Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Selling Of Spring

High-tech complexes, SRO crowds and bold commercialism are fast intruding on spring training's dreamy charm

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.

After Cocoa Beach, where Houston trained on a field so swampy that a groundskeeper occasionally had to dispose of snakes in the outfield, the Osceola complex looked to Astros general manager Bill Wood like "the Taj Mahal." Actually, it is a fairly modest operation compared with its ritzy successors in Port Charlotte, Plant City, Port St. Lucie and Baseball City.

Baseball City? What we're talking about is the 135-acre amusement park and baseball complex called Boardwalk and Baseball, owned by the publishing conglomerate Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. The Royals moved into Boardwalk and Baseball when it opened last year. The baseball facilities alone cost HBJ $15 million, and they are the very definition of state of the art. In addition to the 8,000-seat ballpark, Boardwalk and Baseball boasts a lighted practice field with seats for 2,500 fans, four other practice fields, a practice infield, minor and major league clubhouses and the residence facility. HBJ keeps all receipts from tickets and concessions, and pays the Royals an annual fee based on the team's average income from its former home in Fort Myers—about $250,000 a year. "We got everything we asked for and more," says Kansas City general manager John Schuerholz. "This whole place is phenomenal. It is Valhalla."

It is Valhalla sharing space with the Hurricane roller coaster, the Grand Rapids Log Flume, the Double-O, the Monster, the giant Ferris wheel and the "World Famous Royal Lipizzan Stallion Show." Schuerholz says the Royals regretted leaving Fort Myers after 19 years there, but "in four years of negotiations with the Lee County Commissioners we ran into one stumbling block after another. We didn't ask for a new park, just modest improvements. Political apathy and myopic political judgment forced our move. We loved the town, the people. It was an emotional departure."

Fort Myers has assiduously sought a replacement team. Negotiations with the Twins were stalled when the Twins asked for the right of first refusal on the purchase of an additional 100 acres for development. St. Petersburg, which lost the Mets but retains the St. Louis Cardinals, has had conversations with at least five teams about relocating there, but, says city councilman Bob Stewart, "It is unbelievable what we're up against. There's no way we could compete with what Port St. Lucie offered the Mets. The Twins asked what we could offer them in the way of'economic opportunities'—office buildings, real estate development. But we just don't have the available land a Port St. Lucie does."

Almost every non-Star Wars team has received overtures from at least one Florida town. The Twins, who play at Orlando's Tinker Field, which was built in 1914 (and rebuilt in 1963) and is being crowded by the expanding Citrus Bowl next door, are considered the most woo-able of the available teams. But even the clubs that are supposedly happy in their present circumstances must listen attentively to the endearments of these ardent backwoods suitors. The Cubs, who after this year will have drawn more than 100,000 in Mesa for five straight springs, have pricked up their ears. Although they avow their undying affection for Arizona, the Cubs have hired a real estate consultant to look into the opportunities in Florida. That annoys their loyal followers in Mesa. "We're lifelong Cub fans, and we're concerned that they might move to Florida," says Bernie Ravnaas, a retired postal clerk from Morris, Ill., now living in Apache Junction, Ariz. "Last year, the HoHoKams spent $400,000 building a practice field and fixing up the stadium. We don't think they should have to mortgage themselves to the hilt for a major league ball club."

Governor Mofford's task force reports that "the future of Cactus League Baseball is now in question.... Although it would be nice to believe that the weather conditions, convenient travel and cozy ballparks are enough to encourage a team to remain [in Arizona], the reality of the situation is that baseball is not just a sport—it is also a business.... Spring training losses can run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, and all teams are actively exploring ways to offset the expenses."

Seven Cactus League teams—the Cleveland Indians are the exception—have hired Rick Horrow, a 34-year-old sports attorney from Miami, to help them improve spring-training revenues. A former executive director of the Miami Sports and Exhibition Authority, Horrow is a firm believer in the Florida-style complex. "It's a win, win, win situation," he says, "for the communities, the developers and the ball clubs." He also thinks that baseball franchises will eventually get into the development end of new complexes in Florida and Arizona as a means of cutting costs and even turning a profit on an activity that in the past has, Horrow says, "just been written off as a loss."

Mofford has proposed measures to encourage Arizona's efforts to hold on to ball clubs, including tax breaks, but they may not be enough. As Safford of Florida says, "We could absorb the entire Cactus League here. We have that many communities ready to do that."

Not that baseball will let Florida do that. Incoming commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti has committed himself to preserving the Cactus League. Further, most Cactus League teams are from the West Coast and are reluctant for reasons of convenience and regional loyalty to consider moving to Florida. "From time to time we get inquiries from Florida," says San Francisco Giants president and general manager Al Rosen, whose team has trained in Arizona since 1947. "But it's a chummier atmosphere here, and we happen to love Scottsdale. Besides, I think there are such things as tradition and loyalty." The Giants are negotiating for a new and somewhat larger stadium in Scottsdale.

More's the pity, for the 38-year-old Scottsdale Stadium is what every spring-training ballpark should be. It is wooden and rickety, and the outfield fences are bright green. It holds barely 5,000 people, but the seats are so close to the field that conversations between fans and players are common even during games. The bullpens are down the foul lines, the batting cages are between the grandstand and the bleachers, and the clubhouses are practically at the main gate. Players not involved in the game have been known to wander into the stands. No other ballpark is quite as intimate as this charming anachronism. Naturally, it will have to go.

The Indians, who with the Giants pioneered Cactus League baseball, say they, too, want to stay in Arizona, but they are nonetheless considered vulnerable to blandishments from Florida, because their lease with the city of Tucson is renewed on a yearly basis. "This will be our 43rd year in Tucson," says Cleveland president Hank Peters, "and that is not to be treated lightly. The city has been loyal to us, and we like to think we've been loyal to them." Even if the Indians and the rest of the Arizona teams stay put, however, something will be lost if they stay only for aloof concrete compounds of their own.

Not everyone in baseball is convinced the Star Wars complexes are better than the older parks. The supposed advantage of having minor leaguers and major leaguers working out on the same premises has its drawbacks, says Milwaukee general manager Harry Dalton, whose team has a long-term lease in Chandler. "I prefer separation of the two. Too often the minor leaguer is awestruck by his surroundings."

Dalton raises another question about the sophisticated training facilities: Are they really necessary? How important, after all, is spring training? The modern player, relieved of the financial obligation to work at an off-season job, stays in shape year round. Much of the work a player does in spring training, according to Cubs general manager Jim Frey, is little more than make-work. "The perception is that unless a player is on the field from nine in the morning until sundown, he's goofing off," says Frey. "These days, that's a lot of bull."

Teams play so many exhibition games not because the players need the work but because the clubs need the revenue. The basic expenses of transporting, housing and feeding virtually everyone in the franchise for two months in Florida or Arizona are the same despite the Star Wars grandeur. According to club administrators, most teams lose around $250,000 each spring.

No, the importance of spring training is mostly symbolic. It's the ritual of the game starting all over again. It's the evocation of baseball's sunny, smoky, cerulean past. And it's a time, maybe the only time now, when fans and players can mingle in relaxed circumstances, far removed from the tensions of a pennant race. For all the obvious conveniences they provide players and team officials, the Star Wars places have all but banished that intimacy.

"The new stadiums are great for watching the game but horrible for getting autographs or meeting players," says Frank Barnes of Deltona, Fla. "The modern stadiums look like they were designed to keep the players and the fans apart."

"There's something about this new place that makes you feel something is missing," said John Riley of Sarasota in describing the Chicago White Sox' new home to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. "It's like the new parks are so up-to-date it's hard to tell where spring training ends and the major leagues begin."

Maybe Walter Klimczak, a former minor league catcher and retired math teacher from Newington, Conn., put it best: "It doesn't seem like spring training. It seems like the regular season. I guess that's progress."



The fans are the same, but the settings are changing: The Royals' new $15 million complex in Florida (right) is in an amusement park.



Cactus League fans add $145 million a year to Arizona's economy.



Signs of the times: scarce Rangers tickets in Port Charlotte (above) and brisk concession sales at the Mets' home in Port St. Lucie.



Fans who tire of long lines to Royals games can wait in long lines for the roller coaster.



At old Scottsdale Stadium, Jose Canseco of the visiting A's is close to fans, but at Houston's newer complex, players stay separate.



[See caption above.]



The Rangers' elaborate new compound was a virtual gift from real estate developers.



Spring the way it used to be—and still is on occasion in Scottsdale: all kinds of room.



A young fan reaches to get an autograph in the Giants' chummy Scottsdale environs.