W. Palm: O's hope springs eternal

More training facilities available

priority same

March 18, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - It has been more than a decade since the Orioles began their quest for a new all-purpose spring training facility, and the end of that search still is not in sight.

The number of possible future locations has increased with the proposal to contract the Montreal Expos and the chain-reaction change in ownership of the Boston Red Sox and the Florida Marlins, but the Orioles remain focused on a proposed complex in West Palm Beach that won't be on the drawing board until the Florida legislature approves a new sales tax law that would free up public money for the project.

"The West Palm Beach option is still very much alive," Orioles vice chairman Joe Foss said on Saturday. "That still is the option that meets the objectives of the Orioles - to have all operations in one location in a major metropolitan area in Florida."

The only trouble is, the Orioles have been at square one in their hunt for a spring training home so many times before that the front office can't get too excited about another adventure in local Florida politics.

The club once was close to a public/private partnership with Collier County and the USF&G insurance giant to build a complex in the Naples, Fla., area, but the plan collapsed when USF&G withdrew its financial commitment.

The Orioles also tried to negotiate a deal to expand their minor-league complex in Sarasota into a full-service facility, and were once close to a deal to occupy the Disney-sponsored complex in the Orlando area.

Most recently, club officials have tried to persuade Fort Lauderdale to expand the former New York Yankees' complex that they have been using on a year-to-year basis since 1996, but seem convinced that their on-again, off-again dalliance with West Palm Beach eventually will be their best option.

Foss said this weekend that the Orioles did petition Major League Baseball to allow them to join the St. Louis Cardinals in the huge complex in Jupiter, Fla., if baseball goes through with its plan to disband the Expos, but were told the Marlins are in line for that vacancy.

The Orioles were offered the Marlins' facility near Melbourne, Fla., as an alternative, but are not interested in moving to such a remote location. The team's desire to keep the team in an area appealing to tourists from the Baltimore-Washington area also appears to rule out even a temporary stay in the large Port Charlotte facility that will become available when the Texas Rangers move into a new complex in Arizona next spring.

Club officials tried to work out a deal in West Palm Beach last year, but the area cooled on the idea until state legislators began debating a new law that would roll back the state sales tax and allow local governments to collect the difference to fund large municipal projects.

If the tax bill becomes law by summer, the Orioles likely will try to build a public/private partnership to construct a facility in time for the opening of training camp in 2004. The team almost certainly would have to put up a significant chunk of the estimated $30 million to $40 million it would cost to build a stadium and a training complex.

In the meantime, the club would probably remain in Fort Lauderdale and continue to house its minor-leaguers at the Twin Lakes Park facility in Sarasota.

"The fact that [West Palm Beach] is on the East Coast is desirable, because we feel it's the most convenient area for our fans," Foss said, "but we're not ruling out West Coast possibilities."

The most viable possibility on the Gulf Coast might be back in Sarasota, if the Orioles could persuade Sarasota County officials to expand the Twin Lakes Park complex to accommodate both the major- and minor-league operations. The county shied away from a similar proposal when the Orioles were using that facility as a stopgap in the early 1990s, but a new proposal probably would not involve construction of a new stadium.

Should the West Palm Beach option fall through, the Orioles might be willing to share Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium with the Cincinnati Reds if they can get the county to add a couple of practice fields and build a new locker room-workout facility at Twin Lakes Park.

There is no guarantee, however, that majority owner Peter Angelos and his partners would approve any plan that moves the Orioles away from Florida's Gold Coast, where several in the ownership group keep vacation homes.

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