This simple scheduling issue plagues the St. Louis Cardinals, Miami Marlins and New York Mets each spring and summer. The last three organizations with major league spring training camps and minor league facilities located along Florida's Gulf Coast must travel more than two hours to play any other organizations.
Further adding to the isolation is the off-season decision by the Mets to exit from the rookie-level Gulf Coast League starting this summer. They continue to compete in the full-season A-Advanced Florida State League.
The Cardinals and Marlins have a built-in travel advantage as they share a single complex in Jupiter, Fla. That enables their minor leaguers to spend less time on buses. The Mets train 33 miles away in Port St. Lucie, their spring base since 1988.
Cardinals field coordinator Mark DeJohn, the man who runs minor league spring training camps, regular and extended, understands the problem very well. His job is to minimize it.
"It's tough," DeJohn admitted. "You'd like to be able to play other teams, but because of the logistics, we aren't able to do that… I think it is a little tougher for the players at times because they want to compete against some different teams… It could be better, but at the same time, you make do against the other teams in the area… They have to do the same as we do."
Last fall, actions taken by St. Lucie County commissioners made it clear that they are working with the Mets to even up the score of area teams. Rather than build a whole new complex, they want to follow the Jupiter model by attracting another MLB organization through the expansion of the existing facility at Digital Domain Park. The Mets told officials they have been in talks with two teams, likely Washington and Houston.
The next nearest club, the Nationals, is located 110 miles from Jupiter, in Viera, once the home of the Marlins. The Nats have been looking for a new spring base for some time, as they have been the focus of proposals from the Orlando/Kissimmee area as well as Fort Myers, on the Gulf Coast side of the state. They are committed to Viera until 2017, but reportedly have an out clause that could be deployed as early as 2013.
Among the area organizations, the Nationals are currently at the highest risk of moving away. The club and Lee County are currently in a 90-day exclusive negotiating window that if successful, would result in Washington moving to City of Palms Park in Fort Myers. However, that is far from assured as approval of $15 million in state funds for improvements would be needed first.
New Houston Astros owner Jim Crane may end up being a key player in this game. He also owns the Floridian National Golf Club in Palm City, Fla. It adjoins Stuart, just 20 miles north of Jupiter. The Astros are still under contract in Kissimmee, near Orlando, for two or three more years.
Even before the sale of the Astros was finalized in November, Crane acknowledged that he had been contacted by the Mets. At the end of spring training, he toured the Port St. Lucie facilities. Crane also said he plans to talk with Stuart/Martin County officials, likely to gauge their interest in building a new facility for the Astros near his golf club.
The St. Lucie pitch to Crane included relatively new news. In September, St. Lucie County commissioners awarded the Mets $2.5 million from hotel taxes to expand and improve Digital Domain Park. Right-field seating is being converted from bleachers into premium seats and a new digital scoreboard is being added.
These enhancements are only a start. It is estimated that an additional $10 million above the new hotel taxes, still unsourced, would be required to add a second team to the Port St. Lucie complex. Four new practice fields, a viewing tower, clubhouse, cart paths and equipment would be needed.
As part of the hotel tax deal, the County secured an extension of the Mets lease for an additional five years, through 2023. However, this happy partnership could unfold quickly. The Mets retain an out clause that would enable them to leave if one of the other three clubs (St. Louis, Miami, Washington) departs the area.
In recent years, both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Baltimore Orioles did just that, left the vicinity. As noted above, Washington is now at risk of joining them.
The Cardinals, along with the Marlins, struck an agreement with Palm Beach County last year to remain Jupiter through 2027. As in the case with the Mets, both have an escape clause. Of course, no one hopes it will be needed.
In the half-full side of the glass, the Cardinals, Marlins and Mets would all have to be delighted if at some point down the road, either the Nationals or Astros decide to move south for spring and summer baseball.
It is almost too much to hope that both would come. Even though it would again mean an odd number of teams in the area, there would be much greater safety in numbers, currently at-risk of dwindling to a critical level.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his minor league content during the season at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
© 2012 The Cardinal Nation, thecardinalnation.com and stlcardinals.scout.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.