Stick a Fork in the Grapefruit League

Spring training starts soon, and the Florida Grapefruit League is in trouble. Half the major league teams play in the Arizona Cactus League, many of whose cities are far from Arizona — though it has long been a West Coast-centric spring training league, the Cincinnati Reds moved their facilities out of Florida in 2010, and now all of the Illinois and Ohio teams are based in Arizona rather than Florida. The head of the Florida Sports Foundation, Larry Pendleton, is lobbying Florida’s new governor, Rick Scott, to do whatever he can to convince teams to stay in Florida, but Pendleton must realize that the odds are against him. It’s easy to see why.

In Arizona, all 15 teams play within about a 20 mile radius in metropolitan Phoenix and its environs; in Florida, the 15 teams are spread out across both coasts from central to south Florida. In Arizona, every game is a short car ride away; in Florida, the Blue Jays in Dunedin are over 200 miles from the Cardinals in Jupiter.

Pendleton is hoping that Gov. Scott’s baseball affiliations will help: Scott was a co-owner of the Texas Rangers with George W. Bush back in the 1990s. But as columnist Ray McNulty points out, this is a likely losing battle, and one that Scott may want to stay out of.

Arizona has spent millions of tourism dollars to lure and/or keep teams in the Phoenix area, where new spring-training complexes have been built and existing facilities have been renovated. Also, teams prefer the geographical convenience of the Cactus League, where travel time for games rarely exceeds an hour.

In the Grapefruit League, a trip from Fort Myers to Viera can take four hours. Even on those rare occasions when teams do venture across the state — the New York Yankees will travel from Tampa to the east coast only once this spring — most of their marquee players stay home.

Both teams and players prefer short commutes to long road trips. And so do tourists. The inefficient sprawl of spring training facilities in Florida has caused a number of teams to decamp altogether, including the Dodgers, whose Dodgertown in Vero Beach, built in 1953, was one of the foundational Grapefruit League facilities. The Dodgers first moved to Vero in 1948, and they stayed there for more than a half-century after moving to California in 1958. But when they left, they left in a hurry. They signed a 20-year lease in 2001 and sold Dodgertown to the local government for $11 million; when they left, they still had more than a decade on their lease.

More than anything, it’s the bicoastal sprawl that hurts the Grapefruit League the most. As David Moulton wrote two weeks ago:

In 2008 there were six teams that held spring training along the east coast of Florida. Two have already left (Dodgers and Orioles). The Washington Nationals are likely to announce that they are leaving within the year.

That leaves the Mets, Cardinals and Marlins at least two hours away from anyone else in the Grapefruit League. Which translated means, “open to moving.”

Last year, a Florida town tried a bit of predation of their own, as Naples staged an unsuccessful attempt to lure the Cubs to abandon their Arizona facility to come to the Sunshine State. After a long flirtation, the Cubs elected to stick in Mesa when voters approved a new stadium with nearly $100 million of public funding. But that’s because spring training is big business for tourism, too. The Padres and Mariners generate $60 million of additional revenue for Peoria, Arizona every spring. And tourists get a better deal in the Cactus League, too: from a hotel in Phoenix, every team is no more than an hour or two away. In Florida, the teams are separated into smaller clusters, and it can take hours to drive from one coastal complex to another.

If Florida is serious about Spring Training, they can’t afford to keep teams on both coasts. In particular, the impoverished east coast will need to be put out of its misery, as Port St. Lucie, Jupiter, and Viera are the only facilities remaining on the Atlantic Ocean. State action may be painful, but it will only hasten the inevitable. As Moulton writes, those towns are likely to lose their teams sooner or later no matter what. Not only are the Arizona facilities closer together, they are also more efficiently allocated: there are 10 stadiums for 15 teams in Arizona, compared to 14 stadiums in Florida. Sharing isn’t just caring, it’s convenient.

If Florida can’t muster the political will to forcibly move teams closer together, more teams might simply leave for drier pastures. And if that happens, well, bid adieu to Bradenton, say so long to Sarasota, farewell to Fort Myers, and kiss goodbye to Kissimmee. You’ll have to stick a fork in the Grapefruit League.

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Alex is a writer for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.

36 Responses to “Stick a Fork in the Grapefruit League”

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  1. Craig says:

    There’s another reason organizations prefer Arizona – the weather. It tends to be drier in AZ in March with less chance that a practice or game will get rained out. More rain in Florida means less practice.

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  2. mikecarlucci says:

    I wonder if the Red Sox will be able to center the “new” spring training around their Fort Myers facility? It was just a few years ago that they put the finishing touches ( on the deal to stay there for 30 years (

    They’d have to convince someone to stay in Florida or just pull out of spring training. In 10 years this could be a really interesting story.

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  3. Mike says:

    Isn’t the Mets park in St. Lucie relatively new? I can’t imagine it’d be easy for them to leave that, but they could be in big trouble if the Nats and Cards move on.

    As an East Coast Dodger fan, I miss being able to go to Vero and see the Dodgers at home one day and 20 minutes away in St. Lucie the next.

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  4. larry says:

    I don’t think you’ll ever see no spring training in Florida. It’s about a 6 hour flight from Boston to Phoenix. It’s a bit more than 3.5 to Ft. Myers. It doesn’t make sense for the East Coast teams to leave, mostly because of travel time for their fans but also because these clubs generally have their minor league facilities in Florida, too. You’re certainly not going to see teams like Atlanta, Florida, or Tampa leave.

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    • notsellingjeans says:

      Yeah, that was my thought, too – I can definitely see Florida being condensed into an 8-10 team, geographically close-knit Grapefruit League, but I doubt it gets abolished altogether.

      This this a great topic and article, Alex. I had never even thought of this and it opened my mind. Thanks for writing the piece.

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    • JH says:

      Also, people from the East Coast (and thus fans of the Red Sox, Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Nats, etc.) retire to Florida in huge numbers, while west coast people retire to AZ in droves. It doesn’t drive the influx of tourism as much as the out-of-towners, but anyone who’s ever been to ST knows that local retirees play a huge part in making ST work – both as a large spectator base and as a readily-available source of temporary employees.

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  5. jackweiland says:

    “Also, teams prefer the geographical convenience of the Cactus League, where travel time…”

    The first time I scanned this, I accidentally read “time travel” and in the ensuing four seconds had the following thought:

    Time travel? Holy shit, no wonder they prefer Arizona.

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  6. Brett W says:

    AZ has poached all the easy targets to get even at 15-15. To get to 20 will probably take at least 20 years and likely never. There’s too much disincentive for East Coast-based clubs to base s.t. in AZ. Player convenience is a minor consideration when compared to fan accessibility, i.e., revenue.

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    • But if you were a fan, and you went to Arizona, you could see a bunch of games on a single tank of gas. If you go to Florida, you’re going to have to pick one corner of the state and stay there, or else go on a lot of two-, three-, and four-hour road trips. More driving, more gas money, less baseball.

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      • Alex – I do go to Florida most every year and I agree with the point that it is great to be within driving distance of multiple parks. Fortunately, the west coast of Florida is that way. I can stay in Clearwater and see the Phillies, Dunedin is next door (Blue Jay), so is Tampa (Rays & Yankees) and the Red Sox and Twins are a short drive down the highway.

        The real point of all this moving isn’t about convenience; it’s about money. The Red Sox would move their Spring Training to Georgia (not the state, the republic) if you gave them enough money to do it.

        Also, sure its convenient to share parks, but at least in the Phillies case, their A ball team plays in their spring training park during the season, so there are other ways to do it.

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      • Max says:

        The Phillies/Yanks draw almost as many fans to a spring training game as the Rays draw for regular season games. They aren’t going to be in any rush to leave as long as they keep selling out…

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      • DavidCEisen says:

        If Florida develops highspeed rail traveling along the east and west coasts travel could be much faster. If those lines were tapped into a larger regional line that wen north to Boston, all the better.

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      • B N says:

        @Re: DavidCEisen

        That would be all kinds of awesome.

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  7. Bo says:

    I think it’s great having two different ST leagues. This way, baseball fans on both sides of the country can travel to see some spring baseball. I went to Braves ST last year @ ESPN Wide World of Sports just outside Orlando and was blown away at how cool the location was. Tons to do around town, and the complex itself is nothing shy of impressive.

    While I agree that having all the teams in the Grapefruit League more centrally located would probably help, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot when we’re talking about guys who make their living by traveling ~ twice a week across the country for 6 months of the year.

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  8. MrKnowNothing says:

    As a Giants fan living in Chicago, I can say that the two trips to spring training in Arizona I took a few years back with my aging father were some of the best moments of my life. The baseball was fun and relaxed, you got to see a few big stars and a few prospects, and the fascilities were outstanding. Plus, the Scottsdale area itself is nothing short of awesome. Great food, shopping, cultural festivities, and golfing! I’ve never been to Florida, but I can’t imagine it compares. Arizona baseball was the best!

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  9. Clayton H says:

    Florida Spring Training is something I have been doing since I was 3 or 4 years old and I can’t imagine baseball without it. I think the two leagues are great. I do agree that putting some Florida teams closer together would help, but I also have a hard time imagining teams wanted to move locations w/in Florida if they have significant ties to the area. Stopping by Kissimmee to see the Astros every year is one of my favorites, even being a Braves fan. Can’t wait to head down in just over a month and soak in some baseball

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  10. sabernar says:

    I wonder how many baseball players are going to be pulled over by the Arizona police this Spring Training?

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  11. Matt says:

    Interesting, It could happen. If the Nats and Cardinals do move to Arizona, it would shift the balance pretty far to the Arizona side. At some point, maybe 10 teams, having a league becomes much less viable.

    What Florida does have though is the high profile teams. The Cubs are really the only hot ticket team in Arizona.

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    • This is an excellent point. The Yankees just built a new (and giant) spring training park in Tampa and the Red Sox have entered into an agreement to build a new one in Fort Myers. As long as those teams are selling tickets there will be spring training in Florida.

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      • Matt says:

        No way in hell The Yankees and Red Sox stay in Florida if they are the last two standing. No way they play each other 30 times

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      • Of course that wasn’t my point. If you’re the Blue Jays and lots of people come to your spring training games at least in part because you’re close to the Yankees and Red Sox then that’s a consideration towards staying. It’s not the only consideration, and in truth, ultimately it’ll come down to money. If some town in Arizona is willing to build a huge new facility then of course I think any team would listen.

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  12. Bob says:

    I love the topic, but the title — which implies that Spring Training in Florida is on its last legs — is wildly overstated. The analysis leaves out at least two HUGE factors for the more casual fan (which is like 90% of them): beaches and Mickey Mouse. I’m sure the desert and mountains in Arizona are great too, but for a lot of people with kids the proximity to those two things make the choice between the two states almost a no-brainer. You have to be a true fanatic to let proximity and travel time to different teams/parks/cities override those other factors. The article would be better presented as an argument for why a hardcore baseball fan, mostly without a strong allegiance to any one team, should choose Arizona over Florida if they had one week to see as much baseball as possible.

    Also, most of the teams that are still in Florida are set up pretty nice. The Phillies, Yankees, Red Sox, and Tigers (probably also the Braves, Astros, Pirates, and Blue Jays) are not leaving any time soon. I think the hassle of travel is overrated, as I’m sure alot more players have offseason homes in Florida than Arizona, and also the Rays for one just moved two hours FURTHER from their home bases only a couple of years ago.

    Lastly, I think MLB has to be pretty happy with the current state where the two leagues are relatively balanced. This allows teams to have a credible threat of moving to extort money out of the local governments, which you pointed out with your example of Naples wooing the Cubs and Florida politicians possibly begging the new Governor for financial assistance. Swing the balance too far in one direction and some of that leverage goes away. Not to mention the convenience that comes with having most of the teams overlapping with their low-A Florida State League affiliates. I can’t see more than a couple of current Florida teams moving to Arizona for at least the next 10 years or so.

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    • I don’t think that Florida Spring Training is in imminent danger of disappearance. But it’s clear that the momentum is against them. Florida is feeling much greater pressure to keep its teams in state — while Arizona had to work hard to keep the Cubs, they were ultimately successful, and many teams have recently moved west while none, to my knowledge, have moved east. So you’re right, Florida will probably still have Spring Training for the foreseeable future. But time does not appear to be on their side.

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      • Fieryfurnaces says:

        Avoiding alarm is just another reason a better titled would have been “stick a spoon in the Grapefruit League.” Or even better, “Stick an appropriate spoon in the Grapefruit League.”
        Sorry to be a day late with this cutting edge humor.

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  13. fred says:

    MLB should prevent more teams from leaving FLA…i’m a fan of the Arizona spring training but don’t want the whole league there….makes no sense…

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    • BMH says:

      i say let the market decide. if all the teams leave florida, then florida and the grapefruit league weren’t trying very hard and deserve to lose all their teams.

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  14. baycommuter says:

    I’ve done both and Phoenix is better, just because you can see more teams/stadiums in a trip. Florida won’t go to zero, but to keep it from being second rate the tourism board should step in and make sure the remaining East Coast teams can get a site on the Gulf Coast.

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  15. Garrett says:

    The Cardinals fanbase in WPB and Florida is incredible. There’s zero chance they move to Arizona.

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  16. david says:

    Even if the Astros, Tigers and Twins (the three that seem to make the most sense geographically/retirement pattern wise) were interested in heading to AZ, some other towns/Tribal Nations in the Valley of the Sun would have to pony up to build new facilities to give them somewhere to go. Given that Chandler has already been abandoned (and is well removed from the new ballparks out in the West Valley), and that Phoenix doesn’t have two nickels to rub together to do something up near Cave Creek, I just don’t see it.

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  17. Disco says:

    The Yankees headquarters are in TB, so I doubt they leave, unless they go all Michael Corleone.

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  18. Richard says:

    There may be a movement of teams on the east coast of Florida towards the Tampa and Orlando areas. I think the Cactus Leage is done recruiting Grapefruit League teams. There is no more money for new facilities and 15 teams is about all the Phoenix area can support. The Cubs are important to Arizona and the city of Mesa stepped up keep them. However, I don’t see any more moves in either direction between the Grapefruit and Cactus leagues.

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  19. Graham says:

    It wasn’t that long ago (1992) that the demise of the Cactus League was predicted. Arizona decided to step up to the plate and thanks to their Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority (AZSTA) were able to fund the new ballparks that brought the Dodgers, Indians, Rangers, Reds, Royals and White Sox west, plus paid for substantial renovations to the ballparks in Phoenix and Tempe. Now the AZSTA is broke, running a yearly deficit, and has no way to pay for scheduled renovations or their complete commitment to the folks in Glendale. Hence the new ballpark opening near Scottsdale this spring for the D-backs and Rockies was privately financed by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community and Mesa ended up on the hook for $99 million to keep the Cubs. Florida is in a better position to poach teams, but given that most teams in each state are now locked into long term leases I wouldn’t expect any franchise movement to either state anytime soon. Essentially, things are going to be stable for quite some time. Both leagues, the Cactus and Grapefruit, are thriving. But the burden to reach that status has cost Arizona far more than it has their counterparts in Florida, where the teams are more vested in the state since their Single-A minor league clubs are able to utilize the spring training stadiums and keep them humming into September. Meanwhile, not a single minor league team called Arizona home last year (not including the “complex” rookie leagues). Things also have a tendency to work in cycles, so Florida very well could bring back some of the teams that got away. But even if that’s not the case Arizona has to come up with money they don’t have — and won’t have anytime soon — to keep that from happening. The Nationals will likely move from one side of Florida to the other soon, but there’s no sticking a fork in the Grapefruit League….just the funding mechanism that enabled the Cactus League to succeed.

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