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Spring training tour a bittersweet business

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 31, 2003

Hope springs eternal at the start of every 162-game season of Major League Baseball, even if that hope seems more of a trickle for those cheering on the still-young Tampa Bay Devil Rays on opening day.

So it was with an uneasy mix of skeptical business reporter and unabashed fan that I took my family last week on a minimarathon of spring training baseball games across Florida.

I traveled with one question in mind: Is baseball still our national pastime, even at the start of war in Iraq, or has the business of baseball -- the excessive commercialization, the constant shifting of power among the team owners and the stratospheric payrolls of teams full of spoiled adolescents -- finally sapped the game of its true spirit?

I always look forward to spring training as one of Florida's delights, a better-scaled and more personal preview of the season ahead. But I typically look up from my keyboard too late, only to find the brief, four-week season is over and done before I can manage to see more than a local game or two.

Not this time. In five consecutive days last week, my wife, son and I hit five spring season games, saw seven different teams in four different stadiums, sampled too many bratwursts and burgers in rain and in perfect sunshine, sang Take Me Out to the Ball Game and God Bless America numerous times, and watched some fine (and at times sloppy) baseball by teams whose combined 2002 payroll was a staggering $600-million.

Let's hit the road and watch some baseball:

Saturday, March 22: We started local, catching the New York Yankees hosting the Minnesota Twins at Tampa's Legends Field. My wife donned her Yankees cap while my son wore a Twins jersey. It was a beautiful day, and a near-capacity crowd came to see the richest and most-followed team in baseball, the Yanks, play the team Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig wanted to shut down as a losing Midwestern franchise.

It was also a day to see former Devil Rays player Bubba Trammell, once the No. 1 darling of Rays fans, play as a Yankee. And it was our first chance to see Japanese slugger Hideki Matsui (complete with a three-year, $21-million contract) and his fans, some of whom dressed dinosaur-style to honor Matsui's nickname: Godzilla.

The Yankees, owned by the irascible and big-spending George Steinbrenner, lost to the Twins, 4-3. The Yanks' highest-of-any-team payroll last year was $138-million. Steinbrenner and some minority investors bought the Yankees from CBS in 1973 for $10-million. Not a bad investment.

At $42-million, the Twins' 2002 payroll ranked 26th among 30 major league teams and is about one-third that of the Yankees. It's not much more than the $38-million that tight-fisted owner Carl Pohlad paid for the team nearly 19 years ago.

Sunday, March 23: After beelining across the state to the east coast, we arrived in Jupiter to see the St. Louis Cardinals play the Florida Marlins. Roger Dean Stadium, named for a local car dealership, is a typical 1998-style facility that's surrounded by typical new suburban development of apartment buildings and offices. Translation? There's no sense of "here" in this commercial nowhere land.

Despite ominous clouds and a delayed start, the game was well attended. Driving rain eventually forced a halt in the fourth. But not before we saw the Marlins' latest trophy acquisition, former Texas Rangers catcher Ivan Rodriguez. Nicknamed "Pudge," he is no wallflower and has taken quickly to the glitzy Miami lifestyle. Behind his waterfront mansion is a life-size bronze statue of himself, in full catcher uniform.

Anheuser-Busch bought the Cardinals in 1953 for a mere $3.75-million. Said Gussie Busch, grandson of founder Adolphus Busch, at the time: "I am going at this from a sports angle and not as a sales weapon for Budweiser beer." That's a good one.

For the record, the Cardinals' payroll of $74-million was the 12th highest last year. The Marlins' 2002 payroll of $44-million was 25th.

Monday, March 24: We are back in Jupiter on a bright, breezy, standing-room-only day to see the Cards take on the Los Angeles Dodgers before more than 7,000 fans. What's not to like (except a seat would be nice). As long-suffering Rays fans, we take special notice of the team's former players who have moved on to more competitive franchises. Today, ex-Ray Miguel Cairo plays for the Cards. And the Dodgers have landed the Rays' first base slugger, Fred "Crime Dog" McGriff. So there is life after playing for the Rays.

While the Cards' payroll of $74-million last year was $30-million more than the Marlins', in today's game, the Cards are the monetary underdogs. The Los Angeles Dodgers' 2002 payroll was $103-million, fifth highest in baseball, and $29-million more than the Cards'. No matter. In today's game, the Cards shine and beat the Dodgers, 6-1.

Tuesday, March 25: It's a pleasant night game in Port St. Lucie's Thomas White Stadium, home of the New York Mets, in a game against the Dodgers. The crowd, 6,000 strong, has a distinctly New Yawk flavor, so there's more banter among the fans. In its startup days in the 1960s, the hapless Mets franchise suffered plenty of ridicule (kind of like the Rays today). But time cures most wounds.

Tonight, the Mets even give out a bobblehead doll of Tom Seaver (a Mets Hall of Fame pitcher) to a couple of thousand lucky fans. The Rays, still lacking much history, in recent seasons have offered bobbleheads of McGriff (now a Dodger), Steve Cox (now playing in Japan) and Raymond (the team's furry mascot). The Rays wanted to hand out bobbleheads of promising outfielder Jason Tyner but stopped the promotion when Tyner hit a cold snap and was sent back to the minor leagues. Thousands of Tyner bobbleheads are sitting somewhere in a warehouse.

I watch Wilson Alvarez take the mound to pitch one inning of relief for the Dodgers. Alvarez was the Rays' first ace -- a multiyear, $30-million-plus pitcher -- who was a huge and expensive disappointment for the Tampa Bay team. Tonight, as Alvarez competes for a spot on the Dodgers pitching staff, he strikes out three Mets batters with little difficulty.

This game is a close contest of baseball but also of money. Both teams last year had similarly hefty payrolls of about $103-million. The Dodgers franchise is owned by Rupert Murdoch. The Mets are owned by Sterling Equities, which is controlled by Fred Wilpon.

Tonight, Mets and Dodgers fans are on edge. Already, there is bad blood between the two teams after March 12, when Mets star Mike Piazza was hit by a baseball thrown by Dodgers pitcher Guillermo Mota, then charged the mound. But all remains quiet as the Dodgers come from behind to win 3-2.

Wednesday, March 26: It's our fifth and final game, and this time we are in Vero Beach at the Dodgers' Holman Stadium, for a noon game against the Atlanta Braves. Now this is classy. So classy, the entire landscaped complex is known as Dodgertown. The stadium has a sunken field, and all seats are outside. Trees rise out of the back rows along the right and left field seats, giving shade to some lucky fans. The outfield fences carry no advertising signs, giving the stadium an uncluttered feel. A fancy clubhouse looms beyond right field. This is a place to watch some ball.

Especially today. The Braves score one run in the top of the first. Then the Dodgers come to bat. Walk. Walk. Walk. Walk. With the bases loaded, former Rays hitter McGriff drives one over the right field fence for a grand slam. I'm already missing him from the Devil Rays limp lineup.

This time, the Dodgers' 2002 payroll of $103-million edges the Braves' payroll (seventh highest) of $95-million. But these two teams have three things in common. They are both owned by giant media companies (Murdoch's News Corp. controls the Dodgers, and AOL Time Warner owns the Braves). Both teams are for sale. And neither team appears to have a likely buyer.

The game is a rout. The Dodgers clobber the Braves, 14-4.

Wednesday's win is the Dodgers' last game before hopping on a plane that evening for Los Angeles. A Dodgertown employee speaks nostalgically about the many decades of spring training at the Vero Beach facility. But he shakes his head, only half-amused, at the Dodgers players.

"What they want, they get," he says during the seventh inning stretch. "There are a lot of spoiled kids out there on the field.'

Spoiled kids -- and owners.

Part of the fun of spring training is the good chance of seeing some baseball greats from the past. At Monday's Cards game, for example, I got a rare view of '60s pitching star Bob Gibson. At Dodgertown, Hall of Famer, three-time winner of the Cy Young Award and Dodger great Sandy Koufax could sometimes be spotted.

No more. And we can thank, in part, Dodgers owner Murdoch, whose vast holdings include Fox News and the New York Post. The Post recently ran a gossip story suggesting Koufax was gay. The item was false, and Koufax took offense. He let the Dodger organization know that, after 48 years, he was severing ties with the club and would have nothing more to do with it so long as it was owned by Murdoch. Within 24 hours, the Post had retracted the story and apologized. Too late, it seems.

Tom Hanks said there's "no crying in baseball," but complaining -- there's room for plenty. Even if spring training is a glorious prelude to a long, and probably painful, 2003 season.

On this opening day, the hometown Devil Rays are dead last in team payroll. Come September, odds favor them as dead last in the American League standings.

"Like U.S. society, Major League Baseball franchises have an upper class and a lower class," says economics professor Andrew Zimbalist, the author of Baseball and Billions, a book about the big business behind our so-called national pastime.

I guess we know where we stand. Once again, it's time to grit our teeth and say, "Play ball!"

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at or (727) 893-8405.

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