New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts professes to be a die-hard Cubs fan, with respect for the club's history and traditions. He's pledged to keep the current atmosphere at Wrigley Field while upgrading facilities for players and fans.
Why, then, would Ricketts even consider leaving Arizona for Florida spring training? Arizona and the Cubs have a long history -- dating back 57 years, to 1952 -- but it's not just the history that makes Arizona the only place Tom Ricketts and Co. should consider building their grand new spring training complex. Follow me after the jump to find out why.
The Cubs trained at the Wrigley-owned Catalina Island off the California coast from the mid-1920's through 1951. In 1952, they moved to Arizona and have been there since, except for 1966 when they moved for one year to Long Beach, California. They have trained at several different sites in Arizona. From 1952-65 they were at Rendezvous Park in Mesa. When they returned to Arizona in 1967 they used the facilities at the old Scottsdale Stadium (now, with a new stadium, the spring home of the Giants), and moved to the current location in 1979. The Ho Ho Kam Park that the Cubs currently use for spring training is the second stadium with that name on the site on Center St. in Mesa; it was completed in 1997.
The White Sox and Dodgers moved into the mega-complex called Camelback Ranch last year and the Cubs, justifiably so, would like to have a similar complex to call their own. The Cubs outdraw every team in the Cactus League and also hold the attendance record for any spring training team, Florida or Arizona.
Why should the Cubs stay in Arizona? Let's examine some of the reasons.
Proximity: of the 15 teams that train in Arizona (as of next spring, when the Reds will become the 15th team in the Cactus League), 13 of them are in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The longest distance between any two of those parks is 45 miles, the drive from Ho Ho Kam Park in Mesa to Surprise Stadium in Surprise. The Diamondbacks and Rockies will finish their final season in Tucson in 2010 and then move to this complex off Loop 101 near Scottsdale in 2011 -- at that point, all 15 teams will be within less than an hour's drive. Meanwhile, from Naples, Florida, the proposed site for a Cubs training complex in Florida, the two closest teams (Twins and Red Sox) are 40 miles away. The next closest (Rays, in Port Charlotte) is nearly 80 miles away; next closest after that are the Orioles' Ed Smith Park in Sarasota and the Pirates' McKechnie Park in Bradenton, both approximately 120 miles from Naples. The other ten teams training in Florida are 150 miles or more from Naples. This would provide logistical problems for the Cubs playing more than just three to five different teams in spring games, instead of the fourteen other teams they can now play with easy drives. It also would mean, as Jim Hendry noted, trouble for scheduling spring games for Cubs minor leaguers. Now, it's an easy bus ride (less than 30 minutes) for Giants or A's minor leaguers to drive to Mesa to play Cubs minor leaguers, or vice versa. Not so in Florida.
History and tradition: not something to so easily dismiss. Not only do thousands of former Chicagoans live in the Phoenix area, many of them have winter homes there -- among them, many Cubs employees and players. There's a reason you hear so many cheers for the Cubs when they play the Diamondbacks in Chase Field during the regular season -- that's all the ex-Chicagoans living there who go to root for the Cubs. It's one of the reasons the D'backs scheduled two exhibition games vs. the Cubs there next April -- they know they'll draw thousands of Cubs fans. Chicagoans seem to have a more natural affinity to the West rather than the Southeast -- there are far more former Midwesterners who retire to and winter in Arizona than Florida, which draws its "snowbirds" primarily from the Northeast.
Player evaluation: this is a false reason raised last year by Lou Piniella, who claims it is "easier" to evaluate players in spring training in Florida. Admittedly, the lower humidity and higher altitude in the Phoenix area makes the Cactus League more of a hitters' league than the Grapefruit League. You're telling me that a man who has spent more than 45 years in baseball, 22 years as a manager, can't adjust for this? Of Lou's 22 years in managing, more than half -- 13 -- have been spent managing teams (the Cubs and Mariners) who trained in Arizona. Ten of those 13 seasons were winning ones, and six of those ten (four with Seattle and two with the Cubs) resulted in playoff berths. I'd say Lou did pretty well with "player evaluation" in Arizona.
Weather: obviously, the two places both have good, but very different, climates. Arizona's weather in March is almost universally perfect. I have been to spring training in Arizona 19 times since 1984; I don't have an exact count of games I've attended there, but it must be over 150. In all that time I can only remember two games that were rained out, and the rest of the time there is unlimited sunshine and temperatures generally in the mid-80's. (I would, however, not recommend night games in the Phoenix area in mid-March, when it can be coolish in the upper 50's and lower 60's, and one game last March had to be called due to high winds.) Florida's temperatures are similar, but there's a much greater chance that a cold front will blow through the state in March and bring rain.
Team performance: let me once and for all explode the myth that's being promoted by some that "World Series winners train in Florida". It is undeniably true that in the Wild Card era -- the last 15 seasons -- 12 of the winners of the World Series have trained in Florida (the exceptions: 2001 Diamondbacks, 2002 Angels, 2005 White Sox). First of all, until 1998 the Cactus League had only eight of the then-28 teams -- so you would expect, mathematically, that only a little over a quarter of championships would come from Arizona-based spring teams, since only a little over a quarter of the teams trained there. (Here's a comprehensive history of Arizona spring training.) Arizona spring teams totalled ten from 1998-2002 with the addition of the expansion D'backs and White Sox; the Royals and Rangers moved to Surprise in 2003 and the Cactus League was 12 teams from 2003-2008, and in 2009 the Dodgers and Indians made the Arizona total 14. The 2010 addition of the Reds to the Cactus League makes next spring, for the first time ever, the first year that an equal number of teams (15) will train in Florida and Arizona. Finally, of the 15 World Series winners from 1995-2009, seven of them (nearly half) are the Yankees and Red Sox. I can't imagine anyone seriously arguing that those teams won the World Series because of their spring training site.
Finally, the last team to move from Arizona to Florida for spring training and not come back was the Red Sox -- in 1965 (the Indians left Arizona for Florida in 1993, but returned in 2009). There are many reasons they're all moving in one direction -- all the factors I've explained above. The Cubs are the #1 draw in Arizona and the engine that drives the Cactus League. Would they really want to move to an isolated outpost on the southwest coast of Florida and be third banana there behind the Yankees and Red Sox?
Tom Ricketts, it would be a colossal mistake to relocate the Cubs away from Arizona for spring training. The people running the show in Mesa want you there and clearly understand how much the Cubs mean to the Cactus League and the Valley. You do deserve to have a spring training complex second to none -- and I believe the city of Mesa will build that for you.
I'll have more on this later this week.