As Major League Baseball teams practice for the opening of a new season, some fans dream of home runs, others of strikeouts. But as both a baseball fan and a Californian, I am rooting for a steal – of spring training itself.
You could call my plan Stealing Arizona. Today, not one of California’s five major league teams – the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, San Diego Padres, Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim – holds spring training in its home state. If California fans want to see their teams conduct spring workouts and play exhibition games, they have to travel to greater Phoenix, where all five clubs train and play.
Indeed, over the past 20 years, the state of Arizona and its cities have used hundreds of millions of dollars in public subsidies to corner the market on spring training in the West. Fifteen of the 30 major-league teams now train in and around Phoenix. The rest, all from Eastern and Southern cities, hold spring practice in Florida.
California has surrendered its teams to Arizona without a fight. This capitulation is somewhat understandable. California municipalities are hurting financially, and competing with the Arizonans in tax giveaways would have been a bad idea.
But does it have to be this way? California teams, by the very nature of their business, depend on the goodwill and dollars of Californians and their governments. So we have the leverage, if we choose to use it, to force the Padres, Giants, A’s, Dodgers and Angels to move back across the Colorado River.
The best reason to bring the teams back involves economy and geography. The most natural home for spring training camps in California – the valleys and deserts of Southern California’s Inland Empire – is also one of our state’s most economically distressed regions. Riverside and San Bernardino counties, still suffering from the housing crisis, can use all the tourism and economic activity they can get. Spring training brings an estimated $600 million annually to Phoenix in tourism. Plus, the Inland Empire is full of baseball fans who root for – and buy the jerseys, caps and tickets of – the Dodgers, Angels and other California teams. A question for team owners: Wouldn’t you agree that you have an obligation to do everything in your power to help distressed communities that support you?
Relocating California’s teams to inland spring training bases wouldn’t require building costly new stadiums with taxpayer dollars. The three Southern California teams could use the facilities of their minor league affiliates in the Inland Empire – Lake Elsinore (Padres), San Bernardino (Angels) and Rancho Cucamonga (Dodgers). The two Bay Area teams could go to their San Joaquin County affiliates in Stockton (A’s) and Fresno (Giants). Or, if the A’s and the Giants wanted to be closer to the Southern California teams to reduce spring travel, they could share the beautiful baseball stadium in Palm Springs’ Sunrise Park, the sort of place that sun-deprived San Franciscans would love.
Spring training baseball in California might feel new, but it would be a restoration of a very proud tradition. The Chicago Cubs trained on Catalina Island in the early 20th century. Riverside, San Bernardino and El Centro have all been spring training homes for major-league teams.
And, from 1961 to 1992, the Angels held spring training in Palm Springs. As a baseball-crazy kid in 1980s Southern California, I routinely made the two-hour drive east with family and friends to watch exhibition games. Very little in today’s Arizona spring training experience, with its clean and corporate stadiums surrounded by parking lots, compares to the intimacy of Palm Springs Stadium, in the middle of a public park with a library nearby.
If appeals to community duty and California pride won’t persuade our teams to leave Arizona, then we could play hardball. Major League Baseball teams often need help from one government entity or another; the A’s and Angels right now have stadium issues that will require government assistance in some form. A simple state law that prohibits government assistance to sports franchises that don’t base their training in California would help. Or, the state could threaten an admissions tax on tickets if the teams won’t come home.
The biggest hurdle to a homecoming might be legal. Many of the California teams have long-term financial commitments to their subsidized Arizona ballparks. The Angels’ lease in Tempe, for example, reportedly runs until 2025. Perhaps the teams could negotiate a transition period – or follow a time-honored tradition of American sports franchises and break their leases.
This week, my two older sons and I will get in the car in the San Gabriel Valley and head east on Interstate 10 through the Inland Empire to Arizona to see our favorite team, the Angels. The trip should take six hours. Here’s hoping that in a few years, the drive will be much shorter.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square (www.zocalopublicsquare.org).