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Published: Sunday, 7/2/2006

Indians are likely headed for Disney

Forever and a day, the idea of the Cleveland Indians leaving their longtime spring training home in Winter Haven, Fla., was barely a blip on the radar.

The Indians would never leave Winter Haven. Winter Haven would never desert the Indians.

But as the Indians look for ways to improve on and off the field, the franchise has had some loose ends develop recently, which might or might not mean anything.

Seriously, does anyone with an ounce of loyalty to Cleveland's major league baseball team envision the Indians moving their spring training base to The Ballpark at Disney's Wide World of Sports?

Sports fans have difficulty separating the games from the business side, realizing that money has changed nearly everything about athletics.

Sports fans want things to remain as they are, or were. They want to ignore the obvious, that some teams want to make a profit above all else. They want to believe that tradition outranks the bottom line. It doesn't.

The Indians are no different in that regard. County officials in Florida are expected to meet with Disney executives to devise a plan that could result in extending a formal offer to the Indians.

Cleveland would be the second major league team at Disney's Wide World of Sports, which has been the Atlanta Braves' permanent spring training home since 1998.

"We're obviously flattered any time a team expresses interest in possibly having their spring training games played at Disney," Disney spokesman Darrell Fry said of the Indians. "But it's all very preliminary right now. There's nothing imminent. Right now, the Braves are our only tenant.''

Opening in 1997 at Walt Disney's World Resort, the sports complex is a 220-acre complex featuring the 9,500-seat baseball stadium, adjoining practice fields and a training facility, a 5,000-seat field house for basketball, plus multiple football, soccer and softball fields, tennis courts and a track and field complex.

Disney's sports complex annually hosts nearly 200 professional and amateur sports events, including the Braves, the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, the NBA's pre-draft camp, AAU national championships and the Pop Warner Super Bowl.

Besides playing in a state-of-the-art facility, Braves players and coaches have access to all of Disney's amenities, highlighted by several world-class golf courses including the site of the PGA's FUNAI Classic, the Richard Petty Driving Experience, and bass fishing excursions.

The Indians could find Disney more to their liking. Wide World of Sports officials might consider building another stadium or extra practice fields to lure the Indians.

Fry said that if Cleveland made the decision to play at Disney World next year, the team could play its games there while maintaining office space and training facilities in Winter Haven until construction or renovations are completed.

Cleveland's present spring baseball home, Chain of Lakes Park, was renovated when the Indians moved there in 1993, but more work may be needed to prevent the team from moving.

Cleveland and the city of Winter Haven are in the third year of a five-year agreement for Chain of Lakes Park. The Indians, however, may be wearing out their welcome.

In a recent editorial in the Lakeland Ledger, Winter Haven city manager David Greene said that if the Indians want to relocate to Disney World, "Winter Haven will have its best effort to ensure that happens. We'd be willing to consider a cooperative approval to terminate their agreement with Winter Haven."

So there you have it. Nothing lasts forever. Don't be surprised if the Indians wind up in Disney World, and be even more surprised if they don't.



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