— Drift back in time to late March 1992 Cactus League spring training, and you’d be hard pressed to imagine MLB teams possibly even training in Arizona many years later.
After all, back then, the Cactus League boasted just seven teams (with only six training in Arizona) and the Grand Canyon State was on the verge of losing the Cleveland Indians, who would be moving into a new facility in Homestead, Fla., in 1993. But more than 15 years later, Arizona’s Cactus League has twice as many teams, and next season, it will tie Florida, the birthplace of spring training, by hosting 15 teams.
The 2009 spring campaign features the return of the Indians, who move back to Arizona for the first time since they left Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field, site of the spring training scenes in the movie, Major League, and current spring home of the Colorado Rockies.
Joining the Indians in the desert in 2009 are the Dodgers, who now share a two-team facility in Glendale with the White Sox.
Meanwhile, in the Grapefruit League, where the likes of Babe Ruth once played on land where Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg now sits, the only new item in 2009 is that the Tampa Bay Rays have left historic Lang Field for new digs in Port Charlotte. And Florida has lost not only two historic franchises in the Indians and Dodgers, but next year, the Reds will also leave Sarasota to share the $100 million dual-use Goodyear Ballpark with the Tribe.
What happened? And what does the odd-number of teams in 2010 mean for the future of spring training? In short, the State of Arizona’s Sports and Tourism Authority has been more innovative and aggressive in luring teams away from the Sunshine State, and keeping its existing teams. For example, in 1993, the Padres and Mariners became the first clubs to debut modern era, dual-use facilities when they christened the Peoria Sports Complex that features six practice fields for each team, and separate sprawling clubhouses.
Another two-team Arizona facility opened in 1998 when the expansion Diamondbacks and White Sox began sharing Tucson Electric Park. Some five years later, Arizona rolled out the welcome mat for long-time spring training Floridians, the Rangers and Royals, and the teams have been playing at dual-use Surprise Stadium ever since. And in 2009, two more two-team Cactus League facilities have opened, with the Dodgers and White Sox in Glendale and the Indians (and starting next year, the Reds), in Goodyear.
In contrast, Florida boasts just one dual-use facility, with the Cardinals and Marlins sharing Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter. The primary benefit of a two-team facility is that the host city is guaranteed game day ticket, parking and concession revenue every single day of spring training, not to mention double the hotel-occupancy and larger revenues many single-team venues can’t claim.
You can argue it was only a matter of time before the Dodgers left Vero Beach, Fla., for Arizona, which is much closer to their fan base in Los Angeles. But the Grapefruit League has been lazing on the beach over the last decade while Arizona has been wheeling and dealing.
When Hurricane Andrew flattened the Indians' new facility in August 1992, the team sought refuge in Winter Haven at Chain O’Lakes Park, which was built in 1966. Yet over the past 15-plus years, neither the State of Florida nor the City of Winter Haven proved successful in working with the Tribe to renovate or build a mutually-agreeable new spring training facility.
The same scenario unfolded with the Rangers, Royals and Reds. Homestead was rebuilt but has remained vacant, and so, too, do Vero Beach and Winter Haven, and soon, Sarasota (the Orioles, playing at aging Fort Lauderdale Stadium, may move to one of these cities in 2009).
Since the late 1990s, when the Braves' new facility opened in Lake Buena Vista and the dual-use facility in Jupiter, only two new spring training ballparks have been built or significantly renovated in Florida — the Phillies debuted at Bright House Networks Field in Clearwater in 2004 while the Rays start anew at Charlotte Sports Park this season.
Smaller renovations have taken place at the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie and elsewhere, but only this offseason was a brand new Florida spring training project announced, as the Red Sox will play at a new facility in greater Fort Myers starting in 2012.
As for next spring training, MLB could have a major scheduling pickle on its hands, with an odd-number of teams, 15, in both Arizona and Florida.
It’s hard to imagine MLB owners, front office personnel and the host cities pleased with at least one team off each day throughout March. That’s a loss of a lot of potential revenue. And unless next year’s slate of games goes absolutely mad for split-squad games on a daily basis, MLB itself will have to get innovative and might consider inviting the 2009 champions of Japan’s pro league and Korea’s pro league to balance out the calendar.
One team could play in Vero Beach and the other in Tucson, sharing the two-team facility the White Sox vacated. Fans would get to see a different style of baseball, two cities could get an infusion of tourism, and spring training will indeed be a long, long way from the lazy days of late March 1992 when the Angels were still training in Palm Springs, Calif.