Unsafe at home?

Complaints about complexes raise more questions about spring situation

Al East Preview


April 03, 2009|By Jeff Zrebiec and Dan Connolly | Jeff Zrebiec and Dan Connolly,jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com and dan.connolly@baltsun.com

SARASOTA, Fla. - As the Orioles head north at the conclusion of spring training, they leave behind facilities badly in need of either an overhaul or a wrecking ball, depending on whom you ask.

This spring, Major League Baseball received multiple complaints from umpires about the conditions at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the Orioles' major league spring training home since 1996. The situation is even worse at the team's long-time minor league complex in Sarasota, where three organizations have boycotted playing at Twin Lakes Park this spring over concerns about the fields.

Those developments, along with continued discontent from Orioles players, coaches and executives about the facilities, have intensified attention on the organization's failure to settle on a long-term spring training home, an issue that has persisted for years.

"I think we've finally reached the point where it's fish or cut bait," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "We're in the business of developing players. What would enhance that development is a facility that is more conducive to us all being all together and being on an even playing field with the other clubs."

Though the Orioles are actively negotiating with Sarasota and Fort Myers on new homes, there's a decent chance they'll be back in Fort Lauderdale next year for a 15th straight spring. They have two option years left at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, and even if the team makes a deal with another Florida city - and Orioles director of communications Greg Bader said, "there will be a resolution to this matter soon" - they might not be able to move into the new complex immediately.

On the minor league front, club attorney Alan Rifkin confirmed that the Orioles are in negotiations with Sarasota County officials to extend their lease at Twin Lakes Park, which expires in December. However, that shouldn't be taken as a signal that the Orioles aren't focused on improving their current situation, according to Bader, who spoke on behalf of club executive vice president John Angelos. Angelos, who is heading the effort to find a long-term spring training home, deferred comment.

"It's extremely important and definitely a priority for the club," Bader said. "State funds are available, and communities are being left without teams. We've always had the urgency. Now we have a situation where we have several opportunities."

O's, visitors complain

While negotiations continue, players question the deteriorating conditions of the current facilities.

"I think most of us would be lying if we said this is what any of us would expect from a major league organization," Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts said as he sat in Fort Lauderdale Stadium's home clubhouse, where the lockers are outdated, the carpets are stained and water drips from ceiling vents.

Jake Arrieta, one of the organization's top pitching prospects, echoed those sentiments about the minor league facility.

"We're all very blessed to be in the situations that we're in, but it also comes with the territory that you expect to have nice facilities to work out in," he said. "Not that we're tired of Twin Lakes, but I think we deserve something better."

Arrieta, who spent a couple of weeks in big league camp, got to experience both facilities that are considered among baseball's worst. At Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the visiting clubhouse is smaller than a middle-school classroom. There are no conference rooms for coaches to conduct meetings. There is no cafeteria, and the weight room is in the parking lot in a tent that leaks when it rains and has to be swept regularly to remove leaves.

"When you have a big league team that has a weight tent with rented weight equipment located in the parking lot, that's pretty sad," Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff said.

The playing field has also come under scrutiny. The problems included the playability of the field after rain, and, to a lesser extent, the quality of lighting.

Pat Courtney, an MLB spokesman, said the organization sent a letter to the Orioles documenting complaints from clubs this spring.

"They assured us that they will take all necessary steps to address the issues," he said.

Forced onto the road

Three hours north, Orioles minor leaguers have had to play almost all their games on the road this spring after the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds informed team officials that they didn't want to play at Twin Lakes Park.

A Rays spokesman confirmed their refusal, citing "unsafe conditions" and the fear of injury. A Red Sox official, who requested anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, confirmed that the team refused to send its minor leaguers back to Twin Lakes Park for a second day after they played there once this spring and experienced infields that he called "substandard, in real bad shape. It was hazardous to infielders, pitchers and base runners," he said.

Instead, the Red Sox agreed to pay for a bus to transport Orioles minor leaguers to their facility in Fort Myers to play the game.

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