There wasn’t much talk of curses as the Chicago Cubs — and their fans — warmed up for spring training Wednesday at Mesa’s HoHoKam Park.
Spectators offered opinions on how the return of pitcher Greg Maddux and the addition of other major stars could lift Chicago’s lovable losers into the World Series for the first time since 1945.
"We’ve got the best pitching in baseball, so if we’re not going to win now . . ." said Daniel Piotrowski of Brookfield, Ill., sitting in the bleachers with his wife, Jennifer, and their 18-month-old son, Tyler.
They were part of a crowd of about 1,500 at the Cubs’ spring training home, sitting for free in seats that become prime real estate today.
Today is opening day for the 11 Cactus League teams, launching a month-long spring-training season that could set attendance records across southern Arizona.
Robert Brinton of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau said the team’s final intrasquad game Wednesday was moved to the stadium from Fitch Park this year because tickets to the games are selling so quickly.
"They’ve actually done this before, but they’ve never really publicized it," Brinton said. "Because the tickets have gone so fast, they’ve decided to let people come in, because there might be some people who think they’re going to catch a later game, and they may be out of luck."
Brinton said the team is on track to break the season attendance record of 171,000 set in 1999. Tickets are still relatively plentiful for Sunday, Monday and Wednesday’s games, but availability after that is spotty, Brinton said. Crowds are usually larger later in the spring, he said, as more Chicagoans head west.
Many in the crowd Wednesday were Chicagoans in town for the day or the week, mingling with winter residents such as Judy Johnson of Sun Lakes. She and her husband, Tom, have spent their lives in Racine, Wis., but are dyed-inthe-wool Cubs fans. Judy Johnson went to her first game at Wrigley Field on a sixth-grade field trip in 1940.
Wednesday, she watched players Alex Gonzales and Corey Patterson sign autographs as she clutched two round felt banners, each with 13 signatures. She praised the players for accommodating fans to sign autographs.
When asked if she thinks her team will go all the way this year, she hesitated, then said, "Sure!"
She said Steve Bartman, the fan who many think kept outfielder Moises Alou from making a play on a foul ball in Game 6 of the National League championship series Oct. 14 at Wrigley Field, may have performed a public service: "Now everyone in the whole world knows, don’t touch that ball!" Johnson said.
Bud Ashcraft was keeping busy with his new part-time job in the HoHoKam souvenir shop. A native of Illinois, he held his allegiance to the Cubs through a long stay in Texas, and recently retired to the Valley.
"I always thought I’d come to Mesa," he said. "Where else is a Cub fan going to go?"