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With Indians soon to leave, Cactus League's future is in doubt

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MESA, Ariz. -- The sounds of spring training in Arizona:

"Something is going to have to be done or the Cactus League is going to fall apart." -- Don Grenesko, president and chief executive officer, Chicago Cubs.

"If Florida is offering the earth, sun and moon, you have to take a look at what Florida is offering." -- Mike Shapiro, staff counsel, San Francisco Giants.

"In two or three years, we might be trying to figure out how to get the Cactus League back." -- Frank Pezzorello, manager of Compadre Stadium in Chandler.

Three voices. One thought: The Cactus League is an endangered species. The Cleveland Indians' recent announcement that they will move their spring training operation from Tucson to Florida in 1993 has renewed fears that the Cactus League is in jeopardy.

The Indians' exodus may trigger a chain reaction. Representatives of the Seattle Mariners, California Angels and San Diego Padres say they cannot rule out a move to Florida.

If one of the clubs packs its bags, the Cactus League would be reduced to six teams, and, several baseball executives say, it would no longer be viable.

"When you fall below a certain number, you don't have the critical mass to make it work," said Sandy Alderson, vice president of baseball operations for the Oakland Athletics. "I don't think seven is the number, but it couldn't go much lower than that."

Arizona officials, stung by the Indians' departure and threatened with the loss of a $160 million industry, have stepped up their efforts to keep the Cactus League alive.

But are they too late?

"The loss of the Indians has to call into question whether or not the Cactus League can sustain itself," Shapiro said. "I don't know if Arizona has necessarily taken the Cactus League for granted," Grenesko said. "But it's something they haven't addressed, and they're going to lose the Cactus League if they don't."

The Indians were the first team to arrive in Arizona on a permanent basis, settling in Tucson in 1947, and their departure appears symptomatic of the Cactus League's troubles. They say they left not because they were unhappy, but because Florida made them an offer they couldn't refuse.

Citrus County has promised the Indians, at no cost to the club, an $8.2 million complex, including a 7,000-seat stadium.

The Mariners, Angels and Padres could soon be fielding similar offers, and whether they're serious about leaving or not, their short-term leases give them considerable leverage in negotiations with Arizona.

The city of Tempe has been trying to negotiate a long-term deal with the Mariners for three years, said Ron Pies, director of community services for Tempe, but Seattle has refused to extend its lease past 1992.

Gary Kaseff, Seattle's chief operating officer, said the team has been approached by Florida communities but wants to stay in the Valley of the Sun.

There's a catch, however.

The Mariners are asking for several million dollars in improvements to Tempe Diablo Stadium, at no cost to the Mariners. Among those improvements are a 17,000 square-foot locker room, at a cost of $100 per square foot, an extra playing field, and upgrades to their minor-league complex.

"There's no question the Cactus League provides some economic benefits to the community," Kaseff said. "We are looking to recapture those benefits."

Pies said Tempe does not have the funds to pay for the improvements, but Jim Piper, Tempe's deputy city manager, said the city is discussing the possibility of imposing a $1.75 surcharge on each ticket.

"I think it's something that just is a fair way to distribute the cost of the improvements," Piper said.

Kaseff said the Mariners want to have a new agreement in place this year. If Tempe cannot meet Seattle's needs, Kaseff indicated, the Mariners may do more than listen to Florida offers.

The Angels, who split spring training between Gene Autry Park in Mesa and Angel Stadium in Palm Springs, Calif., are not hiding their affection for Florida.

Kevin Uhlich, director of stadium operations, and several other team officials recently completed a fact-finding trip to Orlando, Tampa, Miami and Homestead, Fla. Uhlich told The Sporting News that Homestead "is already building a stadium, just on speculation of getting a team. We might be able to work something out with them." Uhlich said Homestead already has made a concrete offer to California.

The Angels had been negotiating with the town of Gilbert since 1989, but talks broke down when Gilbert could not come up with the $10 million necessary to build a new stadium. "We just don't have the money," said Greg Tilque, Gilbert's economic development director.

"I'd say the talks with Gilbert are dead," Uhlich added.

The Angels also have talked with Tucson officials about the availability of Hi Corbett Field after the Indians' departure, and they will continue the conversation during spring training, Uhlich said.

Uhlich said California wants to stay in the West and has continually put off Florida interests.

"We'd love to have one of the Florida-type facilities in the Phoenix area," Uhlich said. "But it hasn't happened. One of these times, we may be forced to take one of the offers back east."

Cleveland's defection had an immediate effect on the Padres' negotiations with the city of Yuma. Wayne Benesch, a Yuma attorney and member of the Caballero booster group, said the Padres refuse to discuss a five-year deal as long as the Cactus League's status remains tenuous. Padres president Dick Freeman said the club, whose lease ends after this spring training season, would prefer to sign a one- or two-year deal and then re-evaluate the league's health. Negotiations will continue this spring. "The uncertainty led us to maybe think we shouldn't be involving ourselves in such a long-term agreement," Freeman said. "Certainly we are watching what other teams do."

Because Yuma is only a three-hour drive from San Diego, Freeman said, the Padres would rather stay put.

"Florida is a last alternative," he said. "But it's an option." Benesch and other Cactus League representatives are hopeful that Arizona's proximity to the West Coast teams will help. Kaseff, Uhlich and Freeman all admitted travel costs would be inordinately higher should they move to Florida.

"Certainly none of the West Coast teams would seem to have a community of interest with Florida," Benesch said. "They can be closer to their fans here."

But, he warned, loyalty has its limit.

"In order to meet their needs, we have to be somewhat competitive with what Florida is offering," he said. "There's no way around it."

Robert Brinton, director of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, tends to dismiss the West Coast teams' interest in Florida.

"They've got to talk that way," he said. "You can't make someone jealous unless you're dating someone else."

The Cubs, who annually lead the Cactus League in attendance, are locked into Mesa's HoHoKam Park until 1995, and Grenesko said, "we are satisfied with the facilities we have." But, he added, "in terms of a financial standpoint, we'd be better off in Florida."

Just because the Cubs are Arizona property for the next five springs doesn't mean local officials shouldn't be concerned. HTC Grenesko admits the Cactus League's instability is a concern, and he describes himself as a "free-enterprise guy."

Translation: Don't be surprised if a bidding war develops for the Cubs in '95.

No such problems are expected with the Athletics, whose lease at Phoenix Municipal Stadium expires this spring. Alderson, the A's vice president of baseball operations, said the club is content in Arizona and expects to sign a new contract shortly. But Florida has enough attributes to make even the most secure Cactus League city a bit envious. In 1978, Florida allowed its counties to levy a 2-percent tax on restaurant meals and motel rooms. Those funds are being used on sweetheart deals for major-league clubs. St. Lucie County lured the New York Mets from St. Petersburg in 1978 with a facility that had five fields, an option to buy land around the site, and 85 percent of the ticket revenue.

"The potential there is to make a lot of money," Grenesko said.

Ron Safford, director of Florida's Office of Sports Promotion, said his state is not trying to "destroy or absorb the Cactus League. We don't want a war with Arizona."

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