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Could Phoenix lose spring training?

Phoenix Municipal Stadium

Despite money set aside for ballpark improvements, it looks like the Milwaukee Brewers and Oakland Athletics are shopping for new spring-training complexes come 2013 and 2015, respectively, which could lead to the loss of spring training in the city of Phoenix.

The two teams are the last training in the actual city of Phoenix, with the Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park on the west side and the A’s at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on the east side. The two complexes are completely different: Maryvale Baseball Park is a very nice complex in an iffy part of town, with no nearby amenities or attractions, while Phoenix Muni is the long-time home of baseball in the city and right next to tony Scottsdale, but the ballpark is land-locked, very uncomfortable, and the team is forced to train in nearby Papago Park. Neither team draws where they are.

According to the Arizona Republic, both teams are in a position to receive ballpark-improvement funds from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority in the near future: $6.7 million to improve Maryvale and $3.7 million to improve Phoenix Muni. But with both teams declining to sign long-term ballpark leases — despite reps from both teams saying last spring they had every intention of doing so — they will be free agents on the market. So let the speculation begin on where both teams could end up.

First, keep in mind that teams now see spring training as more than just a place to set up shop: they want to tie some sort of development with the project. That’s what happened in Mesa, where the Cubs are doing a Wrigleyville West, and in Fort Myers, where the Red Sox envision a Fenway Park South neighborhood. Both the Brewers and the A’s are owned by developers, so there’s little doubt development has been discussed in association with any new spring-training complexes.

That the Brewers train in Arizona is more a historical aberration and the personal preferences of former owner Bud Selig than anything else. The franchise began life as the Seattle Pilots before Selig bought the team out of bankruptcy court in the spring of 1970. Since the team was already training in the Phoenix area, Selig — who wintered in Scottsdale — kept the team there. It’s considerably farther to drive from Milwaukee and Wisconsin to Arizona than it is to Florida, and it’s far easier to get a flight from Madison and Milwaukee to Orlando than to Phoenix. (Heck, you can even fly non-stop from Madison to Orlando in the winter months.) Moving the Brewers to Florida and taking advantage of some sort of development deal — say, in Winter Haven with the owners of the new Legoland — makes economic sense and would endear Mark Attanasio even more to Brewer fans. We know Brewers reps have met with some Florida cities about a move to the Grapefruit League, and it would not be surprising at all to see the Brewers go east with the right offer.

The A’s, on the other hand, are sure to stay in Arizona. The issue is where.

There will be a large complex open in 2014, once the Chicago Cubs move to a new Mesa spring-training facility. The Cubs had some issues with HoHoKam Park — it’s land-locked and there’s no chance of adjacent development unless you want to dig up the cemetary right across the street — that would be present for A’s owner Lew Wolff as well. Wolff is a developer, and his passion for sports has always been accompanied by his desire to meld development with facilities. It’s not worked out well with the Athletics and the MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes, but the intent is definitely there. So even though Mesa is apparently talking with both teams, it’s not clear either would leap at the chance to move to HoHoKam Park; there are simply no development opportunities in the area.

The other big problem with HoHoKam: any team leasing the ballpark actually trains in a separate facility, Fitch Park, because there’s not enough room for everyone at HoHoKam. This would be a step backward for the Brewers and a lateral move for the A’s.

Another option: bringing a third team to Surprise Stadium. There’s enough land in the Surprise Stadium area to add more training fields and clubhouses. But scheduling three teams at one ballpark is really a nightmare: you’d have plenty of doubleheaders to make sure all get the same number of home games. At the end of spring training, this isn’t a big deal, as teams play more night games the last two weeks of spring training. But it would be an issue at the beginning of spring training, where there are relatively few night games. And there would be a nightmarish amount of wear and tear on the field.

And, of course, there are cities and Indian tribes willing to discuss a development deal with either team owner.

Photo of Phoenix Municipal Stadium by Jim Robins.

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