Waiting at the airport to go from Orlando to Phoenix has summoned thoughts of spring training travel, and the differences between March baseball in Florida and Arizona.
Travel is probably the critical difference between Grapefruit and Cactus leagues. It is, at the very least, the difference that gets talked about with the most passion and regularity. In Arizona, 12 of the 14 teams are located in and around Phoenix. The largest spread between any two teams training in the Valley of the Sun is the 40 miles between the Angels in Tempe and the Royals and Rangers up in Surprise. Two teams, the Rockies and the Diamondbacks, play down in Tucson, just over a hundred miles from the center of Phoenix, and players and writers — especially the writers — grumble whenever they have to make the 90-minute to two-hour trip through the desert for a game down in Tucson. "Ease of travel" is the one phrase general managers and team officials most regularly use when talking about why they like training in Arizona.
In Florida, by contrast, 90 minutes would be a rather short bus ride; the farthest distance between teams is more than twice the ride from Phoenix to Tucson. The bus ride from Fort Lauderdale, where the Orioles train, to Dunedin, home to the Blue Jays and just northwest of Tampa, would be 250 miles. Not surprisingly, the Orioles and Blue Jays never take that ride; they don't play one another in Florida. And there are many other teams whose paths hardly ever cross in Florida. With teams spread from Fort Myers to Dunedin on the Gulf Coast, from Fort Lauderdale to Viera on the Atlantic Coast, and with three more teams spread along I-4 from Lakeland to Disney, the Grapefruit League map is a map of all of Southern Florida, and long bus rides are the bane of everybody's existence. When the Red Sox and Twins ride up from Fort Myers to Clearwater or Dunedin, the ride begins at seven in the morning and can take more than three hours. The ride home, through Tampa Bay's punishing rush-hour traffic, is generally even longer. When the Orioles, down in Fort Lauderdale, go anywhere except up to Jupiter to play the Cardinals or the Marlins, it's a sunrise-to-sunset affair. "Managing travel" so as not to lose too much time to player training is how Grapefruit League GMs and team execs discuss the travel challenges of Florida.
The weather gets a lot of talk too. For most of winter-bound America, there's not a lot of difference between the sun of Florida and the sun of Arizona, but the locals in both states like to point out how theirs is better. "They get all that rain in Florida," say the chamber of commerce people in Arizona. "You lose a lot of games and training time to rain."
"Players don't sweat in Arizona," counters one Florida person. "They don't get in the same kind of shape because they never sweat. You look at the conditioning of teams in the early season, and you'll see that the teams that trained in Florida seem to be in much better shape."
But the difference that matters most these days is money. Spring training is big business now, and since the beginning of this century, Arizona has spent $250 million in public money building and improving spring training facilities for major league baseball teams. Florida has spent too, but $100 million less than Arizona has. This has led to a dramatic shift in the spring training map. Since 1998, five teams have shifted from Florida to Arizona, with a sixth, the Cincinnati Reds, scheduled to join them in 2010. When that happens, the leagues will be even at 15 teams apiece for the first time.
That has a nice symmetry, but it will surely not remain that way forever. Inevitably, some team will start to see a greener patch of grass and a greener pile of money in a new community hankering for spring training, and the map will change again. It's not likely to happen soon in this economy; state budgets in both Florida and Arizona are in tatters. But history shows us that recessions are not forever. Baseball and spring training surely are.