It's big league, it's spring, and it's not Florida

When Sammy Sosa stepped to the plate and dug his cleats into the dirt, the sellout crowd of 12,000 fans at Hohokam Park here erupted into a roar.

As the pitcher went into his windup, a vacationing family from Vancouver edged forward on their seats. A couple from Chicago who have purchased season tickets to spring training each year for the last quarter century stopped talking. And a dozen shirtless college students looked up from their picnic in the grass behind center field.

The Chicago Cub slugger didn't disappoint. He blasted the high fastball into a parking lot 460 feet away.

This year, the fortunes of the Cactus League - Arizona's answer to the venerable spring training Grapefruit League of Florida - are riding a trajectory similar to Sosa's crunching home runs. By the time spring training ends this week and major league teams disperse to their home ballparks for opening day, the Cactus League will have achieved something that has long eluded it: national respectability.

"There is definitely a buzz over the Cactus League," says Chris Baier, director of the Arizona Office of Sports Development. "Sammy Sosa's a big part of it. The renaissance of fan interest in baseball, which began last year, plays into it too. But all by itself, the Cactus League has a presence which I would say is unprecedented."

Being in the limelight is a strange predicament for a league that existed as a perennial also-ran to the larger and more prestigious Grapefruit League. Less refined and less steeped in tradition, the Cactus League suffered from an inferiority complex punctuated by the fact that none of its teams has claimed a recent World Series title. But consider a few auspicious indicators:

*For the first time, Cactus League organizers say it will draw more than 1 million fans.

*Rumors are rife that the Los Angeles Dodgers, a pillar of the Grapefruit League dating back to the club's origins in Brooklyn, may pull up stakes in Vero Beach, Fla., and move closer to their fans. Already this year, the Chicago White Sox deserted Florida to become the 10th Cactus League team. There is speculation that other teams, such as the Astros, Rangers, Royals, or Blue Jays, could do the same.

*Then there is the Sosa factor. Lines of autograph seekers are double what they were a year ago, and people who never counted themselves as baseball fans are attending games just to have the satisfaction of saying they saw the man who hit 66 home runs last season play. Along with Sosa, the Seattle Mariners' Ken Griffey Jr. and Arizona Diamondback pitching ace Randy Johnson are also drawing throngs of fans.

Although major league teams staged their first spring exhibition games in Arizona dating back to the turn of the century, the Cactus League did not truly begin until 1946. In that year, legendary baseball promoter Bill Veeck, then owner of the Cleveland Indians, persuaded the New York Giants to make the move from Florida with his club.

That year, the Indians signed Larry Doby, the American League's first black player, and Mr. Veeck did not like the fact that hotel operators in Florida would not let Doby stay with other members of the team. Recalls Veeck's son, Mike: "Dad didn't think it was fair, and he thought Arizona might have a better racial climate."

Ironically, it was also the Indians that dealt a major blow to the Cactus League by defecting back to the Grapefruit League four decades later. For the most part, though, the rivalry between the two leagues has been friendly. But the potential exit of the Dodgers could change its tenor.

"Sports is big business," Mr. Baier says. "While I wouldn't classify the Cactus League as an industry, it is an important economic engine. For the baseball owners who make decisions based on how it will affect their bottom line, we try to give them an attractive package."

The enticements for the major league teams to come to Arizona are substantial. First, Arizona offers lower travel costs. Unlike Florida, where spring-training facilities are scattered across the state, the Phoenix area has seven stadiums within a 30-minute drive of one another.

Also, with an average 353 days of sunshine, Arizona has fewer rain outs - a potentially big factor in a short training camp setting. "Teams want to have every edge they can," Baier says. "A few days missed in 30 days of getting ready can be significant."

FOR the Dodgers, however, the deal is even sweeter. The Fort McDowell Indian Reservation near Scottsdale, Ariz., has offered to build them a new stadium free of charge. While the Dodgers' current spring-training town, Vero Beach, is mounting a counteroffer, some observers expect the team to be in Arizona within three years.

"Landing the Dodgers would be a major coup," says Baier, who grew up in New Jersey and took the train into the Bronx to watch the New York Yankees play. "To be honest, the only thing more gratifying than bringing the Dodgers to the Cactus League would be bringing the Yankees, but I realize that's not a possibility."

For Arizonans and Western vacationers, the Cactus League has become a part of the culture. Maryfrances Piattoni is typical of the faithful. She grew up watching the Cubs in Chicago while in her grandfather's lap. But she moved to Arizona nine years ago, and now she gets out to half the Cubs' 17 home games at Hohokam Stadium.

The Cubs are on a pace to break a spring-training record for attendance that goes back 22 years. "The Chicago Cubs are the crown jewel of the Cactus League," Piattoni says. "They always have been and always will be."

Ms. Piattoni believes the fans finally have forgiven the players for striking in 1995. She remembers going to spring-training games when no one else was in the bleachers. "When the players were back, I know of people who stayed away to protest the millionaire ballplayers and the rich owners," she says. "Now they're returning and taking their kids and grandkids with them. What I like about spring training is that it reminds us why we go, which is for the love of the game."

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