Forecast cloudy for O's in Sunshine State

December 22, 2006|By PETER SCHMUCK

Nobody likes South Florida in the spring more than I do. The sun ... the sand ... the chance to be that creepy old guy who shows up at spring break to check out the college girls. It's also a great place to watch preseason baseball while your friends turn blue from the cold and green with envy back at home.

So, it was with some displeasure that I heard the news that the city commissioners of Fort Lauderdale had voted down a proposal to use state and local money to renovate the spring training complex that has been home to the Orioles for the past 11 years.

I don't want to get too technical, but the commissioners voted against committing $150,000 per year to pay off construction bonds and all but killed a plan that would have used a $15 million grant from the state of Florida to help fund the $48 million project.

Oh, well. The Orioles have about a week to persuade the city to reconsider, or else they will have to find a new spring home in 2008, and it's very possible their next best option will be in Arizona.

There will be an opening at a very nice Electric Park complex in Tucson when the Chicago White Sox move into a new two-team facility in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.

It wouldn't be so bad. The weather is great in the spring and the burnt-orange desert landscape outside the city can be breathtaking. I have some experience with spring training in the desert from my seven years covering the California Angels, and I really had no complaints other the giant lizards and the occasional alien abduction.

Tucson is the home of the University of Arizona, a college known largely for its funky Southwestern architecture and a terrific men's basketball program. I would have gone there as an undergrad if someone had told me that the drinking age at the time was only 19, but there was no Facebook and information traveled much more slowly back then.

(Note to self: This isn't about you. Try to focus.)

Orioles owner Peter Angelos has been invited to move his team to Arizona before, but he has resisted such a dramatic spring training shift because several of his co-investors have homes on the Florida coast and many Orioles fans have made a habit of escaping the winter chill with a quick and easy tropical vacation.

This time, there might not be a better option, though there also is talk of moving to the sprawling Dodgertown complex in Vero Beach, Fla., when the Dodgers move in with the White Sox in Arizona. (Vero Beach's mayor said yesterday that the Orioles have expressed interest in Dodgertown.)

Dodgertown would enable the Orioles to stay in Florida and combine their major and minor league spring training operations. It would also be relatively close to the Nationals complex in Melbourne - creating the possibility of frequent televised exhibition games between the two Mid-Atlantic Sports Network partners - but it isn't close to much else. The Orioles would have to play almost all of their exhibition games against the Nationals, Cardinals, Mets, Marlins and Braves.

The Tucson complex also poses some travel issues, because most of the Cactus League sites are 90 miles away in the Phoenix area, but the Orioles would have a partner in their complex (the Arizona Diamondbacks), which would save them several road trips.

It's amazing that this is still an open question after all these years. The Orioles have been dithering about spring training for nearly two decades, the issue predating Angelos' ownership of the team.

The club nearly reached a deal to build a facility near Naples, Fla., back in 1991, but it fell through when insurance giant USF&G backed away from a deal to pay for the land under the complex.

I still remember chuckling after I asked why the team didn't pony up a few million to buy the land.

"We're not in the real estate business," explained one Orioles executive who nonetheless was upset that an insurance company had decided not to get into the baseball business.

Since then, the Orioles have dallied with Daytona Beach, Sarasota, Jupiter, Orlando and West Palm Beach. They passed up a chance to be one of the two teams occupying the Jupiter facility that originally housed the St. Louis Cardinals and Montreal Expos, and were rebuffed when they made another overture there while baseball was toying with the idea of contracting the Expos.

The best outcome for the team right now would be a quick change of heart by Fort Lauderdale and a rebuilt complex at the existing site, but time is running short. The deal would have to be struck by Thursday to qualify for the $15 million in state funds.

Club officials are still holding out hope, but they might want to get a subscription to Arizona Highways just in case.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

The Peter Schmuck Show airs on WBAL (1090 AM) at noon on Saturdays.

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