Spring training used to be simple

Late next week, Major League Baseball players will begin reporting for spring training. Florida and Arizona will be alive with fans who get a chance to see their favorite teams and, if you’re from the snow-laden North, soak up some warmth and sunshine.

That has been the formula for more than a century and began at a time when players did little to stay in shape once the season ended. That has prompted some to say this six-week training camp no longer is needed because most modern athletes maintain their conditioning through the winter. Baseball great Sandy Koufax, who in 1966 missed all but one week of spring training because of a contract dispute, put proper perspective on that notion when he said: “People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.”

So this rite of spring still serves as time to rekindle optimism for the coming season, give rookies a chance to prove themselves and allow aging veterans the opportunity to show they still have it. It’s also a time when baseball is at its simplest, with smaller ballparks that give fans better access to players. The tickets are cheap, and the paying public is content to watch games without Jumbotrons or other modern technology.

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So when it comes to spring training, all fans want is baseball and warm weather. For the past 15 years or so, however, team owners seem to crowd the taxpayer plate in an effort to get better stadium deals. The result has Florida cities competing not only against Arizona to maintain ball clubs, but against each other as well.

For most of the history of spring training, Florida dominated. When I attended a game in Arizona sometime in the 1980s, the state had about six teams in the Cactus League. Today there are 15, the same as Florida’s Grapefruit League, and officials in that state are trying to lure more.

The fear of losing more clubs to Arizona spurred some Florida lawmakers to increase “economic incentives” to teams that now train here. This in turn has some of them making tacit threats to look elsewhere when their contracts expire. Both city and state officials need to be careful, however, that the returns on these public investments will pay off down the road.

A 2009 economic-impact study by the Bonn Marketing Group in Tallahassee concluded that spring training pumps $753 million a year into Florida’s economy, supporting 9,200 full- and part-time jobs.

Figures like this have been debunked for years by University of South Florida economics professor Philip Porter, who long has been a critic of using public funds to build and maintain sporting venues. He believes such research fails to take into account the public funds that are spent.

“They only count what’s coming in,” said Porter, “not what’s going out.”

That hasn’t stopped the city of Dunedin from trying to figure out a way to keep the Toronto Blue Jays, who have played spring training games there since the team’s birth in 1977, from seeking greener fields when their contract expires in 2017. Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski told Tampa Tribune staff writer Steven Girardi that she would like to keep the Jays, but she knows there are limits.

“Our staff and the entire (city) commission is dedicated to negotiating the best deal for our residents and our region,” said Bujaski. “We’re not going to give away the farm. We’re not going to do anything that is not in the best interest of everyone. But that certainly doesn’t negate that we really, really want the Blue Jays to stay here. It’s important to us.”

Apparently the ballpark, Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, is outdated, even though it’s only 24 years old.

Or maybe the Jays are looking at what the Philadelphia Phillies have in Clearwater with state-of-the-art Brighthouse Field, which, according to everyone I’ve talked to, is beautiful.

But, again, as one who has been to many spring training games in many ballparks throughout the Tampa Bay area, I can say that most fans just want to see baseball, period.

Our elected officials will have to decide if using public money to build or upgrade spring training facilities is worth it to local businesses and taxpayers. The studies used to justify these expenditures more often than not are flawed, but we can’t put a price on the cultural, intangible reasons we subsidize franchises that are worth close to $1 billion and pay millions to players. Sometimes it just boils down to “playing ball” on and off the field.

Source : http://www.tbo.com/list/columns-jbrown/spring-training-used-to-be-simple-20150208/

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