While the Royals opened their checkbooks this offseason to re-sign players such as Alex Gordon, the City of Surprise was throwing around some cash as well, spending $22 million on upgrades to Surprise Stadium, Gordon is a fan of the changes, and their impact will be felt well after the All-Star outfielder hangs up his spikes.
The renovations led to the Royals extending their agreement to stay in Surprise through 2030.
And the changes made to the Royals’ spring training home are part of a bigger effort to keep Cactus League teams in top-quality facilities that will assure their future in Arizona, according to Tom Sadler, president of the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority.
The Sports and Tourism Authority receives funding from hotel-bed taxes and rental-car surcharges and then distributes the money to cities to keep facilities up to date, pay off debt and help with maintenance costs. Surprise reportedly is due to receive a $32-million reimbursement in July.
“One of our funding priorities is to assist municipalities that have baseball teams in their facilities with keeping them state-of-the-art,” Sadler said. “As we do that, the benefit for us in Arizona is that we ask them to sign long-term leases, and they stay here.”
The lease means the World Series champion Royals will be sticking around in Surprise for years to come, which seems to be fine with the players.
Relief pitcher Brian Duensing said he was happy to see commitment from his new spring home.
“Any time a city can pull behind a sports team, it shows they care. It shows that they are fond of it,” Duensing said. “Not every city does that. The fact that they put so much money into it, that they want the team to stay here and want the fans, it shows a lot.”
Prior to this spring, Duensing had spent his entire professional career reporting to Florida for spring training with the Minnesota Twins. While Duensing switched teams to go from the Grapefruit League to the Cactus League, eight teams have joined Arizona’s spring training since 1991.
The desire to grow the Cactus League has led to some battles with the Grapefruit League over teams and facilities. That competition has raised standards for what teams expect out of their spring training stadiums, Sadler said.
There is a lot at stake. The Cactus League reportedly pumps more than $550 million annually into the Arizona economy.
“There’s competition there, and we have to be aware of that every year because we want to keep what we have intact,” Sadler said.
Sadler noted that things are a bit calmer now than in years past because most teams have signed long-term agreements to stay in the cities they’re in, with the exception of the Milwaukee Brewers who can escape their deal at Maryvale Baseball Park in Phoenix after this spring.
Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel recently that the team needs a new state-of-the-art facility within the next few years, and he will consider moving the Brewers to Florida.
Still, Sadler emphasized another factor that gives Arizona an advantage over the Grapefruit League — the Cactus League’s 15 teams are in relatively close proximity.
Surprise is located on the far northwest edge of the Phoenix metro area, but travel time for the Royals to other Cactus League venues is still much shorter than the multi-hour commutes between Grapefruit League stadiums.
Relief pitcher Peter Moylan prefers Florida’s humidity, but he likes the shorter drives.
“The difference between Florida and Arizona travel when it comes to road games is huge,” Moylan said. “You can go on a three-hour road trip in Florida whereas here the longest we drive is 45 minutes. The weather is fantastic — it’s a little dry for me, but apart from that, I can’t complain.”
Sadler said Major League Baseball might want to change the balance from 15 teams in each state to 16 in either Florida or Arizona and 14 in the other to make scheduling easier.
If the change happens, it won’t involve the Royals for at least 14 years.
In the meantime, Duensing said he’s working on making Surprise feel like home.
Baseball isn’t the only spring sport that Florida and Arizona compete over. Both states are home to major golf industries. Moylan sang the praises of the courses around the Cactus League, while Duensing was conflicted on which state he preferred for golf.
But Arizona’s dry air gives it the clear edge in one category, he said.
“Golf out here is good, too. There are a lot of golf courses in Florida, though,”
Duensing said. “I do hit the ball farther out here, so maybe that’s a plus.”
Jayson Chesler is a senior at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.