own "residence facility," complete with swimming pool and tennis courts. Pittsburgh Pirates coach Rich Donnelly calls these new facilities "Star Wars" complexes. "It's like everybody's training for the Olympics," he says.
Appropriately, the Astros were the Star Wars pioneers. After 20 years in quaint Cocoa Beach, Fla., Houston moved to an 86-acre site in Kissimmee in 1985. With considerable justification, Kissimmee bills itself as the "Gateway to the Worlds," for, besides embracing within its boundaries every type of fast-food restaurant ever franchised, it claims proximity to Disney World, Jungle Falls Amusement World, Shell World, Fantasy World, Camping World and Sea World, as well as Alligatorland and Water Mania. Osceola County built the Astros' spring camp for a mere $5.5 million out of resort-tax funds. The Astros pay the county a percentage of gross ticket sales and concessions in return for year-round use of the place. The Class A Osceola Astros play there during the regular season.