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.

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Andy Van De Voorde