Monday, April 2, 2012

Dynamic Spring Training

I think it's interesting that I've been reading a book about the history of Spring Training and how a lot of teams found their way to their current location. It's called Under the March Sun: The Story of Spring Training, and as much as it tells stories about figures like Al Lang, it also talks about the economics and politics around towns, counties, and states trying to secure (or walk away from) hosting Spring Training. It's interesting that I'm reading it because the current situation playing out on Florida's east coast could be a new chapter for this book, except that it's not quite done being written.

If you've noticed in the Mets Spring Training schedule, or heard the different broadcasters mention, there are only 4 teams currently playing Spring Training baseball on the Atlantic coast, and the other 3 regular Spring opponents of the Mets are between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 hours away. That's a lot of time on the bus. If you've ever been down there to follow the Mets around (like what I've been doing for the past 9 Marches), you know that the Marlins and Cardinals are about 40 minutes south of Port St. Lucie in Jupiter (just north of West Palm Beach), the Nationals are about an hour north in Viera (just south of Cocoa Beach), the Astros are about 1 1/2 hours away up Florida's Turnpike in eastern Kissimmee, the Braves train at Disney's Wide World of Sports, which is a good 2 hour drive away, and the Tigers, a new regular opponent, are 2 1/2 hours away in Lakeland, about half way between Disney World and Tampa. Outside of the trip to Jupiter, that's a lot of driving. The Mets used to have the Orioles 90 minutes south in Fort Lauderdale (they moved to Sarasota a couple years ago), and the Dodgers were 30 minutes north in Vero Beach going back to the days of Jackie Robinson until 2008 when they moved to Arizona.

Teams move around. The current talk is that the Nationals are looking to move out of their facility in Viera (originally built for the Marlins for Spring Training 1993, the Expos traded spots in Jupiter with the Marlins when Jeffrey Loria sold the Expos to Major League Baseball and bought the Marlins in 2002) and are rumored to be looking in both Fort Myers (very far away from Port St. Lucie) and even in Arizona. The writing is on the wall that the Mets are going to lose another local Spring Training opponent. And the Houston Astros are also looking to move out of their facility in Kissimmee, and their new owner Jim Crane has business interests just south of Port St. Lucie in the name of a golf course in Palm City in Martin County (the next county south of Port St. Lucie). While the Astros have been rumored to be looking at every available baseball field in both Arizona and Florida, I have a strong feeling that the Astros will end up sharing the Mets complex in Port St. Lucie. Jim Crane (as well as the Astros GM) were seen touring the Mets facility in Port St. Lucie on Saturday, reportedly their 3rd visit there this year (based on the information that a local told me). It's also been reported that the Mets are interested in having the Astros as co-tennants so that they can cut down on the travel (even if it's just a little bit) and possibly not have to leave Port St. Lucie entirely.

That last point goes back to the travel. Let's say that a Spring Training season is 30 games - 15 at home and 15 on the road. Let's assume that it's 15 home-and-home series, so that it's balanced and fair. In those 15 road games, 6 will be in Jupiter (3 each against the Marlins and Cardinals), the shortest bus ride away at about 40 minutes. If the Nationals and Astros both move, they're out of the equation. The next shortest trip is 2 hours to Disney, which they may do twice. That's still only half of the road games, and there's just nothing else even remotely close by. The defection of teams from the east coast has been a cause for concern that basically has the Mets, Cardinals, and Marlins each considering at what point do they say that they can't stay there any more, pick up and move, and the whole I-95 baseball corridor comes crumbling down. The Mets are committed to Port St. Lucie (there were some off-season improvements in the stadium) and them welcoming the Astros into town shows that they don't want to be the ones to make the whole thing crumble.

So what the Mets want, really need, is for the Astros (or at least another team, and better the Astros soon to be of the American League, than the Nationals, of the Mets own division) to move to Port St. Lucie. Right away, it brings in probably 3 road games with absolutely zero travel (bringing the total up to 9 games on the I-95 corridor and 2 up at Disney, with 4 more long road trips left to schedule).

The Astros coming to Port St. Lucie would help the travel situation. But I don't think we're really out of the woods until the east coast can secure a 5th team, whether it's someone putting up the money to build for the Nationals (or another team, though no other team is known to be looking), maybe a bit further south, closer to St. Lucie and Jupiter. My idea is to have a new 2 team complex in Martin County along I-95 (there's already hotels at exit 101, and it looks like plenty of space there), but I've been told that Martin County wouldn't allow any new construction, so that idea may not fly. Again, this location would be about half way between Jupiter and Port St. Lucie, so a short bus ride for those 2 teams to each location.

One thing to consider is that in my possible schedule for the Mets, they visit the Tigers and Braves twice, so each of those teams comes to Port St. Lucie twice. If the Astros join the Mets in Port St. Lucie, will the Tigers make that 2 1/2 hour trip down there 4 times now, or the Braves making that 2 hour trip 4 times instead of twice? Somehow, I doubt that. There's still a lot of holes in the schedule without a 5th team on the east coast. I think the Tigers would rather play the Phillies and Blue Jays more (under an hour of travel) to make up for the lost games in Kissimmee than they would coming down to Port St. Lucie more often.

Jim Crane's visit to Port St. Lucie is a telling sign. My fear is that it may not be enough to save Spring Training on the east coast of Florida.

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