Spring Fever

WHETHER INDIVIDUAL ARIZONA cities can compete against Dixie municipalities backed by state money promises to be a pivotal question in the spring training wars. Should Arizona fork over state money to pay for new practice fields, clubhouses or stadiums? It's a question that already has split Mofford's task force.

The committee's vice chairman, Phoenix sports lawyer Joe Garagiola Jr., says state aid is a must. "It has to be part of the package," says Garagiola, son of the jocular television announcer. "I know some people think it's ridiculous. My answer is, the teams aren't going to [spend money] because they don't have to; the people in Florida are willing to do it."

Task force chairman Dwight Patterson, however, opposes the use of state funds. "The cities can do it," he says. Patterson's position is remarkable, for the simple reason that he stands to lose a bundle if the Cactus League goes under. He owns the two Mesa hotels where the Cubs and Brewers stay during spring training, and is also the leader of the HoHoKams, the Mesa booster group that operates 8,500-seat HoHoKam Park. Yet he refuses to endorse a spending war with Florida.

Patterson may be one of the first task force members to have accurately gauged the political breezes, guesses Diffenderfer. Spring baseball primarily affects Maricopa and Pima Counties, notes the professor. And "rural legislators are not going to jump up and down at the idea of using state monies to fund something that primarily affects the Phoenix metro area."

That scenario is confirmed by state Representative Chris Herstam, another task force member. Legislation this session likely will be limited to preserving the status quo by averting a Department of Revenue plan to tax the ticket proceeds of booster groups, he says. Thanks to the severe budget crisis, further state aid is "out of the question."

That means it almost certainly will be left to individual cities to finance goodies for the teams. And, ironically, Patterson's hometown may be the weakest link in the chain. Mesa's "having a budget crunch like everyone else in the state," says assistant city manager Mike Hutchinson. The East Valley can't compete with Phoenix and Scottsdale for bed-tax revenue since those cities have most of the Valley's resorts. And catapulting property values--land in Mesa is going for a minimum of $40,000 an acre, according to Hutchinson--makes it "hard for anyone to give that away as an inducement."

Patterson, though, seems supremely unfazed. The HoHoKams, he says, can finance "whatever we need" simply by raising ticket prices. "Bill Bidwill was charging people $950 for a seat," notes Patterson, adding that if people fly in all the way from Chicago to watch the Cubs, they won't mind paying a few dollars more for the privilege. Besides, he says, it's crazy to think a team would leave a hotbed of support like Mesa for the uncertainty of a Grapefruit League berth.

In some circles, Patterson is viewed as an old fogy who refuses to acknowledge the financial realities of modern sports. "Dwight's in the golden years of his life," notes one exasperated source, who says Patterson's fooling himself if he thinks raising ticket prices will solve Mesa's dilemma.

Patterson's stolid refusal to advocate public subsidies and his rose-colored reckoning are clearly frustrating to task force technocrats, who believe Arizona's only choice is to ram through copycat legislation based on Florida's big-spender theory. He continues to insist, for example, that the Chicago team's corporate owner "isn't really the Cubs," and says the baseball managers will ultimately influence the decision to go or stay.

Patterson is one of the few members of Arizona's baseball bunch who believes the Cactus League could survive a Cubs move. Garagiola says the league has "no margin to work with" and could lose all eight teams if even one leaves. Patterson, though, blasts the domino theory. "Hell no!" he blares when asked if a seven-team league would wither and die. "We started things out with two teams," he says, referring to 1947, when the Cleveland Indians in Tucson and New York Giants in Phoenix became the first teams to permanently settle in Arizona. (The Detroit Tigers wintered in Phoenix in 1929, but left after one year.)

And crotchety or not, Patterson says some things that make sense. He points out, for instance, that the eighteen teams in Florida's Grapefruit League don't all play each other. The league is split into five-, six- and seven-team groups, and teams rarely play those outside their own groups. Suddenly, a six- or seven-team Cactus League seems a lot less disastrous.

MOFFORD AND HER TASK FORCE so far have tended to paint the state of Florida as the black knight in the spring training wars. But Florida, after all, is just exercising the sort of rampant boosterism that made Arizona famous. If there is an evil force in the baseball battle, it's not Ron Safford, a man who is nothing if not straightforward about his intentions. The real Darth Vader for local dealmakers may be the Chicago Cubs, perpetual losers who nonetheless are the hottest team in spring training. The Cubs haven't won a World Series since 1908, but thanks to the herd mentality of Midwestern retirees who watch their games on Chicago superstation WGN, last year they outdrew every other team in spring training--Arizona or Florida. The resulting snottiness of the Cubs, whose lease in Mesa is up next year, has been one of the most fascinating subplots of the spring training mini-crisis.

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.

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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