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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.