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For baseball fans, spring training is a time for renewed hopes and a reminder that summer is on its way. And it's big business for major league teams and communities in Arizona and Florida. In Florida, a million and a half fans attend spring training games each year and they bring about $750 million into the state, but Arizona is making a play for more spring training business. So as NPR's Greg Allen reports, Florida is fighting to keep teams from leaving.
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: In Port St. Lucie, an hour before the first pitch at Tradition Field, many fans are already in their seats watching New York Mets take batting practice. The Mets have played here at Tradition Field since it was built in 1988 by a developer in hopes it would help attract people to the area. And it certainly has.
More than 80,000 people attended the Mets' 15 spring training home games last year, including Guy and Doris DelSignore. They're New Yorkers, now retired, who come down every year for spring training.
DORIS DELSIGNORE: We like baseball and it gives us something to do.
GUY DELSIGNORE: We've been with the Mets from 1962, since they started.
DELSIGNORE: We're die-hards.
DELSIGNORE: We're die-hard Mets fans.
ALLEN: Until the housing downturn, St. Lucie County on Florida's east coast, was one of the fastest-growing areas in the country. Many are people from the Northeast who retired here. Ed Laughlin isn't from the Northeast. He's from Illinois and still working.
ED LAUGHLIN: I have the best job - in my opinion - the best in the stadium 'cause I'm right here by the dugout. I sit, I got the best seat for games and I'm at every home game.
ALLEN: Laughlin is usually right behind home plate at Tradition Field, where he has a part time job working as an usher and member of the security staff. He says he meets lots of Mets fans who've moved here, and many more who come down for several weeks, or several months, each year. In St. Lucie County last year, a study found that out-of-towners visiting for spring training contributed more than $35 million to the local economy.
Laughlin says that means a lot in St. Lucie County.
LAUGHLIN: This isn't theme park country, and this isn't a destination that a lot of people think of in relationship to Florida for vacations. This makes it a real vacation spot for a couple of months each year.
ALLEN: The problem for Florida is communities in Arizona, home to spring training's Cactus League, feel the same way. They've spent big money in recent years building new facilities that have lured major league teams away from Florida's Grapefruit League. In 2008, after more than 60 years in Vero Beach, the Los Angeles Dodgers left Florida for a brand-new $80 million complex in Glendale, Arizona. Over the next four years, five other major league teams in Florida will be renegotiating their spring training leases.
And even in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets recently renewed their lease, public officials are nervous.
CHRIS DZADOVSKY: You know, we have a challenge on the East Coast. If the number of teams falls below four, there are out clauses for each of those teams to go somewhere else.
ALLEN: Chris Dzadovsky is a St. Lucie County commissioner. Over the years in Florida, many teams have moved spring training to the state's Gulf Coast. There are just four major league teams currently playing on Florida's east coast and one of them, the Washington Nationals, could be leaving. St. Lucie County is working to attract another team to the area. But doing so could be expensive.
A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan put the price tag for new practice fields, offices and training facilities at $60 million, a figure that's given Dzadovsky and other county commissioners heartburn. Faced with rising competition from communities in Arizona, Florida's Governor recently held his own spring training announcement.
GOVERNOR RICK SCOTT: I would clearly care about keeping all of our teams in Florida and we want them to flourish.
ALLEN: In Lakeland, Florida, Governor Rick Scott held a news conference where he was joined by executives from the Detroit Tigers, one of the five teams due to renegotiate their spring training leases. Scott is proposing setting aside $5 million annually to create a fund that would help communities pay for upgrades to spring training facilities.
SCOTT: The goal is, is to make sure all these teams that are here stay here, and we continue to grow spring training in our great state.
ALLEN: In St. Lucie County, commissioner Chris Dzadovsky says of the governor's proposal, it's a start, still far less than what he estimates even a downsized spring training facility would cost. For the teams, spring training has become a major revenue producer and it makes economic sense for them to be close to their fan base. That's why the Dodgers eventually left Florida for Arizona.
For Florida, the challenge now is to hold on to those teams from the Midwest, teams like Houston, on the map, located just about midway between the Cactus and the Grapefruit leagues. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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