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SPRING TRAINING CITIES : IT MAKES DOLLARS AND SENSE : The Forecast for 1987: Blue Skies With Plenty of Green for All Concerned

March 01, 1987|JERRY CROWE | Times Staff Writer

Hall of Famer Christy Mathewson once said: "A young ballplayer looks on his first spring training as a stage-struck woman regards the theater. She can think only of the lobster suppers and the applause and the colored lights."

Every spring looks that way to the hotel managers, restaurateurs, cab drivers and other merchants at the various training sites.

Spring training isn't just a time for re-lining the fields.

It's a time for lining pockets.

In Florida, where 18 of the 26 major league teams spend six weeks each spring, spring training accounts for $500 million to $1 billion of the state's $20 billion-a-year tourism industry, or as much as 5% annually, according to the state department of tourism.

In Arizona, where seven teams spend six weeks and the Angels spend a month, spring training pumps about $25 million into the economy each year, according to conservative estimates of the individual chambers of commerce in the seven cities that have teams.

And in Palm Springs, where the Angels spend two weeks each spring, the team is worth between $2.5 million and $3 million to the annual economy. "And that's a very conservative estimate," said Randy Westrick, special activities supervisor for the city.

Last year, spring training games drew 1,850,395 fans, establishing an attendance record for the sixth straight year.

These figures, of course, don't include the fringe benefit of six weeks of datelines, which amounts to free advertising for the cities.

As Blake Cullen, former National League publicity director and former traveling secretary of the Chicago Cubs, said last week: "Who ever heard of Mesa, Ariz., before the Cubs trained there?"

It's no wonder, then, that several cities in Florida, scrambling to attract teams, are practically tripping over one another. Some examples:

--The Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and New York Mets, lured by multimillion-dollar training complexes that were paid for through county tourist taxes, have either moved or will move before next season.

The Astros, who had trained in Cocoa Beach for 21 years, moved 45 miles inland in 1985 to a $5.5-million complex in Kissimmee.

The Ranger franchise, which had trained in Pompano Beach since 1961, when it was known as the Washington Senators, moved this year from Florida's East Coast to a $5.5-million complex on the Gulf Coast in Port Charlotte.

The Mets, who have trained in St. Petersburg since their inception in 1962, will move across the state next year to a $6-million complex in Port St. Lucie, ending more than 60 years on the Gulf of Mexico by New York's baseball teams.

Cost to the teams for the new facilities? Nothing.

--Also moving next year will be the Kansas City Royals, who have trained in Fort Myers, Fla., since their inception in 1969. The Royals will train in a $6.5-million complex that is part of a 135-acre theme park near Haines City called Boardwalk and Baseball, which, said a spokeswoman, will feature "thrill rides, live entertainment, a midway and daily baseball games."

Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., which owns Boardwalk and Baseball, also bought the Royals' Florida State League (Class A) franchise, which will play its home games in the park.

--The citizens in Sarasota, Fla., wary of the competition from other cities, passed a referendum for a bond issue that will provide the funds for an $8.5-million complex that will keep the Chicago White Sox in Sarasota, where they have trained since 1960.

--The Baltimore Orioles intimated last year that they might leave Miami, where they have trained since 1959, unless improvements were made on aging Miami Stadium. A $2-million stadium renovation, including construction of a new roof and press box, is expected to be completed this week.

--The Cincinnati Reds will dig up their roots after 54 years in Tampa, Fla., next year and move 25 miles east to Plant City, but only if the city provides a complex.

"My feeling is that the team contributes enough to the community just by being there," General Manager Bill Bergesch of the Reds told the Miami Herald last year. "Every team brings with it a large following of loyal fans."

In Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the New York Yankees have trained since 1962, that loyalty is worth about $50 million a year to the local economy, said Tommy Mercer, vice president of tourism and conventions for the city.

If that figure seems high for six weeks, consider that in eight weeks of spring break, college students pour about $140 million into the Fort Lauderdale economy.

"All I know is that the World Series is over in October and by Nov. 1 or 2, we start getting calls from the Northeast about when spring training starts," Mercer said. "People plan their vacations around when the Yankees are here.

"We print the spring exhibition schedule as fast as we can get it. We promote it like crazy. Every home game is sold out.

"It's another tourist attraction. There's no question about it."

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