What used to be a laid back time during which players slowly got into shape,
fans rubbed shoulders with their heroes, and team owners treated the process
as a necessary expense, is now big business. The most dramatic example is the
lavish Salt River Fields, with its state-of-the-art video board, which opened
a few weeks ago at the Talking Stick Indian reservation in Scottsdale. Home of
the Diamondbacks and Rockies, it is part of a complex that includes the Pima-Maricopa
Indians' hotel and casino.
The marketing spiel for Salt River Fields is that it "feels" like
a Major League facility. Certainly the $25 box seats and the $7 ice cream qualify
as Big League, but fans might wonder if that's what spring training is supposed
to be about.
In the past 20 years eight new stadiums have been built near here, at a cost
of over $500 million. Just 14 years ago I attended opening day at the Cubs' stadium
in Mesa, with its 12,500 seats and what was arguably the most lavish spring training
experience. Now, the Cubs and their partners are building a replacement in Mesa,
complete with a shopping complex to be known as Wrigleyville West. Ironic, isn't
it, that Wrigley Field in Chicago has endured since 1914 and is a palace for
baseball purists, while the Mesa facility didn't last two decades.
As World Champs, the Giants are the big draw this spring at their stadium
in central Scottsdale. Seating on the grass beyond the outfield fence is going
for as much as $26, as the Giants try to squeeze whatever they can out of their
fall accomplishment. The Dodgers and White Sox, who moved here from Florida last
spring, charge $47 for the top ticket at the stadium they share at Camelback
Ranch. Sales of the best spring tickets on StubHub are going for $100 and more.
It's hard to fault the clubs for trying to maximize their business opportunities
and to make fans pay whatever the traffic will bear. The communities clustered
near Phoenix are also engaged in understandable pursuit of tourist dollars which
during spring training now total more than $350 million.
Robert Johnson, a top executive in Cactus League promotions, recently told
the Arizona Republic newspaper, "Perhaps we should start treating the Cactus
League like the economic and entertainment force that it has become." He
cites promotion of football's Super Bowl as a model, with its glitz and vast
Is that the future for baseball games that don't even count in the standings?
More owners should follow the lead of the Angels' Arte Moreno, who sees to
it that fans are never taken for granted. At spring training Moreno doesn't care
for $26 seats on the grass; he charges $4 at the Angels park in Tempe.
Pre-season baseball is still a wonderful experience -- both here in Arizona
and in Florida. It's a time of rebirth for the land, the players and even the
fans, not proximity to casinos, giant video screens, or overpriced merchandise.
If owners and municipal leaders kept their eyes on the ball they'd recognize
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.