SPRING TRAINING - CHANGE WINDS A BLOWIN'
by Joe Connor
Growing up as a die hard Red Sox fan in Hartford, Connecticut, the memories of watching legendary Red Sox broadcaster Ned Martin reporting from "Spring Training in Winter Haven" on WSBK TV-38 out of Boston, still today remain forever etched in my memory. And not just because I had a fond affection for Martin, and his famous home run calls, including "Mercy!" and "Holy Crow!"
No, witnessing Martin performing a television stand-up with palm trees swaying in the background got my mind wandering. What a wonderful world this must be outside Connecticut - palm trees! Ah, yes, palm trees! They've gone hand in hand with Spring Training in Florida and Arizona for decades, but boy have things changed.
Consider this fact: Despite an absolutely hideous 2001-2002 off-season of contraction talk (can you say Twins and Expos?) and an equally hideous economy afraid to fly, Spring Training attendance just months later (in March 2002) actually climbed 12 percent in Arizona and 5 percent in Florida from the previous year. A startling 2.7 million fans attended these meaningless games in 2002 while also spending money at concession and novelty stands.
Translation: While in the past, teams may have viewed Spring Training as nothing more than a necessary business expense to get their players ready for the regular season, today these same teams view Spring Training as a significant profit center.
And you only have to tour the new Surprise Stadium - the 2003 home of the Rangers and Royals - to see why. Located in the West Valley of greater Phoenix, 10 minutes by car from Peoria (home of the Padres and Mariners), this place has intimacy written all over it.
Oh, yes, we've come along way from the Astros training in an antiquated, rundown ballpark along the Apache Trail and the Rangers training in an armpit in the second oldest retirement community in Florida. Fans' affection for Spring Training - and the sophistication of the new Surprise facility - may just raise the bar for what's to come every March, as if there haven't been enough changes within the last decade already.
Why will be this ballpark be over the top? No. 1: Design. Fans will enter the ballpark in the outfield to see the field 19-feet below street level right in front of them. Name me one other Spring Training facility that provides this "major league ballpark" perspective (Ballpark in Arlington, Jacobs Field, SAFECO Field, etc.)? Also, most unique, the batting cages are located on the main concourse, as are the main entrances to the clubhouses. No other facility comes close to this intimacy, besides maybe Dodgertown that still has no dugouts.
Seating options? Fans can choose to sit in the grandstand, short second deck or the spacious outfield lawn. Yep, say goodbye to the days of "one-tier" new Spring Training facilities. They're history. The late 1990's facilities of the Braves (Kissimmee, Florida), Padres/Mariners (Peoria, AZ) and Diamondbacks/White Sox (Tucson) helped shape the Rangers/Royals to follow this trend.
Sight lines at this ballpark will also be among the best in Spring Training, especially behind home plate as there is little foul territory there. Like a lot of the newer Spring Training ballparks, like Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Florida (Cardinals, and Marlins - not Expos - in 2003), there is a very wide main concourse and very wide seats.
Finally, the ballpark is expected to have a mammoth, $700,000 left field Jumbo-Tron, so large the city is anticipating using the giant screen for "movie nights" in the off-season. And a first: The scoreboard will be the first to track and deliver pitch speed to fans during Spring Training games. Pitch speed for fans during Spring Training? Yep, you got it.
Gizmos like a Jumbo-Tron for the "small market" Royals in Spring Training? Yep, it's all about money. You see, based on an average attendance of 5,500 over 28 games, the City of Surprise hopes to generate at least $1 in revenues from the inaugural Spring Training season. That's not chump change by any means, and you can bet they'll probably meet that figure, given the closer proximity of Texans and Royal fans to Arizona than Florida, given airlines flight patterns.
Also, remember attendance climbing 12 percent in Arizona alone in 2002 despite an off-season of contraction talk, an economic slump and bad baseball PR? Well, this figure is only expected to increase.
But why? Answer: Spring Training remains baseball's best kept secret. It's the ultimate fan-friendly adventure that delivers incredible intimacy and affordability. Most players still sign autographs one-on-one while fathers and sons come early to catch their favorite stars during a free morning workout and for an afternoon game in the sun that won't cost more than $20. Let's face it: that's pretty cool.
The buzz has caught on, despite absolutely pitiful marketing of Spring Training by Major League Baseball and its clubs. But changes winds are a blowing for sure - and not necessarily for the better. For example, to date, only two clubs have "corporately-named" Spring Training facilities - "Florida Power Park" at historic Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg (Devil Rays Spring Training home) and "Tucson Electric Park" (D-Backs and White Sox). But that's probably going to change in 2004 when the Phillies open a new Spring Training facility in Clearwater, and with the Indians, Orioles and others seeking new Spring Training deals with their leases expiring soon.
In fact, if you like historic "old school" ballparks, you might start planning your 2003 Spring Training trip to Florida right about now. Jack Russell Stadium, the Phillies Spring Training digs since 1955, are history after this Spring Training, and with the Indians threatening bolting historic Chain O'Lakes in Winter Haven (former Red Sox digs) after this spring, it might just be high time to get down to the Sunshine State. If that isn't motivation enough, historic Fort Lauderdale Stadium (the former Yankees home), may become obsolete after 2004 as that's when the Orioles lease expires - and - you got it kiddo, they want a new Spring Training facility.
But at least they'll still be palm trees around - one way or the other.
Joe Connor is a freelance writer who's been to every Spring Training facility. For more information on Joe, visit his Web site at www.modernerabaseball.com