The Homestead exemption act of 1992

In 1992 the Baltimore Orioles opened Camden Yards to rave reviews. The success of that facility has affected the design of every new major league park, in varying degrees, over the last two decades. 1992 also brought another significant event that had long-lasting effects on major league ballparks, but that event affected spring training complexes.

For decades, spring training was all but synonymous with Florida, and in 1992 that was still largely true. Of the 26 teams in major league baseball 18 trained in Florida. The eight exceptions were in Arizona: the Brewers in Chandler; the Cubs in Mesa; the A’s in Phoenix; the Giants in Scottsdale; the Mariners and Angels in Tempe; the Indians in Tucson; and the Padres in Yuma. Basically, Arizona had all but one of the West Coast teams (the Dodgers were still clinging to their ancestral spring home in Vero Beach, Florida) plus three Midwest teams. Except for the Indians, all the teams in the Eastern Time Zone were in Florida.

At this point in time, the good people of Homestead, Florida were eager to enter the spring training sweepstakes. Homestead, at the southernmost tip of the Florida mainland, was then a town of about 25,000 and largely agricultural, aside from the local Air Force base. Despite the fact that metropolitan Miami was just a few miles to the north, Homestead was largely isolated. The Everglades lay to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and the Florida Keys to the south.

Of course, a town in search of a team must pay to play. Well, Homestead was willing to pay, so they found a team. The Cleveland Indians had trained at Hi Corbett Field in Tucson, Arizona since 1947, back in the Bill Veeck era, but they decided to shift spring operations to Homestead. After cutting a deal with the Indians, Homestead spent $22 million to construct a complex for the Tribe, who were to take occupancy in the spring of 1993. The complex included all the amenities expected of a spring training complex in the early 1990s. The design included a full complement of practice fields, dormitories, and a distinctive tropical pink facade wrapping around the 6,500-seat stadium.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had designs of her own. Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm, devastated Homestead on August 24, 1992. Even though it was the first major storm of the season, the damage to the Indians’ complex was too extensive to be repaired by spring training, 1993. The Indians had an escape clause in their contract with Homestead, but what to do?

The team was truly in an any-port-in-a-storm situation. Returning to Tucson was out of the question, as the Colorado Rockies had secured the Indians’ former home for their inaugural spring training. Sitting out spring training was not an option, so the Indians went in search of a one-year deal. Obviously, they were not in a good bargaining position. The only deal they could find was in Winter Haven, Florida, where the Red Sox had just vacated Chain of Lakes Park in favor of City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. Unfortunately, the Indians could not get a one-year deal. The best they could obtain was a ten-year lease. So Homestead got stiffed, not just for 1993 spring training but forever after.

While the other teams that trained in Florida had dodged the bullet, you can bet they all took note of what happened in Homestead. I don’t imagine MLB executives would score high on empathy tests, but I’ll bet they were all thinking, “Geez, that coulda been us!” Subsequent hurricanes, especially Charley, Ivan, and Jeanne in 2004, swept over Florida. Some complexes sustained damage from those storms but all were repaired in time for spring training 2005.

Nevertheless, MLB executives came to realize that having a spring training complex in harm’s way wasn’t mandatory. Arizona was looking better and better. What was the worst that could happen in Arizona? A sandstorm? Sure, you might need a lot of water to keep the fields green, but the intense heat was only a problem in the summer. Arizona had no hurricanes (alas, no theme parks, space shuttle launches, beaches, or deep sea fishing either), but they did have palm trees and pleasant weather in March. And it was already a second front in the spring training wars so it had been broken in, so to speak.

Eastern seaboard major league teams had long spring training traditions in Florida, so the Sunshine State could probably put them in the “safe” column. Teams in the Midwest, however, were in play. Since the Indians took refuge in Winter Haven in 1993 (they have since returned to Arizona), the only other teams to take up spring residence in Florida are the Marlins and (Devil) Rays, who obviously have a vested interest in the state. Meanwhile, the Rangers, Royals, White Sox, Dodgers, and Reds have joined the Indians in Arizona. The only teams from the Central Time Zone in Florida are the Twins in Fort Myers, the Astros in Kissimmee, and the Cardinals in Jupiter.

I haven’t heard of any of these teams making noises about pulling up stakes, but next year the Astros may look around, see that all their new rivals in the American League West are in Arizona, and wonder why they are in Florida. So when the lease runs out on their complex in Kissimmee, they may take a more critical look at Osceola County Stadium—the smallest in all spring training. They may want to rectify that, among other shortcomings—real or perceived—but not by paying for it themselves. So despite proximity to Disney World, which would seem to be a competitive advantage for families attending spring training, the Astros might start quietly making inquiries about Arizona.

Similarly, the Cardinals and Twins may get itchy feet when their leases are about to expire. Realizing that Arizona is no father away than Florida, they too might start to lean towards the Grand Canyon State. The Cardinals might ponder the revenue they could garner from spring match-ups with the arch-rival Cubs in Arizona. The Twins might notice that all the other teams in their division are in Arizona, except for the Tigers—something of a special case, as they have been ensconced in Lakeland, Florida, since 1934 (aside from the World War II austerity years).

Of course, even in Arizona, the musical chairs routine among MLB teams and cities is still popular. Spring training complexes have a way of becoming obsolete even faster than big league ballparks. Since their inaugural season in 1998, the Diamondbacks, had spent spring training in Tucson at a brand new complex they shared with the White Sox. The joint was jumping throughout late February and March, and the Diamondbacks’ AAA team, the Sidewinders, provided a regular season tenant for the facility.

Now there is no more spring ball in Tucson and the Diamondbacks’ AAA team has moved to Reno. The Padres are temporarily housing their AAA affiliate in Tucson till they can find a permanent home, but as soon as they leave, the facility’s future will be clouded. Now we’re not talking about some dilapidated, outdated, musty old monstrosity but a facility that’s only 14 years old. This spring, the complex is forsaking baseball in favor of soccer, as Tucson is playing host to several MLS teams in training.

And there are plenty of other examples, both in Florida and Arizona. The Rangers moved from Pompano Beach to a brand new complex in Port Charlotte, Florida in 1986. At the time, all was hunky-dory but around the turn of the millennium, the Rangers had second thoughts, and by 2003, they were in Surprise, Arizona.

This year the Red Sox, at home in Fort Myers since 1993, are moving into a new complex in the same city. Since the Sox games are always sell-outs and New England tourists flood the area every spring, Fort Myers was more accommodating than they might have been for the crosstown Twins.

Something seems to happen during the 10-15 year span of a spring training complex. The team starts to grumble about the inadequacy of their current digs and rumors about a possible move start floating around. Spring training host cities are victimized by rising expectations. Teams look at the facilities that have opened in the years since their facility opened and get amenity envy. So they start making noises that they just might have to seek—almost literally—greener pastures. Maybe they’re not really interested in moving but just applying some pressure to the host city to loosen the purse strings.

As a general rule, there’s some municipality out there somewhere that’s willing to build a new complex to order. Had the Homestead complex not been hit by Hurricane Andrew, it’s likely that the Indians would have vacated by now anyway. Given the experiences of jilted towns in Florida and Arizona, it’s hard to believe that any municipality is still willing to spend the bucks to bring baseball to town for a mere six weeks per year.

Of course, MLB execs have played the same game for years in order to get extensive renovations or new ballparks in their regular season homes. The argument usually went something like, hey, if you can’t give us what we need, there’s another city out there who would love to provide a home for our team.

This strategy still works in Arizona and Florida at the spring training level, but it seems to have gone out of style in MLB cities. Today one doesn’t hear much talk of franchise moves. None of the top 30 metropolitan areas without major league baseball (Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio, Orlando, and Las Vegas) is making any noises—at least not loud noises—about obtaining a major league baseball franchise. And if it comes down to voters’ approval, you can pretty much forget about it in today’s economy. The Oakland A’s have been angling for a new ballpark in the Bay Area for a long time, and one can only wonder what will happen if their lease runs out in Oakland and they have nowhere to go.

Meanwhile, back home in Homestead (great name for a country and western song, eh?), what do you do with a damaged spring training complex? It’s no good to anyone damaged, so might as well fix it up, right? Right! So Homestead spent $8 million on repairs in 1992-1993, thinking that another team would come calling.

They were wrong.

Oh, the complex did play host to occasional events. For a while, they were home to the U.S. Olympic baseball team and hosted some college baseball games and various youth league tournaments. The Florida Marlins even played some exhibition games there. And there were other flirtations with soccer, fireworks displays, the movie industry, even pro cricket (I know…who knew there was professional cricket in the USA?), but no heavy-duty tenants. Given the upkeep of such a sizeable complex, it was a white elephant of enormous girth, and Homestead is not among the more affluent South Florida cities. Boca Raton, it ain’t!

Actually, the stadium at Homestead would have made an excellent minor league park. Again, Homestead’s location proved to be a drawback. As part of the Marlins’ marketing area, any affiliated minor league team would have to be part of the Marlins’ network. The Marlins played their first regular season game less than eight months after Hurricane Andrew did its business, but their minor league operations were already in place.

Triple-A ball has not worked in Florida and, aside from Jacksonville, neither has AA ball. The Florida State League (high-A ball) would have been a good fit for the Marlins, but they had already linked up with the Brevard County Manatees. Their Space Coast Stadium was scheduled to open in Viera (near Melbourne) in 1994, and the Marlins would also use the facility for spring training (after spending their inaugural spring training at the Astros’ old facility in Cocoa). While Homestead was in Miami’s backyard, it might as well have been in Alaska, for all the good it did them.

As the years passed, Homestead’s chances of landing a team grew dimmer and dimmer. At one time spring training was popular in South Florida. Over the years Miami, Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, and West Palm Beach had hosted spring training. But one by one, teams in those towns migrated elsewhere. Teams evacuated the lower reaches of the Atlantic side of the peninsula in favor of the Gulf Coast side of the peninsula, central Florida, and the central Atlantic coast. Circumstances had rendered Homestead more and more isolated for potential exhibition games, which would have involved longer and longer bus rides. Today the closest teams are in Fort Myers and Jupiter, both more than 100 miles away. Time spent on the bus is time wasted, precious time that could be spent on workouts, instructions, or practice.

So Homestead might have been doomed in the long run, even if Hurricane Andrew had chosen a different route. In the short run, at least they would have garnered some revenue from Indians games to help pay for the complex. Nevertheless, despite two decades of disappointment, the Homestead Sports Complex is in surprisingly good shape, thanks to the sale of the complex to the La Ley Sports group, who have renamed it—surprise!—the La Ley Sports Complex. The complex now hosts an assortment of amateur tournaments, not just for baseball teams but for other sports. I suspect the 6,500-seat capacity is rarely taxed, and for traditionalists the ping of aluminum on horsehide will never replace the thwack of wood on same, but better amateur ball than no ball at all.

The isolation of Homestead may not be a problem for youth tournaments, but it definitely worked against spring training exhibition games. In Arizona, they heard the same message loud and clear. With no more than three teams in Tucson, numerous bus rides up I-10 to the Phoenix area were needed to diversity the exhibition schedule. Now the teams are all clustered in metropolitan Phoenix, rendering “away” games no farther away than the distance many commuters in the Valley of the Sun drive every day, and leaving more time for productive pursuits.

For the time being, parity has been achieved in spring training: 15 major league teams train in Arizona and 15 in Florida. But rumors crop up every year about one or more franchises moving, so one state may gain an advantage over the other in the years to come. If so, I would bet on Arizona getting the upper hand. Weather is a major factor – and not just lack of hurricanes. Arizona is dryer than Florida and rain is less likely to wash out workouts or exhibition games.

On the other hand, how many training camps can metropolitan Phoenix absorb? Will it get to the point that every self-respecting Phoenix suburb must have its own spring training complex, just as surely as it must have a Walmart and a Chuck-E-Cheese? Significantly, all the complexes in Arizona that have opened since Peoria (Mariners/Padres) in 1994 have been built to accommodate two teams, thus bringing in twice as many spring game dates and fans, and, theoretically at least, twice as much revenue.

In Florida, the first dual spring training site was in Jupiter in 1998, when the Cardinals and Expos opened their camps. Today it remains the only one of its kind in Florida (the Marlins subbed for the Expos in 2003). The old business model of a single team operating at a single facility may be obsolete, though exceptions might be made for teams with huge followings, such as the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Phillies.

It will be interesting to see how long parity lasts. It may be just a transitional phase till Arizona gets the upper hand. It is difficult to envision Florida regaining dominance. The annual threat of hurricanes is definitely a wet blanket. Hurricanes don’t pass through during the spring training season, but as Hurricane Andrew showed, that doesn’t mean that spring training will remain unaffected. I’m sure the folks in Fort Myers thought long and hard about that before they went ahead with the new home for the Red Sox.

When Hurricane Andrew did a number on Homestead, Florida, the youngest players training in Arizona this spring weren’t even born. Had that event not happened, a lot of them might be working out today in Florida. But I’d be surprised if any of them had ever heard of either Hurricane Andrew or the Homestead Exemption it wrought.

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Comments

  1. KJOK said...

    Excellent article.

    I would however question this:
    “In Florida, the first dual spring training site was in Jupiter in 1998” as the Cardinals and Mets shared a St. Petersburg complex from 1962 to 1987.

  2. Anonymous Mike said...

    Nice overview on Homestead but you left out or under-emphasized 2 key points in describing why AZ gained the upper-hand over FL:

    1)  Travel:  You mention Homestead’s isolation and the advantages of having all 15 AZ teams int he Phoenix area but you don’t mention the horrendous travel times for Florida teams seeking to travel outside of their geographic clusters. 

    20 years ago the Padres trained in Yuma, Indians in Tucson, and Angels part of the season in Palm Springs.  Even after the AZ teams clustered in Tucson or Phoenix, no more than 2.5 hours apart, that proved to be too much.  The exodus from Tucson might have happened in a 2 year period but it started when the White Sox bolted for Glendale and the D-backs and Rockies then decided that 2 times was too few for Tucson. Compare that for Florida, especially on the Atlantic side with fewer teams, with more than a few 2 hour drives

    2) Financing: I’ll admit I have lost track of this over the last few years so I don’t know if Florida has dome something but back in 1992 when the Indians were leaving the Cactus League was on death’s door.  What saved the League was a tourism tax that was used to finance stadium construction and renovation – municipal financing of stadiums is only 1 part of the whole package.  What will provide the ceiling to # of teams in Phoenix area will be the limits to tax revenue; stadiums that were renovated under the original tax are due to be renovated again and there’s only so much to the pie.

    I know you centered the article around Hometead but if you wanted to due a companion piece on the different trajectories of AZ and FL do one on the Indians from the time they decided to move to FL to the time they cam back to AZ in 2010 – the players thought they won the lottery when they saw the set-up in Goodyear

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