As the Mesa Historical Museum’s ongoing exhibit dedicated to the history of spring training in Arizona nears its fifth year, planners for “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience” are nearing a crucial at-bat: finding and developing a permanent location for a museum.
Play Ball was launched in 2009 as a 1,000-square-foot exhibit in Mesa’s Lehi Museum. In the years since, the collection has amassed more than 3,500 baseball-related photos and artifacts, and more than 300,000 visitors have viewed the exhibits at multiple stops around the Valley.
Portions of it are displayed today in a former art gallery on Mesa’s Main Street, and at the Arizona State Historical Society’s Museum at Papago Park in Tempe. Museum planners recently rounded first base when a conceptual rendering of what a future 25,000-square-foot dedicated facility might look like was developed.
But where exactly it will be built is still not finalized, and museum planners say it’s time to step up to the plate so the museum can stay in Mesa — as planned when it was first organized in 2009.
“We need to start making decisions,” said Lisa Anderson, executive director of the Mesa Historical Museum. “We’re at a critical juncture at this stage of the project. Our collection has outgrown and outpaced the spaces it has been in. If we continue to grow like we have, we’re going to need a much larger footprint for the further planning stages of the exhibit.
“Hopefully, we can be inside a permanent location within the next three to five years, and that location can be identified within a year. If we can do that, we’re right on track,” Anderson added.
The museum would include space for permanent and traveling exhibits — possibly including some from the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. — as well as an auditorium for lectures and screenings of films, meeting rooms, a dining area, a patio for events and management space with offices, artifact storage and archives.
The exhibit was the brainchild of the late Robert Brinton, an ardent baseball fan who was a past president of the Cactus League and president of the Mesa Visitors and Convention Bureau. Brinton, who unexpectedly died in October, conceived the idea for such a museum to be in Mesa to showcase the city’s role in the history of spring training in Arizona as a tourist draw for fans and families.
Soon after Play Ball opened, museum officials set a goal for the exhibit to be housed in its own space within three to five years from that point, and to possibly serve as a component of the Chicago Cubs new spring training facility at Riverview Park.
In the November 2010 general election, Mesa voters approved the city spending up to $99 million on a new spring training complex for the Cubs. The development could also include some form of “Wrigleyville West,” with shops, lodging and possibly a museum dedicated to the history of the Cactus League.
The Mesa Historical Museum’s next goal is tied to just that: working with city officials to pin down a suitable location.
But, so far, only tentative discussions have taken place for such a scenario, according to Mesa spokesman Steve Wright. Wright contends that the museum project is still a priority to the city, although the Cubs stadium project is at the forefront right now.
“The focus right now is on the stadium project,” Wright said. “Wrigleyville West is a separate discussion. We continue to work with the Mesa Historical Museum on finding a suitable, permanent site for the exhibit, as it is not only only important to Mesa and the Cactus League, but also to the region and state.”
Although the Cubs have been big supporters of the Play Ball exhibit and made a sizeable monetary donation in March to the Mesa Historical Museum in memory of Brinton, it’s too early to discuss concrete plans for the museum, said Mike Lufrano, senior vice president of community affairs and general counsel for the Chicago Cubs.
“We have to do the ballpark first, and that’s what needs to be focused on,” Lufrano told the Tribune on Friday. “Obviously, we’ve been big supporters of the Mesa Historical Museum, but it’s too early to say what role we would play.”
Whenever the Cubs and the city are ready to move forward, Play Ball’s planners will be there — although they hope that’s sooner than later.
“We really want to get conversations with Mesa and the Chicago Cubs moving forward with putting the museum at Wrigleyville West in Mesa,” said Robert Johnson, vice president of community affairs for Highground, a political consulting firm in Phoenix that is overseeing the Play Ball exhibit and museum’s planning stages. “That is our No. 1 priority.
“Having it spread all over the Valley is nice for a while, but due to the size of the collection, it is more impressive being presented in one place than it is in many small shows,” Johnson added. “Mesa remains our No. 1 priority of where the museum should be.”
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