My team, the Chicago Cubs, has been much in the news lately in my new home state, Arizona. For six decades they’ve been a baseball spring-training fixture in the Phoenix area, but as their contract with their home base of Mesa neared an end they began making eyes at upscale Naples, Florida, about a possible move there.
Creating competition is a common bargaining ploy but an effective one, especially when the alternative is credible. In the old Jack Benny skit, the robber poked a gun at Jack and demanded “Your money or your life!” The joke was that it took Jack a while to make up his mind. This was no joke, though; similarly confronted, Mesa promised to fork over and, this week, the Cubs promised to stay.
A happy ending, right? Not really. Times are tough everywhere but especially here in the Valley of the Sun, where growth is the No. 1 industry and the housing collapse has knocked the props out from under the economy. Governments in the area, including Mesa’s, have been hard hit, reducing or eliminating services and laying off employees by the hundreds. The state of Arizona is in such bad shape that its doofus legislature has taken time off from its usual priorities of extending gun rights and promoting school prayer to close parks and sell office buildings in a so-far-vain attempt to make ends meet.
Still, although several steps remain, the betting is that somewhere, somehow—probably through new taxes on tickets and tourists— these entities will find the $84 million it’s supposed to cost to build the new stadium and up-to-date practice facility the team demanded.
It’s tempting to cast a pox on all the actors in this only-in-America drama—on the Cubs for their rapacity and on the Arizonans for their spinelessness— but it ain’t that simple. Those who’ve followed my writings know that while I generally disapprove of public spending for new stadiums on grounds they aid only the team, not the local economy as a whole, I make an exception for Sunbelt spring-training facilities. Not only do most short-term revenues they produce come from out of towners, but there’s also the more-profound effect of encouraging visitors to buy first or second homes in an area, thus stimulating further important spending (on furniture, appliances and the like) and supporting local property values. It’s a gift that keeps on giving, big time.
Arizona woke up to this in 1993, when the Cleveland Indians abandoned Tucson for Florida, reducing the Cactus League to eight (of the then-28) Major League teams and threatening the critical mass of clubs needed for the league to exist at all. Countywide tax funds were created in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, the two main spring-training focuses, to help communities build or improve baseball facilities, and local boosters also got into the act. The upshot has been that 15 (of the now-30) teams currently make Arizona their spring home, and no one would be surprised if the number rose further in the next few years.
Of those 15, none are more important than the Cubs; no matter how woeful they may be once the games begin for real, their legion of lunatic fans make them the Kings of Spring. March baseball elsewhere might be a casual affair, but at the Cubs’ base of HoHoKam Park (named for an ancient Indian tribe) it’s all crowds, traffic jams and ticket scalpers. The team annually leads the Cactus League in home attendance and Cubby lovers spread their largess to the other Arizona ballparks when their darlings visit. The circuit is a horse-and-rabbit stew, and the Cubs are the horse.
Such economic power makes it too much to expect the team to exercise restraint when it comes to making a spring-training deal. The nice-guy thing for the Cubs to have done would have been to put up with their current, not-so-bad digs without complaint for another couple of years, waiting until long-faithful Mesa got back on its feet before holding them to the fire. But—hey—in sports you know where nice guys finish.
There’s a joke in there someplace.
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