Lost in Wednesday's news about NCAA tourney games and cricket-playing ballplayers was the strongarm suggestion by Cubs chairman Crane Kenney that the team could leave Mesa if the city isn't amenable to improving its situation at HoHoKam Park in the near future.
In case you missed it, here's what Kenny told reporters while not-so-subtly reminding Mesa that the Cubs could be "the most desirable free agent" in spring training:
''We've enjoyed our time in Mesa, and they've done a good job for us here. But if anybody's been to Goodyear (Indians) or Glendale (Dodgers/White Sox), we no longer have a facility that is commensurate with the type of team we have.''
Gauntlet, meet ground. Physical, meet challenge. The Cubs have called Mesa home for 31 straight years and they also trained there between 1952 and 1965. Their current lease runs through 2012, but if they want out, they must notify city officials by February 2010. Ironically, HoHoKam means "those who vanished" and there would be any number of cities — Sarasota, Fla., chief among them — ready to swallow the team's legion of free-spending fans.
Mesa mayor Scott Smith met with Kenney on Wednesday afternoon and while he later played the "remain calm, all is well!" card with reporters, it seems clear he'll have to do whatever it takes to prevent an escape that the East Valley Tribune claimed would be "devastating to Mesa."
Here's what Smith said:
"I don't think it's any surprise that as the Cubs get to 2012, they're going to test the market, explore options and see what's out there; (Kenney) made it clear they'll do that. He also made it clear how happy they are in Mesa. They really feel like there's a connection with Mesa."
Undoubtedly the deal will get done and Mesa will build a 1:1 scale model of Wrigleyville if that's what the Cubs request. Just like the Red Sox used Sarasota as a straw man to get a new deal in Fort Myers, Kenney will do the same to get what he wants, 3K miles away.
But here's the thing: The Cactus League should probably be just as desperate to retain the Cubs. Like the Yankees and Red Sox in Florida, it's the Cubs who draw a non-stop stream of sun-starved fans to Arizona spring after spring, but already have a transplanted fanbase of ex-pats who relocated to the sunshine. They're the flagship franchise of the Arizona circuit and they're the team that guarantees a full park no matter what day it is or who's in the lineup.
For example, I watched 9,053 people file into the Mariners' Peoria complex for a Thursday split-squad game that featured Aaron Miles and Micah Hoffpauir as its brightest stars. During the Seventh Inning Stretch, half the crowd yelled "Cubbies," just as it did at the Dodgers' Camelback Ranch on Tuesday. Think that would've happened with the Royals?
To further illustrate my point: The Cubs helped the Dodgers set an attendance record with 13K-plus fans at weeks-old Camelback Ranch during Tuesday's game. Then it set a HoHoKam record when it played the Giants on Wednesday, drawing a similar crowd. This Saturday, they'll likely rebreak the Camelback record when they go back to play their rivals, the White Sox.
OK, so the blue-clad masses of Baby Bear fans in Arizona might not be made up of the brightest fans out there. In fact, a good deal might not even be able to name one starter from the Cubs' regular lineup. ("Does Ryne Sandberg count?" most would probably say.)
But their wallets open just as wide and their money is just as green.
And even though Arizona is clearly winning the spring training battle with Florida — it lured the Dodgers, Indians and Reds across the country in recent years — I still don't think it wants to imagine a Cactus League without its biggest March draw.