Off the beaten base path, a baseball dream is waiting to grow from sandlot proportions to state-of-the-art stadium-style flair.
"Play Ball: the Cactus League Experience" is a Mesa Historical Museum exhibit that organizers say is being planned for an expansion that could include its own home within five years.
The exhibit is dedicated to the history of major league baseball spring training and the people who were instrumental in luring the teams that have become one of the state's largest engines for tourism.
As the season officially begins Wednesday and more than 1 million baseball fans from around the nation pass through the state during the next month, seeing the exhibit - which features many artifacts and pieces of baseball memorabilia - will take fans back to the Valley's ballparks from a bygone era.
The exhibit, which is slated to run through 2010, is housed in a 1,000-square-foot room. But by next year, when Arizona will be home to half of Major League Baseball's 30 teams, the goal is to double the size of the exhibit.
Within the next five years, the exhibit's organizers, which include a small group connected to the state's baseball community, hope to showcase Arizona's role in baseball in its own building. The site is undetermined until its organizers garner corporate sponsorship.
The Play Ball exhibit begins with knotholes in a wooden fence that visitors can peak through and see the transformation of the Valley's various spring training ballparks. Fans might be surprised to learn that the Houston Colt 45s (now the Astros) trained at Geronimo Park in Apache Junction the first two years of the team - 1962 and 1963. Fans can also see a 1940s-era Coca-Cola soda fountain used at Rendezvous Park in downtown Mesa, where Nick and Nedra Fitch started concessions, according to information in the exhibit.
The exhibit ends with a section dedicated to the Buckhorn Mineral Baths owned by Ted and Alice Sliger in east Mesa - the attraction for the New York Giants to come to Arizona in 1947 because of the bath's supposed healing powers. A bed from the Buckhorn, where many of baseball's greats undoubtedly received a rubdown, is part of the exhibit.
The exhibit also pays homage to Mesa rancher Dwight Patterson, considered the father of the Cactus League, who was instrumental in bringing the Cubs, Brewers, Angels and Colt 45s to Arizona because of his interest in bringing professional baseball to Mesa, according to Robert Brinton, president of the Cactus League and president of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"This exhibit is more than bats and balls," Brinton said. "It tells a story, and as we expand on it and it grows, we want to present the history of spring training in Arizona in a proper way. We've done a lot of work on this, and there's still a lot of work that needs to be done and things we need to collect to make the exhibit, and then a museum, more complete."
Brinton added that the museum would like to locate more photographs related to spring training in the 1950s and '60s that former players may have in their private collections.
Jared Smith, curator at the Mesa Historical Museum, said he believes that the Chicago White Sox were the first professional team to play in Mesa - in 1914 when they played the Mesa Gems, a semi-pro team at a ballpark south of Main Street and east of Robson Road, near Stapley's Hardware Store.
Although a newspaper article exists from that event, there are no known photographs of that game, Smith said.
Lisa Anderson, executive director of the Historical Museum, said an exhibit dedicated to the history of spring training is something they have wanted to do for a long time.
Not only would such a museum be something additional for out-of-town fans watching their favorite teams to visit, it also has appeal for Valley residents, Brinton said.
As a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Brinton has fond memories of selling game programs and seat cushions for a quarter at Cubs games at the long-gone Rendezvous Park along the 100 block of North Center Street, close to what is now the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau. Brinton said his father, an insurance salesman, was one of 35 Mesa businessmen who were instrumental in luring the Cubs to Mesa in 1952.
Robert Johnson, a Valley political consultant, who serves on the Historical Museum's Board of Directors, said momentum to expand the exhibit is growing.
"One of our things is first, come and see the exhibit," Johnson said. "Second, if you have something connected to the early history of spring training in Arizona, please share it with us. What we've received already of what people have had in the garages or attics for years, leads us to believe, we've only scratched the surface."
Brinton said he hopes the museum would be in Mesa because of the city's deep-rooted history in spring training. At one time or another, Mesa has been the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers, California Angels and the Cubs.
Lou Klimchock, of Mesa, a former Major Leaguer from the 1960s and the president of the Arizona Major League Alumni Association, also is contacting former baseball players throughout the Valley to search for any artifacts related to the Cactus League for the exhibit.
"We're excited to be a part of this," Klimchock said, Many of the former players who trained here with their teams now live here. The exhibit is a good start, and we're just beginning to show what kind of opportunities this can have."
Brinton said, "Spring training in Arizona is a great story, and we're just getting started in telling it. The best is yet to come."