I confessed earlier that my eight days in the Cactus League was my first ever stay there of longer than two days.
What I missed!
Besides the convenience of 15 clubs inside a radius of about an hour’s drive, some of the stadium architecture is remarkable. I saw Glendale’s Camelback Ranch new, in 2009 – terrific. Same for Surprise. The remodels in Phoenix Muni and HoHoKam are strong and comfortable. Goodyear was the only place that didn’t impress me.
And then there’s Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Simply put: pound-for-pound it’s the best baseball stadium built in this country since Dodger Stadium opened in 1962.Here’s the best view I was able to get that shows all three primary design elements.
First: To the left behind the foul pole is the Diamondbacks’ office building and shop, with the just-slightly-slanted roof that evokes Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West style that dominates much of Arizona architecture:
Second: that imperial but still low-to-the-ground Wright style contrasts to the giant stadium superstructure on the right. The oversized ‘upper deck’ looks like it was taken from either the original Wrigley Field in Chicago, or its much more avant-garde namesake, Wrigley Field Los Angeles:
Wrigley Field Los Angeles, around 1930. Most of the baseball scenes in most of the black and white films and tv series up to about 1962 were filmed there, and the Angels spent their first season there before becoming temporary tenants at Dodger Stadium.
Third: Add in the light towers – also unnecessarily tall – plus the steepness of the entire structure that feels almost like Boston Garden and you get this extraordinary impression of grandeur.
Here’s the question: How many seats do you think this place has?
The correct answer is 7,000. It’s about the same size as every other spring training ballpark but it looks twice as big. It’s imposing and impressive and lends a quality of drama to a Rockies-Royals exhibition game when it’s rainy and 42 degrees.
There is a flaw. The press box isn’t quite right. It’s not the Pepsi sign right behind the plate. That bothers you at first but then you realize it’s just about the only annoying signage in the place.
I don’t know what else I can say, except that if somebody gave me a team tomorrow – majors or minors – and the money to build it a new ballpark, I’d order one of these, to seat about 45,000.
A separate note: starting tomorrow I’ll begin the annual divisional previews, opening with the NL East.
I have a few more things gleaned among the cacti to report (besides the fact that Billy Hamilton is the fastest ballplayer I’ve ever seen, and seems to be going faster than freeway traffic).
But first, the photo album from a week in the incredibly convenient Cactus League:
No, this is not the world’s oldest, saddest boy band. Nor, despite the angles, are Manager Terry Francona of the Indians and President Theo Epstein of the Cubs actually resting their heads on my shoulder (they’d join me in saying ‘thank goodness’). I was privy to witness the reunion of the Men Who Made The Red Sox Great at HoHoKam Park, two weeks ago tomorrow. They’re both among my baseball friends and typically we spent almost no time talking baseball. Also got to see Billy Williams, Dale Sveum, and Brad Mills that day, too (“Nice to see you back with a Major League Team,” I said to Millsy. He smiled and was respectful enough to say nothing, but he looked 10 years younger – as did Tito).
This is not Jackson Browne, though I’ve seen them both in the last 18 months and if the gentleman spotted at Peoria during a Brewers-Mariners game dyed his hair, they’d look like brothers.
That’s Ted Simmons, now an advisor in the Seattle front office, and simply put one of the smartest men in the sport. When Pirates fans harken back to the last winning Pittsburgh team they invoke the names of Jim Leyland and Barry Bonds (and occasionally even Stan Belinda), they don’t mention the last winning GM: Ted Simmons. He was just getting into the rebuilding of the post-Bonds Pirates when he suffered a heart attack during the 1993 season and retired. He’s been a coach and executive since – and that was after his 46.5 WAR (greater than Hall of Famers with careers of similar length like Nellie Fox, Kiki Cuyler, Orlando Cepeda, Ernie Lombardi, and the just-elected Deacon White). Narrow that down to catchers (Bill Dickey 52.5, Gabby Hartnett 50.7, Simmons 46.5, White 44, Lombardi 43.6 – and you occasionally hear Jorge Posada’s name mentioned at 39) and it’s obvious that “Simba” is a Hall of Famer. Despite a career line of .285/.348/.437 and seven .300 seasons, his work was overshadowed by being Johnny Bench’s exact contemporary for 15 years, and then spending nearly all of his last five at DH or 1B.
Dale Murphy returned to the game last season in the Braves’ tv booth, and returned to uniform this spring as the first base coach for the USA team in the WBC. One of the older arguments for the Hall was the “wozzy” test – “was he considered for any length of a time one of the top five players in the game?” After two MVPs and a decade as one of the most feared hitters/least feared people in the game, Murph kinda flatlined starting with his 13th season in the majors. But again, WAR puts him in historical context. Lou Brock’s a 42.8, Jim Rice a 44.3, Chuck Klein a 41.5. Murphy: 42.6 – and in this time when one element in the Cooperstown ballot has suddenly taken on added importance (“character”), his was and is impeccable – and generous.
When I tweeted this photo I believe I said that I first interviewed George Brett in 1980. In fact, that was when we were first “introduced.” I actually interviewed him in 1976, 1977, and 1978 during the A.L. Playoffs – the “nice to meet yous” came during the 1980 World Series during a memorable and scatological interview about the hemorrhoids that plagued him during the post-season. This might have been the same day I met a mid-level Royals’ executive named Rush Limbaugh (how would you ever forget a name like that). He and Brett remain best friends, and George and I laughed our way through 15 minutes in the KC dugout, which no matter how you diagram it means baseball trumps politics every time. George remembered that ’80 interview of course, but also (to my surprise) recalled that I got to interview him – for Fox – after his election to Cooperstown in ’99.
This, of course, is Wash.
All the other guys on the photo tour are Hall of Famers, or should be, or might very will be (Terry Francona needs one more measurable success in his managerial career to cinch a spot – and he’s only 54 – while if Theo Epstein also turns the Cubs around, he’s a lock).
The first person to tell you he’s not getting to Cooperstown – surely not as a player – is the ever-affable skipper of the Rangers, Ron (.261/.292/.368, ten years, one as a starting player) Washington. But few figures in the sport are greeted with greater affection, by his players and rivals alike. Just to amp this shot up a little bit, check out the copyright. That’s Jon SooHoo, who I’ve known ever since I was a local sportscaster in LA and who has shot 30 years of incredible images on behalf of the Dodgers.
There were many other men I’m proud to call friends who I didn’t trouble for photos: Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, Bruce Bochy, Bob Melvin – the average was about three a day, and it emphasized that while we get swamped by scandal and controversy and stats and new-age stats and boasting and showboating, the game is about good people whom you get to know and cheer for, for a very long time.
But occasionally, even in middle age, you make new acquaintances. While I summarize my thoughts for a future post, take a look at this, which might be – pound-for-pound – the best baseball stadium built in this country at least since 1962:
TEMPE, AZ – Say you’re a Mets fan.
It’s ok – even in the hypothetical, you only have to remain such through dusk next Monday.
You’ve cobbled together a five-day weekend starting this Thursday and you are determined to spend it with your beloveds in Spring Training. Do you like the way this relaxing trip sounds? A two hour and fifteen minute crack-of-dawn flight to Orlando and then the drive down to St. Lucie (or to Ft. Lauderdale and then the drive up to St. Lucie) in hopes of making first pitch of the home game against the Marlins on Thursday, then to a hotel somewhere, then the 100-mile drive to Lakeland for the Friday matinee against the Tigers, then either a new hotel or another 100 miles back to St. Lucie for the Saturday home game against the Astros, followed by the blink-of-an-eye 40-minute jaunt to Jupiter for the Sunday with the Cardinals, and then another 100 miles to Lakeland to see the Tigers again there, where it starts raining in the 4th, by which time you’d already seen all of the Tigers you wanted to see anyway and the Mets are now off on Tuesday and even if you stayed in Lakeland for a sixth day the nearest game is nearly an hour away in Orlando?
You like this?
Any chance you would prefer the four-hour flight to Phoenix where your hypothetical Mets have joined the 15 other teams in a Cactus League in which the longest ballpark-to-ballpark trip is an 80-minute drive? Where if even if your team was on the road for the entirety of your trip, you could easily find decent enough accommodations in almost guaranteed rain-free environment so that your total time in the car for the five days combined is less than just one of those 200-mile roundtrips to Lakeland? Where if you’d suddenly seen enough of the Mets – or if they simply took a day off – there would still be as many as six other games to choose from, all of them around the metaphorical corner?
In Arizona, it’s a struggle to remember which highway you’re supposed to take for each of the 28-minute drives to the ten different parks. In Florida, it’s a struggle to drive to almost any of them in time for first pitch.
The other day, Florida Governor Rick Scott reportedly asked for five million dollars to spend on preserving his state’s increasingly fragile Spring Training ecosystem. Unless he finds a way to move his cities closer together (or at least the teams they host), he might as well ask for fifty million – it won’t make much difference. With their new mini-Fenway beginning its second year of use, the Red Sox are seemingly ensconced in Ft. Myers until further notice, but the second newest park in the Grapefruit League is the Phils’ successor to Jack Russell Stadium in Clearwater – and it’s now a decade old. The Pirates play in a lovely, historic, old school park in Bradenton – that moves a little in the wind. There’s surely nothing wrong with Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, but compare it to any of Arizona’s new facilities – especially the palace the Dodgers and White Sox share at Glendale – and it looks a little shopworn and inconvenient.
Arizona, for decades the ugly sister in the Spring Training family, married well. When the Cubs jilted HoHoKam Park in Mesa for yet another new facility down the road scheduled to open next year, Oakland jumped at the chance to upgrade from Phoenix Municipal, into which they had slid when the Giants upgraded to Scottsdale. As of today the A’s are happy to be lame ducks for 2014 while HoHoKam is remodeled (with some seats removed) and then commit to at least 20 and as many as 30 years in the place the Cubs no longer want.
Arizona has one notable drawback. Excepting the Arizona Fall League, the Spring Training facilities are of almost no use here after April 1 (unless there are large groups of people you don’t like who you’d like to torture by forcing them to sit outside in three-digit temperatures). There is no equivalent to the Florida State League. There is no particular mandate for this, of course. You certainly could start one. Arizona used to field Phoenix and Tucson teams in the PCL without taking any more dramatic health steps than installing misting devices at the Phoenix games.
It would seem Florida is hanging on mostly by dint of tradition. After a quarter century of meanderings
through places like New Orleans and Atlanta and resorts in Texas and Hot Springs, Arkansas, most of the major league teams were settling into the Sunshine state just as real estate boomed in the ’20s. But there was always a “western” component, and in fact only nine of the 30 big league clubs have never held camp in Arizona (or at least California in the pre-Dodgers/Giants days).
Not counting World War II, when travel restrictions saw the Dodgers training at Bear Mountain in New York and the Reds in Bloomington, Indiana, the Chicago Cubs haven’t trained east of Mesa since 1916 (for the record, that was in Tampa, and the Cubs spent part of WW2 in pre-Larry Bird French Lick). There are six clubs – most of whom would surprise you – that went back to Florida after the experience. The Cardinals tried California in the ’20s and the Pirates were in San Bernardino, California, as late as 1952. The Astros began life as the Colt .45s in picturesque Apache Junction, AZ, in ’62 and ’63, and the Orioles held four of their first five camps in Arizona. The Red Sox were in Scottsdale from 1959 through 1965 and – as part of a stunt in which they swapped camp sites with the Giants for one season – in 1951, the Yankees trained in Phoenix.
Unless you’re a Northeasterner driving to the Tampa area to see the Yanks, Phils, Sox, or Jays, there is no longer any real advantage to having your team play its exhibitions in Florida rather than Arizona. However, more reasonable and realistic concerns exist for the fans who are left behind. The Reds-Cubs exhibition at HoHoKam on the 26th won’t be on radio in Cincinnati until 10 PM that night. On the other hand, it’s doubtful any young Yankee or Red Sox fans are catching those 1 PM weekday exhibitions from Dunedin. More over, instinct suggests that a kid with a tepid interest in baseball who fights his way home from school on a snowy March afternoon to find himself able to watch an entire exhibition game from the glorious glare of Arizona starting at 4 PM Eastern might become a fan for life, and maybe a future Spring Training voyageur.
Don’t get me wrong. I went to my first Spring Training 41 years ago in Ft. Lauderdale and it still grieves me that the Yankees don’t play there any more. I love McKechnie Field in Bradenton, and I brooded when the Dodgers abandoned Vero Beach for ‘Zona and left the footprints of Campy and Jackie and all the rest to be rediscovered by future baseball archaeologists. But since 2006 I’ve tried to do the day game/night game doubleheader thing at least once each spring in Florida and only about half the time did I make first pitch of the nightcap. Here I’ll have enough time between each game for an actual dinner.
Besides which tradition isn’t always as big a deal as us traditionalists make it out to be. The Texas Spring Training circuit was viable if not vibrant for nearly twenty years ending about 1941, with the Braves, Cardinals, and Tigers all taking turns as the home team in San Antonio. I mean, I don’t see anybody mourning the fact that the Phillies moved out of New Braunfels in April, 1939. They were heading for Florida because it just made more sense there. Just as it makes more sense for them (or more realistically the Pirates, Cardinals, Astros, and Twins) to head out here now.