Florida Towns Build Fields And Baseball Teams Come

Communities tally spring-training receipts as fans return to stands

ACROSS the street from the dew-kissed diamonds of the major league's Florida spring-training camps, the owners of laundromats, hotels, and taco stands are counting the receipts of a pretty good season.

After last year's strike slashed an expected $350 million stimulus in half, local officials weren't expecting an economic home run. But as spring training ends this week, they'll accept a double.

"The goal this year was to bring the fans back," says Larry Pendleton, executive director of the Florida Sports Foundation, a private-public group that oversees the state's sports industry.

Florida hosts 20 major league baseball teams in the annual six-week ritual called the Grapefruit League. Players from the New York Yankees, L.A. Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves, Montreal Expos, and others, gather here to sharpen their skills, secure their places in the batting order, and jog off a little winter weight.

Although spring in Florida is better known for college students soaking up sun, baseball pays the bills. Tourists come to get an early look at their home team, schmooze with a slugger, and request autographs. Unlike a student, a baseball fan stays in upscale hotels and spends hundreds of dollars visiting attractions such as Disney World in Orlando and Busch Gardens in Tampa.

For small Florida counties accustomed to the ups and downs of citrus crop freezes, hosting the grapefruit bunch has become a tourism investment. Following a "build and they will come" strategy, several towns have upgraded local facilities to lure teams - and fans - to their areas.

Tiny Polk County, a one-hour drive from Disney World, hosts three teams: the Cleveland Indians, the Detroit Tigers, and the Kansas City Royals. The combined windfall can be as much as $45 million annually. Hosting a team "puts heads in beds and enhances the economic climate of a county," says Mark Jackson, sports marketing director for the Central Florida Economic Development Council in Polk County.

Despite some turndowns, fans appear to be returning on the state's west coast as temperatures climbed out of a two-week, 30-degree period earlier this month. And Florida's main draw, the Yankees, is setting an all time spring-training attendance record - more than 170,000 fans for 17 games so far this year.

"The fans are happy to be back. The players are happy," says Yankees spokesman Rick Cerrone. The Yankees left their old home of Fort Lauderdale for Tampa this year to play in what Mr. Cerrone calls "the best complex ever built. Everything is state of the art."

Other towns are following in Tampa's footsteps, vying for teams to leave one town for another. In addition, a few Western states have set their sites on attracting teams. "We all feel pressured," Jackson says, "Arizona would like to go after and bring in teams."

Have fans forgiven baseball? It depends on who is talking. "Some fans are staying away because of hard feelings about the strike and the resolution," says Michael Roman of the state's Department of Commerce. But many have returned. According to the Yankees' Cerrone, 1995 "was a real awakening for people in terms of missing what you used to have."

Players are making themselves more accessible to fans this year, Jackson says. "The players realize 'we're not indispensable.' The smart players realize 'the people who are paying our salaries are sitting up there in the stands.'"

But while the fans are returning, some remain bitter. "There were a lot of angry fans and there are still a lot of angry fans," Jackson says.

Which leaves Florida officials hoping the next season will draw even more visitors who have abandoned their bitterness.

"If things aren't great this year, they will be better than last year," says Mr. Pendleton. "We're hopeful that things will be much better in the future."

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