If You Build It, They Will Train

Millions are being spent as a spring-training rivalry heats up

Surprise, Ariz., will never be mistaken for Manhattan. Until recently, the biggest landmarks in the quiet, far west suburb of Phoenix were City Hall and a Wal-Mart. Then this spring, unassuming Surprise put itself on the map.

It took the wraps off a gleaming $48 million spring training complex that is home to Major League Baseball's Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. At the gala opener on Feb. 28, Governor Janet Napolitano hurled a ceremonial first pitch. And fans nibbled $3.50 hot dogs as they gazed dreamily at the White Tank Mountains.

War in Iraq is brewing. The sluggish economy is straining state coffers. But amid the budgetary gloom, spring training is getting a pricey face-lift. And in the famously fiscal-conservative states of Florida and Arizona, taxpayers are footing the bill.

For Surprise Mayor Joan Shafer, the arrival of MLB in her hometown is a dream. "It has brought us a new togetherness. You go to the ball game, and it's not just retirees, not just children. We're together," she says.

No less tickled is Rangers management. The club figures to turn a $300,000 profit from its first spring in Surprise after losing about $700,000 in Port Charlotte, Fla., last year.

Over the next 30 years, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, is laying out $200 million to build ballparks and spruce up old ones for the nine teams that train there. Hotel and rental-car taxes fill the money pot, which will also pay for a new stadium for the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL.

Florida isn't pinching pennies, either. The state legislature earmarked $75 million for spring training in 2000, and local governments matched the amount. Since then, four MLB franchises have moved into upgraded stadiums. And the Philadelphia Phillies will get a new ballpark in Clearwater in 2004.

For Arizona and Florida, that's the escalating price of being home to spring training. Baseball teams have been working out the kinks in Florida since 1911. And Arizona snared its first teams in 1947. Lately, though, the competition has heated up: Arizona's Cactus League was a six-team circuit a decade ago, but after adding Kansas City and Texas, it has bulked up to 12. Meanwhile, Florida, down to 18 teams, is struggling to keep franchises happy.

It's worth the trouble -- and the money, say tourism officials in Florida and Arizona. Cactus League officials claim that out-of-state visitors make up 60% of baseball crowds.

In Florida, officials estimate that spring training rakes in $450 million a year, as potent an economic force as a Super Bowl. "Our view is spring training is recession-resistant. Fans come down almost out of habit. It's a family vacation and affordable," says David Cardwell, executive director of the Florida Grapefruit League Assn.

That sounds about right to baseball Commissioner Bud Selig. "When you walk around at spring-training games, as I do, you run into fans who plan [vacations around spring training]. At a Cubs game, I talked to people down from Chicago for two or three weeks," he says.

Critics disagree with Cardwell and the commish. Philip K. Porter, a University of South Florida economist, says that in 1995, the year of the baseball strike and replacement players, Florida tourism was barely nicked. "[People] are coming to Florida anyway. They're not coming for spring training," he contends. Adds Arizona State Representative Russell Pearce, a Republican who is a leading opponent of public funding for ballparks: "As a society, we suffer from edifice envy. If we don't have a domed stadium, we're not a real city."

Indeed, many communities gulp hard at the first sign that their baseball team is getting wanderlust. Fort Lauderdale is considering razing a soccer stadium adjacent to the spring-training ballpark of the Baltimore Orioles as part of a $25- million project to save its place in the Grapefruit League.

And an all-Florida tussle is shaping up over the Cleveland Indians. After 11 seasons in Winter Haven, the team may move if it seals a deal for a $14 million complex in Lee County. Maybe they ought to start calling it spring-for-it training.

By Mark Hyman

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