The weather is frightfully cold in much of the Midwest, but the Royals will escape the frigid temperatures and assemble in the sun of Surprise, Arizona this week for spring training. Spring training is an annual tradition in baseball, with some evidence of teams working out in warmer climates dating back to 1870. Today, all teams train in either Florida or Arizona, and the Royals have held spring training in both states. Let’s take a look back at their history of spring training locations.
Fort Myers, Florida
The first-ever spring training home of the Royals was at Terry Park in Fort Myers, Florida, on the west side of South Florida, about two hours south of Tampa. The location was available because of the Athletics - the team that had just left Kansas City for Oakland. With the team moving west, they wanted to move their spring training home from Bradenton, Florida to a site closer to the West Coast - Mesa, Arizona. That left a nice facility open, and after receiving promises of facility upgrades from the city of Bradenton, the Pittsburgh Pirates left Fort Myers.
With four new teams entering the league in 1969, Fort Myers wouldn’t be without a new spring training tenant, and the Royals agreed to train there if the facility was upgraded. Two more practice fields were built, seating was expanded from 3,000 to 5,100, and the clubhouse space was doubled, although workers were still scrambling to get a roof on it by the time the Royals reported that first year. The Royals hosted the Montreal Expos in their first-ever spring training game, losing 9-8 in the ninth inning on a three-run home run by Bob Bailey off Royals reliever Orlando Peña. It was the first MLB game to ever use the designated hitter rule, as an experiment, leading to the adoption of the rule in 1973.
At the Royals’ request, the ballpark would have artificial turf installed on the infield to simulate conditions played at Royals Stadium in Kansas City. They would also open a “Royals Academy” in nearby Sarasota to provide baseball and educational opportunities for athletes in 1971, and field a minor league team in Fort Myers beginning in 1978.
The Royals would have some interesting spring training contests over the years. In 1971, they would host legendary Japanese slugger Saduharu Oh and the Tokyo Giants, losing 7-4 in an exhibition match. In a 1976 exhibition game, Orioles manager Earl Weaver was so enraged by a call against his team, he ordered them off the field, leading to a forfeit to the Royals.
In the early 80s, a local kid would gather up baseballs hit out of the park, get autographs from players, and sell the balls to fans. He developed a friendship with Royals manager Dick Howser, and soon the kid was good enough to be drafted by the Royals out of high school as an outfielder. His name was Deion Sanders. Sanders considered signing with the Royals, but was talked out of it by Howser, and “Neon Deion” went on to become one of the greatest football players in college and pro history, as well as a decent MLB outfielder.
The Royals had asked for facility upgrades throughout the 80s, but could not reach agreement with Lee County, which owned the 40-year old stadium. The Royals would play their last spring training game in Fort Myers in 1987.
Baseball City, Florida
In 1986, Orlando publishing company Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (HBJ) bought an aging 847-acre theme park in Central Florida called “Circus World” for $18 million and closed it to redevelop the site for a grand, new theme park called “Boardwalk and Baseball.” The park would have rides and baseball-themed exhibits, including several playing fields. What they really needed was a Major League team host spring training games there as an anchor tenant. They were able to lure the Royals with a 7,000-seat, $15 million baseball complex to be known as “Baseball City”.
The redevelopment of the theme park hit delays, opening in the spring of 1987. The Royals had their first spring training at Baseball City in 1988.
“The roller coaster kind of made for a distracting day when you were over there on Field One, though, and everybody was screaming at the top of their lungs, screaming with their arms up in the air as they came down - eeeeee-ahhhhhh!”
-Catcher Mike MacFarlane
But the Boardwalk and Baseball theme park opened to negative reviews, with rides that were a poor substitute for nearby Disney World. The service was lackluster, the park was not kept clean, and curiously, it closed at sunset. Much of the investment went into the stadium for the Royals - HBJ also bought a minor league affiliate to play at the stadium over the summer - not in upgrading the theme park rides. The park was also located near Haines City, about an hour south of Orlando and too far out of the way for many families to travel.
And you wonder whether anybody - anybody - considered that maybe it wasn’t the world’s best idea to build a little baseball amusement park three exits West of Disney World.
DAD: “Come on kids! We have traveled across the country, and today, instead of going to Magic Kingdom, we’re going to ride the roller coaster at ‘Boardwalk and Baseball’ and also watch Mark Gubicza pitch three innings!”
KIDS: “Yay! Can we see Bill Pecota get two at-bats, too?”
DAD: “You betcha!”
-Joe Posnanski, The Kansas City Star
The park drew about a million patrons in each of the first two years (by comparison, Kansas City’s Worlds of Fun draws about 25 million per year), and HBJ was crushed by mounting debt. In 1990, they sold all of their parks - Sea World and Cypress Gardens included - to Anheuser-Busch, and Boardwalk and Baseball was immediately closed. Like, immediately - there were still people in the park.
Even without a theme park, baseball would continue - the Royals had signed a deal through 2002. With no theme park though and virtually no residents near the ballpark, there was absolutely no reason for anyone to come to games. By 1990, the Class-A team that played there was averaging just over a hundred fans per game.
’’It’s almost like a morgue, it’s so quiet sometimes. Even when you score a run or something, you don’t hear anything. You hit a home run, it’s as though it never happened.’’
- Grant Griesser, Royals minor league catcher
By 1992, Anheuser-Busch wanted the Royals out, so they could tear down the ballpark and sell the land. But the Royals couldn’t work out a deal to move to Naples, Florida. They had talks to move to the Arizona city of El Mirage that could not be worked out. They even discussed a plan to relocate spring training with the Rangers, Astros, and Reds to the Las Vegas area. With relocation plans stalled, someone hatched the idea to invite the Cleveland Indians to share the Baseball City complex and bring in more revenue to Anheuser-Busch to make it worth their while. But Anheuser-Busch wanted them out, and once the contract expired in 2002, the Royals were done at Boardwalk and Baseball.
In 2000, voters in Maricopa County, Arizona approved a ballot measure to levy a hotel bed tax to raise money for a football stadium for the NFL’s Cardinals, and build a $45 million baseball complex in the suburb of Surprise to house the Royals and Rangers for spring training. The new facility would include a 6,000-seat stadium, with each ballclub getting six practice fields. Surprise was a small town 40 minutes from Phoenix with a population of about 50,000 people, but it was one of the fastest growing cities in the state.
They do take their development seriously here around Phoenix. Just since I’ve started writing this column, they have built a Target, a Bed, Bath and Beyond and a Long John Silver’s in the hotel parking lot. Wait, they’re working on a Best Buy. So you know, before long, the area around Surprise Stadium will look a little bit like Times Square.
For now, though, it’s sand and cactuses. The only green you see -and it is a deep green - is the outfield grass. It’s like playing baseball in an oasis.
And the Royals would actually get to play in front of fans! In 2002, their last year in Florida, they sold 45,000 total tickets to spring training. In their first year in Surprise, they sold 35,000 tickets before the first game was even played. Overall, attendance went up 50 percent. The Royals were part of a growing trend to train in Arizona where there is less rain. The Royals and Rangers brought the number of teams training in Arizona to 12. Today, there are 15 clubs that train in the state. The sleepy town of Surprise now has an estimated population of nearly 150,000.
“Maybe it’s just a personal preference, but I like Arizona a lot better. I think most of the guys do.”
-Royals catcher Brent Mayne
In 2015, the city spent $22 million to upgrade facilities, adding 25,000 square feet to the Royals’ complex, with a multipurpose room that includes a dining facility and a kitchen. The Royals agreed to extend their commitment to the complex through 2029, meaning that fans can flock to Arizona for the next decade.