Spring Fever

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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.

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Andy Van De Voorde