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Spring Training Has Become a Big Deal in Florida

The Washington Post

In another era, overnight subdivisions and explosive growth had not come to Florida. The Sunshine State was two-lane highways and diners, and the tourist industry seemed to be a string of orange-juice stands interspersed with an occasional alligator farm.

In another era, spring training reflected this Florida. It was quaint little ballparks with splintery bleachers, and for a couple of bucks, fans could rub elbows with their Boys of Summer.

It was a slow and sleepy and relaxed time. Players lived in majestic old hotels like the Don Cesar in St. Petersburg, and for a few dozen fans lucky enough to escape the cold and snow of the north, their heroes were real and touchable.

Spin ahead to 1989, and welcome to what now passes for spring training.

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It’s Shell World and Wet ‘n’ Wild on one side of the interstate, Boardwalk and Baseball on the other. It’s a state that craves growth and tourism, and because baseball helps with both, it’s a mad scramble to keep teams or attract them.

If Florida cities once only tolerated major-league teams spending six weeks with them, they now bid for them and spend millions of dollars building facilities for them. Many of them sell out every game long before the first pitch is thrown. Souvenir sales have become a million-dollar cottage industry.

Florida will be the nation’s third most populous state by the end of the century, and that explosive growth already has begun with baseball reaping the spoils. A study commissioned by the state suggests that spring-training cities bring in more than $282 million a year in tourist money.

Spring training today is Port Charlotte, where the Texas Rangers have what has become the new norm: a state-of-the-art facility with five fields, dozens of pitching mounds and hitting cages, spiffy clubhouses and offices and a 6,000-seat stadium.

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“They asked what our ideal facility would be,” Rangers General Manager Tom Grieve said. “This is it.”

Port Charlotte officials built the entire complex for the Rangers and in return hoped that getting a major-league team would hitch the city’s star to the state’s dizzying population explosion.

It has. The city’s population was about 30,000 two years ago and is expected to be close to 100,000 in four years and perhaps 300,000 by the end of the century. The Rangers have been one of the lures, especially in attracting hundreds of customers willing to listen and able to buy.

“We’re this side of delirium,” one city official said.

They’re not alone. Similar facilities built from similar game plans have popped up in little Mayberrys like Port St. Lucie (Mets), Kissimmee (Astros), Haines City (Royals) and Plant City (Reds). Naples, Homestead and Fort Myers are plotting to get teams, and it sometimes seems that every team is either considering an offer to move from its present location or demanding millions in improvements.

“You have to do it,” Baltimore Oriols General Manager Roland Hemond said. “If other teams are preparing better than you, there’s a good chance they’ll play better than you. Standards have changed.”

How do you build a city? You start by giving people a reason to visit, and to many Florida cities, one of the best ways is to have a major-league team for six weeks each spring. It’s a relatively cheap investment -- around $10 million -- and it gets you immediate recognition, publicity and a steady flow of customers.

“When the Braves and Astros play on TBS (Atlanta’s nationwide cable-TV outlet),” said Don Miers, general managr of the Houston Astros’ county-owned complex in Kissimmee, “one sentence about ‘beautiful Kissimmee’ gets us more publicity than we could ever afford to buy.”

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The change in spring training began in 1984 in Osceola County, where the Astros, who were unhappy in Cocoa, were offered what no baseball team had ever been offered before.

A blank canvas.

They were asked what would be the perfect spring-training facility. Five fields were mentioned. No problem, they were told. How about some indoor hitting cages in case it rains? No problem, they were told.

By the time negotiations ended, the Astros had sat across from an architect and drawn up a Disneylike spring complex they’ve called home since 1985.

If it was good for the Astros, it was also good for Kissimmee, which is no longer just a gasoline stop on the way to Epcot Center. Disney World may have something to do with it, too, but the city has grown from 50,000 to 80,000 in five years, and projections are for another 20,000 to move in by the end of 1990.

The initial investment was expensive -- about $10 million -- but the local taxpayers paid not a dime. Osceola County got the money from Florida’s tourist development tax, a hotel bed tax of 2 to 3 percent.

Before the Astros-Kissimmee deal, 12 counties had voted the state-approved tax in, but none had thought to use it to get baseball. “We were the first to ask,” Miers said. “They said, ‘Sure. That’s tourism.’ ”

Others saw, others copied, and caught into this web of condos and tract homes and Taco Locos has been baseball, an industry that has ridden the crest of an unexpected wave.

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For the New York Mets, spring home is now a $9 million complex in Port St. Lucie that allows players to prepare efficiently for a season. It has a 7,500-seat stadium, five fields, 20 pitching mounds, six indoor batting cages, a large clubhouse and spacious offices.

The Mets became the centerpiece for a 7.2-square-mile commercial and residential development project along Florida’s east coast. Projections are that the city, which has already grown from 30,000 to 50,000 in three years, will domicile 500,000 people by the end of the century. Almost 20,000 building permits were issued last year.

For the Kansas City Royals, home is a multimillion-dollar complex created and paid for by a theme-park conglomerate. It’s located along the I-4 corridor, and like Kissimmee, was built to grab some of the runoff traffic from nearby Disney World.

The Rangers are part of a wild building boom on Florida’s lower west coast, and the Cincinnati Reds have made Plant City known for something other than strawberry fields.

“It was the kind of deal you couldn’t turn down,” said Mets Vice President Joe McIlvaine. “Even if you weren’t ready to build a home, you could see what was going to happen to the value of the land.”

It worked for both sides.

“Getting the Mets gave us instant credibility,” said Jim Brown, president of Port St. Lucie’s Thomas White Development Co., which signed a three-party agreement with the team and the city to do most of the construction work. “The approval process was radically simplified because we wanted to get it ready for the Mets. We started construction 18 months before we had final approval.”

Was it worth it? The Mets draw 7,500 fans per game, and Harold Murphy of White Development said, “While they don’t all stop by, we do get between 750 and 1,100 reasonably serious shoppers a week. I doubt we’d get half that many without the Mets.”

It’s palm trees, condos, town homes, stores and golf courses, and when Mets games are televised back to New York and New Jersey, Port St. Lucie wants you to know there’s an alternative to snow shoveling and rude taxi drivers.

Brown said he receives phone calls from “all over the country as well as all over the state.”

The Mets and Royals, Rangers and Reds say they could hardly imagine more. Where players once had to stand six or seven hours in a blazing sun while everyone got a round of batting practice, they now train efficiently and quickly.

Indeed, a morning with the Reds in Plant City looks more like an assembly line in Dearborn, what with dozens of pitchers throwing at once and three fields being used for batting practice. When hitters aren’t hitting against live pitching or taking part in drills, they’re usually in a cage hitting off one of six machines.

Increased popularity has increased the pressure, and one city official said, “It’s not just the stars playing every three or four days anymore. We want a representative product out there.”

A long time ago, it was different. In 1905 the Reds, who’d tried in Fort Worth, New Orleans and Augusta, came to Florida because the weather was more consistently good. They must not have been impressed, because they were in San Antonio in 1906 and didn’t come back to Florida for good until 17 years later.

It wasn’t until after the war in 1946 that Florida became one of the rites of spring for most teams. That year, the Phillies, Reds, Braves, Cardinals, Yankees, Senators, Tigers, Indians and Red Sox trained here.

It was not big business, and many teams borrowed whatever high school or semipro field they could find. Pete Rose remembers every player had his own method, some of them unorthodox.

One, he said, “would come in and start hitting with the machine 60 feet away,” Rose said, “and he’d move it closer as his hand and eye coordination came together. By the end of spring training, he’d be hitting with it 30 feet away from him, and there was almost nothing a pitcher could throw that he couldn’t pick up.”

Is Plant City, or Kissimmee, really the ultimate spring-training facility?

No, say the people in Homestead, a bedroom community 35 miles south of downtown Miami that has announced its intention to spend $12 million on a facility that it hopes will attract a team.

How? Homestead would be the least accessible of all spring-training sites. It would be a 45-minute drive to Miami Stadium (if the Baltimore Orioles remain there) and well over an hour to the Yankees in Fort Lauderdale. Every other team would be two hours or more away.

Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo said a facility that will be “the prototype for the ‘90s” might be the answer.

Homestead’s will have the usual cages and mounds and clubhouses, “but we’re also going to address every need,” Muxo said. The facility in Homestead will have a cafeteria to feed players and staff, and it will have dorms for minor leaguers.

“There’s also going to be a first-class hotel to be located next door,” he said. “Teams want convenience, and this is going to be the ultimate. Everything will be a five-minute walk from everything else.”

Muxo declines to say what teams are interested, but the Orioles have toured the site, and the Cleveland Indians reportedly are interested in moving from Arizona.

Baseball discourages such interstate shifts, but Commissioner-designate A. Bartlett Giamatti warned Arizona officials last week the climate, never mind the weather, is so good for teams in Florida that owners may insist on moving.

“We just have too many positives,” Muxo said. “We’re 30 minutes from the Miami airport, 30 minutes from Key Largo, and weatherwise, ours is probably the best in the country. This kind of move would make sense, and it wouldn’t be like we were the first to raid someone’s team.”


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