Thursday, March 4, 2010

Arizona politicians have just as little backbone as Major League pols

Spring training camp for professional baseball clubs is no longer about dispatches from distant desert towns or swampland cities in the South providing a manager a chance to spout platitudes about how this year is THE YEAR the team will win the pennant.

It is a business opportunity in and of itself, with these Arizona and Florida towns that host training camps doing what they can to get baseball-fan tourists to come see their teams even before the regular season begins.

SERIOUSLY, CHECK OUT the websites of the major league ball clubs. Looking at the schedule for the Chicago White Sox, I see a month’s worth of games that don’t mean anything (beginning with Thursday’s matchup against a Los Angeles Angels team consisting of ballplayers who likely will spend this season with the Arkansas Travelers).

But I also see how the website is set up so that people can click on a link to buy tickets, and click on another link if they want to reserve a hotel room while they’re in town.

Kind of like a weekend in Las Vegas, only for people who think that gambling and the actual games of chance are borderline stupid.
Facilities for baseball spring training have come a long way since the days of the 1910s when Olympian Jim Thorpe was trying to make the New York Giants' ballclub at their training camp in Marlin Springs, Texas. Photograph provided by Library of Congress collection.

With this being the reality of spring training in the 21st Century and towns like Glendale, Goodyear and Surprise being dependent on the economic jolt they will receive during the upcoming month, it doesn’t surprise me to learn that government officials are taking this seriously, and showing a willingness to cater to the demands of major league teams similar to every city that ever got conned into paying for a new stadium it really couldn’t afford – in order to keep its hometown team from talking of moving to Vegas, Charlotte, N.C., or Portland, Ore. (the usual suspects whenever new baseball cities are pondered).

SO FROM A political context, I can understand what was going through the minds of officials in Mesa, Ariz., and the Arizona Legislature when they concocted a deal that is meant to bolster spring training camps in their state.

The problem is that the deal is getting the perception that it went waaaaaaay too far to pander to one ball club – our city’s very own Chicago Cubs. That has other teams upset, including most vocally this week, our city’s real ball club, the Chicago White Sox.

The White Sox, along with the Angels, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the Cincinnati Reds boycotted an annual breakfast event held this week that is meant to kick off spring training camp – even though ballplayers started showing up in camps two weeks ago.

The boycott was meant to be a protest against the new 8 percent surcharge being attached to all tickets sold to spring training games in Arizona. When combined with a $1 surcharge on car rentals in Maricopa County, Ariz., it is expected to raise money for the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority to sell bonds that will be used to pay for construction of a new stadium and training camp that Mesa proposed to build for the Cubs in order to keep them from seriously considering offers to relocate to Florida.

SO IF YOU were planning on attending Thursday’s exhibition between the future Birmingham Barons (a.k.a., White Sox) and the future Arkansas Travelers (a.k.a., Angels) in Tempe, Ariz., you will be helping to pay for Mesa to keep the Cubs every March (it’s too bad they couldn’t keep them year-round and spare Chicagoans the sight of stupid baseball played each season, but that is another topic).

That goes for every one of the 15 major league teams who hold their training camps in the Cactus League (as opposed to Florida’s Grapefruit League).

I can understand why teams would get upset about having their ticket revenues impacted by a surcharge to help another team. Much of the training camp economics is about trying to gain a financial advantage for oneself. Now, teams are going to be helping the hapless Cubs.

But a part of me wants to credit the Cubs for having the chutzpah to think they could have someone tap into other teams to get themselves a new facility. I’m not naïve enough to think that if the White Sox and Dodgers could have received a similar tax to help build their new Camelback Ranch training camp in Glendale (also home of the one-time Chicago Cardinals of the NFL), they would have taken advantage of it.

INSTEAD, THIS NOW becomes another arguing point in the baseball tensions that exist in our city between South Side and North.

When combined with the fact that I remember it was Illinois state government (rather than Chicago city government) that paid for construction of the now-named U.S. Cellular Field in the late 1980s), I can kind of comprehend why Mesa would claim they alone are not capable of paying to construct the training camp facility desired by the Cubs – who have been at Mesa since 1979. It used to be Scottsdale, now the spring home of the San Francisco Giants.

I suppose Mesa thinks they’re being generous in offering up $26 million of their own (about 30 percent of the total anticipated cost) for the training camp project.

Yes, a part of me thinks it would have been ideal if it were just the spring training exhibition game tickets sold at Ho Ho Kam Park in Mesa that had the surcharge. Let the Cubs fans who like to think they attend spring training games in greater numbers than fans of other teams (who most likely can’t spare the time because they have jobs, remember Lee Elia’s diatribe?) pay the surcharge to give their team a one-month luxury training camp before they spend a season playing in the cramped quarters of Wrigley Field.

BUT THEN, I look at the reality that accepts the fact that all ballclubs have managed to play municipal government for suckers in terms of getting not only new stadium facilities built, but usually manage to work out lease agreements that call for minimal rent while also giving the ballclubs control of much of the revenue (concessions, parking, etc.) that comes from ball games.

It is the old American showman P.T. Barnum who is generally credited with the saying, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” The Cubs found their “suckers” in the form of Mesa and Arizona politicos, who will then pass along the cost to the baseball fan – who is made to feel like the ultimate sucker.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Jerry Reinsdorf expressed his disgust, along with other team owners, at having his spring training revenues being affected ( by plans to build a new training camp for his White Sox’ season-long rivals.

Spring training is now as much about generating income as it is preparing ( for the upcoming season.

Arizona is growing more and more important to baseball ( when it comes to training camps. Yet a part of me wonders what baseball would be like if the Cubs had never given up on Catalina Island (, off the coast of California.

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