Peltier column: Baseball bills moving through state Legislature

MICHAEL PELTIER

— The next two weeks may prove helpful for local plans to lure the Chicago Cubs to Naples, as a pair of measures loosening state purse-strings are moving but face looming deadlines and may easily be overshadowed by tight budgets and more pressing statewide concerns.

Following hiccups in the Cubs’ decision earlier this year to stay in Mesa, Ariz., where they have trained for decades, local efforts to attract the team to Southwest Florida are back. (The Arizona State Legislature did not approve the $84 million that was essential for the deal to work.)

Traveling in both Florida chambers are measures that would allow state aid to cities like Naples that try to recruit new spring training franchises to the state. An existing state grant program is limited to those venues in which Major League Baseball teams have had a spring presence before 2000.

First established in 2000, the state’s spring training assistance program now earmarks $500,000 a year to spring training facilities at 10 venues across the state.

A proposal by Rep. Rob Schenk, R-Spring Hill, would expand the current assistance program to include teams considering a move to Florida even if they have not been here before. It also expands the scope of the bill to allow private groups to more fully participate while still allowing state funds to flow. It is now on the calendar in the House. A similar Senate measure is in that chamber Finance and Tax Committee.

Currently one venue, Fort Lauderdale, is eligible for $1.5 million because the city has no team. The Baltimore Orioles this past spring played their games in Sarasota, a decision that left Fort Lauderdale-directed funds vulnerable.

Schenk’s bill would not increase the number of eligible parks but would allow venues to be switched out for others that have been eligible for state funds but no longer have a team.

Florida is beefing up efforts to compete with the Cactus League, the Arizona spring training league that began in the 1960s and has slowly taken teams away from Florida, which boasts being a spring training destination since the Washington Capitals played a few games in Jacksonville back in the 1880s. The modern era – and the Grapefruit League as we know it – came into full swing after World War II. Since the 1990s, there has been a slow but steady exodus. Since 1998, six teams have packed their bags and moved west.

The Chicago Cubs, who have been long-time tenants in Mesa, are back in the mix after the Arizona Legislature failed to approve an $84 million effort to assist Mesa officials in the construction of a training facility.

The bill’s passage in no way assures funding for a Naples facility even if the Cubs decide to reconsider their decision to prefer Cactus over Grapefruit. But the development could lend credence to the adage: “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”

E-mail Michael Peltier at mpeltier1234@comcast.net.

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