Coming move puts spring in O's steps

Inside the Orioles

Club narrowing sites for new training complex

April 16, 2000|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- The drive is a brutal one: across Alligator Alley from the Orioles' Fort Lauderdale spring training base, then north on Interstate 75 until the van hauling prospects or the Lexus/Porsche/Mercedes carrying a rehabilitating major-league player reaches the Orioles' Sarasota minor-league complex.

The three-hour tour symbolizes the long-standing detachment between the organization's player development and major-league factions, a situation treated with benign neglect until recently. However, by month's end, executive vice president John Angelos and chief operating officer Joe Foss hope to announce a two-step solution that would install an interim minor-league complex on Florida's east coast in 2001 and a permanent joint base to be ready for spring training, 2002.

Majority owner Peter Angelos' vision is to construct (with government assistance) a modern complex, including dormitories, a classroom-style teaching facility and upgraded resources for medical treatment and rehab.

Vice president of baseball operations Syd Thrift, who saw the Kansas City Royals do much the same 30 years ago, describes the vision as "comprehensive" and "all-inclusive." In other words, it's 180 degrees from what the Orioles have now.

After years of procrastination, the Orioles find themselves hustled along by a deadline. A lease with the city of Sarasota expires next winter, with a business park to be constructed on the current minor-league site.

Among the alternatives are the Pompano Beach complex that once headquartered the Texas Rangers, a Lantana complex that once served as the training ground for the Montreal Expos' minor leagues and a tract of land near Hollywood that has been designated for recreational use.

"I think the possibilities out there are all workable. It's a matter of which one suits us in the most ways," Thrift said.

One intriguing possibility for a permanent site is a joint venture with another team, much like the one involving the Montreal Expos and St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, north of West Palm Beach.

The Royals' lease in mid-state Haines City expires after 2002, putting them in the market for a new faciity. The Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets are also pondering moves. Also looming is Las Vegas' push to lure four to six teams for a self-contained spring league.

While Foss has attended exploratory meetings in Las Vegas, the Orioles are committed to remaining in Florida, barring a total lack of aid from local and state governments.

The interim issue is complicated by the Orioles' need to find a convenient base for their short-season Rookie League team. Most Florida-based clubs operate on the west coast.

The more likely alternative is to find a minor-league base near Fort Lauderdale, then transfer to the west side of the state for the season. Extended spring and rehabilitating players would remain in the Lauderdale-area facility.

"Ideally, we would like one place for all three, but we may have to make two moves," Thrift said.

The separation of the Orioles' major- and minor-league facilities has been an uncomfortable reality since the team fled Sarasota for obsolete Fort Lauderdale Stadium in 1996. It wasn't until this spring that the Yankees blue was painted over with Camden Yards green.

Negatives include a lack of familiarity between player-development personnel and the major-league staff, absurd logistics, ridiculous South Florida traffic and a decidedly hand-me-down feel to a facility where a self-proclaimed first-class franchise prepares an $80 million payroll each spring.

Of course, there are numerous positives -- proximity to Gulfstream Park, beachfront nightclubs (e.g., Matt Riley's Club Atlantis) and numerous adult entertainment venues.

One of the game's wealthiest franchises, the Orioles have moved at a glacial pace on the issue for much of a decade.

Within the month, the Orioles should anounce an end to the Alligator Alley Express. No one will mourn its passing.

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