Spring Fever

Will the Cactus League Really Sell Out Arizona for Florida Swampland? PART 2

Al Lang, the old mayor of St. Petersburg, wooed a number of teams to the tropics. But he could never get the Cubs. Team owner Phil Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate whose old mansion sits in north central Phoenix, had his own ideas about spring training. Among his possessions was Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California. The Cubs started training there in 1922 and didn't leave for twenty years. Wrigley moved them to Mesa in 1952. Except for a one-year sojourn in California in the Sixties, the team has stayed in the Valley ever since. "Mr. Wrigley liked Mesa, and that's where the team trained," says Mike Hutchinson.

Today, however, the Cubs are owned by the Chicago-based Tribune Company, a corporate goliath whose properties include the Chicago Tribune, the Orlando Sentinel and various other Florida properties. While Mr. Wrigley may have liked the desert, the new-look Chicago Cubs seem to have no such geographical loyalties. Newly appointed team president Don Grenesko, who came up through the corporate side of the Tribune Company, is succinct on the subject of spring training.

"We've got to have a state-of-the-art facility," he says. Never mind that the Cubs already play in the immaculate HoHoKam Park, the most well-attended stadium in the Cactus League. The team, says Grenesko, would like land, just like the Mets got. And in an effort to find a smoking deal, the team last year hired real estate giant La Salle Partners. The firm recently prepared a glossy request for proposals, which the team has sent out to various cities--in effect, an attempt to spark a bidding war for the team. "We want to look at the entire market and see what's available to us," says Grenesko, "as opposed to having people come to us."

The Cubs' bottom-line stance with a city where it has fared so well rubs many locals the wrong way. Even Mesa Mayor Peggy Rubach has been taken aback by some of the club's heavy-handed maneuvers. When the Cubs sent a pair of La Salle representatives to speak to the governor's task force last year, the mayor says she was "dismayed" by their presentation. "They were looking at it as if the baseball team was a land development company only," she says. Another observer who was at the same meeting remembers it more vividly. "It was the closest thing to a shakedown I've ever seen," he says. "It was, `Hey, you guys either have to pony up the money or we're outta here.'"

There's no doubt that La Salle will ultimately recommend that the Cubs move to Florida, say sources. "When you hire a consultant, it's unlikely they're going to tell you the status quo is where you want to be," notes one task force member. Grenesko and the Cubs, meanwhile, are playing coy on the subject of a possible move. Florida cities seem to be "more aggressive," says Grenesko--but "we're still hoping we can work something out with the City of Mesa."

Despite the Cubs' rude-boy approach, a growing number of Arizonans are beginning to doubt whether the team will abandon its comfortable perch in the East Valley. Rubach and Patterson say they're encouraged by the fact that the team is sending out RFPs (requests for proposals). If the team really had a series of smoking deals lined up, says the mayor, it's doubtful the Tribune Company would have delayed the process further by opening a new round of bidding. Even other Cactus League teams, who earn their biggest paydays when they play the Cubs, seem more amused than dazzled by the Tribune Company's power play. "All of a sudden they're doing well," shrugs Indians vice president Bob DiBiasio. "There was a time when they weren't drawing spit here."

EVEN THE LAISSEZ-FAIRE Mofford administration has done its part for the Cactus League cause, allotting $100,000 for cosmetic touches like free promotional schedules, billboards, Arizona Highways subscriptions for teams and a banquet. Some observers complain that the governor, represented by Geoffrey Gonsher, the same bureaucrat who used to advise Phoenix Mayor Terry Goddard on the subject of sports, has recommended only superficial solutions. "There's no leadership there," says one source, who claims the governor is more interested in political posturing than in forking over the cash needed to keep teams from leaving. Mofford, he notes, recommends encouraging private developers to provide land for stadiums and wants local banks and corporations to chip in money for a low- or no-interest loan pool that could be used to fund baseball-improvement projects. It's a suggestion that draws a snort even from Cubs president Grenesko. "Someone's not just gonna come up and donate the land," he says.

But if Mofford's suggestions have been largely ceremonial, ceremony in this case may be effective. "To a certain degree, the ball clubs felt unappreciated," says Representative Herstam, who acknowledges that the task force's efforts so far have consisted mostly of "cheering." It's hard to believe that what amounts to a lot of stroking is going to keep teams happy, the lawmaker admits, but it seems to have worked. "I am now of the opinion we can keep the Cubs," says Herstam.

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