Cactus League’s Revival Hinged On Rockies

Modern parks such as Salt River Fields abound in the Cactus League

DENVER—The Valley of the Sun has become a spring training nirvana. Fifteen major league franchises make Phoenix area their spring training home, with five two-team facilities and five single-team ballparks scattered throughout the suburbs.

It takes less than 50 minutes to drive from Salt River Fields, where the Diamondbacks and Rockies train, to Goodyear Ballpark, the shared home of the Reds and Indians. And that's the Cactus League's longest road trip.

Baseball is alive and well in Arizona. However, it hasn't always been that way.

Twenty-five years ago, when Major League Baseball was preparing for the addition of expansion franchises in Miami and Denver, the Cactus League was on life support.

The Indians and Giants planted the initial seeds of the Cactus League back in 1947, but Cleveland decided to end a 46-year relationship with Tucson after the spring of 1992 for the opportunity to move to Florida.

The future of the Cactus League seemed tied to landing the Rockies, which would allow it to retain an eight-team alignment.

The folks in Tucson put a full-court press on the Rockies, who seemed to be a logical addition to the scene, considering Denver's proximity to the desert of the southwest. However, it was not a cut-and-dried decision.

The Rockies explored options in Florida as well.

“It was more a matter of doing our due diligence and exploring all our options," said John McHale Jr., the Rockies' original vice president of baseball operations and currently a special assistant to commissioner Rob Manfred. “It didn't really make sense for us to go to Florida, but we had to make sure we explored all our options."

The Allure Of Florida

A faction of the Rockies organization was intrigued by the prospect of holding the club's spring training activities in the Sunshine State.

Bob Gebhard, the franchise's original general manager, had spent his previous 27 years of spring trainings in Florida in his roles as a player in the Twins system, and as an executive with both the Twins and Expos. A creature of habit, he had a comfort zone there.

It became apparent that ties to Florida were hard to break.

The folks in Winter Haven, Fla., worked on the Rockies. The Red Sox had just ended their 27-year relationship with the city and were moving to Fort Myers.

The Rockies, however, finally went the logical way, agreeing to train in Tucson for their inaugural season. Winter Haven eventually found a new tenant in the Indians, who had planned on moving into a new training facility in Homestead, Fla., once they terminated their relationship in Tucson. A hurricane, however, wiped out the initial construction in Homestead, and the Indians wound up in Winter Haven.

The Cactus League was saved and it has flourished ever since.

Arizona now has 15 teams, including the Indians, who returned in the spring of 2009 after 16 years in Winter Haven. They now have their spring training facility in Goodyear, where they were joined by the Reds in 2010.

Twelve of the 15 Arizona-based teams train in facilities that were built in 2003 or later. And the three other teams—the Giants in Scottsdale, the Angels in Tempe and the Athletics in Mesa—have benefited from major remodeling efforts on their facilities.

Major League Baseball set a spring training attendance record in 2015, with an average of 8,388 fans per game attending a contest at any one of the spring training sites, breaking the record average of 8,078 fans per game from the spring of 2014.

The average attendance at Cactus and Grapefruit league games last spring was 7,673, with teams in Arizona averaging 8,264 and teams in Florida averaging 7,040.

The Cubs remained the biggest draw in spring training, with a record average attendance of 15,078 last March in their new home of Sloan Park, which opened in 2014 after the Cubs had played at HoHoKam Stadium from 1997 until 2013.

Even without the Cubs included in that total, the 14 other Arizona-based teams averaged 7,784 tickets sold per game compared to the 7,040 average for the 15 teams based in Florida.

The Cactus League has come a long way since the spring of 1992, when the Indians decided to bolt for Florida. At the time, the folks in Arizona needed to lure the Rockies just to survive.

Luckily, they succeeded.