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Just a game? Even spring training is dollar-driven

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Published:   |   Updated: January 31, 2014 at 11:58 AM

Major league baseball will base 15 spring training teams in Florida and the remaining 15 in the Phoenix area when camps begin to open next week. That's quite a change from 1954, when four teams launched the Cactus League in Arizona and 12 others made up the Grapefruit League in the Sunshine State.

But major change is inevitable, even for spring training, baseball's annual connection to its storied, simpler days 60 years ago when fans would shout “Es muy cabellero” — “a real gentleman” — to Chicago White Sox outfielder Minnie Minoso as he stepped out of his Cadillac for spring workouts at Tampa's Al Lopez Field.

Today's $3 million-plus average salaries of major leaguers mean they could buy a new Cadillac for every one of the 30 or so spring training games, with plenty of change to spare.

Escalating salaries aren't the only major changes. Spring training ticket prices no longer are bargains — and teams are looking for other ways to bring in cash. The Detroit Tigers a year ago, for instance, began charging $5 to watch an extra hour of batting practice at Lakeland's Joker Marchant Stadium, and the club says it's a fan-friendly option. And the constant shuffle of teams around Florida cities and to — and possibly from — Arizona require a scorecard simply to keep track of the teams, let alone expanded spring training rosters.

The front page of January's SpringTrainingOnline.com's website included the following stories: “Will the Toronto Blue Jays Stay in Dunedin,” “ Houston Astros Arizona Site Is Viable Alternative to Florida Complex,” “Boca Raton Spring Training Site Is Pitched,” and “Milwaukee Brewers Spring Training May Move to Florida (from Arizona).”

Fans, team executives and local businesses that depend on baseball for their livelihoods agreed in recent interviews that spring training continues to evolve in myriad ways, even beyond change normally expected for any sport or business over time.

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“Fortunately spring training is still the modern equivalent of simpler times,” said Graham Knight, editor of SpringTrainingConnection.com and an author of spring training baseball guides who has visited every spring training ballpark in Florida and Arizona.

“Nobody mistakes the regular season games and venues as simple anymore,” Knight said. “But spring training still allows for that connection back to the days of when the players didn't make that much more than the rest of us and were approachable.”

Throughout baseball, teams seek to enhance ballparks and create amenities that raise the fans' experience from the game itself to a focus on broader entertainment, following the marketing pattern teams have pursued for regular season games in cities with major league teams.

That's kept attendance strong over the years, though last year's figures were off slightly.

Attendance in 2013 averaged 6,691 fans a game in Florida and Arizona for a total of 3.4 million, down 536 fans a game from 2012. The Yankees in Tampa led 2013 Florida spring training attendance with an average of 10,173 fans, while the Philadelphia Phillies in Clearwater averaged 8,400 and the Toronto Blue Jays in Dunedin 4,908.

But the issue of whether spring training's changing dynamics are becoming more positive or negative for the fans and their communities depends on who's talking.

“Baseball needs to start giving back more to the fans,” said Kevin Schauer, general manager of Lenny's breakfast and lunch restaurant near U.S. 19 and Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard in Clearwater.

“Where do salaries stop?” Schauer asked. “What do we give back to the people?”

Schauer may have nonpareil credentials for understanding baseball's business impact in the Tampa Bay area. Lenny's has been a hangout for Philadelphia Phillies fans attending spring training games in Clearwater for more than three decades and draws its share of Blue Jays fans, too.

In addition, Schauer supervises a catering service from Lenny's for the Phillies and Blue Jays spring training and minor league teams' regular season needs, with three vans that deliver specially prepared meals to the ballplayers' clubhouses.

For good measure, Schauer has spring training season tickets, season tickets for the Tampa Bay Rays and the minor league Clearwater Threshers, and subscribes to Major League Baseball's cable TV network to top off his interests.

“Our customers who are longtime baseball fans are beginning to take notice of some things that others might not be seeing,” Schauer said, pulling out spring training schedules of the Phillies, Blue Jays and New York Yankees, who play in Tampa.

“For example, the first eight home games for the Phillies are in the last week of February and the first week of March, so how many innings will the starters play in those early games? How many starters will the visiting teams bring on their trips?”

(Major League Baseball spokesman Mike Teevan said baseball monitors guidelines that at least four expected starting lineup players travel to road games to play at least three innings.)

“The Rays don't play here at all this season,” Schauer said, referring to the Philliies' Bright House Field, just north of Lenny's.

The Phillies designated six games as “premium games” during spring training, two with the Yankees and one each with Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Boston and Minnesota.

Tickets for those games range from $17 to sit on the grass berm beyond the outfield fence to $35 for a premium box seat to $39 for a club seat.

That's compared with prices for the other 11 home games of $14 on the berm, $30 for a premium box and $34 for a club seat.

“Now the game with the Detroit Tigers on March 26, a Wednesday, and Toronto on the following day, those could be good because by then the teams will be trying to get their starting pitching rotations more work for the season that opens the following week.”

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Though spring training ticket prices are increasing, some fans, such as Brandan Murphy, a Boston Red Sox fan who moved recently from Maine to Pinellas County with his family, eagerly bought four tickets to the Phillies-Red Sox game in Clearwater on March 21 for $33 each.

“This beats the $500 it costs to take a family of four to Fenway Park in Boston for a regular season game,” he said.

Schauer is bullish on the management acumen and intentions of the executives of the ballclubs with which he works. He acknowledges their obvious economic impact on his restaurant business and on hotels, other retail outlets that fans and players patronize and considerable behind the scenes philanthropy.

So does Cindy Phillips, who opened the Home Plate restaurant in Dunedin across from Florida Auto Exchange Stadium where the Blue Jays play. Phillips also knows the executives of the teams with local spring training venues from previous hospitality jobs in Clearwater Beach.

A major spring training story is playing out in Dunedin today, where a mayor elected on a platform of low taxes is enmeshed in the issue of helping finance the city's aging ballpark, along with possibly resolving a longstanding problem with the Toronto Blue Jays' training campus and ballpark separated by a couple of miles.

“We would be OK if the team moved, but 30 percent to 40 percent of our business last spring when we opened was from baseball fans, many from Canada who live here a couple months of the year.”

 

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7817

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