In 1947, Bill Veeck and Horace Stoneham created the Cactus League when they moved their teams, the Indians and Giants, out of Florida and into the desert Arizona with Cleveland playing in Tucson and New York playing in Phoenix. For five years, these teams played a limited schedule against each other, local teams, and MLB franchises based in California until more teams joined them in the mid 1950s and even more throughout the years until it reached the present total of 15, half the teams in baseball.
In 2009, the White Sox moved from Tucson to Phoenix, leaving only the Diamondbacks and Rockies in Tuscon, and while initially this distance was acceptable for the Indians and Giants in 1947, it was too much for the modern age of convenience, and both teams moved to Scottsdale in 2011.
What does this have to do with anything? Back in October, Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed the possibility of MLB expansion into Mexico or further into Canada and more recently he talked about hosting regular season games in the United Kingdom as early as 2017. These are two different topics (expansion compared to just a series or two per year across the Atlantic), but both could see issues that harken back to the early days of the Cactus League.
To start with the more recent news, games played in London would have obvious difficulties, particularly since Manfred has stated that Opening Series games would be out of the question due to weather concerns. Teams have played the first baseball games of the season abroad multiple times, most recently in 2014 when the Dodgers played the Diamondbacks in Australia for two games. Since Australia is in the Southern Hemisphere, weather was not an issue, but time was, as it is more than 15 hours to fly to Sydney from Phoenix and there is a nine hour time difference. Because of this, both teams arrived in Australia four days prior to the scheduled games to adjust.
Because these games were able to be played while everyone else was in Spring Training, they were able to complete the lengthy trip without causing problems with the regular season schedule. After the return, both teams returned to the exhibition schedule for a couple weeks before playing more regular season games.
While England isn’t as far from the United States as Australia in travel time or time zones, the travel time would still be more than 10 hours for a team from the West Coast. Here, football has the advantage with a full week off between games. Since baseball teams generally only take off days on Monday and Thursday, a team would essentially have to travel on Sunday night, take Monday to get used to the time difference, play Tuesday and Wednesday ,and return Wednesday night to play again on Friday in the United States. Of course, if they played a day game in London, it would take place early in the morning in the US with the West Coast being a full eight hours behind.
Such a trip is definitely possible and will probably happen, but there is no doubt that the teams will fight against losing two home games, the fans will be disappointed with the start times and the players with the extra travel. All this to play two or three games in front of a generally disinterested audience.
Expansion to other countries is a more interesting and more permanent idea. Neither Mexico or Canada would involve the travel difficulties of heading to London or Sydney, but that doesn’t make them a perfect fit. While many look at the Expos with nostalgia, it should be remembered that at the time, there were very few who cared for the team. In 2004, while they did draw over 31,000 to the final game, they had just 9,000 total for the previous two games combined and they averaged under 10,000 fans per game for the entire season. The year before they played 22 games in San Juan, Puerto Rico and despite the stadium only holding 19,000 fans, Los Expos outdrew Les Expos 14,222 per game to 10,031.
While there may not be the level of disinterest as there is in the UK, expansion to Canada isn’t as enticing as some crusaders would make it seem when you look at what actually happened last time around.
Expansion to Mexico is a different story. To start, there is a solid base of baseball fans and players in Mexico, although not as great as many other American countries like the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. As an attendee of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, I can attest to this, as 44,256 fans packed out Chase Field in Phoenix to see Team Mexico take on Team USA in the first round of the tournament. In all my years watching baseball, I have never seen a more amped up crowd as the sea of green took over the Diamondbacks’ home stadium for a night with maracas and vuvuzelas filling the air with sound all night. While Team Mexico would ultimately lose to Team Canada in the final game of the first round, there is no question that the enthusiasm for Mexican baseball exists at an extreme level.
In addition, while Mexico City is a bit of a distance from any current MLB city, there are several large cities in Northern Mexico that are closer to the Southwest MLB teams than the Eastern US teams are already. In fact, Tijuana is so close to San Diego (about 20 miles) that that the Padres would likely fight it. A better choice could be Monterrey, which is only an hour and a half flight out of Houston and is a place that MLB games have been played before.
If regular play further than these two cities outside of the United States is to occur, Manfred should look to Veeck and follow his example by making sure there are at least two teams in the area. Adding teams or playing games anywhere outside of the current MLB boundaries is going to be a logistical nightmare and while the league certainly has the money to deal with it, there are some ways of going about the situation that are obviously more compelling than others.