May 23, 2005
When someone hits a home run into the outfield stands at a Big League Dreams ballpark, the ball isn’t snatched by an eager fan. Instead, it bounces off a smiling face in the crowd with a wooden thump. Those faces in the outfield are made up of wooden panels preprinted with photos of cheering crowds to make players feel as though they’re in the major leagues.
Gilbert residents could one day sit for those photos and be forever "in the crowd" for games played at a future Big League Dreams park proposed for 65 acres on Elliot Road between Recker and Power roads. The Gilbert Town Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on major contracts with Big League Dreams.
The Tribune recently visited the company’s Chino Hills, Calif., park to get a glimpse of what could be coming to Elliot District Park if the council approves the agreements.
The 3-year-old Chino Hills park is a six-field complex on 35 acres that includes replicas of Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Crosley Field, Tiger Stadium, Ebbets Field and Yankee Stadium. Youth baseball and adult softball games and tournaments pack the fields daily. Other visitors come for the batting cages, indoor soccer and sand volleyball offered.
Admission is free from 7 a.m. until league play begins each day; after that teens and adults pay $2.50 but get a $1 token for use at The Stadium Club restaurants. Kids under 13 enter free.
"The misconception is that it’s going to cost a lot to play here," said Bill Russell, a former Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop who works in development and community relations for California-based Big League Dreams.
Softball player Jeff Whippo said league fees are a bit higher at Big League Dreams, "but it’s worth it for all the extras we get." Whippo came with his family to Big League Dreams to play on a recent Sunday.
"The fields are kept up," he said. "If you play in a community park, you never know what you’re going to find."
Whippo ate dinner at The Stadium Club with his wife, Karen, his nephew Bryce and Bryce’s parents, Stacey and Guy Cermenelli. Whippo’s father — Bryce’s grandfather — lives in Gilbert. Whippo said he thought a Big League Dreams would fit in well in the town.
The Chino Hills park has all the atmosphere of games on school or municipal fields, but with up-scale amenities and without the lawn chairs and blankets. Moms still keep stats, but park employees run electronic scoreboards and concession sales.
In the distance in Chino Hills, large homes are buffered from the park by its parking lot and a tree-lined hill.
Big League Dreams consultant Pat Kight said the park has never had a light- or noise-related complaint from its neighbors. Shields on the floodlights keep their glare directed on the fields and players.
Kight said a Gilbert Big League Dreams would give community sports in the Arizona desert new luster.
"So, gone are the days of having to sit out in 100-degree heat on aluminum benches watching someone play on some dusty field and pretending this is fun," he said. "Now it is fun."
Fans — some 150 seats are available at each field for spectators of the 3-D variety — seemed to agree.
Julia Silva said she drives more than two hours weekly to Chino Hills from Palmdale to watch her husband, Paul, play in a league with friends he’s known since high school.
"It kind of encourages them to do better because it’s like a real stadium," she said.
And like a real stadium, it has real restaurants.
The Stadium Club restaurants are reminiscent of mini-Front Row Friday’s — the restaurant overlooking the field at Bank One Ballpark.
The restaurants offer 11 different kinds of beer during youth and adult games, but drinking seems subdued. Big League Dreams officials have said the proposed Gilbert park may not sell alcohol at all during youth games.
Gilbert’s Big League Dreams
If the Town Council approves a contract with Big League Dreams on Tuesday, an upscale sports park could come to northeast Gilbert.
Cost: $22 million, Big League Dreams would pay yearly operating costs of about $500,000 and also contribute about $500,000 a year in revenue to the town, officials say. Size: Built on a 65-acre public park, the sports complex may leave some open space for other park uses. Fields: Eight replicas of major league fields for baseball and softball games. Concessions: Two "The Stadium Club" restaurants with full bars, food and appetizer menus, big-screen televisions and video arcades. Other sports: Batting cages, sand volleyball courts, two 20,000-square-foot multipurpose arenas for indoor soccer, roller hockey and other events, two ‘tot lot’ playgrounds. Timeline: Big League Dreams has said it could open the park as early as mid-2007.
The mini majors
The Big League Dreams park in Chino Hills, Calif., has six ballfields, all replicas of famous major league stadiums. Big League Dreams vice president Don Webber says the company would consider building a replica of Bank One Ballpark if Gilbert so desired, but added that it would probably be expensive.
Below are what the six fields look like in Chino Hills:
Wrigley Field: Ivy-covered outfield walls underline a wooden skyline where lawn chairs sit on Chicago rooftops.
Late announcer Harry Caray is painted into a faux press box above The Stadium Club restaurant.
Ebbets Field: The home of the Brooklyn Dodgers was demolished in 1960, but Big League Dreams preserves its look, complete with scoreboard advertising Schaefer Beer.
Crosley Field: Demolished in 1972, the former home of the Cincinnati Reds is decorated here with replicas of original advertisements for Webber’s Sausage and Mountain Dew.
Yankee Stadium: White picket fences adorned with red, white and blue flags top the blue outfield walls of the New York Yankees’ home. Tiger Stadium: Former home of the Detroit Tigers, the now-empty stadium is represented with blue double-deck stands and a scoreboard placed in a center-field gap between them. Fenway Park: Green paneling makes it obvious that this is the home of the "Green Monster," a 37-foot-high wall with a 23-foot screen infamous for turning home runs into doubles.