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Spring training grows up into big business

Once a six-week haven where little thought was given to maximizing revenue, spring training, more and more, is becoming a big business.
Image: Los Angeles Dodgers new manager Joe Torre signs autographs
Los Angeles Dodgers new manager Joe Torre signs autographs during spring training workouts at Dodgertown training complex in Vero Beach, Fla. Next spring, the Dodgers will train in a new facility in Glendale, Ariz.Hans Deryk / Reuters

On a February morning, where the sky and the “Welcome to Dodgertown” sign are both etched in blue, more than 100 fans congregate behind a rope off Vin Scully Way. Their eyes stare at the wide hill, where five pitchers hurl balls at fully equipped catchers, over and over again. Nearby, other pitchers and catchers lie on their bellies and stretch on grass as finely cut as a putting green.

The languid atmosphere belies the fact that this time next year, the Los Angeles Dodgers — who have trained at Vero Beach since 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier — will get in shape at a new facility costing more than $80 million in Glendale, Ariz., one they’ll share with the Chicago White Sox.

Once a six-week haven where little thought was given to maximizing revenue, spring training, more and more, is becoming a big business. Exhibition homes of the Toronto Blue Jays and St. Louis Cardinals are among those boasting luxury suites (air-conditioned ones at the Cardinals’ Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla.). State-of-the-art merchandise stores attract shoppers in no rush except to load up on their favorite teams’ souvenirs. Video scoreboards at places like Bright House Networks Field, home of the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater, Fla., are becoming the norm rather than the exception.

And how about getting into a stadium? Ticket prices are inching toward regular-season levels. For instance, home plate box seats at City of Palms Park in Fort Myers, Fla. — home of the Boston Red Sox — go for $46 apiece. At the newly named Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, a pair of tickets for the St. Patrick’s Day game between the Red Sox and the New York Yankees is being pitched for as much as $500 per seat, with neither green beer nor sunscreen included.

More intriguing than the contests at these meaningless games, though, is the battle between Florida and Arizona to lure teams to upscale facilities (Texas and Las Vegas have also made pitches for franchises in the past, without success). While only one major league team has relocated its regular-season games in the past 35 years, when the Montreal Expos metamorphosed into the Washington Nationals, a dozen switched spring-training sites between 1987-1997, and many others have moved since then, attracted by tax breaks, state grants and other incentives. While Florida counted at least 20 members of the Grapefruit League in the 1990s, if Cincinnati opts to flee for the Cactus League in the next month or so, the leagues should be split equally at 15 teams apiece in 2009.

And why wouldn’t these sun-drenched states fight for the right to host scores of exhibition games? According to a 2006 study by Economic Research Associates, the Dodgers and White Sox alone could have an economic impact of $19 million per year on Glendale and the surrounding area. Granted, it is not the $300 million impact the Super Bowl supposedly had earlier this month in Glendale — but with at least two new teams next year, Arizona’s spring training overall will be as potent as the NFL’s showcase game. After all, the Cactus League president told The New York Times this month that out-of-staters spent $300 million at exhibition games in 2007.

Back in Dodgertown, where the Dodgers are ending a lease that ran until 2021, Florida officials say they are negotiating to recruit another franchise to fill the upcoming vacancy. Though it does make sense for the Dodgers to train within a short flight of fans and sponsors in Arizona as opposed to Florida, there is still an unfortunate sense of déjà vu, a reminder of when Walter O’Malley fled Brooklyn, trading tiny Ebbets Field for land that became Dodger Stadium. The charm of 6,500-seat Holman Stadium, where players sit on metal benches rather than in dugouts and where restrooms are designated for Bat Girls and Bat Boys, is giving way to a complex in Glendale almost twice the size. Today’s Dodger owner sees green in the desert — which trumps Dodger blue in Florida.