There's a flaw in the National League's plans for expansion in 1993, and it's spelled Fla.
Two franchises will be selected in September, and three of the six candidates on the short list announced last month by the league's expansion committee are in Florida: Tampa-St. Petersburg, Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach, and Orlando. And there are some National League conquistadores who want to capture two of those territories.
Buffalo, Denver and Washington, D.C., are also in the running, but Florida's fair-weather friends are talking big about booming markets and glamorous settings. St. Pete has lined up buyers for 26,000 season tickets at the latest large indoor arena, the Florida Suncoast Dome. Backers of a Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach team (the Hyphens?) point with pride to the area's supposedly baseball-mad Latin community and to Joe Robbie Stadium. And while Orlando has a relatively small population base of 2.1 million and no major league park, it does have the year-round attraction of nearby Disney World. (On the day that Orlando was designated a finalist, Pat Williams, an executive with the NBA Magic, who is also the city's chief baseball lobbyist, said, "This is the greatest day for Orlando since Mickey and Minnie were married.")
Yet all the fancy demographics and other arguments won't convince this former Floridian that the state should have even one team. My gut feeling is based on several summers covering the Fort Lauderdale Yankees of the Class A Florida State League in the mid-1970s, and though that was for a relatively short time a long time ago, I still trust my distrust. Florida is kind of a drag in the summer—many residents hightail it out of there—and, as I recall, quite a few baseball games are played in June, July and August.
Ennui in the Sunshine State is reflected in its lack of support for minor league baseball. No city in the state has been able to sustain even a Triple A franchise since 1968; the Class A Florida State League contains such sad clubs as Baseball City, near Orlando, which drew all of 274 fans per game last year, and Miami, which averaged 641. So much for the support of Miami's Latin community. (Anticipating the argument that Miami's Bobby Maduro Stadium is in a tough neighborhood, let me just say that the neighborhood is not that tough.)
The NBA's two new Florida franchises have gotten off to a good start partly because basketball's season coincides with the tourist season. Baseball's, on the other hand, coincides with Florida's rainy, muggy season. Should Florida end up with a major league franchise that plays in a dome-less stadium, frequent will be the evenings when all or part of batting practice will be washed out.
Then there's the matter of the prospective ballparks. Orlando doesn't have one. Robbie Stadium, where the Miami Dolphins play, is nice for football but is laughable for baseball. Anyone with a decent arm can throw a ball from home plate over the leftfield fence. Wayne Huizenga of Blockbuster Video fame and fortune, who is bidding for the Miami franchise, says he will modify the place for baseball at a cost of $10 million, but at best, the configuration would make Robbie Stadium look as jerry-built as Toronto's ex, Exhibition Stadium. (It's probably only a coincidence that Carl Barger, president of the Pittsburgh Pirates, sits on the board of Blockbuster Video and that Pirate chief executive officer and chairman Douglas Danforth is chairman of the expansion committee that made Miami one of the finalists.)
On the other side of the state, there is the Suncoast Dome, which from the outside looks like a spaceship run aground and from the inside looks like a bomb shelter. The dome has already been beset by traffic and parking problems for events such as rock concerts.
The most compelling, though rarely mentioned, reason for not giving Florida a major league team is that it would spoil the very nature of spring training. A team in Florida would dilute the appeal of baseball's special little time, and remember, spring training generates an estimated $330 million a year for the state. It's bad enough that tourists wouldn't be around for the summer games. Worse, if spring training's mystique is lost, will they continue going to even those games? Besides, what will the sports-writers write when the rookie makes a Florida team? That he went south with the club?
I am at a loss to explain baseball's infatuation with Florida, especially when there are cities like Buffalo and Denver with proven track records in minor league baseball.
Something just dawned on me. None of the owners have homes in Buffalo. Nah, they wouldn't be so small-minded as to spurn the Queen City for that reason. These are men (and woman-with-dog) of intelligence and good sense. Last year's lockout, the $280 million they are paying in collusion damages, and $2 million-a-year contracts for sub-.500 pitchers are matters simply beyond their control.