Cleared for Takeoff

If Fort Lauderdale wants to keep the Baltimore Orioles in town for spring training, it just needs to come up with $36 million

Any other time of the year, finding Fort Lauderdale Stadium is tricky. Crouched in the southeast corner of Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, it's obscured from the view of those driving down Commercial Boulevard by Lockhart Stadium, where the Fort Lauderdale Strikers used to play professional soccer.

But during spring training, which begins Saturday, lines of cars lead the way to the old baseball park. For the last couple of years, the Baltimore Orioles have trained and played exhibition games there, but one of the first things visitors notice is the stadium façade's gray paint, left over from the days when the Orioles' predecessors, the New York Yankees, played there. Otherwise, the generation-old stadium is an unimposing concrete half-bowl with 8300 seats spread out like a fan. The old-fashioned, turquoise-colored seats feature metal armrests, curved backs, and lots of leg room. The cheap seats along the first- and third-base lines are even more old-fashioned; they're metal bleachers.

The playing field, like any other, features a meticulously raked diamond and a bright green infield and outfield, which are hemmed in by a wooden fence. Anyone sitting in the cheap seats has to put up with the occasional drunken fan, and everyone has to put up with the screaming corporate jets that take off periodically just beyond the left-field fence.

But when the players arrive, the distractions disappear. Because the stadium is relatively small, they look like humans, not ants. When fans call out, the players hear. Some even tip their hats. And when the home plate umpire yells "play ball," everyone hears him loud and clear.

Built in 1962 for the New York Yankees, Fort Lauderdale Stadium has played host to some of baseball's greats, including Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter. The Yankees returned every spring for 33 years, but when their latest in a string of leases expired in 1995, they moved across the state to Tampa, into a brand-new, $30 million version of the Bronx's Yankee Stadium. Called Legends Field and built by Hillsborough County, the 10,368-seat stadium is, in many ways, bigger and better than Fort Lauderdale Stadium. In fact, its clubhouse and training and weight rooms are more spacious than those in Yankee Stadium itself.

Fort Lauderdale Stadium doesn't have a clubhouse per se, just a locker room about the size of the weight room at Camden Yards in Baltimore and a weight room about the size of a closet. But those kinds of details supposedly didn't matter when the Baltimore Orioles arrived in 1996, because, at the time, the Orioles had nowhere else to go. This year, however, it's the bottom of the ninth for Fort Lauderdale Stadium, and there are two outs and nobody on base.

With multimillion-dollar spring training stadiums popping up all over Florida, Fort Lauderdale is way behind the times, and city officials know it. In fact, last year some of them made an effort to keep the Orioles in the city for good. They agreed to look into building nearby practice fields for the team's minor-leaguers, who now play in Sarasota, and renovating the existing stadium so that there are more seats, skyboxes, and advertising space, among other amenities. They also discovered that doing so would cost up to $23 million.

Of course the city can't afford that kind of bill. So, armed with an economic-impact study that predicts hundreds of new jobs and a $26 million annual boost to Broward County's economy, Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jim Naugle and other city and county officials want state legislators to cough up state sales-tax money to pay it. Their aim is to get the Orioles to sign a fifteen-year contract. But they've either overlooked, or chosen to ignore, a few important details.

First, the jobs and the money a renovated stadium is supposed to provide are myths. The money spent on tickets, parking, and merchandising, for example, would otherwise be spent elsewhere, so it won't help to boost the economy at all.

"The economic-impact stuff is utter nonsense," Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College and coauthor of Sports, Jobs & Taxes said after reviewing the economic-impact study. "It's unreliable because it's based on misconstrued and misleading sets of assumptions and methodology. It's done more poorly here than most I've seen.... The conclusions are not at all reliable."

Second, even though they refuse to address the issue directly, the Orioles want a brand-new stadium, not a renovated one. "We would look at Fort Lauderdale as a long-term option depending on the funding available to satisfy the criteria of developing a first-class complex consistent with those that have recently been developed in Florida and Arizona," says Rick Horrow, the Miami-based facility development consultant for the Orioles.

And third, Fort Lauderdale's request for a total of $36 million, which would cover renovations and interest on the debt, "will never see the light of day," according to one state legislator. The chairmen of the tax committees in both the state's Senate and House of Representatives must approve the request before it comes up for a vote. Many state legislators are still steaming about sports mogul H. Wayne Huizenga's request last year for $60 million of state sales-tax money to renovate Pro Player Stadium, which the Miami Dolphins share with the Florida Marlins. Huizenga had already received $60 million in 1993 to build the stadium for the Marlins; two dips in the public trough for the same facility were too much.

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