Orioles, Naples near spring deal But St. Petersburg is site of '92 games

July 19, 1991|By Mark Hyman Peter Schmuck of The Sun's sports staff in Kansas City contributed to this article.

The Baltimore Orioles' experiment with an on-the-road-again spring-training schedule is ending after one year, the club announced yesterday.

In a statement, the Orioles announced they won't repeat last year's arrangement, in which they played their entire Grapefruit League schedule at somebody else's ballpark. Instead, they'll again hold early spring workouts at Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota, Fla. But when the spring games begin, they'll move about 40 miles north to St. Petersburg, Fla., where they'll play 10 to 14 games at Al Lang Stadium.

In a related development, the Orioles also announced they are going forward with a new plan for a state-of-the-art spring training complex in Naples, Fla. Team senior vice president Tom Daffron was in Naples yesterday to brief Collier County officials on a new site for the complex that, if approved quickly, could be ready for 1993.

The proposal isn't the first the Orioles have offered for a complex in Naples -- it's the fourth in a year -- but they said it's the most promising yet.

"There's still work to be done. But we're at a hopeful and semi-optimistic stage," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said yesterday.

According to the plan, the Orioles would move into a complex that would meet virtually every baseball need. Their digs would include six practice fields, including four arranged in a cloverleaf, an observation tower, indoor and outdoor batting cages and a stadium with seats for 6,500 to 7,000 fans.

The Orioles would pay virtually nothing for either building the complex, whose price tag is expected to exceed $15 million, or for the real estate where it is planned.

The complex would be located on 245 acres owned by J.D. Nicewonder, a local landholder. As a condition of donating the land, Nicewonder has asked county commissioners to rezone 60 acres for commercial development.

The project will be paid for with funds from a 3 percent bed tax, with 1 percent going toward paying off debt on the complex.

For the deal to be approved, the county commissioners must approve the rezoning. Then, the Orioles and county officials must negotiate a lease for the complex.

The new proposal isn't entirely new. Last fall, the Orioles and USF&G, the Baltimore-based insurance company, briefly joined forces for a complex at the same site. But USF&G's business slumped and, in December, it decided not to purchase the land. After that, the Orioles held unsuccessful talks with Florida Rock, a building-materials company. They also discussed another site with Nicewonder before moving to the current location.

Yesterday, both county and team officials said they thought the latest deal was the best.

"It looks like a good site," said Burt Saunders, one of five county commissioners. "There's plenty of room there. It looks like environmental problems can be handled. The access is good."

Lucchino said the site is the one the Orioles have wanted from the beginning, and that the complex, if built, might even help the team win a few games in the 1990s.

"The point of this is not just to have a facility in a pleasant part of Florida, but to have a comprehensive complex where you can develop players better and prepare better for the season," Lucchino said.

Last spring, the Orioles left Miami after playing their Grapefruit League schedule at Bobby Maduro Miami Stadium for 31 years. The team conducted its early workouts at Twin Lakes Park for the third consecutive year, but was forced to travel to all its games because Twin Lakes doesn't have a stadium.

Some players have suggested that the team's seemingly unending road trips cut into time that would have been better spent dropping 2,000 or so sacrifice bunts. Yesterday's news played well in Kansas City, Mo., where the Orioles faced the Royals.

"This is much better," said outfielder Joe Orsulak. "When you're on a bus every day, you don't have time to work on fundamentals, which is what spring training is for."

Reliever Mark Williamson said, "You need a home field so when you're playing a 1 p.m., the guys can get out there early to work on fundamentals."

Lucchino said it would be "too simplistic" to blame the Orioles' dismal first half on their nomadic spring arrangement. But he didn't discount it either.

"There are other larger forces that have come into play, including a rash of injuries to key players," Lucchino said. "But would you have preferred to have trained differently the last two years? Yeah. With the [owners'] lockout in '90 and the movement we were required to endure this year . . . There are better ways."

Next year, the Orioles' home during the Grapefruit League schedule will be 7,200-seat Al Lang Stadium. They'll share the ballpark with the St. Louis Cardinals, who have had their spring headquarters there since 1938. The New York Mets also played at Al Lang until moving to Port St. Lucie, Fla., after spring training of 1987.

Tentatively, the Orioles are expected to play 11 home games at Al Lang, said Lee Metzger, St. Petersburg's director of leisure services. The Orioles may play two others there as visitors against the Cardinals, including a tentative Orioles-Cardinals game to open the Grapefruit League on March 6.

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