As Major League Baseball teams practice for the opening of a new season, some fans dream of home runs from an up-and-coming star. Others pine for strikeouts by their team’s top pitcher. But I, as a baseball fan and a Californian, am rooting for a steal—of spring training itself.
You could call my plan Stealing Arizona. Today, not one of California’s five major league teams—the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim—holds spring training in its home state. If California fans want to see their teams conduct spring workouts and play exhibition games, they have to travel to greater Phoenix, where all five clubs train and play.
Indeed, over the past 20 years, the state of Arizona and its cities have used hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies to lure teams and corner the market on spring training in the West. Fifteen of the 30 Major League teams now train in and around Phoenix. (The rest, all from Eastern and Southern cities, hold spring practice in various parts of Florida—the Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins among them.)
California and its big cities have surrendered their teams to Arizona without a fight. This capitulation is somewhat understandable. California municipalities are hurting financially, and, since providing public subsidies for pro sports is a fool’s game, competing with the Arizonans in tax giveaways would have been a bad idea.
Still, it doesn’t have to be this way. California teams, by the very nature of their business, depend on the goodwill and dollars of Californians and their governments. So we have the leverage, if we choose to use it, to force the Padres, Giants, A’s, Dodgers, and Angels to move their spring trainings back across the Colorado River.
The best reason to bring the teams back involves economy and geography. The most natural home for spring training camps in California—the dry valleys and deserts of Southern California’s Inland Empire—is also one of our state’s most economically distressed regions. Riverside and San Bernardino counties, still suffering from the housing crisis and the bankruptcy of the city of San Bernardino, can use all the visitors, tourism, and economic activity they can get. Spring training is estimated to bring Phoenix more than $600 million in tourism revenue each year. Plus, the Inland Empire is full of baseball fans who root for—and buy the jerseys, caps, and tickets of—the Dodgers, Angels, and other California teams. A question for team owners: Wouldn’t you agree that you have an obligation to do everything in your power to help distressed communities that support you?
Relocating California’s teams to inland spring training bases wouldn’t require using taxpayer dollars to build costly new stadiums, either. The three Southern California teams could use the facilities of their minor league affiliates in the Inland Empire—Lake Elsinore (Padres), San Bernardino (Angels), and Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers). The two Bay Area teams could go to their San Joaquin County affiliates in Stockton (A’s) and Fresno (Giants). Or, if the A’s and the Giants wanted to be closer to the Southern California teams to reduce spring travel, they could share the beautiful baseball stadium in Palm Springs’ Sunrise Park, which is exactly the sort of place sun-deprived San Franciscans would love.
Spring training baseball in California might feel new, but it would be a restoration of a very proud tradition. The Chicago Cubs trained on Catalina Island in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s. Riverside, San Bernardino, and El Centro have all been spring training homes for Major League teams at different times. A Japanese pro team once held spring workouts in Salinas.
And, from 1961 to 1992, the Angels held spring training in Palm Springs, where their original owner Gene Autry liked to spend time. As a baseball-crazy kid in 1980s Southern California, I routinely made the two-hour drive east with family and friends to watch exhibition games. Very little in today’s Arizona spring training experience, with its clean and corporate stadiums surrounded by parking lots, compares to the intimacy of Palm Springs Stadium, in the middle of a public park with a library nearby. I chatted with Angels second baseman Bobby Grich and once caught a batting practice homer hit by Chicago Cubs Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg there.
If appeals to community duty and California pride won’t convince our teams to leave Arizona, then we could play hardball. Major League Baseball teams often need help from one government entity or another; the A’s and Angels right now have stadium issues that might require moving or building new facilities. A simple state law prohibiting government assistance to sports franchises that don’t base their training in California would help. Or, the state could threaten an admissions tax on sports tickets if teams won’t come home.
None of this should beggar our neighbors in Arizona. Even without the five California teams, Phoenix would still have a critical mass of 10 teams, keeping it the spring training capital of America. And since the Dodgers and Padres share stadiums with other teams, only three empty stadiums, not five, would be left behind.
The biggest hurdle to a homecoming might be legal. Many of the California teams have long-term leases or financial commitments to their subsidized Arizona ballparks. The Angels’ lease in Tempe, for example, runs until 2025, according to published reports. Perhaps the teams could negotiate a transition period. Or they could do what American sports franchises are so good at doing and break their leases. If there are lawsuits, our teams could maneuver them into California’s overcrowded and underfunded courts, where litigation can be endlessly delayed.
This week, my two older sons and I will get in the car in the San Gabriel Valley and head east on Interstate 10 through the Inland Empire to Arizona to see our favorite team, the Angels. The trip should take six hours. Here’s hoping that in a few years, the drive will be several hours shorter.
Cross-posted at Zocalo Public Square. http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2014/03/20/how-to-steal-spring-training/inquiries/connecting-california/