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BASEBALL'S DESERT BLOOM


BASEBALL'S DESERT BLOOM
Recession or no recession, these are heady times for Arizona's Cactus League.

In the long-standing battle between Arizona and Florida for spring-training supremacy, the balance of power has unquestionably shifted to the desert.

Two new teams the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians have relocated from Florida to Arizona this spring.

Two spanking new facilities will be opening up in the Valley of the Sun when pitchers and catchers report next month, one in Goodyear (housing the Indians), the other in Glendale (shared by the Dodgers and White Sox, who are relocating from Tucson).

One more Florida-based team, the Cincinnati Reds, is headed for Arizona in 2010, when they will partner with the Indians to make Goodyear an all-Ohio complex.

The Reds' defection will leave 15 teams in both the Cactus League and Florida's Grapefruit League, a remarkable occurrence considering that the Cactus League was in danger of dying in the late 1980s.

A series of car rental and hotel taxes helped build and upgrade facilities to lure teams from Florida as well as keep existing teams in Arizona including the Mariners, who moved from Tempe to a shared facility with the Padres in Peoria in 1993.

With the new teams, the Cactus League is sure to shatter the attendance record of 1.31 million fans it set last year.

"The only question is whether we surpass the Grapefruit League for the first time ever, even though we have 14 teams and they have 16," said Robert Brinton, the president of the Cactus League and executive director of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"I don't know if it's so much of a goal as a fact that it's going to happen, and when is it going to happen."

Because of the World Baseball Classic and a quirk of the calendar, spring games will start earlier (Feb. 25 for the Mariners' annual charity game with San Diego at the Peoria Sports Complex) and end later (the M's final game in Peoria will be April 2) than in normal years.

There are 245 total games on the Cactus League schedule, compared to 172 last year.

"I've dubbed it the spring-training stimulus package for Arizona," Brinton said. "That extra week will literally generate $50 million or more into the economy."

Cactus League officials are cautiously optimistic that they will have another prosperous spring despite the gloomy economic indicators. Jim Brink, marketing manager for the city of Peoria, jokingly cited the volatile weather in Seattle this winter as positive portent.

"A bad winter sometimes translates into a good spring for Peoria," Brink said.

Brinton admitted that early ticket sales are mixed, but the arrival of an attraction like the Dodgers has him encouraged.

"I can't call it recession proof, but certainly sports seem to be recession resistant," Brinton said. "A few teams have reported that sales are not going as fast; a few are saying they're going faster."

The Mariners are casting a wary eye at the new facilities, both of which overlap their fan base in Phoenix's West Valley.

The Goodyear stadium is a 20-minute drive from Peoria. Glendale is just 10 minutes away. And that's on top of the arrival of the Royals and Rangers seven years ago in a shared facility in nearby Surprise, and the Brewers' arrival in 1998 in Maryvale, which is on the fringe of the West Valley.

"Originally, when the teams decided they were going to break ground in Glendale and Goodyear, there was a little trepidation, because of the proximity," Brink acknowledged.

"On the other hand, it does add a new fan base to spring training, and a couple of new teams to our schedule. From that standpoint, there may be an increased draw factor."

Considering the economy, the new rivals, and the fact that the Mariners and Padres combined for 200 losses last season, Peoria officials have been bracing for a challenging year at the gate.

"From our presales, we're really not looking as bad as we thought, especially on the Mariners' side," Brink said. "They still remain strong."

He estimates that early sales for the Mariners are down approximately five percent. He believes they will be able to weather the bad economy.

"Spring training is special enough you're going to get your audience from out of state," he said.

One new wrinkle this year is that four national teams in the WBC Australia, Mexico, South Africa and the winner of the Asian bracket, expected to be Japan will play exhibition games against Cactus League clubs before the tournament begins. Team Australia will be training in Peoria.

The next major issue looming for the Cactus League is to sort out the status of the Tucson-based teams. With the White Sox paying $5 million to get out of their lease and move to Glendale, only the Diamondbacks and Rockies remain.

Both have contractual provisions allowing them to vacate Tucson if fewer than three teams train there; the Diamondbacks are actively seeking a new training site in the Phoenix area. The Rockies want to stay but only if new teams join them. Tucson is exploring the creation of a taxing authority that could allow it to lure a new Florida-based team to train in the area.

"We haven't given up on Tucson, but they're in the bottom of the ninth and not leading in the score," Brinton said.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

M's key dates Feb. 13: Pitchers and catchers report.

Feb. 14: Pitchers' and catchers' first workout.

Feb. 17: Position players report.

Feb. 18: First full workout.

Feb. 25: Charity game vs. San Diego.

March 14: Regular-season single-game tickets go on sale.

Mariners tickets Tickets for Mariners spring-training games can be ordered through Ticketmaster, on the Mariners' Web site (www.seattlemariners.com), or in person at the Peoria Sports Complex box office.

Prices: Infield box, $23, club box $21, outfield box $17, upper box $19, bleachers $12, outfield lawn seating $6.

Ticketmaster: Ticketmaster Arizona, 623-773-8720 or 206-622-HITS (Washington); www.ticketmaster.com or any Ticketmaster outlet.

Peoria Sports Complex: Box-office number is 623-878-4337 or 800-409-1511, but tickets must be purchased in person. The box office is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., and on Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.


Author:Fox Sports
Author's Website:http://www.foxsports.com
Added: January 22, 2009

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