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Hope springs eternal with start of baseball

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By Pedro Gomez

If there ever was a sport that takes a beating and keeps coming back stronger than before, it’s the national pastime.

It might be a bit clichéd, but baseball’s spring training really is the equivalent of life beginning anew. The dead of winter ends and new life begins with spring. Baseball mirrors that transformation better than any other sport.

Nowhere is there a more evident example of the game’s resiliency than right here in Arizona.

It was just 15 years ago that the glorious ritual of spring training in Arizona was slipping away from the state’s grasp. Several clubs were in serious talks of moving their operations to Florida and one – the Seattle Mariners – didn’t even have a home ballpark in the spring of 1993, playing all of its games on the road.

But right around 1994, several Valley cities stepped up and massive improvements would soon be made to existing facilities, as well as new ones being built.

The turnaround now comes full circle with the landing of one of Major League Baseball’s crown jewels – the Los Angeles Dodgers – moving from their longtime Florida digs to a new facility in Glendale that will only enhance Arizona and the Dodgers fan base, both here and in southern California.

Instead of the cost of a five-hour flight to south Florida, fans in LA can hop in their car and watch the Dodgers spring workouts after a five-hour drive. And if you happen to be a Dodger fan living in the Valley, you’ve hit it big now.

This is the move that very well could signal Arizona’s climb to the mountain top of spring training dominance. Arizona offers so much more than Florida could ever wish for when it comes to spring training baseball, not the least of which is convenience. I’ve covered spring training in both states and it’s no contest. Arizona wins in a knockout.

When the 2009 version of spring training begins with pitchers and catchers reporting on the 14th, there will be 14 clubs in Arizona and 16 in Florida. The 14 is up from eight in Arizona in 1997 and doesn’t even include the Cincinnati Reds arrival in 2010.

Of the 14 clubs in Arizona this spring, 12 will train in the Valley, with only Colorado and the Diamondbacks some 100 miles away in Tucson. Arizona offers far less travel time for the players, but above that, it offers fans the greatest ability to catch baseball at its best.

This is where players are their most accessible, especially during those first two weeks before games begin. Players walk from field to field during drills and many are usually willing to accommodate fans for autographs and, if you’re lucky enough, even pictures.

The arrival of the Dodgers, though, that’s what should have all Valley fans feeling giddy, particularly those Latinos who have relocated to the Valley from southern California and can only watch the Dodgers during their annual nine games at Chase Field.

The Dodgers’ departure is the latest blow to Florida’s hopes of hanging on as the kingpin for spring training. A few years ago, MLB itself opened an office in the Biltmore area as the headquarters for its Arizona operations. No such facility exists in Florida.

Privately, and publicly for that matter, most players shower Arizona with praise.

“I’ve trained in both places and Arizona is, by far, the better spot,” former four-time 20-game winner Dave Stewart says. “Florida is just tough on you, mostly because of the travel between sites. Phoenix also has a much better night-life for the players and that matters to the younger guys. It’s just not the same in some of those small Florida cities.”

Florida may be the Sunshine State, but it seems Arizona is now the Baseball State.

The Valley has enjoyed quite a ride for the last dozen or so years; the birth of the Diamondbacks, the Fiesta Bowl joining the rotation in the BCS, the Cardinals’ jewel, University of Phoenix Stadium and the Coyotes’ hockey arena in Glendale.

But spring training baseball remains much more than just a niche happening for six weeks every year. In so many ways, it continues to define the Valley sports scene.

Pedro Gomez is a reporter for ESPN based in Phoenix.

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