Complaints flow about O's spring training sites
Players, coaches, others voice concerns over conditions in Fort Lauderdale, Sarasota
By Jeff Zrebiec and Dan Connolly |
6:23 PM EDT, April 2, 2009
- As the Orioles head north at the conclusion of spring training, they leave behind facilities badly in need of either an overhaul or a wrecking ball, depending on whom you ask.
This spring, Major League Baseball received multiple complaints from umpires about the conditions at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the Orioles' major league spring training home since 1996. The situation is even worse at the team's long-time minor league complex in Sarasota, where three organizations have boycotted playing at Twin Lakes Park this spring over concerns about the fields.
Those developments, along with continued discontent from Orioles players, coaches and executives about the facilities, has intensified attention on the organization's failure to settle on a long-term spring training home, an issue that has persisted for years.
"I think we've finally reached the point where it's fish or cut bait," Orioles manager Dave Trembley said. "We're in the business of developing players. What would enhance that development is a facility that is more conducive to us all being all together and being on an even playing field with the other clubs."
Though the Orioles are actively negotiating with Sarasota and Fort Myers on new homes, there's a decent chance they'll be back in Fort Lauderdale next year for a 15th straight spring. They have two option years left at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, and even if the team finalizes a deal with another Florida city -- and Orioles director of communications Greg Bader said "there will be a resolution to this matter soon" -- they might not be able to move in to the new complex immediately.
On the minor league front, club attorney Alan Rifkin confirmed that the Orioles are in negotiations with Sarasota County officials to extend their lease at Twin Lakes Park, which expires in December. However, that shouldn't be taken as a signal that the Orioles aren't focused on improving their current situation, according to Bader, who spoke on behalf of club executive vice president John Angelos. Angelos, who is heading the effort to find a long-term spring training home, deferred comment.
"It's extremely important and definitely a priority for the club," Bader said. "State funds are available and communities are being left without teams. We've always had the urgency. Now we have a situation where we have several opportunities."
O's, visitors complain
While negotiations continue, players question the deteriorating conditions of the current facilities.
"I think most of us would be lying if we said this is what any of us would expect from a major league organization," said Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts as he sat in Fort Lauderdale Stadium's home clubhouse, where the lockers are outdated, the carpets are stained and water drips down from ceiling vents.
Jake Arrieta, one of the organization's top pitching prospects, echoed those sentiments about the minor league facility.
"We're all very blessed to be in the situations that we're in, but it also comes with the territory that you expect to have nice facilities to work out in," he said. "Not that we're tired of Twin Lakes, but I all think we deserve something better."
Arrieta, who spent a couple of weeks in big-league camp, got to experience both facilities that are considered among baseball's worst. At Fort Lauderdale Stadium, the visiting clubhouse is closer to the size of a janitor's closet than a classroom. There is no cafeteria and the weight room is in the parking lot in a tent that leaks when it rains, and has to be swept regularly to remove leaves.
"When you have a big-league team that has a weight tent with rented weight equipment located in the parking lot, that's pretty sad," Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff said.
The playing field has also come under scrutiny. The problems included the playability of the field after rain, and to a lesser extent, the quality of lighting.
MLB spokesman Pat Courtney said the league sent a letter to the Orioles documenting complaints from clubs this spring. "They assured us that they will take all necessary steps to address the issues," Courtney said.
Forced on the road
Three hours north, Orioles minor leaguers have had to play almost all their games on the road this spring after the Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays and Cincinnati Reds informed team officials that they didn't want to play at Twin Lakes Park.
A Rays spokesman confirmed their refusal, citing "unsafe conditions" and the fear of injury. A Red Sox official, who requested anonymity because of the subject's sensitivity, confirmed that the team refused to send its minor leaguers back to Twin Lakes Park for a second day after they played there once this spring and experienced infields that he called "substandard, in real bad shape. It was hazardous to infielders, pitchers and baserunners," he said.
Instead, the Red Sox agreed to pay for a bus to transport the Orioles minor leaguers to their facility in Fort Myers to play the game.
While Bader maintained the Sarasota fields as "perfectly adequate and safe," several Orioles said they didn't feel comfortable at all playing on them because the ball takes terrible hops so often. The infields are hard and unlevel, and there are soft spots around the bases that have felled many a baserunner this spring.
"That's the worst field I've ever played on in my life and I'm from Venezuela," said third baseman Melvin Mora, who played in Sarasota on a rehab assignment in 2007.
O's officials sensitive
The state of the facility has clearly become a sensitive topic for team officials. President of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said only that the three-hour distance between the major and minor league facility is a "handicap" for the club, but he's confident that the situation will soon improve. He declined to discuss the state of the facilities.
Director of player development David Stockstill said he couldn't comment and several minor league coaches and players were warned not to discuss the conditions when the team learned that a reporter was coming to Sarasota to do a story about the facility.
"We were told to not say anything about the field, but if nobody says anything, it's never going to get fixed," said third base prospect Mike Costanzo. "It's tough to get quality work in here."
As part of their lease with Sarasota County, the Orioles are responsible for the maintenance of the fields, though one look at the property suggests either resignation or neglect. The outfield grass is faded and dead, marred by weeds and anthills. It's a stark contrast to the adjacent Little League field that has plush, green grass and well-manicured dirt.
"We haven't committed to a spring training facility, so I don't think they are willing to pump any money into the place," said Single-A Aberdeen manager Gary Kendall, who runs extended spring training at the facility. "That's where it lies. They're up against a lot down there."
The four fields are maintained by only a three-man groundskeeper crew that has to prepare the fields for the Orioles' minor leaguers and clean up after high school and college teams use the fields at night. The crew's equipment appears older than the weathered Earl Weaver "Power of the Oriole Way" poster that is barely still hanging in their equipment shed. The crew doesn't even have the roller to roll the infield, a grounds crew staple.
In the clubhouse, which includes the facility's only indoor batting cage though it's barely usable, the lockers are made of chicken wire and wood. There is no separate weight room. There is no air conditioning in the clubhouse, and the bathroom is so dirty that one Oriole said it "should be condemned."
Orioles reliever Chris Ray spent five months last year at the complex, rehabbing his elbow after having Tommy John ligament-reconstruction surgery. His sunglasses got stolen on his first day there, setting the tone for a forgettable stay.
"I don't know what to say about the facility other than that it just needs to be leveled and rebuilt," said Ray. "It's a shame. You draft someone, hype them up and then they go to that facility and they're like, 'Wow.' I think that's a little bit embarrassing."
Perhaps Costanzo summed it up best when he said, "There's no doubt that everybody in the clubhouse -- and I can speak for all of them -- want to get the hell out of here."