| 2008 BASEBALL SPRING TRAINING
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Spring training in Florida is over with the start of Major League Baseball's regular 162-game season this week, and it's also the end of an era for Florida cities like Vero Beach, Winter Haven, St. Petersburg and perhaps Sarasota, which are losing teams to Arizona or new Florida locales.
The Los Angeles Dodgers' departure from Vero Beach to Arizona is a sad day for many Dodger fans. The team had occupied its Florida training complex called Dodgertown since 1948, and baseball aficionados flocked to Holman Stadium to watch Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Gil Hodges and Roy Campanella. All but Hodges are now in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The Cleveland Indians are moving from Winter Haven to a Phoenix suburb after they were promised a new $76 million facility. It's an encore of sorts - the Indians first moved to Arizona after World War II, but returned to the Sunshine State 16 years ago when Tucson refused to provide financial incentives to get the team to stay.
Florida this year played host to 18 Major League Baseball teams and Arizona was the training home of 12. It will be 16-14, respectively, in 2009, or an even 15-15 if the Cincinnati Reds leave Sarasota, as they're threatening to do.
Local pride and the possibility of economic benefits are at stake as the states slug it out to attract teams for the annual six-week ritual. Teams use their time in the warm weather to test out new players, work out returning veterans and decide on their coming year's roster.
Last week, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist (R), who once served as general counsel to Minor League Baseball, brought a group of Hall of Fame players, including Jim Palmer and Reggie Jackson, to the state Capitol to promote the Sunshine State as the ideal location for the pre-season games.
Photo courtesy of Gov. Crist's office
"It's an economic driver for Florida," Crist said, according to The Associated Press
. "It's not just good for our players and owners, it's good for people who need jobs, and that's important to me."
Whether the games generate enough extra money to boost the local economy is debatable. Crist's administration, for example, estimates that spring baseball brings in $500 million a year, while Phil Porter, an economics professor at the University of Southern Florida in Tampa who has studied the economics of spring training, disagrees.
Porter said every study based on sales tax revenue showed that spring training - along with other one-time pro sport events - left no appreciable boost for the local economies.
When teams moved out of a city or when labor disputes prevented games from taking place, local sales tax revenues stayed the same, he said. Because the tourism industry is so robust in Florida, any money lost from baseball fans going elsewhere is made up in spending by visitors who want to golf, swim or play tennis, Porter explained.
But Slade Mead, a former Arizona state senator who now leads that state's efforts to attract more baseball clubs, said the Phoenix and Tucson economies benefit when out-of-staters come to see their teams in spring training.
Stadium parking lots are filled with cars with Illinois and California license plates, he said. And a 2007 survey
showed nearly half of all Cactus League spectators came from outside of Arizona.
When selling Arizona as a spring training destination, geography plays a big role, Mead said. Stadium sites are close together, meaning teams don't have to travel more than two hours to the farthest stadium, and very few games are rained-out in the desert climate, he said.
The Dodgers and Indians, who are moving to Arizona, say they'll save transportation costs, not to mention wear and tear on personnel caused by long bus rides.
In the Phoenix area, a county tax on rental cars and hotel rooms goes toward building new stadiums, which is a major draw for the clubs, too.
Florida state Rep. Doug Holder (R) wants to give his state government more tools to hang on to its Grapefruit League teams. He supports letting Florida residents buy specialty license plates with Major League logos to raise money for new stadiums.
He also wants to prevent a situation like the one that unfolded with the Cincinnati Reds and his hometown of Sarasota. The state set aside $7 million for a new Reds stadium in Sarasota, but local voters narrowly defeated a measure to match that grant with local taxes.
Now the Reds can't use the state money unless Sarasota voters change their mind. Under Holder's plan, the Reds could use the stadium grant anywhere in Florida where local voters agreed to pay the match.
Spring training was not originally the big business it is today. Before the modern era and multi-million dollar salaries, most professional baseball players held other jobs in the off-season and needed to get back in shape.
Most historians of the sport agree that the practice of going to warm weather climes to train started in 1870, when the old Chicago White Stockings and Cincinnati Red Stockings limbered up in New Orleans.
Here in St. Petersburg, the local Tampa Bay Rays are deserting Al Lang field to move south to Port Charlotte as part of an effort to improve their fan base. Several teams have been based at Al Lang, including the St. Louis Cardinals and Baltimore Orioles. Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Red Schoendinst, Stan Musial and Ozzie Smith all performed on the now abandoned diamond.
The Rays had been the only team to hold spring training and league play in the same locale. A new ball park is to replace the now closed Tropicana Field in the next two or three years.
The teams with the longest tenure in Florida are the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater and the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland. The Phils have been there for 63 years and the Tigers for 65 years.
The Phillies built a new state of the art spring training stadium three years with a $20 million financial assist from the city and state, and sold out their home games in record numbers this spring.
"We're happy here," said Bill Giles, chairman of the Phillies "The fans from the Philly area and locally like the park and the atmosphere. And we still have teams nearby."
He was speaking of nearby Duniden where the Toronto Blue Jays train, Tampa which hosts the New York Yankees and Bradenton where the Pittsburgh Pirates play every spring.