Orioles need to home in on spring site

THE BALTIMORE SUN

STATE OF FLUX, Fla. -- That's the only proper dateline for Orioles spring training.

Not Fort Lauderdale, where they are currently located. Not Orlando, where they failed to strike a deal with Disney. And certainly not Sarasota, where Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf controls the lease.

Reinsdorf needs to pick a new tenant with the White Sox moving to Tucson, Ariz., next spring. Peter Angelos -- the Orioles' owner who took an anti-management stand during the strike -- apparently is not first on the hard-liner's list.

The Toronto Blue Jays reportedly are set to replace the White Sox, and the Cincinnati Reds also are a possibility. But the Orioles' minor-leaguers train in Sarasota. Here, at last, was a chance to bring the entire organization together.

Enter the Angelos factor.

The White Sox hold the lease on Sarasota through 2008, but can escape by finding a city-approved replacement team.

Whom will Reinsdorf pick?

One of his friends, naturally.

"I know nothing is signed as of yet," Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash told the Toronto Sun on Monday. "But remember, Jerry and Paul [Beeston, the Blue Jays' president] are pretty close."

Joe Foss, the Orioles' vice chairman of business and finance, said he has spoken with both Sarasota and White Sox officials, and that the city remains one of several Florida communities interested in the Orioles, who have been without a permanent spring home since 1989.

But it's not Sarasota's decision.

"We want a team that is going to be a good attraction to this community -- that's all we hope for," said deputy city manager Peter Schneider. "We believe the White Sox will deliver that."

Said Foss, "We'd be a logical team to go there. Ultimately, it's a legal issue between the Chicago White Sox and the city of Sarasota. I don't know if there is any special issue behind the scenes between Jerry Reinsdorf and the Baltimore Orioles."

Reinsdorf declined to comment.

Angelos was unavailable.

Foss said he expects the Orioles to select a new site by the end of the year, but such talk is nothing new. Three years ago at this time, Foss said, "I would hope that we will have the site determined by this summer."

Angelos inherited the problem from Eli Jacobs, who inherited it from the late Edward Bennett Williams. Still, Angelos has been owner since October 1993. After failing to reach agreement with Disney, he's out of excuses.

The Orioles' lack of an all-inclusive, state-of-the-art spring complex is a hindrance to player development, and after all these years, an embarrassment to the organization.

General manager Pat Gillick called the split operation "a big inconvenience," citing the difficulty of moving players and coaches back and forth between the camps.

Since 1987, 16 teams have moved into new or improved facilities. At least three more will follow next year, not including the two expansion teams or the White Sox, who are relocating a second time.

The Orioles negotiated with Disney in 1994, but when talks broke down, Disney reached an agreement with the Atlanta Braves, who have trained the past 34 years in West Palm Beach.

The Braves' new facility, featuring 5 1/2 practice fields, a 7,500-seat stadium and spacious clubhouses, will open near Disney World at the end of spring training.

"The proposal Disney made, we weren't comfortable with the financial aspect of it," Foss said. "We couldn't come to a satisfactory resolution of what could work for us and Disney. We didn't think it made good business sense for the Baltimore Orioles."

Yet, the Braves grabbed it.

"It's not a killer economic deal," Braves president Stan Kasten said. "We probably could have had a better deal in West Palm Beach. But we've got no worries about expenses, no worries about construction, no worries about design.

"We just decided to go with the highest-quality facility we could have ourselves. Disney A) promised it and B) delivered it. The facility is just beyond words. It's an amazing complex. It's beautiful. They're making it up to Disney standards.

"Frankly, in the big picture, spring training is such a small part of our business, we were able to make the decision economically."

Foss said the Orioles' financial goal in spring training is to cover their expenses of approximately $1.5 million, and use any profits to help defray the costs of minor-league camp.

Disney, he said, asked for rent "higher than any club we had ever heard of paying" in a deal that was "extremely heavily weighted" toward the company.

So now the Braves will join forces with Disney, an association that increases their stature not just in the United States, but internationally.

The Orioles missed the forest for the trees, and remain lost in the wilderness.

Foss said Fort Lauderdale remains a long-term possibility, if the Florida legislature approves stadium improvements and the construction of a minor-league complex in nearby Pompano Beach.

Dunedin, the former home of the Blue Jays, would be another candidate -- the minor-league facility is only three miles from the major-league stadium. And Jacksonville reportedly is trying to land a team.

Pick one, already.

The Orioles left Miami for Sarasota in 1990, but their minor-league facility lacks a stadium. The first year, they played all of their games on the road, reducing their practice time and leaving the players exhausted.

They found a stadium in '91, but had to share it with the St. Louis Cardinals. The stadium was in St. Petersburg, about 25 miles north of Sarasota. And the Cardinals remained the principal tenants, using the only home clubhouse.

For five years, the Orioles would train the first two weeks in Sarasota, then shift their entire operation to St. Pete. The players, however, still had to dress and practice at a separate facility, then take a bus to the stadium.

This is the Orioles' second year in Fort Lauderdale. They've finally got their own clubhouse, their own fields, their own stadium. But the minor-leaguers remain on the other side of the state.

What's more, their opponents on the east coast of Florida are all from the National League. In Sarasota, Boston, Minnesota and Texas would be more frequent opponents, due to their geographic proximity.

Gillick said that when he was with Toronto, the minor-leaguers often would attend home exhibitions in Dunedin -- and occasionally even play with the major-leaguers as a reward.

"A lot of them had never seen a major-league game, especially the Latin American kids," Gillick said. "Just like kids watching TV, it's a learning process. If you have a chance to see Ripken, Brady Anderson or Mike Mussina, there's some benefit to that."

The Orioles can only dream of such benefits.

They're in their usual spring home.

The state of flux.

Pub Date: 2/26/97

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