Citizen Staff Writer
By ANDREW BAGNATO
The Arizona Republic
and MIKE CHESNICK firstname.lastname@example.org
A call to expand the Cactus League, which is enjoying unprecedented popularity, has won support from a new governor’s baseball commission and from a Pima County official.
“We have a strategic advantage in Arizona: our weather and climate,” Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said last night. “We need to take advantage of that.”
The Phoenix area, which supports nine of the 12 Cactcus League teams, might stand a better chance of luring teams from Florida.
But Huckleberry said Tucson could accommodate up to two more teams by adding facilities to the Tucson Electric Park and Hi Corbett Field complexes. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox train at TEP and the Colorado Rockies work out at Hi Corbett.
“The more the better, as far as we’re concerned,” Huckelberry said.
But in Florida, word that Arizona was trying to pluck two Major League Baseball teams from the Grapefruit League was met with alarm.
Saying “Let’s play ball,” Gov. Janet Napolitano on Wednesday created the Arizona Baseball and Softball Commission, with goals that include expanding the Cactus League, where record crowds flocked to new and upgraded ballparks last year, producing an estimated $250 million in revenue for the state.
“I don’t want to be too forward, but I think the (Cleveland) Indians would be a logical choice and the Houston Astros,” said commission chairman Slade Mead, a former Arizona state senator. “Those are the two teams I’d want to focus on.”
Cleveland trained in Tucson, from 1947-92 and the Astros had their Triple-A team in Tucson from 1980-96.
Tucson native Arte Moreno, owner of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, said he was all for a larger Cactus League.
“Look at the weather,” he said while sitting at Diablo Stadium in Tempe on Wednesday, pointing to the puffy clouds beyond the center-field fence. “Sitting up here having a dog and a beer … why wouldn’t you want to come here? I think it’s great to have more teams here.”
Cactus League Association vice president Robert Brinton also supports the expansion and promotion efforts, citing the league’s economic impact, which he puts at a “remarkable” $250 million a year.
“It’s a Super Bowl every spring,” he said.
The response in Florida, where 18 clubs conduct spring training in 17 communities, was different. David Cardwell, executive director of the Grapefruit League Association, said he had recently attended a facilities conference in Tempe and came away with the sense officials in both states planned to work together rather than compete.
“This takes me by surprise,” Cardwell said. “We didn’t think there was going to be any raiding going on. I was hoping we would be able to work together on some of the common issues that each one of us have rather than spend our time and resources trying to fend off one another.”
The Arizona commission’s first meeting will be in March.
To attract more teams, the panel likely will look into new sources of funding because nearly all the funds allocated by the state Tourism and Sports Authority for Cactus League projects have been used or earmarked for upcoming projects.
There was no immediate word on where new teams might play.
Huckelberry said Tucson “would be a friendly face” in any discussions of adding teams.
Last September, Huckleberry tossed around the idea of increasing Pima County’s bed tax by 4 percent to match Tucson’s 6 percent bed tax to help ease the cost of spring training. The state Legislature is expected to take up the matter this session.
Because the 12-member Cactus League needs an even number of clubs to ease scheduling, officials would try to land another club along with the Indians. Perhaps that’s why Mead mentioned the Astros.
But the Astros in 2000 agreed to a lease extension to remain in Kissimmee, Fla., through 2016, with local government spending about $18 million to improve Osceola County Stadium. Houston first conducted spring training in Apache Junction in 1962 and 1963 before moving to Cocoa, Fla., in 1964. An Astros spokesman said the club had no response to Mead’s remarks.
Other candidates include the Cincinnati Reds, who have asked for millions in improvements to Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., the club’s winter home since 1998. The Reds’ lease expires in 2008.
The Cactus League has enjoyed massive popularity in recent years, with bellwether franchises such as the Chicago Cubs, who play in Mesa’s HoHoKam Park, and the San Francisco Giants, based at Scottsdale Stadium, drawing large crowds. The Diamondbacks have stoked interest in spring training in Tucson since their birth in 1998.
Last year, the Cactus League drew a record 1.23 million fans, Brinton said, with the Cubs drawing a major-league record 177,008.