Michael Jordan called Sarasota his spring training home when he tried out for the White Sox. (Sun-Times photo)
It was revealed this past week that the Cubs are exploring alternatives to their current Spring Training home in Mesa, Ariz.
The Cubs have until February of next year to opt out of their agreement with Mesa. If they do opt out, the team can move as early as 2012.
Cubs chairman Crane Kenny considers the team "the most desirable free agent in the market."
Naturally, speculation has begun as to where the Cubs could possibly wind up if they decide not to stay in Arizona.
Sarasota Herald-Tribune reporter Jeremy Wallace today outlined the Cubs' interest in Sarasota as a possible Spring Training destination, and what the city would need to do in order to attract them.
The Reds are in their last year of training at Ed Smith Stadium, and will move its operation to Arizona next year, following what's been a longstanding trend of teams abandoning the Grapefruit League for the Cactus League.
Could the Cubs, who have called Arizona their spring home since 1952, reverse that trend?
"New Cubs owner Tom Ricketts, an investment banker, sent an e-mail to Sarasota County commissioner Joe Barbetta on Thursday saying that once his family's purchase of the Cubs is finalized by Major League Baseball, "'we may contact you at that time.'"
Before Chicagoans who call the West Coast of Florida their vacation home get too excited, hang on. There's reason, as Wallace reports, to be skeptical.
Sarasota failed not only in its efforts to retain the Reds, but also in its efforts to draw the Orioles and Red Sox.
Getting the Cubs to Sarasota would be no small undertaking. The Red Sox -- who resemble the Cubs in the vastness of their national fan base -- wanted a 10,000 seat stadium that would have cost $71 million. In an area where the economy relied heavily for several years on a now-decrepit real estate market, tax dollars may be tight -- too tight, perhaps, to entice a franchise that just netted a nearly billion-dollar price tag. After all, the Cubs will be looking for a larger seating capacity than the current 13,100 that HoHoKam now provides.
Sarasota has $15 million in state financing if it can lure a team to the city. But that money is contingent on a team signing a 30-year lease. Kenney told reporters, "We don't want to be a tenant and we don't want to be a landlord. We think the Cubs deserve to stand on their own."
But if the city does whatever it takes to get the Cubs to move to Sarasota, it could be worth it.
"'The Cubs as an entity are an economic development engine,' Barbetta said.
"He said the tourism dollars that could flow in from the Chicago area would be immense compared with what would come from smaller market teams in Baltimore or Cincinnati."
After living in Sarasota and working as a reporter there for three years, I can say (only through anecdotal evidence) that the majority of tourists I met came from the midwest -- specifically Chicago.
Any city that will provide for the Cubs what they're asking will be a good fit. But Sarasota's history (brief though it may be), has been heavily shaped by Chicagoans over the years, which clearly makes it the most logical choice. After all, the White Sox called it their spring training home until 1998. Bertha Palmer, for whom the famed Palmer House Hotel in downtown Chicago is named, was among the first in a long line haughty part-time millionaire residents. The land she once owned now bears her name and is among the nicer neighborhoods in the city. The Field family -- of Marshall Field's department store fame -- were also drawn to Sarasota. Blackhawks great Bobby Hull lives there. Walter Payton bought a home there after the Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985. His family still owns it and frequents Sarasota. Jerry Springer splits time between Sarasota and Chicago (OK, terrible example). I could go on ... but my point is that the Sarasota/Chicago connection is a longstanding tradition. The two towns even share street names including, but not limited to: Honore, Clark, State and US 41.
This deal would be especially beneficial in the intangible realm for Sarasota. It's not only a charming tourist town and popular retirement destination, but it's a city constantly battling itself on whether it wasnts to be a big city with a small-town feel or a small town with big city amenities. In other words, it tends to lack a legitimate, self-sustaining identity that's not directly tied to its white-sand beaches.
The presence of a world-class sports franchise like the Cubs would give Sarasota immediate cache and fill that void that relegates it to being little more than a beach town that boils down to a largely transitional place to live. Whether the Cubs could change is really unforseeable, but if I learned anything about Sarasota in my time there, it's that perception is king.
That the Sox called it their spring training home wasn't the only thing that attracted my grandparents when they moved there in the mid-80s, but I'm sure that fact didn't disuade my baseball-loving grandfather. That draw would be even more enormous for Cub fans.
There's some question as to whether the Cubs may be using Sarasota as a sort of decoy to let the folks in Arizona know they're serious about potentially moving. The onus, then, falls on Sarasota. If the city can make an offer to the Cubs that the team can't refuse and no other potential destination can match, clout (to spin a Chicago term) will come to Southwest Florida.
And clout, any Chicagoan could tell you, can make or break a city's identity.