Spring Fever

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

And what about the other teams? The West Coast clubs have been relatively easy to deal with, say sources. Giants owner Robert Lurie was upset with Ron Safford for even coming to Arizona. Lurie's Giants and the other Western teams have told the task force they prefer to stay close to home, and for obvious reasons. Unless they got amazing offers from Florida, they'd be eaten alive by travel costs and reduced ticket sales among distant hometown fans. The California Angels, who currently train in Mesa but play their home games in Mayor Sonny Bono's town of Palm Springs, say they prefer to consolidate their spring activities somewhere in the Valley--most likely Gilbert.

The Brewers, meanwhile, have a picture-postcard stadium in Compadre and a lease that runs through 1996. Aside from the Cubs, that leaves only the Cleveland Indians, who seem to be playing their own cat-and-mouse game. The club is very happy in Tucson, says Bob DiBiasio. The Indians appreciate the $400,000 worth of improvements the city's made to Hi Corbett Field, a local landmark built in 1932 by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration. But "our owners are developers," he adds. The Jacobs brothers, Dick and Dave, build malls, office buildings and hotels back in Ohio. They'd have a hard time turning down 500 or 600 acres of land, says DiBiasio. And, as with the Cubs, land is the key. The Indians will stay put, says DiBiasio--"unless the state of Florida offers us something that knocks our socks off."

Fort Myers' decision to back off its real estate offer to the Twins seems to suggest that bargain-basement land deals may exist only in owners' imaginations. Whether any Florida city would really fork over a 500-acre chunk of property--swampland or not--is a question only the hucksters in alligator alley can answer. Either way, the sly indecisiveness of the Indians and the Cubs frustrates ASU's Diffenderfer. "They have the bat and they have the ball, and either we do what they want us to do or they threaten to go," he complains.

In an attempt at further leverage, the Cactus League teams have banded together and hired their own "consultant," Florida sports attorney Rick Horrow. A ubiquitous presence on the local political front, Horrow works for Miami developer Zev Bufman. He's been involved with Bufman's controversial northeast Phoenix amphitheatre, and earlier tried to get Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo to hire him as a consultant on the basketball team's proposed downtown sports arena. Horrow's initial involvement with the spring training issue came when he was asked to speak to the governor's task force. His forceful description of Florida's baseball mania put the fear of God into the locals, who before had been a bit smug on the subject of a splintered Cactus League. "It was like someone threw cold water on them," remembers one source who attended the meeting.

Soon after that, Horrow switched sides--and went to work for the teams. "I view the guy as a promoter," says the source. "He's selling a product--he's selling Zev Bufman Enterprises." Horrow says his job is to see that the teams "stay in Arizona a long, long time." The Cubs' Grenesko speaks more candidly. Horrow, he says, was hired as a lobbyist, plain and simple. His job? To persuade state officials to throw money at spring training. If that's the case, Florida's wonder boy so far is batting 0-for-1.

THE INTANGIBLE PLEASURES of spring training don't need to be explained to a fan. How does one put a price, for instance, on watching a nineteen-year-old Mickey Mantle work out with the Yankees in the Phoenix spring of 1951? Just how much is it worth to stand next to supermanager Billy Martin at Scottsdale's Pink Pony, the venerable dugout whose postwar opening coincided with the beginning of spring training in Arizona? And how much would the Valley be diminished if its people didn't have the chance to meet 83-year-old California Angels conditioning coach Jimmie Reese? Reese, a former roommate of Babe Ruth's, is the oldest uniformed employee in baseball, but reportedly can still hit fungos on a rope. Over the years, it is said, his clenched fingers have worn grooves into the wood of his favorite bat.

Yet the game has become more "mechanical," says Diffenderfer. What was once a leisurely prelude to the regular season has become a monster, complete with advance ticket sales, crowded parking lots and long lines at the snack bar. In a nutshell, spring training no longer has room for Scottsdale Stadium.

Sure, the initial hype from the task force and the Gazette prompted Arizona officials to quit taking spring training for granted. "We've awakened a little giant over there," smirks Florida's Safford. But even if, as it now appears, reports of the Cactus League's demise have been greatly exaggerated, part of Arizona's spring training ritual may already be gone. You can't skip work to see a game if the corporate owner has sold out all the tickets in advance. And the quiet charm of the Lazy Game may prove to be the real victim of the spring training wars.

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