No spring nest in sight Baseball: The Orioles have been grounded for eight years in their attempts to secure a state-of-the-art training camp complex.

March 09, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

JUPITER, Fla. -- The practice fields, all 13 of them, seem to stretch all the way to the horizon. The clubhouses, two for the major-league clubs and one for each minor-league operation, ring brand-new Roger Dean Stadium, which was designed by the same people who built Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

If only it had the same tenant.

Baseball's newest Florida spring training facility opened for business this month and welcomed the St. Louis Cardinals and the Montreal Expos to a dual camp that represents everything the Orioles are looking for in a spring home.

The ballpark is state-of-the-art. The minor-league operations are on-site. It is the kind of facility that the Orioles have been trying to secure since they moved out of old Bobby Maduro Stadium in Miami eight years ago. But they missed an opportunity to join in the project and have gone from one makeshift spring to the next while new complexes sprout up all over Florida and Arizona.

It is a source of organizational frustration, but it is not for lack of effort on the part of the club's management team, which again is working on a plan for a new facility in nearby West Palm Beach. The denizens of the new complex in Jupiter would like to see that effort succeed, because it would make their seemingly perfect working environment even better.

If the Orioles can forge a partnership with another team and move into a new facility in the West Palm area, it would create a cluster of four clubs that could play a large part of the Grapefruit League schedule without wasting hours of potential training time each day on travel.

"There has been some preliminary interest expressed by West Palm Beach and Boca Raton to explore the possibility of building a complex," said Joe Foss, the Orioles' vice chairman of business and finance. "That definitely has some appeal to the Orioles. It is on the eastern side of the state and is geographically preferable to the ownership and many of our fans, who seem to gravitate toward this side of the state."

The Orioles are only an hour or so south of West Palm Beach in the old New York Yankees complex (Fort Lauderdale Stadium), but that facility does not have enough room to house the organization's minor-league camp. The club still runs its minor-league camp in Sarasota, which limits the ability of the major-league staff to evaluate talent and restricts interaction between the minor-leaguers and the club's established stars.

"When we were in Miami all those years, Earl [Weaver] always had a bunch of young players around," said manager Ray Miller. "They would see the way that Brooks Robinson did something, and then that's the way they did it. That goes toward developing a pride and rapport in the organization. I like this facility, but it's almost like we're separate entities."

Happy together

That might seem like a minor problem -- especially in the wake of the Orioles' back-to-back appearances in the American League Championship Series -- but Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said it pays to have everyone in the same place.

"I think it's been proven that if you're talented and committed enough, you can make anything work," La Russa said, "but as competitive as things are, you don't want to give up an edge to other organizations. Having everyone together in the same complex is a significant advantage."

Foss agrees that it would be to the Orioles' advantage to have the minor-leaguers and major-leaguers at the same site, but said last week that it is just one element in a more complicated equation.

"It is a priority, but I wouldn't say it's our highest priority," Foss said. "Our highest priority is to build a championship club at the major-league level and develop players at the minor-league level. That's where we feel we should concentrate our efforts."

The Expos originally shared the old West Palm Beach training camp with the Atlanta Braves, who were expected to be the other club in Jupiter until they were lured away to the new Disney Sports Complex in Orlando. The Cardinals agreed to take their place after it became apparent that they would have to share a limited facility in St. Petersburg with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

That was when the Orioles might have been in position to jump into the Jupiter project, but ended up being the odd team out when negotiations with Disney to occupy the Orlando site broke down.

"There really wasn't a window where the complex was made available to us like the Cardinals," Foss said. "They jumped right into it."

Coming up short

The Orioles have been on the outside looking in since the spring training boom of the 1980s. They came close to a deal for a complex in Naples, Fla., in the early 1990s, but USF&G pulled out of a joint venture and the project fell apart.

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