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March 20, 2003

Deep Fried Twinkies

The Business of Spring Training

by Craig Elsten

PEORIA, AZ--If President Bush truly intends to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, he might want to start with what I'm looking at right now. It is a golden brown, sugar covered, cream-loaded agent of evil; a Twinkie covered in batter, skewered on a stick, and tossed into the fry vat like a corn dog. If I had met this when I was six or seven years old, Jerry Springer would be lifting me out of my bed with a crane. Next to the Twinkie on the grease-soaked paper plate are the smart bombs of the deep-fry arsenal, the Oreos. Together, they are the talk of the concourse on this sunny day at the Peoria Sports Complex, moments prior to the Padres game against Milwaukee.

"We've heard a lot of funny jokes, but out of the 13 days here, I haven't had one person try it and say they don't like it", says the owner of the fry stand, Cathy Wallace. "It's hilarious...people can't believe there's a Twinkie inside of that batter."

In addition to the traditional walk-up-to-the-window ballpark fare, the spring training home of the Padres and Mariners gives independent vendors a chance to set up tents and hawk their goodies, creating a county fair atmosphere on the concourse. Those seeking a little less sugar (OK, a lot less) and a little more substance in their lunch can make their way down the third-base line, where the unmistakable baritone of Bob Hodge, the siren of sizzle, bellows forth, beckoning them to the "Dog House."

"Who wants a Colossal Dog? Best dog in the house! One hundred percent all beef, special recipe from Chicago! You've gotta love the Colossal Dog!"

Bob the beef barker brings color and character to the Complex, but when he looks at his cash register at the end of the day, the price is right. After eight years of sweating over an open grill filled from edge-to-edge with brats, Hodge figures at least 15% of his yearly profits come from his four-week stay in the Cactus League.

"It's awesome. We love the crowd here in Peoria. I sell thousands of sausages, thousands of dogs, we buy them by the truckload and put them out here as fast as we can."

Cathy Wallace and Bob Hodge have every reason to love spring training, but they couldn't care less what happens on the field, just so long as the sun is shining.

"Last year we had record sales," says Cathy, "but unfortunately, this year, it's not too great. We've had some bad weather over the last week, and for one reason or another we're not meeting those numbers."

Each year I come to this desert outpost, a West Valley distant suburb of Phoenix, to check out the business of baseball. How are the Padres looking this year, who's injured now, how is the battle for the fifth starter's job shaking out...all the usual questions of the spring. And yet, I am fascinated year in and year out to see how the area surrounding the ballpark has grown. It's as if someone has sprinkled magic restaurant dust on the sand, turning rocks into Red Robins, cacti into Krispy Kremes. The area surrounding the Peoria Sports Complex has become a thriving business community, and they pretty much owe it all to Spring Training.

"It's huge," says Hodge, reflecting on baseball's economic impact to the region. "You've got restaurants and hotels popping up everywhere, and none of this would have been here without the stadium and Spring Training. You're standing on what used to be an orange grove right now."

Indeed, the city of Peoria wasn't much of a city at all prior to baseball arriving here in 1994.

"We were just a white spot on the map back then," says Deputy City Manager Meredith Flinn. "It was very important for us to bring baseball to Peoria. There wasn't anything out here. Bell Road (the main city drag) was just two lanes with nothing but fields on either side, and now we are known as the entertainment destination of the West Side. Now, we have more restaurants than you can shake a stick at."

If only Kevin Towers could have put his money where his mind was. Stepping out onto the balcony of his office in the fall of '93, the Padres' general manager looked at the desert and saw the future.

"All that was here was a Chili's at first. I said if I was smart and had any coin at the time, I would have bought some dirt out here. I would be a real wealthy man right now."

Towers had the right idea, but other entrepreneurs beat him to the punch. Now, when you turn off of Bell Road and head down 83rd Street towards the stadium, you are surrounded by four hotels and close to 20 different bars and restaurants. The number will go up by one in the next couple of weeks, as Hooters makes its long anticipated debut in this corner of the desert. Towers, for one, is geeked.

"Hey, anytime you can go from Chili's to Hooters, life is getting better."

That's one perspective, but Richard McHugh has quite another. As the GM of Tony Roma's, one of the first restaurants to surround the stadium, McHugh looks down 83rd and sees his profit margin shrinking by the minute.

"I just scratch my head sometimes and say 'holy smokes', but there are even more on the way. I've been excited to see (Peoria) grow...not too excited with all the other restaurants coming in, but as long as we get our piece of the pie, it's a good thing."

Despite the newfound competition, McHugh and the rest of the restaurant owners on the street have seen baseball create an economic opportunity for the region, bringing in thousands of travelers who would have never otherwise decided to make Peoria a tourist stop.

"This was always known as a winter site for 'snowbirds,' we call them, people from the upper Midwest coming down here. Having baseball, not only here but throughout the Valley, brings such an influx of people to the area...without it, would we be as busy? No."

Baseball's business crosses over to the restaurant side of the ledger when the young prospect needs a place to soften the blow of an impending demotion or release.

"We call it 'the last supper,'" said McHugh. "The guys who don't make the Mariners team, they'll come in and spend a couple of hundred bucks on food for them, to give them their last supper, give them a pat on the back, and send them back down to the farm."

Thankfully for the Peoria Hampton Inn, many of those Mariners minor leaguers stick around. Between extended spring training, a short-season rookie-ball club, and the Arizona Fall League, GM Mark Maddix estimates his hotel is 80% filled with Seattle's stars of the future year-round. Putting a roof over a rookie's head has become a cottage industry, so to speak. When you throw in the vast number of baseball-loving sun seekers who wish to stay within a minute's walk of the baseball field, you can understand why Maddix is beaming.

"Things are better for us this year than last year, and last year than the year before. It just keeps getting better."

Prior to the arrival of the Peoria Sports Complex, Maddix says: "There was nothing here. I don't think you would have seen any of this (waving at the surrounding hotels and restaurants) if not for the Sports Complex. You might have had a business complex or commercial park, but nothing like this."

Across the street at the Comfort Suites, the tie-in to Spring Training is quite pronounced: GM Brian Tenenbaum changed the name of the hotel from "Peoria Comfort Suites" to "Peoria Sports Complex Comfort Suites," just so that web-searches would bring up his hotel's name more readily.

"Spring Training makes or breaks the hotels around here. Even having the Mariners leave early (on March 19th) for Japan this year is a severe blow to all of us."

Tenenbaum estimates that his hotel runs at 100% capacity throughout the months of February and March, then hangs on through the rest of the year, taking advantage of other civic events staged at the Complex. From high-school soccer tournaments to concerts, the site is used up to 300 days a year, keeping the hotel rooms booked and the lines long for tables at the hottest restaurants.

"Any night of the week, there's an hour's wait for a table at any of these restaurants."

That would explain why restaurants grow like mushrooms on Bell Road, as businessmen seek to give consumers every possible entertainment option. The latest to open is McDuffy's, a giant two-story sports bar which doubles as a nightclub after hours. Already, Alex Rodriguez and Freddy Garcia have been spotted on the dance floor.

"Don't worry," McHugh says, "there's more coming."

As the sun sets over the Peoria Sports Complex, preparations begin for a night game against the Angels. I look around to see who else might be crawling out of the woodwork, seeking to suckle at the teat of major league baseball. Kevin Towers sees them coming before I can. Each day on his way to and from his front row seat behind home plate, Towers is approached by wannabe future GMs and scouts, hoping for advice, a phone number, or best of all, an invitation to grab the first rung on the ladder to success.

"Especially now that Theo Epstein, who started as an intern in our system, grew with us and is now running one of the more storied franchises in all of baseball, I'm getting it even more. 'What do I need to do? What did Theo do? What type of classes should I take at my junior college?'"

I don't remember off-hand if my local JC offered "Sabermetrics 101," but I guess it's worth checking out.

"Walking through the grandstands, you've got kids coming up all the time, asking if we need a scout, or how they could go through the minor leagues...it's good. I try as hard as I can to either answer e-mails or give them advice, point them in the right direction."

Towers settles into his seat, the anthem is sung, and baseball is ready to begin. The neon glow of the nearby Fox and Hound Sports Bar is visible beyond left field. In the distance, Bob Hodge's familiar voice can faintly be heard, luring passersby back for another intestinal tango with the Colossal Dog. Everywhere, from the white lines of the field to the hotels in the distance, Spring Training is in full bloom, and business is good.

Craig Elsten works for KOGO Radio in San Diego as the pregame/postgame co-host for the Padres. He has also served as the Cactus League play-by-play voice of MLB Radio, and regularly beats Joe Sheehan in Strat-O-Matic baseball. He's filing a series of articles from Spring Training in Arizona over the next few days. You can reach him at celsten@clearchannel.com.

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