Spring Training Moves West


Joker Marchant Stadium–Lakeland, Fla. Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

When I think of “Spring Training,” Florida comes to mind before its cross-country cousin, Arizona. At least two sets of fans think this way: Detroit Tigers’ fans and “old-school” baseball fans. This is because, for most of baseball’s history, spring training has taken place entirely, or mostly, in Florida.

The Tigers first entered into its relationship with Lakeland, a small town about 40 miles east of Tampa, in 1934. Prior to that, the team set up a temporary Tigertown in 17 different locations since its first year in the league in 1901.

The team has gotten ready for the season in the same location every year since (except for a three-year stint during World War II). Ironically, considering the Tigers longevity in one site in Florida, the team may have helped establish Arizona as a viable secondary option for teams as they were the first team to call Arizona a spring home in 1929.

Florida’s location worked for so many years because most teams were based east of the Mississippi River in the first half of the 20th Century, however relocating franchises and the challenge to baseball’s color barrier may have paved the way for Arizona’s rise.

Following World War II, two teams migrated to Arizona. One of those teams was the Cleveland Indians, whose owner at the time was the bombastic Bill Veeck. The story goes that Veeck, never one to toe the line, bucked the tradition, and took his Indians out of Florida because of the Jim Crow south. This decision may have stemmed from an incident at a stadium in Ocala, Florida when Veeck was told he could not engage in conversation with a group of African-American fans. The validity of this story has come into question, especially since Veeck owned ranches in Arizona. One factor supporting the previous claim is that Veeck signed the first African-American in American League history, Larry Doby, shortly after the move west. This was an acquisition that might not have been very popular in the deep south of the 1940’s.

Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, as teams began springing up on the West Coast, Arizona became a popular landing spot for many of these clubs in the spring. Today, the two states are split 15-15, with more appearing to be headed for Arizona.

No one needs to cry for the state of Florida. The beaches, theme parks, NASA and LeBron James’ talents all reside in the Sunshine State, but it is sad to see teams leave. The Kansas City Royals once had it so nice in Davenport, Florida, that the community adopted the nickname “Baseball City” and even built a baseball-related theme park adjacent to the stadium. The Los Angeles Dodgers had such a long-standing and affectionate relationship with Vero Beach that they stayed in Florida for many decades after their relocation from Brooklyn, finally pulling up stakes in 2008.

The only fellow Central Division team to remain in Florida with the Tigers are the Minnesota Twins, and they train well south of Lakeland, resulting in just one or two games between the rivals each spring. The White Sox, Indians and Royals are among the many teams to have relocated to Arizona within the last decade.

Camelback Ranch in Arizona. The spring home to both the White Sox and Dodgers. Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

There are several reasons why admittedly Arizona is the better place for Spring Training. Most of the complexes are within an hours drive of each other, whereas Florida’s sites are extremely spread out. Players enjoy Arizona because they can catch cabs back to the hotels when they are removed early from road games, instead of having to wait for the team bus to drive back across the state. Also, many teams have joint training complexes in the Copper State, resulting in fewer travel days when teams play their fellow spring tenants.

So while I understand why teams move west, the nostalgia of Spring Training in Florida won’t let me accept the facts before me. Part of me knows that if the Dodgers could leave Dodgertown behind, certainly the Tigers could leave Tigertown if lured by a lucrative package from an Arizona city. Nothing is forever.

Nonetheless, there is nothing like seeing a baseball soar over a palm tree, instead of getting stuck to a cactus.

Plus, even though it’s a dry heat in Arizona, don’t kid yourself, IT’S STILL HOT!