Making the pitch to keep baseball teams

Published: Sunday, March 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 6:57 p.m.

If all goes according to plan, I'll be attending my fourth spring-training game in three days around the time you read this column.

Since moving to Florida, I've made an annual spring-training pilgrimage. The trip was initially centered around watching my favorite team, the Cleveland Indians, who trained in Winter Haven.

My favorite part of the experience was seeing Bob Feller, a Hall of Famer who pitched for the Tribe from 1936 to 1954. Well into his 80s, he came to spring-training games in full uniform and signed autographs for fans.

When the Indians were rumored to be moving to Arizona for spring training, I asked him if he would be going along. He didn't answer. When I asked again, he said, "Son, you ask a lot of stupid questions."

Now Feller is gone, passed away in 2010, and so are the Indians. The Cincinnati Reds also left Florida to join the Indians in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear, which built a $33 million stadium to lure them both.

Other teams have also left for Arizona in recent years, leading Gov. Rick Scott to try to stop the exodus. He recently proposed to set aside $5 million a year in the state budget to help keep Major League teams in Florida.

Under the plan, teams and communities could seek up to $20 million in matching funds for stadium upgrades in exchange for teams extending their leases. Of the 15 teams now using Florida facilities for spring training, three have leases up for renewal in 2016 and two have leases up in 2017.

Arizona has some advantages over Florida. Teams in the so-called Cactus League all play in the Phoenix area, meaning it takes about a half hour to get between stadiums.

In Florida's Grapefruit League, teams are located on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts and in-between. I made it a mission to visit every stadium, so I can personally attest to the misery of driving between locations like Jupiter and Fort Myers.

The New York Times reported last week that the Mets, who train in Port St. Lucie, are looking for company in eastern Florida. With most teams clustered on the Gulf Coast these days, the Washington Nationals in Viera and Houston Astros in Kissimmee are looking to join them or just keep heading west to Arizona.

Scott's plan isn't just part of his transformation from a tea-party tightwad into a free-spending candidate currying favor before he seeks re-election. More than 1.5 million fans attend spring-training games each year, which is estimated to provide a $750 million annual benefit to the state.

They include folks like my friend flying here from Pittsburgh. He's one of two Pirates fans that I know who regularly make the trip to Bradenton to see their team. It's seriously doubtful that they would have even visited Bradenton otherwise.

We'll be soaking up the sun and also spending some cash this weekend as we also visit Clearwater, Dunedin and Lakeland for games. It's a lot of fun and benefits the state, so let's hope that Scott succeeds before more teams join the Indians in Arizona.

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