Cactus League to pick up new teams

Cactus League to pick up new teams

PHOENIX -- The migration of Major League teams from Spring Training homes in Florida to Arizona has accelerated in the last decade. But that influx is expected to end in 2009 with the coming of the Dodgers to nearby Glendale and the return of the Indians to the Cactus League, the Commissioner of Baseball said this weekend.

"I don't know of any more teams coming," Bud Selig told MLB.com in an interview at Phoenix Stadium, the gray concrete facility used by the A's and the last of the old-time Phoenix-area ballparks still serving as a spring home to a Cactus League team. "They're pretty much done. The rest of the teams have leases. I think they're set."

Still, the shift will be complete with 16 teams remaining in Florida and 14 in Arizona -- double the number left here in 1992 when Cleveland fled Tucson after 45 years to go to what they thought would be a state-of-the-art facility in Homestead, Fla.

All the American League West and National League West teams will be in Arizona, plus both teams from Chicago. The Brewers have always been in the valley, moving from Sun City to Chandler to Maryvale since their birth in 1969 as the Seattle Pilots. The Royals and the Rangers left Florida in 2001 to share a new complex in the community of Surprise.

Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the White Sox, agrees with the Commissioner. Once he pulls up roots again and joins the Dodgers in Glendale by 2012 at the latest, there may be no more teams packing up the equipment trucks in Florida to head for Arizona. His team began the western migration in 1998 when it left Sarasota and joined the Diamondbacks at a new south Tucson complex.

"I think it's not likely that many more teams will leave Florida -- at the most one or two more teams -- because Florida is closer to where they play, their [regular-season] homes," Reinsdorf said last week. "What has happened now is that this is a better place to be because you have less travel. All the Florida teams are pretty much on buses every day."

More than 25 years ago, it was feared that the Cactus League might perish like a straggler starved for water in the desert.

The 1990s opened with eight teams playing in largely antiquated facilities. There was no freeway system linking the far reaches of the Phoenix area where five of those teams played their home games -- the A's (Phoenix), Giants (Scottsdale), Brewers (Chandler), Mariners (Tempe) and Cubs (Mesa). The Padres were three hours southwest in Yuma, the Indians were in Tucson and the Angels shifted to Palm Springs, Calif., each spring after a tour of the Arizona clubs.

"We were very worried about the demise of the Cactus League," said Selig, who was then the owner of the Brewers. "It was really in trouble. But the state of Arizona was very aggressive. It became a priority. Florida was not as aggressive. I give Arizona and their leadership a lot of credit."

In part, Maricopa County, which is inclusive of Phoenix, levied a rental car tax that was utilized to rebuild existing facilities and construct new ones. The lure of state-of-the-art complexes in developing communities, great weather with little rain, easier travel between complexes, and in some cases, better proximity to the regular-season fan base, were major lures to draw teams.

The Padres and Mariners began the expansion by moving to a sports complex in Peoria on land that once was lined with orange groves and had fields utilized by the Brewers' Minor League players. In 1994 -- at the time of that move -- the 101 loop had yet to be completed and the only way out to the Peoria Sports Complex from Phoenix was miles and miles of stop lights along Bell Road. Now, the 101 loops Phoenix, and Peoria is a veritable metropolis.

"When we opened this complex there were the Arrowhead Mall and this communications tower," recalled Kevin Towers, the Padres general manager, while standing in the middle of the complex on Sunday. "There was nothing out here. It's amazing the growth of this valley and the expansion of this valley."

At the same time, the Angels closed down shop in Palm Springs -- where late owner Gene Autry had a home -- and replaced the Mariners in Tempe.

"The community stepped up," said Arte Moreno, who owns the Angels now and is a resident of the valley. "It's good for them, too. It's good for tourism. It's just great to have more teams here. The more the merrier."

The Indians, perhaps, are at the nexus of what went wrong in Florida. Headed to Homestead, south of Miami, in 1993, a hurricane ripped through that community, laying waste to the complex and destroying hundreds of homes. Replaced by the newly-minted Rockies in Tucson, Cleveland was left without a spring home. Winter Haven became an inadequate stop-gap that will have lasted for 15 years when the Tribe heads back to Arizona in '09.

Relocating far to the west in Goodyear at the lip of the desert, the Indians will finally get their new complex, which Mark Shapiro, the team's GM, expects to have a major impact on the ballclub.

"A state-of-the-art facility has the ability to impact your culture, your atmosphere and your rehabilitation," he said. "We're currently at a disadvantage and have been for some time."

Ditto, the Dodgers, who have remained in the cozy confines of Vero Beach since the team played in Brooklyn and Walt Alston was the manager. But 50 years later, there's something to be said for playing spring games about a five-hour drive east from their Los Angeles fan base and having a training complex within easy reach of rehabilitating players.

"It's time," said the venerable Tommy Lasorda, who as a budding young pitcher, began training in Florida in 1949, a year after the Vero camp opened in an old army barracks. "I love Vero Beach, but this will make it so much easier for our fans to see us."

Players, scouts, club officials, reporters and fans love the proximity of the Arizona camps. Even with the Indians in Goodyear, that's just a 30-mile drive from the Giants in Scottsdale. And Towers even sees the day when the Padres' Cactus League schedule mostly will be comprised of the five other west valley teams -- the Rangers, Mariners, Royals, Dodgers and White Sox, who must find a team to fill their slot in Tucson or wait until 2012 to join the Dodgers in Glendale.

"That'll be nice," Towers said. "I get a better feel for the Mariners going into the season than I have for the Dodgers. I'm a big believer in getting to know the teams that we're going to compete against. And now all the NL West teams will be here."

Well, not quite yet. But 2009 is only two years away.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.