Cactus League defections are worrying Ariz. officials trying to hold it together

March 31, 1991|By Andrew Bagnato | Andrew Bagnato,Chicago Tribune

MESA, Ariz. -- The Cleveland Indians last won a pennant in 1954. The Seattle Mariners never have won anything, not even half their games.

They are two of baseball's most futile franchises. But they have become the most important teams in Arizona because without them, the Cubs, the Oakland Athletics and the San Francisco Giants might be looking for new spring-training bases.

When the Indians leave Tucson for Florida in 1993, Arizona's exhibition circuit will lose its founding member after 45 years. The spring league also will be down to seven teams. That's enough to stay alive, but the defection of the Indians and the threatened pullout of the Mariners from Tempe are signs the end may be coming for major-league baseball in the desert.

"Something is going to have to be done or the Cactus League is going to fall apart," Cubs president Don Grenesko said.

"It's one thing if you lose one team. That can make scheduling difficult. But with Seattle considering leaving, you really are down to the minimum number of teams."

The Cactus League's problems are twofold, and they're best described in the examples provided by the league's oldest and newest teams. In the case of the Indians, the offer from Florida was too good to refuse. In the case of the Mariners, local unwillingness to meet the club's demands has been fingered as the culprit.

The Cactus League's roots go back to 1947, when Bill Veeck decided to move the Indians to the sleepy Southwestern burg of Tucson, not far from a ranch he owned. Others followed, and while the league never has challenged the Grapefruit League in size or scope, the addition of Seattle in 1977 made it seem major-league baseball had a solid foothold in the desert.

The clubs like training here because five of the eight campsites are in the Valley of the Sun. The Cubs train in Mesa, the A's in Phoenix, the Giants in Scottsdale, the Brewers in Chandler and the Mariners in Tempe. The Angels practice in Mesa, but for the exhibition season they move to Palm Springs, Calif., five hours west by car. The Padres train in Yuma, four hours away, and the Indians are in Tucson, 100 miles south of Phoenix.

In the eyes of many players and club officials, there's no comparison between the amenities of the Phoenix area and, say, Winter Haven, Fla. Amenities matter to people who spend seven weeks of every year in camp.

"I can't say it now, but usually our weather's better than Florida's," said Dwight "Pat" Patterson, head of Mesa's HoHoKams community service organization and the acknowledged "Father of the Cactus League." "And we've got )) much better airline connections. There aren't many direct flights to a lot of those towns in Florida."

Springtime baseball is no small matter for Arizona's tourist-oriented economy. By some estimates, the camps generate $145 million a year.

But although it is a big business, the Cactus League always has maintained a small-time feel. The games are a more personal, casual style of baseball than that offered in crowded big-league ballparks during the summer. The pace is slower, the ballplayers more relaxed and approachable.

A similar laid-back approach to the businees of spring training -- contrasting with a more aggressive approach by Grapefruit League officials in Florida -- could spell doom for the Cactus League, some say.

"Cleveland's leaving. It's going to Florida," Oakland General Manager Sandy Alderson said. "Now, has that caused a change in the fundamental outlook in the state of Arizona? Not yet, because there are a lot of people who say, 'As long as we've got six [teams], it doesn't make any difference.'

"But there are other people saying, 'That's the first step in the road to disaster, and we've got to fix it,' " he said.

"There is a certain frustration that people [in Arizona] aren't taking it seriously."

People in many Florida towns take it seriously, so much so that they're willing to tax themselves to provide lures for major-league clubs.

In Cleveland's case, Citrus County built an $8.2 million training complex with money raised by hotel taxes, a state grant and land donations from a private developer.

The Indians' charming but inefficient Hi Corbett Field in Tucson couldn't begin to compete. Tradition doesn't mean as much as acres of training space.

"If Florida is offering the Earth, sun and moon, you have to take a look at what Florida is offering," said Mike Shapiro, staff counsel of the San Francisco Giants.

So in 1993, the Tribe will shift to Florida. Some say the move makes sense because Cleveland is closer to Florida. But others fear that losing the original stone will make the rest of the building collapse.

The next candidate to depart is Seattle, which is so upset with Tempe's refusal to meet its demands that it is considering moving its base an entire continent away from the Kingdome.

The Mariners reportedly want $2.4 million in improvements to Diablo Stadium, the club's spring base since its inception in 1977. The city of Tempe is offering half that much.

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