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Turning Backs on the Grapefruit League

From the New York Times (free membership required):

Here by the shores of Lake Lulu is the training camp of the Cleveland Indians, a 1960's ballpark so intimate that fans rest elbows and beers along the outfield wall to watch the game. But when city officials look at the waterfront park these days, it's not the baseball that makes their Floridian hearts flutter. It's the prime real estate.

Where the Indians hone pitches, shag flies and steal bases every March, Winter Haven wants boutiques and restaurants, big-box chain stores and a recreation complex. It is not the only town to ponder turning its back on the boys of spring, hoping to reap a profit more tangible than the joy of baseball fans for just six weeks a year.

Port Charlotte has already said goodbye to the Texas Rangers and has closed the door to other teams, while Sarasota County is resisting the building of a new stadium for the Cincinnati Reds. When reporters asked Gov. Jeb Bush last month whether he could find money to fend off Arizona's latest incursions into spring baseball, he offered a tepid "We'll see," adding that the state had other priorities.

Florida without spring training used to be unthinkable, but the unsentimental fact is that it costs a lot, and places like Winter Haven have turned cynical about the benefits. It took $1.2 million to run Chain of Lakes Park last year, but revenues totaled only $520,000, according to the city. The difference came out of Winter Haven's general fund, a subsidy for baseball that Mayor Mike Easterling said could not continue.

The opportunity costs of spring training are getting a wee bit large for Floridian officials. But Arizona is calling:

Amid this uncertainty, Arizona is beckoning. Last month, that state - which, with 12 teams, is fast catching up as a spring-training mecca - announced a plan to lure teams from Florida. Slade Mead, a former Arizona state senator who is leading the effort, told The Arizona Republic in February that the Indians, Reds and Orioles topped Arizona's wish list. He was not so blunt in a recent phone interview but said his state intended to convince several Grapefruit League teams of its superiority.

But government officials in Florida don't care, and it's a signal that the Arizona officials should take into consideration.