Cactus or Grapefruit? No question about it

The grapefruit conjures images of a lazy breakfast on the

veranda, a refreshing beginning to a day on the boat or maybe at the beach. A

cactus is as soothing as athlete’s foot. A porcupine on a stick.

There is nothing more misleading than the Grapefruit and Cactus league labels.

As players, managers and major league executives have come to know, Arizona is

more conducive in preparing for a major league season than Florida. And unless

you are big on humidity and travel bingo, it is not even close.

“A huge difference,” said former major leaguer Luis Gonzalez, who has lived

through both.

Gonzalez, who works in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ front office, spring-ed —

sprang? — in Florida in his early playing years with the Houston organization

before spending some of the latter years of his career training in Arizona with

the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Diamondbacks.

“The weather is always nice. The accommodations alone. The travel factor .

. . and I’m a Florida boy. I grew up in Tampa. It is hard to talk bad about it.

In Florida, we get the thundershowers and things like that. Over here, we’re in

the desert. Occasionally we get rain, but not so much. There are not as many

scratch-off days here in Arizona.”

There is nothing a manager or pitching coach or a player, for that matter hates

more than being forced to work indoors because of weather conditions. It wreaks

havoc on a pitcher’s throwing schedule, and let’s face it spring

training is for pitchers. Poor playing conditions also have a tendency to

induce the kind of nagging injury such as a muscle pull or strain that can

linger from the start.

If a spring training game is rained out in Arizona, it’s news. If a game is

rained out in Florida, it’s Tuesday.

Pitchers notice.

“Down there, storms roll through and you are always changing up the

schedule and pitching indoors. You are not able to get on a regular schedule,”

said former Cleveland pitcher Charles Nagy, who joined the Diamondbacks’ staff

as the pitching coach last season.

J.J. Putz, who spent one spring in Florida with the New York Mets but otherwise

has trained in Arizona with the Mariners, White Sox and D-backs, agreed with

that assessment.

“When you are trying to get on a routine and trying to get ready for the start

of a season, timing is everything, as far as doing your bullpens and your game

stuff. When there is a threat of rain every single day in Florida, that is kind

of difficult.”

In Arizona, the pitching issue is the thin air that makes 17-11 games not only

possible but almost a given two or three times a spring.

“The only thing bad about here is maybe the thin air, as far as working (on)

breaking pitches and getting your grip. Once you have done it out here a few

years, you learn certain things that will help with your grip. You’re just

worried about making pitches and getting your work in. The outcome, once you

let go of it here, you just kind of throw it out the window,” Putz said.

The window is in the numbers, not the ones on the bus or the van that is

transporting players from Ft. Myers (Boston, Minnesota) to Port St. Lucie

(Mets) but in the distance of those trips 146 miles one way, mostly on state

highways, for that particular trip. Or from Jupiter (St. Louis) to Lakeland (Detroit), which is

156 miles. The travel is such a nuisance that many of the 15 teams that spring

in Florida do not play each other, content to play other teams in the general

vicinity. While a handful of teams train in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area, that

does not necessarily make it easier.

“You get stuck in traffic, especially if you have to go to Tampa or Clearwater,

something like that. You’ll play a game and you are just locked in traffic for

a long time,” Nagy said.

Since the Diamondbacks, Rockies and White Sox moved to the Phoenix area two

years ago, there is no comparison. The longest trip in the Cactus League is 47

miles, from northwest Surprise (Kansas City, Texas) to east Mesa (Chicago Cubs),

which saves not only travel expenses but the all-day aspect of the operation.

Most teams in Arizona do their early work at their own complexes, while the

Florida teams treat most trips as a road game, taking their batting practice

after traveling to the host stadium. That makes for early-morning busing.

“This is as convenient as it gets,” said Diamondbacks bench coach Alan

Trammell, who spent all 23 of his major league springs as a player and a

manager in Florida as a member of the Tigers but has spent the majority of his

coaching career with teams that spring in Arizona.

Arizona provides the whole package — new facilities that host two teams, easy

travel, better weather. Even the amenities: A guy could play 36 holes a day and

not come close to hitting all the golf courses in the area. There’s also the

variety of dining opportunities. There are no Don and Charlie’s on the Florida

coasts.  

“It’s just slower. You have like four restaurants — Outback, Olive Garden

. . . other than that, you are pretty much out of luck unless you want to drive

an hour,” one veteran said of his former spring training site.

When then-Colorado general manager Bob Gebhard was scouting spring training

sites for his expansion Rockies, then-Arizona Sports Commission member Joe

Garagiola Jr. took him to a vacant lot in Peoria, a northwest suburb of

Phoenix. Garagiola pointed to the area of dormant cotton fields where the new Seattle/San

Diego spring complex and adjacent mall were to be built in 1993, and Gebhard

was not sure what to make of it. He took his team to Tucson. But Garagiola was

not kidding.

A ballot initiative in the mid-1990s designed to generate money for a new

stadium for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals also included funds for spring training

projects, and suburban municipalities lined up to take advantage. Kansas City

and Texas went to far-northwest suburb Surprise in 2003. Cleveland and

Cincinnati went to far-west suburb Goodyear in 2009. The Los Angeles Dodgers

left their idyllic setting in Vero Beach to be closer to their West Coast home,

joining the White Sox in western suburb Glendale in 2009. The Diamondbacks and

Colorado were the last to join, moving last spring from Tucson to a joint

facility on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the first major

league complex built on Native American land.

With so many players relocating to the Phoenix area, the Cactus League also

brings an air of normalcy to everyday life, especially for the family man.

“It’s nice to wake up in the morning and drive 10, 15 minutes to the ball

park and play the game and then go back home,” Gonzalez said.

Added Putz, “Most of the time in spring, you are back (from games) in time

to pick up the kids from school.

“Having an Arizona spring is ideal.”