By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
March 8, 2013
Although it’s hard to get in a spring mindset when yet more massive winter storms are battering the country, batters, pitchers, and fielders are hitting the diamond this week in the first “official” contests of the 2013 baseball season. From Port St. Lucie, FL to Puerto Rico and Fukuoka, Japan, the combination of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) and Major League Baseball’s spring training underway have baseball fans everywhere dreaming of RBIs and pitch counts.
The center of the baseball universe this week, however, is Phoenix, home to 15 MLB squads who hold their spring training there and Pool D games of the WBC, mixing and matching Mexico, Italy, Canada, and Team USA, led by manager Joe Torre. Throw in a Bloomberg-sponsored Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) conference for the sport’s Moneyballers at nearby Arizona State, and the only thing lacking in this baseball utopia is the Evil Empire.
For the world’s hordes of Yankees haters, not for nuthin is it Paradise Valley.
The biggest Yankees name who was supposed to help anchor the U.S. squad, of course, was All-Star first baseman Mark Teixeira. But Teixeira bowed out on Tuesday after straining his wrist, leaving Torre and third base coach Willie Randolph as the only Team USA reps with any ties to the Yankees.
The lack of star power on the U.S. team, in fact, is the biggest knock against the 2013 iteration of the WBC. Despite having a huge following in virtually every other country that competes in it, in the U.S., the WBC is generally perceived as a minor sideshow to the more important business of getting MLB stars in shape for Opening Day. While there’s no prohibition on MLBers playing in the WBC, and financially and on paper the league supports the tournament—and broadcasts all of its games on the in-house MLB Network cable channel—injuries such as the one sustained by Teixeira just reinforce the murmurs in front offices and clubhouses alike that players’ energies are better focused on spring training. Says Newsday’s David Lennon, “The perception is that playing in this tournament, at this time of year, is too big a risk with a 162-game schedule around the corner."
That mindset doesn’t just affect Team USA. The Japanese national team does not list a single pro player on its roster; MLB players such as Dodgers pitcher Alfredo Amezaga, from Mexico, and Rangers short stop Jurickson Profar, from the Netherlands, also elected to stay with their ball clubs, under lucrative contracts, rather than playing for their countries.
Regardless, the World Baseball Classic is still thought to be good for the business of baseball, as it helps grow the sport internationally, as MLB Senior Vice President of International Business Operations Paul Archey points out, often adding that more than 800,000 people attended games during the 2009 WBC. And in Phoenix, the Round 1 pool games being held at Chase Field and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick will definitely provide a boost to the local economy sometimes not generated by the dozens of spring training games in the area. According to the Arizona Republic, eight of the nine cities that hosted Cactus League teams in 2012 “lost money on their stadiums and practice facilities, with combined deficits of more than" $10 million annually.
While the Cactus League generates “tens of millions of dollars” at the gate, the MLB teams “take the lion’s share of game revenue.”
Among local cities hosting Cactus League teams, Mesa "has lost an average” of $1.47 million annually hosting the Cubs at Hohokam Stadium and Fitch Park. Phoenix "lost an average" of $1.7 million over five years hosting the A’s at Phoenix Municipal Stadium and an additional $1.8 million hosting the Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park. Peoria, finally, "lost an average" of $1.63 million annually over the past five years hosting the Padres and the Mariners.
Cactus League officials counter that spring training baseball brings $632 annually to Arizona’s economy, and emphasize that the sites are used year-round by residents and visitors alike. “Spring training pumps our economic tires each spring. But these studies confirm the economic benefits continue all year long,” Cactus League president Mark Coronado told the Arizona Business Journal.
We haven’t forgotten about Florida, which is facing MLB spring training issues of its own. Florida Governor Rick Scott recently announced plans to earmark an additional $5 million per year in state funding for Grapefruit League ballparks, in an effort to keep the remaining teams in the state. The governor’s office in a statement added that it would pay out up to $20 million "per stadium project," but local governments "would have to match the state dollar for dollar."
The issue is a serious one—five out of the state’s 15 total spring training teams have leases up for renewal over the next four years, and the Florida communities involved certainly want their long term spring training investments to continue bearing fruit.