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Spring Training Sure Ain't What It Used To Be.

I CAN'T STOMACH spring training baseball in Tucson anymore.

Before I explain why, let me say up front that I know this is a pointless exercise. I will rant and holler, heaving spit this way and that, and at the end of it all absolutely nothing will change for the better, in any way.

Harboring such a hope is delusional. As a political analyst of some repute once remarked, writing editorials -- such as this -- is like wetting your pants while wearing a blue serge suit. You get a warm feeling but nobody notices.

But I'm convinced that many others feel the way I do.

Spring baseball has been overtaken by money. The commercialism is extraordinary, and seems to get worse every year.

I went to the opening-day game, the Diamondbacks versus the White Sox, at Tucson Electric Park. By the time I left I felt thoroughly fleeced, as if I'd spent two-and-a-half hours trying to buy a rug from a mustachioed street merchant in Cairo.

It cost a buck to park. Now, a hundred pennies doesn't break the bank, but why charge anything -- for an unpaved surface that throws up billows of choking dust, and is staffed by homeless people dressed in orange?

And this is before you even have a chance to shell out $3.75 for a few ounces of beer? Or almost 10 bucks for three lemonades and a bag of peanuts?

Oh, yes. The tickets were $12 apiece. We decided against the $14 ones in the shaded boxes.

Having spent that, I didn't really want to dip into my 401k for a Diamondbacks jersey ($139), sweatshirt ($65), hat ($26), or the can't-live-without Diamondbacks computer mouse and pad ($29).

I hate to sound like one of those cranky old fools, dribbling Maypo on my chin as I drone on about the good old times. But do you remember what it was like at old Hi Corbett when the Cleveland Indians were the only game in town?

The atmosphere was homey and wide open, parking was plentiful and free (and dust-free), the players were accessible and wanted to be, and the team staff was friendly.

To me, that was baseball -- before the tidal wave of greenbacks.

Now we have economic impact studies claiming -- as the Star's Jack Magruder reported a few weeks back -- that last year's three-team spring training dropped $16 million in direct spending in Tucson and the surrounding areas.

And the estimated total impact, including all related spending, was $48 million.

The numbers might be true, but I'm not so sure. My guess is they represent the dreams of the Chamber of Commerce and elsewhere as much as reality. Money has a way of making its own truth.

But say for a moment they are true. Then why is Tucson Electric Park losing money? Why do some hotel managers say there was no economic downdraft when the players struck and there was no spring training in 1995?

And why did only 4,000-some people show up last week, leaving more than 6,000 empty seats, on a postcard-pretty opening day?

I think it's because the inevitable is beginning to happen; at least I sure hope it is. The Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies are pricing the whole experience beyond the range of ordinary people, the ones who make or break the game over the long haul.

The sport's proponents argue that nothing has changed between the foul lines, and that might be true enough.

But if you can't afford to go, even to spring training, and your kid would rather play that hideous European import called soccer, something fundamental is going on.

Toss into the equation the moguls, known in Yogi Berra's era as players. If you have to pay a .230 hitter $75,000 a week, the money has to come from somewhere.

And with the salaries and the agents comes the entourage mentality that makes players unreachable to fans. At Hi Corbett you could pretty much run wind sprints with them.

Now, guys like Sammy Sosa and other superstars who train in the Phoenix valley do whatever they can not to ride the bus down here to play. And the managers, mere sharecroppers by comparison, must oblige, even though that only creates still more soccer fans.

I used to write about baseball, for Sports Illustrated and others. I've even written for airline magazines on the joys of spring training, and isn't it great that the sun's out and winter's over and yada-yada-yada.

I'm not going to write any more of those stories.

Look, I don't mind it when people get rich. I cannot rightly complain about that when I'd like to join their ranks myself. But what has happened to spring training in Tucson, and to baseball in general, makes me mad.

Does anyone else out there want to scream along with me?

More by Leo W. Banks

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