florida-grapefruit-league-mapI’ve lived in Florida now for almost 25 years, and without a doubt MLB spring training is one of my favorite things about this state. Die-hard baseball fans like me love the rituals of spring training. Legendary Cardinal second baseman Rogers Hornsby once said, “People ask me what I do in the winter when there’s no baseball. I’ll tell you what I do. I stare out the window and wait for spring.” I don’t quite stare out the window, but I certainly do look forward to the first rosters and schedules being posted. Every year like clockwork, full-team workouts start by late February and the 25 or so exhibition games are played throughout the month of March in the Grapefruit League.

 

It used to be that most of the 30 MLB teams trained in Florida; in fact venues in Tampa, St. Pete, Bradenton, Clearwater, Lakeland and Sarasota have hosted teams for well over 75 continuous years! But these days, primarily because facilities are not being upgraded fast enough in most other training areas throughout the state, the Cactus League in Arizona has been successfully enticing many teams to relocate. The simple pleasure I once enjoyed is gradually fading away. It’s only going to get worse….and I’ll tell you why.

 

It all started in New Orleans, the first spring training site back in 1870 for the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox. Before Florida, spring training sites were located all over the east and southeast US. Hershey, PA; Atlantic City, NJ; Washington, DC; Norfolk, VA; Waco, TX; Shreveport, LA, Augusta, GA; Montgomery, AL; Little Rock, AK; Memphis, TN; and even French Lick, IN all served as training sites at one time or another. By the post-WWII era, most teams were training in Florida, and interestingly only six MLB teams have never trained in Florida. Florida was growing at a record pace and tourism was flourishing back then. However, the last 20 years has brought a dramatic change. Teams remaining in Florida are scattered from Orlando to Jupiter to Ft. Myers in 14 complexes (only one complex sharing teams). On the other hand, the exodus to Arizona concentrated ten stadiums (with five complexes sharing teams) all in the greater Phoenix metro area. Amazingly, there are now 15 Grapefruit League teams and 15 Cactus League teams. Most notably, the White Sox moved in 1998 (after 43 years in FL); Royals and Rangers moved in 2003 (after 34 and 42 years in FL, respectively); and most recently, the Reds (62 years in FL) and Dodgers (60 years in FL) left in 2009. That’s a lot of baseball history and tradition……..gone!

 

I predict the next migration from Florida to Phoenix will be the Houston Astros. Their 48 years of training in central Florida will be sadly erased. As early as the 2013 season, the Commissioner’s office has already decided that the Astros will be moving from the NL Central Division to the AL West, in order to balance out the entire major league structure (and at the same time create a new in-state rivalry with the Rangers and former Astro Nolan Ryan). Consequently, I believe this change will also dictate yet another shift in spring training homes. If Houston were to relocate its spring training to Phoenix, this move would result in an even number of teams in Florida and Phoenix as well as an even split of American vs. National League. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

 

The slumping economy and drop in tourism isn’t helping Florida’s leverage and attractiveness. Phoenix is planning smart for the long run by concentrating locations and building larger more modern training facilities that can be conveniently shared by teams. Costs are reduced and scheduling is more efficient. All-time attendance records in Phoenix were reached last spring too. While Florida’s Grapefruit League lays back on yesteryear, its “grapefruit”is being picked clean and exported to the Cactus League!

 

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