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Spring Fever

In 1923, circus czar and Florida land owner Charles Ringling decided a major league baseball team should do its spring training in Sarasota. With the help of Al Lang, the entrepreneurial mayor of St. Petersburg, he lured the New York Giants to the Grapefruit League from San Antonio. When the players arrived, they were surrounded by land salesmen. The lofty Giants had to buy lots just to get the pitchmen off their backs.

Lesson one: Hucksterism and spring baseball go hand in hand. And the circus-like atmosphere of the Lazy Game hasn't changed much in six decades. Florida is still trying to lure teams southward. Only this time the politicians of the Sunshine State are the ones dangling the gold- plated carrots, and the teams they're after are playing in Arizona's Cactus League. Quaking at the thought of losing one or more of the eight major league clubs that train in the state, the private-money boys and public officials of Arizona are scrambling to catch up with their Florida counterparts. And a handful of millionaire team owners are keeping the Florida card in their vest pocket, anxious to extract whatever freebies they can from Arizona communities. These are the guys whose predecessors barnstormed the country in railroad cars in search of small-town audiences whose wallets they couldn't tap during the regular season. The question is whether they're bluffing this time--and just how much money Arizona should put on the table in order to find out.

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IT'S TAKEN AS A GIVEN that spring training brings money into Arizona. How much money, though, depends on whom you talk to. A task force appointed by Governor Rose Mofford says the teams--the Oakland Athletics, San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians, and Seattle Mariners, plus the California Angels, who train in Mesa but play their home games in Palm Springs--are worth $145 million annually to Arizona. The governor's committee, a group of 36 politicians and businessmen hand-picked by Mofford to offer recommendations on how to keep the Cactus League intact, is using that figure to try to persuade local cities to ante up inducements for the teams. But one Arizona State University professor is convinced that Mofford's study group has the count wrong.

Peter Diffenderfer, a leisure studies professor, did his own spring training study with the help of students. Diffenderfer describes himself as a baseball fan. He'd hate to see the Cactus League fall apart. But he says the task force's $145 million figure is wildly exaggerated.

For example, using information provided by the Phoenix consulting firm Datapol, Inc., the task force estimates that Scottsdale earns about $15.1 million per year from spring training. Diffenderfer sets the real value at about half that. "It's certainly not right to present incorrect information to the public in order to get their support for taxation," he says.

The man who did the research for Datapol, Martin Cooper, defends his estimates as "very conservative." For example, he says, he did not take into account such peripheral benefits as home purchases by those who come to the Valley to watch spring training games. But Cooper, who now runs his own research firm in the Valley, acknowledges that his study was limited to surveying fans at Chicago Cubs games in Mesa. That city's Convention and Visitors Bureau then "did some compilations" to arrive at extrapolated figures for the other six host cities in the state, he says. Cooper says he doesn't know if the Mesa officials actually went out and did scientific surveys of fans in those cities.

They didn't, confirms Robert Brinton, director of the Mesa agency. "I don't want anyone to think a definitive study has been done on the Cactus League," he says. "There hasn't really been anything." He and Datapol just took the Cubs fans' answers and applied them to fans across the board. They assumed that Cubs fans are the norm, he says--that everyone spends as much as they do on hot dogs, programs, even big-ticket items like living expenses.

"That might be a tough assumption," Brinton acknowledges, since Cubs fans are notorious for their cultlike fervor, and have been known to camp out in Mesa for up to three to four months. "I wish they perhaps could have put that in the report. If you'll excuse the expression, what we were trying to do was come up with a ballpark figure."

Yet Brinton says he's basically comfortable with the estimate: "I will still sit here and say $145 million is not a bad number."

THIS ISN'T THE FIRST TIME Florida has tried to squirt grapefruit juice in the eye of the Cactus League. Indeed, anyone surprised by Florida's feeding frenzy clearly doesn't remember Arizona's last spring training "crisis." Back in the mid-1960s, the upstart Houston Astros abandoned Apache Junction in favor of Cocoa Beach. The Boston Red Sox left Scottsdale for Winter Haven. Chamber-of-commerce types in the Valley were outraged. They grumbled to the press about the injustice of it all, but probably didn't give much thought to the fact that Arizona had stolen the Red Sox from Florida.

The two states have been lobbing cross-country grenades at each other for years now. But Florida really started raising the stakes in 1985. That's when Osceola County built a 5,100-seat stadium for the Houston Astros, a team whose requests for improvements had been spurned by Cocoa Beach. Once Osceola got the ball rolling, the new baseball boom was underway. The Kansas City Royals got the splashiest deal, deserting Fort Myers for the Boardwalk and Baseball theme park near Orlando, an explosion of thrill rides and video games located on what used to be the dump for Circus World.

By far the most interesting deal in the eyes of team owners, however, was tendered by the tiny city of Port St. Lucie: It forked over $15 million in 1987 to build a palatial spring stadium for the New York Mets. The St. Lucie County Sports Complex was plunked down in a coastal jungle, literally in the middle of nowhere. The practice fields and batting cages are cloaked with canvas, the better to fend off nosy autograph hounds. The clubhouse is under the grandstand, reducing player-spectator contact even further. And tickets are virtually impossible to get. So much for the fans. For team owners, though, the Mets deal was fascinating. The town had handed the team purchase options on surrounding property. If the land goes up in value, the Mets can buy at a preset price. If not, they still get a free stadium and training grounds.

The Port St. Lucie deal quickly sent a buzz throughout Major League Baseball. And Florida has quickly moved to help other communities put together package deals. The state has ponied up millions of dollars to be set aside for the construction of new stadiums. Counties have been given the authority to impose additional bed taxes on hotel rooms and pour the proceeds into baseball amenities. Florida is also the only state in the union with its own full-time sports czar: Ron Safford, a former high school golf coach and women's sportswear salesman for Wrangler Jeans.

Safford, who got his government job after one of his golfers' daddies became lieutenant governor, is a dealmaker and backslapper in the Florida tradition. "The best thing that ever happened to the Cactus League was the Florida sports promotion office," says Safford, who finds it hard to mask his disdain for Arizona leaders. "We forced you to get your act together."

Safford was born to sell. For instance, he argues that the Grapefruit League is better for teams since it enables them to experience rain delays--an important part, he says, of the regular season. And initially he went shopping for Cactus League teams with the subtlety of a coastline freight train. He flew out to Arizona last spring for a scouting trip and set about telling the Phoenix media that Arizona was ripe for the picking. "I don't think you all can beat our deals," he told the Phoenix Gazette, proceeding to list nine Florida cities who were chomping at the bit for a team to call their own. Now Safford regrets his bravado. "If we'd been a little quieter about it," he says, "you all still wouldn't know what the hell was going on." Today, he adds, talks are taking place between Florida cities and Cactus League teams and they are being handled "very confidentially."

Safford's declaration of war quickly created the perception that the Cactus League was on its last legs. The Gazette, whose director of public affairs, Bill Shover, serves on the governor's task force, adopted the role of Paul Revere. The newspaper published a bound collection of reporter Leslie Polk's three-part series on the subject, which soon made the rounds among the Mofford committee. "The clear message of the series is that Arizona must quickly respond to Florida's threat," announced the Gazette. "It won't be easy. It might not be cheap. But the bottom line is the survival of the Cactus League--the future of an Arizona tradition."

A MASS EXODUS HASN'T happened so far--and probably won't. In fact, now that the dust has settled on Safford's whirlwind dash through the Cactus League, a sense of perspective may be beginning to take hold. For starters, some observers say the Mets deal may wind up being a lot less influential than it originally looked. "You've got to remember when they give them land in Florida, they give them swamp land," says Frank Pezzorello, managing partner of Chandler's privately financed Compadre Stadium. The St. Lucie developers were trying to develop a master-planned community in a no man's land and used the Mets as a magnet, he notes.

That won't happen in Arizona, where land values tend to be a bit higher than your average marsh property. And even some Florida cities seem to be souring on the notion of giving away real estate. The city of Fort Myers recently rescinded a 300-acre offer it had made to the Minnesota Twins, deciding it just wasn't worth it. "That's a very good sign for all of us," says Mesa's Robert Brinton. (Safford, on the other hand, argues that even if a coastal city with high land values decided not to accommodate a team, there are plenty of interior communities with "high and dry" property that wouldn't require infielders to wade through bogs.)

Fort Myers is now trying to interest the Twins in buying the property, says Rob Antony, the Twins' assistant director for media relations. The Twins are unhappy playing in the shadow of a new football stadium in Orlando, he says, and are still looking hard at Fort Myers. The club is also making eyes at Arizona, though sources say a Twins deal is a long shot at best.

Outgoing baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth threw another wrench in the See Florida First theory last year when he cautioned Cactus League owners not to move too fast toward possible Florida deals. Ueberroth said the survival of the Cactus League was important to baseball--a position that has since been echoed by incoming czar A. Bartlett Giamatti, the former president of Yale University. In town to catch an Oakland A's game last week, Giamatti affirmed his support for spring baseball in Arizona, and vowed that any team wishing to bail out "will have to talk to him first."

Despite Giamatti's tough talk, some task force members continue to run scared. It's not clear whether the commissioner actually has the power to stop a team from moving, they note. Wealthy team owners aren't going to back off just because an academic like Giamatti has flexed his muscles. And what about Arizona's delicate chances for a major-league expansion team? "If we screw up the Cactus League," predicts one task force worrier, "we're gonna get hammered with that but good when the league gets ready to expand."

Even the doomsayers admit that there's plenty of posturing going on in Florida. But, as one nervous observer puts it, "you could take Florida a lot less seriously if they hadn't built five new ballparks there." Motivated mostly by fear, Arizona cities have moved quickly to accommodate teams.

Scottsdale wants to tear down the beautiful old Scottsdale Stadium, a redwood jewel built in 1951, and issue $7 million in bonds to build a new playhouse for the San Francisco Giants. "It's a fun ballpark, but it's an old ballpark," says Scottsdale vice mayor Bill Soderquist of the present stadium. The City of Mesa and the HoHoKams, the nonprofit service group that attends to the Chicago Cubs, have shelled out $400,000 worth of improvements for the team. Phoenix negotiated a new three-year lease with the Oakland Athletics and expanded parking at Municipal Stadium. Even the lowly Seattle Mariners got some $200,000 in clubhouse improvements from the City of Tempe, and now say they're happy as a clam.

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Andy Van De Voorde