Buddy system: Teams increasingly partnering up for spring camp - NBC Sports

Buddy system: Teams increasingly partnering up for spring camp
NBC Sports
March 6, 2014, 5:00 pm

When 15,000-seat Cubs Park opened this spring in Mesa, Ariz., it marked the beginning of a new era for the franchise from Chicago. But across Major League Baseball it also likely marked the last time fans will see a brand new, single-team-occupied spring training facility for many years.

With public funding for new spring training ballparks hard to come by in Arizona and Florida, clubs have leaned toward renovations to existing facilities or the construction of two-team complexes. This is especially true for teams that don't draw from massive fan bases -- so excluding the Yankees, Phillies, Braves, Cubs and Red Sox, the latter of which opened a new Florida facility in 2012.

“I don’t know if we’re ever going to see (a single-team facility) built or any Indian tribe put (another) $100 million into a facility,” said Ted Polakowski, the A’s director of minor-league operations.

The A’s will begin playing spring training games in 2015 at HoHoKam Stadium in Mesa, Ariz., which hosted the Cubs until last season. The stadium is undergoing a $21 million renovation and is primarily a stand-alone facility, with most MLB practice fields less than a mile down the road at Fitch Park. That arrangement sharply contrasts with the majority of MLB spring training sites, including Cubs Park, which also house club affiliates during camp.

“We wanted a facility to have all the major leagues and minor-leaguers in one place,” explained Cubs spokesman Julian Green, “So the minor-leaguers could see what it takes to make it to the major-league level.”

When the Athletics exit Phoenix Municipal Stadium after this year’s spring training, it will leave Tempe Diablo Stadium – built in 1968 and renovated in 2002 – as by far the oldest site in the Cactus League. After Tempe Diablo, four other existing Arizona spring training facilities were built in the 1990s – but the majority are much newer.

In the past 11 years alone, four separate two-team facilities have been built in metro Phoenix, three of which sit in its West Valley, leaving the Brewers as the only club on that side of town training at a single-team site. By contrast, Florida's Grapefruit League has just one two-team facility – and that opened in 1998. The promise of stadium development lured the White Sox, Dodgers, Rangers and Royals over the past two decades. The Indians moved from their longtime home of Tucson, Ariz., to Winter Haven, Fla., in 1993, then moved to a new complex in Goodyear, Ariz., in 2009. The Reds joined them in Goodyear the following year, leaving deep roots in Florida.

At present, the Brewers, Astros, Nationals and Blue Jays are currently exploring their future options, as each of their spring training stadium leases expire within the next few years.

The Nationals and Blue Jays most likely will remain in Florida for spring training because relocating to Arizona doesn’t make sense geographically. But the Brewers and Astros could sway either direction – Arizona or Florida – and both clubs have admitted as much.

“We’re definitely not opposed to a one-team facility,” said Astros general counsel Giles Kibbe, “But it (a two-team facility) seems to be the direction everyone’s going at the point.”

A two-team facility has many advantages. Ballparks that host two clubs rarely have a day off in March, with games played almost daily. From a monetary standpoint, teams and municipalities stand to generate more revenue than when hosting just one club, which is particularly important for teams like the Astros, Brewers, Nationals and Blue Jays, whose ticket sales don't reach the stratosphere of their more popular competitors.

While MLB is the largest draw at spring training, all minor-league players signed to an organization participate in camp. So two teams sharing the same facility also benefit from a scheduling perspective, reducing their travel costs to games at both their major- and minor-league levels. In Florida, 15 clubs are spread over four separate geographic regions, whereas in Arizona, all Cactus League clubs train in metro Phoenix.

State governments may also be more likely to open their coffers for a two-team facility, Kibbe explained. But two-team facilities also come with higher construction costs, and municipalities often lose money maintaining any facility, taking the plunge anyway on a sense of civic pride and community.

"Phoenix Muni" opened in 1964 and, along with the nearby Papago Park minor-league complex, has been an integral part of the Cactus League scene for decades. Willie Mays hit the first home run there. Former A’s pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Rick Honeycutt used to jog between the ballpark and picturesque Papago Park, located a mile and a half from each other. And before the Diamondbacks became an MLB franchise, the quaint ballpark hosted the Triple-A Phoenix Firebirds for many years. But the clubhouse, training, weight and storage rooms at both facilities are small and outdated, Polakowski said.

Next season, when the A’s debut at HoHoKam, they will find more room to maneuver and will also become the last team in the Cactus League to offer its fans the option of catching a home run ball beyond the outfield fence, with berm seating. The seating capacity will be reduced from 14,000 to 10,000.

“One of the things we told the architect was we don’t want to lose the intimacy Muni has,” Polakowski added. “Muni’s a great ballpark; it’s the way spring training’s always been. It’ll be sad to see the end of an era.”

Phoenix Muni will become the new home of Arizona State baseball in 2015.

For his part, Kibbe isn’t opposed to remaining at Osceola County Stadium in Florida beyond 2016 spring training if the Astros and the City of Kissimmee can work out a deal to renovate the facility. Polakowski said if these teams want to have a spring training facility all to themselves, they may have no other choice.

Quipped Polakowski: “We didn’t have a real interest in wanting to share.” 

Joe Connor is a contributor to NBCSports.com and author of the annually-updated online spring training travel guide “A Fan’s Guide To The Ultimate Spring Training Experience” which is available for purchase exclusively at his web sites: http://www.modernerabaseball.com and http://www.mrsportstravel.com.