March 24, 2005
Mesa’s Hohokam Park is not the biggest ballpark in the Cactus League nor does it have the finest amenities. And yet as an overall experience, Hohokam Park stands apart.
Cubs games are almost always sold out — a record 189,692 fans attended games there last spring — which creates an energy and ambience that more closely resembles the regular season than games you will find at other places.
Despite the sellouts, there are rarely long lines to wait in. And, even though I had parked in the most remote area, it took just 10 minutes to get out of the lot after a game. Cubs fans, by the way, stay until the (routinely) bitter end.
Renovated in 1997, Hohokam Park is roomy, with plenty of concessions and restrooms. It is clean and convenient. Ticket prices are comparable to the other parks — $5 to $18.
Of course, none of that sets Hohokam apart. The difference is the fans.
It was Chicago vs. Milwaukee on Tuesday at Hohokam, which was to say that there was a considerable run on Polish sausages ($5 while they last!).
A sell-out crowd basked in postcard perfect weather. The outfield berm was packed with shirtless men, women in shorts and bikini tops and babies in sunbonnets. In the stands, a mix of old and young soaked in the sunshine, smiling, perhaps, at the thought of relatives back in Chicago still suffering in the cold and snow. Is it any wonder that the people at Hohokam are genuinely happy to be there?
Unlike the Californians at Diablo and Scottsdale Stadium, the out-oftowners at Hohokam reflect the solid, unpretentious values of the Midwest. There is a tolerance of tacky apparel here that would not be humored among the more circumspect Angels and Giants patrons. In fact, there are no fans who take themselves less seriously than Cubs fans, who exude a sort of grumpy good nature: "Six dollars for a beer? That’s an outrage! . . . Gimme two!’’
And then there is the team itself, which has turned perpetual failure into a badge of honor.
Cubs baseball has always been something of a tragic comedy: They haven’t won a World Series since 1908 and haven’t played in one since 1945. This is an underlying theme in any Cubs conversation.
In the first inning, a Red Sox fan noted that ex-Boston shortstop Nomar Garciaparra was in the Cubs lineup. "They’ll never win with Garciaparra," he said, to which a Cubs fan replied: "Great. Like we need another reason the Cubs won’t win."
In the sixth inning, a buzzard began to fly lazy circles high above the ballpark. This was a topic of some interest among Cubs fans. The consensus was that it was an omen and, of course, not a good one.
The team’s inevitable, perpetual collapse has created among its fans a genial fatalism: "It’s just a . . . game," is the way one fan put it. As you begin to realize, a sense of humor is the essential quality for anyone who follows the Cubs.
As the rules demand, the roving beer vendors began to sing out "last call" in the seventh inning.
"Last call?’’ a Cubs fan mildly protested. "It’s only a quarter to three!’’