Stick a Fork in the Grapefruit League

Spring training starts soon, and the Florida Grapefruit League is in trouble. Half the major league teams play in the Arizona Cactus League, many of whose cities are far from Arizona — though it has long been a West Coast-centric spring training league, the Cincinnati Reds moved their facilities out of Florida in 2010, and now all of the Illinois and Ohio teams are based in Arizona rather than Florida. The head of the Florida Sports Foundation, Larry Pendleton, is lobbying Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, to do whatever he can to convince teams to stay in Florida, but Pendleton must realize that the odds are against him. It’s easy to see why.

In Arizona, all 15 teams play within about a 20 mile radius in metropolitan Phoenix and its environs; in Florida, the 15 teams are spread out across both coasts from central to south Florida. In Arizona, every game is a short car ride away; in Florida, the Blue Jays in Dunedin are over 200 miles from the Cardinals in Jupiter.

Pendleton is hoping that Gov. Scott’s baseball affiliations will help: Scott was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush back in the 1990s. But as columnist Ray McNulty points out, this is a likely losing battle, and one that Scott may want to stay out of.

Arizona has spent millions of tourism dollars to lure and/or keep teams in the Phoenix area, where new spring-training complexes have been built and existing facilities have been renovated. Also, teams prefer the geographical convenience of the Cactus League, where travel time for games rarely exceeds an hour.

In the Grapefruit League, a trip from Fort Myers to Viera can take four hours. Even on those rare occasions when teams do venture across the state — the New York Yankees will travel from Tampa to the east coast only once this spring — most of their marquee players stay home.

Both teams and players prefer short commutes to long road trips. And so do tourists. The inefficient sprawl of spring training facilities in Florida has caused a number of teams to decamp altogether, including the Dodgers, whose Dodgertown in Vero Beach, built in 1953, was one of the foundational Grapefruit League facilities. The Dodgers first moved to Vero in 1948, and they stayed there for more than a half-century after moving to California in 1958. But when they left, they left in a hurry. They signed a 20-year lease in 2001 and sold Dodgertown to the local government for $11 million; when they left, they still had more than a decade on their lease.

More than anything, it’s the bicoastal sprawl that hurts the Grapefruit League the most. As David Moulton wrote two weeks ago:

In 2008 there were six teams that held spring training along the east coast of Florida. Two have already left (Dodgers and Orioles). The Washington Nationals are likely to announce that they are leaving within the year.

That leaves the Mets, Cardinals and Marlins at least two hours away from anyone else in the Grapefruit League. Which translated means, “open to moving.”

Last year, a Florida town tried a bit of predation of their own, as Naples staged an unsuccessful attempt to lure the Cubs to abandon their Arizona facility to come to the Sunshine State. After a long flirtation, the Cubs elected to stick in Mesa when voters approved a new stadium with nearly $100 million of public funding. But that’s because spring training is big business for tourism, too. The Padres and Mariners generate $60 million of additional revenue for Peoria, Arizona every spring. And tourists get a better deal in the Cactus League, too: from a hotel in Phoenix, every team is no more than an hour or two away. In Florida, the teams are separated into smaller clusters, and it can take hours to drive from one coastal complex to another.

If Florida is serious about Spring Training, they can’t afford to keep teams on both coasts. In particular, the impoverished east coast will need to be put out of its misery, as Port St. Lucie, Jupiter, and Viera are the only facilities remaining on the Atlantic Ocean. State action may be painful, but it will only hasten the inevitable. As Moulton writes, those towns are likely to lose their teams sooner or later no matter what. Not only are the Arizona facilities closer together, they are also more efficiently allocated: there are 10 stadiums for 15 teams in Arizona, compared to 14 stadiums in Florida. Sharing isn’t just caring, it’s convenient.

If Florida can’t muster the political will to forcibly move teams closer together, more teams might simply leave for drier pastures. And if that happens, well, bid adieu to Bradenton, say so long to Sarasota, farewell to Fort Myers, and kiss goodbye to Kissimmee. You’ll have to stick a fork in the Grapefruit League.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.

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13 years ago

There’s another reason organizations prefer Arizona – the weather. It tends to be drier in AZ in March with less chance that a practice or game will get rained out. More rain in Florida means less practice.