For the first time in Major League Baseball history 30 franchises have migrated south to Florida and Arizona to participate in spring training.
That's because two new teams, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks, will be introduced to spring training and baseball this season. With them the teams bring two new ballparks and a legion of new fans. If nothing else, Tampa Bay and Arizona may lead the league in uniform variations this year. For their inaugural season, the teams will showcase a combined eight uniforms and seven different caps.
Arizona Diamondbacks Manager Buck Showalter has his team working hard in spring training to get ready for their first season in the National League West.
The World Series Champion Florida Marlins, an expansion team in 1993, will feature at least a dozen new players this year. The Milwaukee Brewers (formerly the Seattle Pilots) will compete in a new division and a new league, switching to the National League Central after 29 seasons in the American League.
There will be new "can't miss" prospects like Oakland A's outfielder Ben Grieve and Colorado Rockies first baseman Todd Helton. There will be new chances for falling stars like Mark Langston in San Diego and Jack McDowell in Anaheim. And there will be fresh hopes for a run at the World Series for every team, old and new.
Baseball expansion has gotten easier since Casey Stengel's New York Mets tried it in 1962 and finished the 160-game season with 120 losses. Unlike the Mets, who had to suffer through their infancy with players like Choo-Choo Coleman and "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry, today's new teams can benefit from free agency. With enough money they have a shot at acquiring established pro players.
Over the winter Arizona Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo committed $113 million to four proven players, including infielders Matt Williams ($49.5 million) and Jay Bell ($34 million), and right-handed starters Andy Benes ($18 million) and Willie Blair ($11.5 million). It's a good nucleus for a team that will feature a decent starting rotation if they're healthy.
Buck Showalter, who last managed the Yankees in 1995, probably won't lead his team to the National League West crown this year, but the team looks like it will compete for it by 2000.
Unfortunately for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, they have to compete in the American League East - the Brentwood of Major League Baseball. The Yankees, Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays are all in the top 10 of baseball's wealthiest teams and every winter seem to lure baseball's most prized free agents. Tampa Bay signed free agent veterans Fred McGriff (1B) and Wade Boggs (3B)(who is 200 hits short of 3,000) to hold down the corners. And although they'll have young prospects like Quinton McCracken (CF) and Kevin Stocker (SS) on their lineup card, Tampa's pitching staff is unproven and the team may have to struggle to stay out of the division cellar.
On the brighter side, things could have been worse for Tampa Bay in '98. These were other names fans suggested for the expansion franchise: Fruit Blossoms, Pterodactyls, Bigfeet, Backcrackers, Snowbirds and Toads.
Arizona's Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix will debut on March 31 when the Diamondbacks host the Colorado Rockies. It joins Toronto's Skydome as baseball's second stadium with a retractable roof and is the first with natural grass. Considering that Phoenix is currently feeling El Nino's wrath and can expect temperatures in July to average 92.3 degrees, the roof seems like a good investment. The park seats 48,569 fans and rests next to the old South Pacific Railroad.
Tampa Bay's stadium isn't new, in fact, it's been open since 1990, has been renamed three times, and has hosted among other things hockey, figure skating, karate, motorcycling, and something called "mud bog racing."
But Tropicana Field (its name since 1996) has never been home to a Major League Baseball team. That is until the Devil Rays host the Detroit Tigers on March 31. The 45,200-seat, domed arena features links to the past and future: a main entrance with an 80-foot rotunda similar to the one that greeted fans at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, as well as the world's largest cable-supported roof, made of translucent Teflon-coated fiberglass, which will be lit up orange when the Devil Rays are on the road.
The Cleveland Indians hope free agent second baseman Shawon Dunston, signed this offseason, can help bring them back to the World Series in 1998.
Ken Griffey Jr. (56 home runs) and Larry Walker (49) may have won the American and National League home run titles last year, but it was Mark McGwire's 58 home runs, split 34/24 over both leagues that make him the favorite to break Roger Maris' record in 1998. Maris's record of 61 home runs in 1961 was set in baseball's first expansion year of the century, when the American League added the Los Angeles Angels (now Anaheim) and the Washington Senators (now Texas Rangers). What are the chances the record will be broken in the last expansion of the century?
It's year two of inter-league play and renewed regional rivalries will be the rage in 1998. Stay tuned for more of Montreal vs. Toronto (Montreal leads 2-1), Cincinnati vs. Cleveland (Cincinnati leads 2-1), Oakland vs. San Francisco (series tied 2-2), NY Yankees vs. NY Mets (Yankees lead 2-1), Chicago White Sox vs. Chicago Cubs (White Sox lead 2-1) and Kansas City vs. St. Louis (KC leads 1-2).