Malcolm On Base: Spring training proposal, ode to Hot Springs

Welcome to Malcolm On Base, a daily rundown of baseball as I see it. You’ll get (flowery) essays, (mediocre) statistical analysis, (crude) opinion and (oh get on with it) nostalgia.

1. A radical proposal to change spring training sites

Today is the first day of spring training league play. Both the Grapefruit League in Florida and Cactus League in Arizona begin with a near full slate (only the Royals aren’t fielding a team Friday, while the Rays are pulling split-squad duty). Current-day spring training is big business, with companies and casinos sponsoring ballparks that hold visitors looking for a reprieve from the nasty northern winter. Cities and towns have sustained themselves on the 45 days that baseball teams spend in their limits.

It’s great business in Arizona, where the 10 ballparks within a 45-mile radius of one another each hold more than 9,750 people. Florida is a bit different: Only one park holds more than 9,750 people (Steinbrenner Field, home to the Yankees), while the teams are split between two coasts. Also, most of the teams are on the Gulf Coast, while five teams (Cardinals, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Astros) are hanging out in the east.

In 2013 Alex Remington wrote at Fangraphs about troubles in Florida. The White Sox left Florida in 1997, the Royals and Rangers went west in 2002, both the Indians and Dodgers moved to Arizona in 2008, and the Reds are the most recent team to jet, back in 2009. There are some obvious reasons teams would move from Florida to Arizona – for teams like the Dodgers, Royals and Rangers, the proximity to their own homes is a draw. But the Florida spring sites have problems: many are small and old, and they’re pretty far apart.

Now, some of the parks have been recently renovated, like the Mets’ First Data Field in Port St. Lucie, and there are some new parks, like the Astros and Nationals’ new home, Fitteam Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, built in 2017.

But despite the older parks and long-distance driving, people visit Florida for spring training. It’s just the Arizona ballparks are larger.

In 2017 the top Cactus League teams by average attendance were the Cubs (14,818), Diamondbacks (10,405), Giants (10,140), Dodgers (9,217) and Rockies (8,999). That top five has been the same since at least 2014. But these teams have ballparks that seat at least 11,000.

As a comparison, the top Grapefruit Leagues in 2017 by average attendance were the Red Sox (9.796), Yankees (9,179), Tigers (7,491), Phillies (7,124) and Orioles (7,043). Again, these are basically the same leaders every year. But again, their stadiums are among the bigger ones in Florida.

A more accurate measure of spring attendance success is capacity percentage. The Cubs, no surprise, led Arizona teams in capacity percentage (98%), while the Diamondbacks (94%) and Giants (84%) follow. Over in Florida, the top team was the Red Sox (90%), followed by the Blue Jays (87%) and Phillies (83%).

It still seems like the Arizona teams fare better, but here are some trailers:

– Reds (41%)
– White Sox (41%)
– Padres (44%)
– Brewers (50%)

– Astros (47%)
– Marlins (49%)
– Rays (66%)
– Nationals (67%)

The smaller parks actually make much more sense for spring training, as only three teams in Arizona regularly approach 10,000 fans. Most attendance figures hang in the 5,000-7,500 range, and that’s across the board for both leagues. The teams that really draw are the teams that have fans everywhere (Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, Giants, Dodgers), plus the hometown nine (Diamondbacks). As for the Blue Jays, they’ve been in Dunedin since the organization’s founding, so there’s a real built-in fanbase there.

To propose moving spring training out of Arizona and Florida altogether would probably be heresy to lots of baseball fans, but what if we spread the wealth a bit more so that teams that don’t draw get better crowds and thus bring bigger profits? Here’s an off-the-wall proposal for a future spring training that could draw even more people to more places:

Mesa: Cubs, White Sox
Scottsdale: Diamondbacks, Rockies / Giants, Athletics
Glendale: Dodgers, Angels
Peoria: Mariners, Padres

Houston area: Astros, Brewers
Austin area: Rangers, Reds
Corpus Christi area: Twins, Pirates
San Antonio area: Royals, Indians

Fort Myers: Red Sox
Tampa: Yankees
Clearwater: Phillies, Cardinals
Dunedin: Blue Jays, Marlins
Lakeland: Tigers, Mets
North Port: Braves, Rays
Sarasota: Orioles, Nationals

Basically we add a Texas league here, putting the Astros and Rangers there along with a bunch of midwestern teams. Two teams play in every park except in Fort Myers and Tampa, where the Sox and Yanks do a pretty good job drawing fans. I’d keep the Cubs alone in Mesa but the White Sox need to partner with somebody, and honestly, who better? It probably makes everyone mad (hey, nothing can be perfect here).

The Texas League could be really fun (let’s call it the Bluebonnet League), with the Astros basically staying home (there’s a park in Galveston, very close to Houston) and the Rangers only a two-hour drive down the road in the Austin area (Round Rock has a park). You’d hope Twins fans don’t mind coming down to Corpus Christi (it’s on the Gulf), while you’re betting Royals fans make the trek south to San Antonio. Then you pair these anchor teams with a team that isn’t expected to sell out the joint.

This will never fly, but if it’s adopted in like 20 years, I’ll definitely claim it was my idea first.

2. Hot times in Hot Springs

Long before teams traveled to Arizona and Florida for spring training, many of them packed up and headed for Hot Springs, Arkansas. The Chicago White Stockings (today’s Cubs) were the first team to call it home, with Cap Anson and A.G. Spalding bringing their team to Hot Springs in 1886. They were drawn by the bathhouses of Hot Springs, a way to release toxins because ballplayers drank a lot of booze.

The Stockings set up shop at the Hot Springs Baseball Grounds, staying there through 1888. The Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Spiders and Cincinnati Red Stockings would each call the grounds home at some point from 1889 to 1892, but today’s it’s where the Garland County Courthouse stands.

There’s plenty of history through the Hot Springs Baseball Trail, which tells a bunch of tales about players like Al Simmons, Buck Ewing, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Rogers Hornsby and Babe Ruth.

It’s Ruth, of course, who stars in the greatest tale of all about Hot Springs and its baseball history. On March 17, 1918, Ruth played a position other than pitcher for the first time in his career, belting two stupendous home runs and causing all of baseball to stand upright in wonder. Ruth was already a pitching star (who also hit extremely well when he had the chance), but on that day he became the most remarkable young player in baseball.

Ruth both hit and pitched 1918, playing left field, first base and center field throughout the season and ending up .300/.411/.555 with 11 home runs and 26 doubles. The 11 home runs led the American League; Ruth outhit four other teams in the league.

He didn’t become a full-time position player (who still pitched) until 1919, when he hit 29 home runs and slugged .657. His star really took off after being sold to the Yankees, when in 1920 he put up an absurd .376/.532/.847 line with 54 home runs and 36 doubles.

Before that St. Patrick’s Day in 1918 in Hot Springs, Ruth was a dominant pitcher who could curiously hit pretty well. We’re coming up on the 100-year anniversary of those spring training clouts, and ironically, the Angels this year are hoping Shohei Otani can become the game’s greatest two-way player since Ruth. Maybe the Angels should send Otani to a bathhouse to get him ready.