As the expansion Colorado Rockies searched for a spring-training home, Joe Garagiola Jr. took two of the team’s executives on a ride to the West Valley to show them his vision for the Cactus League.
The late-1980s excursion ended at an abandoned minor-league complex of the Milwaukee Brewers, where Garagiola, then-Rockies vice president John McHale Jr. and general manager Bob Gebhard stood on an observation tower.
Overlooking Bell Road, which was surrounded by cotton fields, Garagiola spoke of a spring-training facility surrounded by a thriving core of shops and restaurants. The Rockies reps warily eyed each other, thinking that their tour host was nuts.
“I’m telling these guys that if they come down here, we’ll have a stadium, practice facilities and businesses,” Garagiola said. “Gebhard told me later that they were driving back to the airport, saying, 'Man, who is he kidding?’ ”
The location of that observation deck is now one of the practice fields at Peoria Sports Complex, and nearby sits the stadium, businesses and freeway that Garagiola forecasted.
That fantasy-become-reality was repeated in other locations, and a Cactus League that was once near extinction is bigger and more popular than ever, with more growth on the way.
“As proud as I am of what we achieved with the Diamondbacks,” said Garagiola, Arizona’s general manager from 1998-2005 and now a senior vice president for Major League Baseball, “I’m just as proud of what was achieved with the Cactus League.
“I mean, the league is going to draw a million fans this season.”
A dozen teams now train in Arizona, with two Grapefruit League clubs — the Cleveland Indians at a new facility in Goodyear (projected in 2008) and Los Angeles Dodgers in Glendale (2009) — coming West. At least two more Florida squads are expected to join them.
“Our first mission was to take care of our existing teams,” said J.D. de la Montaigne, Cactus League president and community services director for the city of Peoria. “The teams we have are happy with where they’re at, and money has been set aside to take care of future needs. The revenue has gotten stronger, and that has attracted additional teams.”
That is a role reversal from years past, when the Indians’ departure from Tucson in 1993 sparked fears that the Grapefruit League would pick off enough Cactus clubs to cause the league to disband. In response, then-Gov. Rose Mofford formed a task force — Garagiola was its vice chairman — designed to raise funds and build facilities necessary to keep teams in Arizona.
The facility construction and upgrades placated executives. However, the Cactus League’s biggest asset has been the fact that it is primarily based in the Valley, making for shorter bus trips than in the Grapefruit League.
“I like the Cactus League a lot better,” said Diamondbacks manager Bob Melvin, who as a player trained in Florida and Arizona. “In Florida, you usually have one or two teams around you, but other than that, every bus ride was two or three hours. Tucson used to be the place you didn’t want to be, but we have two other teams now.”
The weather is another benefit, Melvin said.
“Without the humidity, your shirt doesn’t feel like it’s 10 pounds heavier at the end of the day,” Melvin said. “For guys who need to get in shape, which you don’t see too much of these days, Florida probably works a little better.
“But overall, the Cactus League is better in terms of getting prepared for the season, and that’s why you’ve seen teams moving here, and more are coming.”
But is bigger better? A 15- or 16-team league would stretch the schedule thin, threatening the home-and-home visits that ensure that Barry Bonds, the Chicago Cubs and Diamondbacks will appear in every other stadium at least once. De la Montaigne said he thinks a league of that size would remain workable.
“I think you could still ensure that everyone plays everywhere,” he said. “And we have always felt that baseball is served best if there is a good equity (of teams) between the two spring-training leagues.”
The courting of the Dodgers — arguably the Grapefruit League’s signature franchise and the only Western-Division team in either league that does not train in Arizona — is being hailed as a significant coup.
“This is not an economic decision,” owner Frank McCourt told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a fan convenience decision.”
Los Angeles is expected to share a $77-million Glendale complex with the Chicago White Sox, who currently train at Tucson Electric Park with the D-Backs. The White Sox must find a replacement team for Tucson in order to break their lease, which runs until 2012.
With the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds and Houston Astros among the Grapefruit League teams rumored to be considering a relocation, that doesn’t figure to be a major stumbling block.
Once nearly ostracized, the Cactus League is becoming baseball’s place to be in the spring.
“This is a real success story,” Garagiola said. “It’s a great example of public, private, state and local entities coming together to acknowledge that we had something special here, and we needed to fight for it. And now, you’ll see the results when you go out to watch a (Cactus League) game each day.”