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$pring Training - Peter Funt

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- A 30-mile zone around Phoenix is fast becoming the epicenter of spring baseball, with gorgeous landscapes, ideal weather, numerous tourist services and, as of this year, 15 Major League teams all within a long fly ball of each other.

More than a-million-and-a-half fans will pay for tickets this month to share the Cactus League experience. The watchwords are "pay" and "experience" -- because with each new season, true fans who love the pure simplicity of spring training are paying more, while experiencing less.

What used to be a laid-back time, during which players slowly got into shape, fans rubbed shoulders with their heroes, and team owners treated the process as a necessary expense, is now big business. The most dramatic example is the lavish Salt River Fields, with its state-of-the-art video board, which opened a few weeks ago at the Talking Stick Indian reservation in Scottsdale. Home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, it is part of a complex that includes the Pima-Maricopa Indians' hotel and casino.

The marketing spiel for Salt River Fields is that it "feels" like a Major League facility. Certainly the $25 box seats and the $7 ice cream qualify as Big League, but fans might wonder if that's what spring training is supposed to be about.

In the past 20 years, eight new stadiums have been built near here, at a cost of over $500 million. Just 14 years ago, I attended opening day at the Cubs' stadium in Mesa, with its 12,500 seats and what was arguably the most lavish spring training experience. Now, the Cubs and their partners are building a replacement in Mesa, complete with a shopping complex to be known as Wrigleyville West. Ironic, isn't it, that Wrigley Field in Chicago has endured since 1914 and is a palace for baseball purists, while the Mesa facility didn't last two decades.

As World Champs, the Giants are the big draw this spring at their stadium in central Scottsdale. Seating on the grass beyond the outfield fence is going for as much as $26, as the Giants try to squeeze whatever they can out of their fall accomplishment. The Dodgers and White Sox, who moved here from Florida last spring, charge $47 for the top ticket at the stadium they share at Camelback Ranch. Sales of the best spring tickets on StubHub are going for $100 and more.

It's hard to fault the clubs for trying to maximize their business opportunities and to make fans pay whatever the traffic will bear. The communities clustered near Phoenix are also engaged in understandable pursuit of tourist dollars, which during spring training now total more than $350 million.

Robert Johnson, a top executive in Cactus League promotions, recently told the Arizona Republic newspaper, "Perhaps we should start treating the Cactus League like the economic and entertainment force that it has become." He cites promotion of football's Super Bowl as a model, with its glitz and vast peripheral marketing.

Is that the future for baseball games that don't even count in the standings?

More owners should follow the lead of the Angels' Arte Moreno, who sees to it that fans are never taken for granted. At spring training, Moreno doesn't care for $26 seats on the grass; he charges $4 at the Angels park in Tempe.

Pre-season baseball is still a wonderful experience -- both here in Arizona and in Florida. It's a time of rebirth for the land, the players and even the fans, not proximity to casinos, giant video screens, or overpriced merchandise.

If owners and municipal leaders kept their eyes on the ball, they'd recognize that.

This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc., newspaper syndicate.

Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker, and also, the long-time host of "Candid Camera." He may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.