Tracy Ringolsby

Cactus League's success a story of perseverance

Rockies' decision to train in Tucson in 1993 helped make Arizona hot again for MLB teams

Cactus League's success a story of perseverance

The Valley of the Sun has become a Spring Training nirvana. Fifteen Major League franchises have made the Phoenix area their Spring Training home, with five two-team facilities and five single-team ballparks scattered throughout the area.

It is less than a 50-minute drive from Salt River Fields, where the D-backs and Rockies train, to Goodyear Ballpark, home of the Reds and Indians. And that's the longest drive in the Cactus League.

Baseball is alive and well in Arizona. However, it hasn't always been that way.

Twenty-five years ago, when Major League Baseball was preparing for the addition of expansion franchises in Florida and Colorado, the Cactus League was on life support.

The Indians and the Giants planted the initial seeds of the Cactus League back in 1947, but the Tribe decided to end a 46-year relationship with Tucson after the spring of 1992, for the opportunity to move to Florida.

The feeling was that the future of the Cactus League was tied to landing the Rockies, which would allow the league to retain an eight-team alignment in Arizona.

The folks in Tucson put a full-court press on the Rockies, who seemed to be a logical addition to Spring Training in Arizona, considering the ties between the Rocky Mountains and the team's proximity to the desert of the southwest. However, it was not a cut-and-dried decision.

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The Rockies did explore options in Florida as well.

"It was more a matter of doing our due diligence and exploring all our options," said John McHale, Jr., the Rockies' original vice president of baseball operations, and currently a special assistant to Commissioner Rob Manfred. "It didn't really make sense for us to go to Florida, but we had to make sure we explored all our options."

However, there was a faction within the organization that was intrigued by holding the club's Spring Training activities in Florida.

Bob Gebhard, the franchise's original general manager, had spent his previous 27 years of Spring Training in Florida, both in his roles as a player in the Twins' system, and as an executive with both the Twins and Expos. A creature of habit, he had a comfort zone in the southeast.

It became apparent that ties to Florida were hard to break.

The folks in Winter Haven, Fla., worked on the Rockies. The Red Sox had just ended their 27-year relationship with that city, and were moving to Fort Myers, Fla.

The Rockies, however, finally went the logical way, agreeing to train in Tucson for their inaugural season. Winter Haven eventually found a new tenant in the Indians, who had planned on moving into a new training facility in Homestead, Fla., once they terminated their relationship in Tucson. A hurricane, however, wiped out the initial construction in Homestead, and the Indians wound up in Winter Haven.

The Cactus League was saved and it has flourished ever since.

Arizona now has 15 teams, including the Indians, who after 16 years in Winter Haven returned to Arizona in the spring of 2009. They now have their Spring Training facility in Goodyear, where they were joined by the Reds in 2010.

Twelve of the 15 Arizona-based teams train in facilities that were built in 2003 or later. And the three other teams -- the Giants in Scottsdale, the Angels in Tempe and the A's in Mesa -- have benefited from major remodeling efforts on their facilities.

Major League Baseball set a Spring Training attendance record in 2015, with an average of 8,388 fans per game attending a contest at any one of the Spring Training sites, breaking the record average of 8,078 fans per game from the spring of 2014.

The average attendance at Cactus League and Grapefruit League games last spring was 7,673, with teams in Arizona averaging 8,264 and teams in Florida averaging 7,040.

The Cubs remained the biggest draw in Spring Training, with a record average attendance of 15,078 last March. Even without the Cubs included in that total, the 14 other Arizona-based teams averaged 7,784 tickets sold per game compared to the 7,040 average for the 15 teams based in Florida.

The Cactus League has come a long way since the spring of 1992, when the Indians decided to bolt for Florida, and the folks in Arizona's hope for survival depended on being able to lure the expansion Rockies. Luckily, they succeeded.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.