It has been just more than a decade since the Cleveland Indians ended a half-century relationship with Tucson, folded up their teepee and moved to new spring training digs in Florida.
That reduced the Cactus League to seven teams, and more danger loomed on the horizon. The Chicago Cubs were mulling the idea of following the Indians to the Sunshine State and both incoming expansion teams — Florida and Colorado — were leaning toward grapefruit over cactus fruit.
“There is no question the league was in deep trouble,'' said Arizona Diamondbacks general manager Joe Garagiola Jr., named to a special task force by then-Gov. Rose Mofford to save spring baseball in Arizona. “We were getting dangerously low on teams and teetering on the brink of extinction.''
Garagiola remembers then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham remarking at the time that there was simply no need for baseball in Arizona, that there was plenty of money and cities in Florida to accommodate every major league team.
“That pretty much laid the gauntlet down,'' Garagiola said.
Fast forward 11 years. Sprinkle in more than $100 million in construction and renovation of stadiums and practice facilities, much of it through the taxpayer-funded Tourism and Sports Authority. Looking at the Cactus League today, you would never know how close it was to disappearing.
Two expansion teams — Colorado, wooed west in 1993 and Arizona in 1998 — have set up shop. The Chicago White Sox followed the D-Backs to Tucson, leaving Florida and joining their Windy City brethren, the Cubs, in the desert. And now this spring, the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers are the latest sprouts on the cactus, moving into a sparkling $48 million complex with an 11,000-seat stadium in the West Valley's Surprise.
That makes 12 teams in Arizona. It means last year's record attendance mark of 1.1 million fans should swell, judging by brisk early ticket sales, by another 15 percent to 20 percent in 2003. And it adds up to a Super Bowl-sized economic impact projection of $120 million for about 200 baseball games that don't even count.
Even the rivals in Florida can't help but be impressed.
“In the past few years, we've gotten some inquiries from Florida asking ‘What is your secret?' '' Cactus League president Jerry Geiger said. “They want to pass their own legislation and follow the path we've had here. We've enjoyed the best of both worlds, satisfying the teams that are here while bringing in new teams and expanding.''
That doesn't mean Arizona's current teams are happy with everything — especially with the new Surprise complex raising the bar on spring amenities. Three teams whose leases expire within the next four years are all lining up for pricey improvements:
Oakland has a lease with Phoenix Municipal Stadium that ends next year, but the two sides are putting the touches on a 10-year extension agreement. And as soon as the A's leave town next month, Phoenix will begin $6.4 million of improvements on the Valley's oldest spring ballpark — including a new 5,000 square-foot press box slid under the ballpark's signature shade bonnet and improvements to the dugouts, clubhouses and team administrative offices.
The National League champion San Francisco Giants are signed through 2007 with Scottsdale. They are happy with lush, intimate Scottsdale Stadium, but they want a new practice complex at Indian School Park, with a $20 million price tag. The city is willing to contribute at least $1 million.
The World Series champion Anaheim Angels also have four years left (following the 2007 Cactus League) on their deal with Tempe. As with the Giants, their concerns aren't with remodeled Diablo Stadium, but with the city-owned, heavily-used practice complex that surrounds it.
The other nine teams are all signed beyond 2010.
What about the future? Will Arizona try to lure any more of the 18 teams in Florida — especially western teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and Houston Astros? Right now, Geiger said the league is in an “extend, and maintain'' mode. “We think 12 is a good number for us. It's a comfortable one,'' he said. “We want to make sure the teams that are here are happy.''
If Proposition 302 — the 30-year (through 2032) hotel and car rental surcharges that fund the TSA coffers — had come along a year earlier when the Dodgers were scouting possible new sites, Arizona could have been in the running to land another one of baseball's top-drawer franchises.
“I'm not sure if there is a place left to put anyone else,'' Garagiola said.
There are still other concerns. Las Vegas, a city with deep pockets that has made rumblings about getting into the spring training business, remains an immediate concern.
Garagiola said the Las Vegas city fathers offered to build two complexes to house four teams and even pick up the travel and hotel tabs for home and visiting teams.
“The worst thing in the world would be to get complacent now,'' he said. “But the bottom line is, the teams that are here love it here. They don't want to move, as long as we don't give them a reason to leave.''