COMMENTARY | St. Louis Cardinals spring training is an annual rite for hundreds of Redbirds rooters.
But despite a warm relationship between Midwestern snow birds eager for their first taste of baseball after a long winter, and South Florida innkeepers and restaurant operators of Jupiter and Palm Beach who are excited to have some offseason business, camp Cardinal is in danger.
The Redbirds may opt to move out of their spring home since 1998 as soon as next year if the exodus of ball clubs from the area isn't halted.
Once home to the Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Florida (now Miami) Marlins, Montreal Expos-turned-Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, Yankees, and Cardinals, the southeast coast of Florida has dwindled down to only four remaining clubs: St. Louis, Miami, the Mets, and the Nats. That's apparently the smallest number of clubs the Cardinals and Marlins are willing to tolerate because traveling to the Tampa Bay or Orlando areas to find spring training games is too much of a hassle.
A journey from Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter to the Yankees' spring training home in Tampa is a 186-mile trip on secondary roads that takes a little bit more than three hours to cover in each direction. A drive from Jupiter to Fort Myers where the Twins and Red Sox train is about 140 miles. That takes about 2 hours, 45 minutes to navigate. It's typical to see several of the Cardinals' veteran players beg off the cross-state trips, which usually start before sunrise an end sometime after 8 p.m., to the disappointment of fans.
According to the Palm Beach Post, the Cardinals and Marlins each have an option on their lease at Roger Dean Stadium that allows them to opt out of their contract to play there if one more neighboring team pulls out. The Nationals, who play at aging Space Coast Stadium in Viera, are currently exploring a move to either the Orlando area in Central Florida or else to Arizona. They have an opt-out in their ballpark lease after the current edition of spring training ends, and it seems all but certain they will relocate.
In response, according to the Palm Beach Post, the Cardinals have quietly explored the idea of moving to the Orlando area near where the Braves, Detroit Tigers and Houston Astros now play. It's about 85 miles from there to the Tampa region, so it would take about an hour and a half to go play the Pittsburgh Pirates, Philadelphia Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays and the Yankees.
I'd hope before that move would happen that the folks in Palm Beach County would attempt to bring another couple of teams to the area.
I've talked to Jupiter hotel and restaurant managers over the years who say that they count on the revenue they make from spring training visitors to keep their bottom line healthy. Cardinals fans have put down roots in the decade an a half since the Redbirds moved to Jupiter after 50 years in St. Petersburg. A lot of them have purchased condominiums and have made other financial and emotional investments in the area. So it seems that it would be worth their while to keep the Cardinals and Marlins from packing up for elsewhere.
If Palm Beach County leaders could find a spot in West Palm Beach to put a complex that two clubs could call home, it would guarantee that southeast Florida baseball would remain viable.
Arizona has poached several Grapefruit League teams over the years, including the Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox, with sweetheart deals to build them new ballparks at rock-bottom lease prices. If Florida tourism officials want to stay in the business of spring training, they're going to have to start to offer similar deals. The most likely clubs to move might be the Astros and Toronto Blue Jays, who play in two of the smallest and oldest ballparks in the Grapefruit League.
Osceola County Stadium, built in the 1980s and renovated a decade ago, is the smallest spring training ballpark for a major-league club with only 5,300 seats. While it is clean and in good repair, the Astros' home park is thoroughly unexciting, and in the last five years it has struggled to attract even 4,000 people per game -- which is near the bottom of the spring training attendance chart. The Cardinals typically average more than 6,500 visitors for spring games.
Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, named after a Dunedin-area used-car dealership that paid less than $26,000 a year for naming rights, holds only about 5,500 people. It has very little parking and practice fields are located more than 3 miles away. The Blue Jays' contract to play there expires in 2017.
Another option could be the Cardinals' National League Central rivals from Milwaukee. According to the Arizona Republic, the Brewers' lease to play in suburban Phoenix expires in 2014 and negotiations with Arizona officials about where the club will play in the future have been contentious.
Roger Dean Stadium is a spring baseball utopia. It would be a shame to let the mutually beneficial relationship between the Cardinals and the nicest area of Florida come to an end.
Now is the time to act to save it.
Scott Wuerz has been a reporter and columnist at the Belleville News-Democrat, located in suburban St. Louis, since 1998. During that time he has covered three St. Louis Cardinals World Series appearances, the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star game and Mark McGwire's chase to break Roger Maris' home run record. He has penned the View From the Cheap Seats Cardinals fan blog for the News-Democrat since 2007.