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Oh, how times have changed.
"If somebody was coming to Florida for spring training, they went to Vero Beach."
Nick Gandy is the Director of Communications at the Florida Sports Foundation, and he remembers who made those pilgrimages to Vero.
"Those are the hardcore baseball fans," Gandy said. "The ones who want to feel the nostalgia, walking down Pee Wee Reese Boulevard, walking on the same ground that Sandy Koufax walked on, that kinda stuff."
Gandy himself is a long-time baseball fan who's seen how spring training has changed, not only since the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957, but since they left Vero Beach in 2008 for new spring training digs in Arizona.
"I grew up in Florida, and my grandparents used to live down near St. Petersburg," Gandy said. "When I was twelve years old, we started going down there for spring training, and you could walk up on the day of the game and buy a ticket and you know, it might be half full. But now it's a big to-do, and when people call me and ask me, they say, 'Should I buy my tickets before I come to Florida?' I say, 'If you're planning on being there for a weekend game, yes.'"
That advice is not limited to fans headed for the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, or for Clearwater, or Dunedin. Dave Dunne is the general manager of the one-year-old facility shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies. Built on the Pima Indian Reservation near Scottsdale for $100 million, the complex is called Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Dunne and his colleagues started selling tickets at a record pace before the first cry of "Play Ball!" rang out over the premises.
"Yeah, we did, and even in our first year, we broke the all-time Major League Baseball spring training attendance record by 130,000 people." Dunne said. "We had 359,000 come last year, so even though we were just opening up, it was extremely well-received, and the fans love this place, and it looks like we may break that record this year."
According to Dunne, the advantages to the location of the complex are many, varied, and splendidly tempting.
"Very close to us here, they built a 500-room resort, with a full casino," Dunne said. "There's a 36-hole golf course behind it, there's a big shopping area directly to the south of the ballpark, so all these things are trying to work together in synergy to drive visitors to this area, and the ballpark's impact on those other three entities has been significant."
Of course, sometimes plans involving synergy, malls, and the creation of tourist destinations among the cactus work less well. The Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds share a three year old ballpark in Goodyear, Ariz., built at a cost of $108 million dollars. The complex includes sixteen fields and it, too, was supposed to anchor a community of pleasure-seekers. Paul Hoynes, who covers the Indians for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, blames the recession for the fact that much of the development hasn't developed.
"You've got this big baseball complex sitting, really, in the middle of the desert, kinda like," according to Hoynes. "It's looks like a detention center, almost. It's like on the far side of the moon. It's right back up against an airplane graveyard, and all these big passenger jets, you can see their tails, their fins, you know, the back fins of the tails of the planes over the outfield fence. It's kind of a unique place."
Whether they're abutted by casinos, derelict airplanes, or the waters of the Florida coast, the newer spring training sites have in common amenities that used to be associated exclusively with Major League Parks. Fans who tire of the actual games involving the Dodgers or the White Sox at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. can enjoy a five acre, man-made lake system, which includes a river.
Ticket prices have risen with the water. A great seat for three White Sox games in Glendale can run you a $130. The new spring training home of the Boston Red Sox, JetBlue Park in Fort Myers, Fl., includes a left field wall that closely resembles the famous Green Monster in Fenway Park. For standing room above that wall, fans pay 15 bucks. That's standing room.
Of course it can be argued that you get what you pay for. Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale is fan-friendly enough for Patrick Saunders, who covers the Rockies for the Denver Post, to see in it the possibility of a big league future.
"You know, a bunch of us joked here, what the Oakland A's, who are suffering so badly from attendance in the Bay Area, should do is just move their franchise here to northeast Scottsdale," Saunders laughed. "It's a better stadium, and they would probably draw as well."
And if they didn't, they could forget their troubles at the nearby casino.
This segment aired on March 3, 2012.
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