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The Case For The Cubs Remaining In Arizona For Spring Training

The Cubs are considering whether to opt out of their spring deal in Mesa. Here's why they should stay in Arizona if they do.

Al Yellon

SCOTTSDALE, Arizona -- Recently, there has been much discussion on this site and elsewhere about the possibility of the Cubs pulling up stakes and leaving Mesa, Arizona, where they have been holding spring training camps since the 1970's. In fact, the Cubs have been training in Arizona much longer than that; they moved from the Wrigley-owned Catalina Island off the coast of California (how would that be for spring travel?) to Mesa in 1952, stayed there through 1965, moved to Scottsdale from 1966-78, and then to what was then a relatively new HoHoKam Park (first built in 1977, with the A's its first tenant) in 1979. The original HoHoKam Park was leveled after the 1996 spring season and the current park dates from 1997.

Only 12 years old, the "new" HoHoKam is now showing its age. Older parks include the venerable Phoenix Muni (home of the A's, originally built in 1964, rehabbed in 2005), Tempe Diablo (Angels, originally built in 1968, renovated in 2005), and Scottsdale Stadium (Giants, built in 1992 to replace an older facility, and extensively renovated in 2006, after which the Giants agreed to stay for 20 years, through 2025).

The rest of this post is going to be pretty long, so I'll let you continue after the fold.

The age of HoHoKam and the fact that the Cubs' minor league and practice facilities at Fitch Park are antiquated and not adjacent to HoHoKam, as the more modern facilities such as Peoria Sports Complex (shared by the Padres and Mariners, built in 1994), Surprise Stadium and Recreation Campus (Rangers & Royals, 2003) and what is now being held up as the "gold standard" of spring training facilities, the brand-new Camelback Ranch, spring home to the Dodgers and White Sox.

It's clear that the Cubs drive the Cactus League. They regularly lead the league in attendance and hold both the single-season average record, 12,125 (set in 2005), and the overall spring training record for any team, Florida or Arizona, 203,105, set this year (because of the larger number of home dates, 19, compared to the usual 15 or 16). With a huge fan base distributed not just nationally, but worldwide, the Cubs feel justified in asking for upgraded facilities.

The Cubs have the right to opt out of their spring deal before next spring. However, even if they do so, their contract would keep them training in Mesa through 2012. If they do opt out, they would be doing so at perhaps the worst possible time, with the economy in recession and Arizona and Florida, the homes of all teams for spring games, among the hardest-hit locales. While there may be some state funding available in Florida, that article also indicates there are some large hurdles the Florida folks would have to leap to get the Cubs to move there.

Just a couple of days ago, the Phoenix-area East Valley Tribune posted this article laying out the challenges of finding funding for new spring training facilities in Arizona:

The challenge in coming up with money for the renovations, [Mayor Scott Smith] said, is that there's no direct revenue generated by a spring training facility, apart from ticket sales.

But it's also valuable to hold on to these facilities because of the economic benefits that come from the out-of-town visitors that attend these games, he added.

Mesa voters recently approved a deal with Gaylord Entertainment Co. of Nashville, under which the bed-tax revenues paid by hotel visitors would go to Gaylord to spend on marketing efforts.

In this case, the mayor said that there's too much at stake for the city's economic health to not keep chipping away at ways to come up with the money.

Mesa hotels depend on spring training fans to fill up their rooms, and local businesses get a boost. This year, the economic downturn and fewer fans showing up in the city has had a dramatic reduction in hotel occupancy, for instance.

"That's one reason why I think it's completely appropriate for a city to be involved in these activities, because there is a net benefit," Smith said. "This is not one of those pie-in-the-sky type of scenarios. We do see thousands of people from out of state come into our community and leave their dollars because of spring training. I believe it should be a top priority of ours to do whatever we can to meet the needs of the Cubs."

Mayor Smith has summed up the issue perfectly: the Cubs and their fans bring so many dollars into the community, that losing them to Florida, or even another Arizona city, might cost Mesa more than the amount of dollars they'd have to spend for new/rehabbed facilities. They almost can't afford NOT to do it. The Mesa mayor, who led the 7th-inning stretch singing of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" along with four HoHoKam "Rookies of the Year" at Thursday's 2009 spring finale, made it a point to announce, after they finished, to thank everyone for a successful year and that he hoped for the association between the Cubs and Mesa to go on "for many years to come".

The tourist dollars are why the city of Marana, north of Tucson, is trying to pitch a three-team facility to save the D'backs and Rockies from moving to the Phoenix area. This is probably pie-in-the-sky; they'd have to entice another team from Florida (since 2003, the Royals, Rangers, Dodgers, Indians, and for 2010, the Reds have already been so enticed, and there may not be that many left who want to move), and keep the two teams who are already in Tucson there -- when teams have been migrating to the Phoenix area for ease of transportation between spring camps.

Which brings me to my first argument for keeping the Cubs in the Phoenix metro area (not necessarily at HoHoKam, and not even necessarily in Mesa, depending on where they get the best offer). Quite frankly, it's simply going to be easier, once all 15 teams (what a scheduling nightmare!) move to the Phoenix area in 2011 or 2012, every team will be within a commuter's drive, 50 or 55 minutes at most.

This simply isn't the case in Florida. I examined the Cincinnati Reds' 2009 spring schedule (since the most-rumored Florida city wanting the Cubs is Sarasota, where the Reds trained this year, the former training site for the White Sox). I used the site of Ed Smith Stadium, the Reds' ballpark, to measure distances between training sites via Google Maps.

There are only two stadiums that the Reds traveled to in their 2009 spring schedule that would qualify as "close" in the same sense that the Phoenix-area parks are "close" to the Cubs' current home base in Mesa. Here is a map of all the Grapefruit League ballparks; the Reds did not travel to any of the Atlantic Coast locations in 2009, restricting their travel to the Gulf Coast and Orlando/Kissimmee areas. From Ed Smith Stadium, only the Pirates' park in Bradenton (12 miles) and the Rays' in Port Charlotte (44 miles) would be considered "local". The rest are 60 miles or more:

to Bright House Networks Field, Clearwater (Phillies): 61 miles to Steinbrenner Field, Tampa (Yankees): 65 miles to Dunedin Stadium, Dunedin (Blue Jays): 67 miles to City of Palms Park, Ft. Myers (Red Sox): 76 miles to Hammond Stadium, Ft. Myers (Twins): 88 miles to Osceola Stadium, Kissimmee (Astros): 125 miles

Further, all six of those trips require a jaunt through St. Petersburg/Tampa traffic, which can be much worse than any Phoenix-area traffic jam (personally, I have run into only minor backups getting to and from any Phoenix-area park). The Reds were all over the place this spring, making three trips to Kissimee, and four to Ft. Myers, the equivalent of trips to Tucson, and that doesn't even include the jaunts to Tampa, Clearwater or Dunedin. It's a rugged travel schedule.

Compare those distances with the Cactus League layout, which is becoming more compact with every move from Tucson to Phoenix. Google Maps says that these are the distances from HoHoKam Park:

Phoenix Muni: 8 miles Scottsdale Stadium: 11 miles Tempe Diablo: 12 miles Maryvale: 24 miles Camelback Ranch: 32 miles Goodyear: 37 miles Peoria: 42 miles Surprise: 45 miles Tucson Electric: 119 miles Hi Corbett: 123 miles

All within easy commuter drives, except for Tucson, and those are vanishing within a couple of years. So the back-and-forth travel is much simpler in metro Phoenix than it is in central and Gulf Coast Florida, and soon will be even easier.

What about weather? Lou Piniella, who might be just a bit biased because he's a Tampa native who still lives there in the off-season, claims that the humidity in Florida makes it easier to evaluate pitchers:

[Piniella said] Florida is a better place to train players and get them in shape. He also said Arizona's desert air makes it harder to spin the ball, making it difficult to evaluate pitchers with good breaking stuff.

"I like Florida," Piniella said. "You can get a team in shape much quicker because of the humidity. You can evaluate pitchers a lot better, and the ball will break a little more. I grabbed a ball the other day to hand it to a pitcher on the mound, and I felt like putting Vaseline on it."

Piniella quickly noted he was kidding.

Kidding about the Vaseline, I presume. I suppose Lou has a point, but if you know that breaking balls don't break in the desert air, don't you discount that in your evaluation? Weather appears to be a wash between Mesa and Sarasota. The average high in March is the same: 77 degrees. Expect about 3.39 inches of rain in Sarasota in March; 1.19 inches in Mesa. There were four days of measurable precipitation in Sarasota in March 2009; none in Mesa. It seems to me that I have heard more about rainouts and cool weather in Florida than in Arizona, but perhaps it varies from year to year. I do know that in 20 spring trainings, I have been rained out of games twice, and generally see cloudless 85-degree days when I'm here. Personally, I think Lou is incorrect; the dry desert weather is far more conducive to good baseball workouts than the humidity of Florida.

The problem for Florida spring training complexes comes not during March, but during August and September, prime time for hurricane season in the USA. You may say I'm overreacting or that this line of thinking is ridiculous, but the Cleveland Indians had built a brand-new complex in Homestead, Florida, in 1992, only to see it destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. Although the Homestead complex was rebuilt, the Indians never used it, spending several years in Winter Haven before eventually moving back to Arizona this year. More and more hurricanes are hitting the US mainland in recent years -- would the Cubs want to risk this? It might never happen... but you never know.

The argument was made in one of the earlier posts at BCB on this topic that the population of Florida (over 18,000,000) compared to the population of Arizona (over 6,000,000) should make Florida the more popular destination. That's a red herring. The population of the Tampa/St. Petersburg/Sarasota/Bradenton area is 3,421,584 (all figures here are 2008 estimates), compared to the Phoenix metro area's 4,281,899. Oh, but wait, you're saying, the Gulf Coast teams play in the Orlando area too, so add the 2,054,574 there to make 5,476,158.

If you're going to do that, you have to include in the Phoenix total the Tucson population of 1,012,018, because Orlando is as far from Sarasota as Tucson is from Phoenix. Net result? A wash. Florida: 5,476,158. Arizona: 5,293,917. There are thousands of former Chicagoans in both areas, but in my personal experience, more of them are in Arizona than Florida. YMMV.

Tourism is big in both regions. It was also suggested on this site that Disney World could be a spot for families coming to spring training in Florida. Sure, but again, that's a two-hour hike from Sarasota. There are different attractions in both areas. Some people like the beaches of Florida. Others like the mountain hikes in Arizona. Golf is big in both places. I don't think either area has an advantage over the other in warm-weather amenities for the winter-weary Chicagoan. Flights are plentiful to both areas, and despite claims in another post that they are cheaper to Florida, I checked some random April dates -- they're about the same price (you can get deals if you book ahead), and though it does take longer to fly to Arizona because of headwinds, you make up that time returning.

So that brings us to the next, and perhaps most important, issue: where are the Cubs going to go, and who's going to pay for it? Clearly, Ed Smith Stadium isn't what the Cubs want; the White Sox left it years ago, and the Reds are departing after this year. (Ask yourself why these teams are going to Arizona instead of staying in Florida, and you'll have the best answer as to why the Cubs should stay; most of it is what I've detailed above.) They'd have to build a new complex in Florida; the state of Florida is in just as much financial trouble as any other state in the current economic crisis, and I can't see them devoting millions of dollars to build for the Cubs from the ground up. Further, there's simply not as much open land to build a large, Camelback Ranch-type complex in Florida as there is in Arizona.

If the Cubs wanted to stay in their current location, they'd have to have an upgraded minor league/practice facility. In between Fitch Park and HoHoKam Park, there is an open field -- and also several hundred new homes, condos and townhouses. I suppose the Cubs could ask the city of Mesa to buy up all that property so they could build, but I'm guessing that would be much more trouble (and expense, and time consumed) than it would be worth. So where else could they go? There is plenty of open land in the eastern part of metro Phoenix; there's open land north of route 101 that you can if you drive that way from Scottsdale to Peoria or Glendale; there's plenty of land south of Phoenix toward Chandler, Gilbert and Queen Creek (example: there's a huge new casino going up near I-10 in Chandler; the hotels nearby would be perfect for Cubs fans attending a new nearby spring complex). The same article mentions the Talking Stick Resort, being built on Native American land east of route 101 near Scottsdale; there has been some talk about making deals with the various tribes in the Phoenix area (the Talking Stick is a deal with the Pima tribe which already runs Casino Arizona and the Scottsdale Pavilions, a large complex of big-box stores right near the Talking Stick site). There are swaths of open land (part of the Salt River Pima Native American community) east of route 101 right near these sites. Why not build right there? It's something the state of Florida simply cannot offer -- the open and available land within easy drives of resorts, casinos, hotels and the condos where many players already live or have winter homes.

As I said above, everyone in Arizona knows the Cubs drive the Cactus League engine. Attendance at Cubs road games in the Cactus League is typically double what any of the other teams draw. They'll find a way to get this done, because the Cubs are the premier team in Arizona spring training -- and everyone here knows it. And the bottom line is likely to be paid by those of us who rent cars and hotel rooms in the Valley -- if you rent a car at PHX airport, you're paying about 30% of the total in various taxes and fees, and much of that has gone to pay for spring training complexes. As Mayor Smith of Mesa said, he feels it's appropriate for a community like his to allocate money for these purposes, because the amount of money brought in by having the Cubs there for spring training far exceeds the cost of keeping them there.

Which leads to a logical conclusion: between the factors of history, land availability, fanbases, weather and various costs, the only place for the Cubs to stay for spring training is Arizona. The people in Arizona want them there; the Cubs have had many decades of good spring trainings and have thousands of fans both living in the Valley and who enjoy traveling there. It's an excellent symbiotic relationship, and there is no question in my mind that it should continue for, as Mayor Smith said yesterday, many years to come.