Robert Brinton was born in 1951, only months before the Chicago Cubs arrived in Mesa. He is the son of one of the charter members of the HoHoKams, a civic group organized to facilitate the arrival of the Cubs in Mesa.
He practically grew up attending Cactus League games. So if anyone is qualified to assess how the evolution of the Cactus League has affected fans, it’s Brinton.
"I can remember as a kid, climbing over the little brick wall at Cubs games at old Rendezvous Park and picking up bats that had been cracked during the game,’’ he said. "It’s not like that today.’’
Doug Seipel, who owns Sluggo’s Sports Grill in Mesa, a longtime Cubs hangout, said fans have fewer opportunities to rub elbows with today’s players outside the ballpark.
"We still get some of the old players who come here and some of the current coaches, but most of the players seem to keep to themselves,’’ Seipel said. "It seems like they only want to deal with fans in a controlled environment and on their terms..’’
Cubs pitcher Greg Maddux, a veteran of both the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues, doesn’t agree.
"I think, if anything, there’s more interaction between fans and players than there was when I first came up,’’ he said. "It depends a lot on the individual players and how available you choose to be.’’
One aspect of change beyond dispute is ticket prices.
"I heard where the Red Sox (who train in Florida) are charging as much as $44 for some tickets,’’ said Brinton, who also serves on the Cactus League board of directors. "That’s one thing I’m proud of at Hohokam (Park): You can still buy a ticket and sit in the berm for $5 or sit in the grandstands for $6.’’
Cactus League ticket prices range from $4 to $24.
Brinton, executive director for the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, says many of the changes that have created distance between players and fans are a function of the success and growth of the league.
"When I was growing up, the game was played in 3,000-seat parks,’’ he noted. "Now, they’re playing in 12,000-seat stadiums. Naturally, you lose some of that intimacy.’’
This is the critical question for every Cactus League stadium: Does it have a grass berm so patrons can work on their tans while watching baseball?
The East Valley’s ballparks — Scottsdale Stadium, Hohokam Park, Tempe Diablo Stadium and Phoenix Municipal Stadium in east Phoenix — have fewer seats, but more atmosphere, than big league ballparks.
Everyone from the center fielder to the popcorn guy is up close and personal.
Scottsdale and Hohokam stadiums top the list for Brian McGee, 37, a high school baseball coach who brought his team from Santa Rosa, Calif., to catch a few days of spring training.
"It’s more — I don’t want to say ‘romantic.’ It’s a condensed atmosphere, a smaller atmosphere. You feel you’re more a part of it, rather than just an ant in a big stadium," he said. It’s purely coincidence that McGee played minor league ball with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs organizations, which happen to play at Scottsdale and Hohokam, he said.
Despite any personal attachments he may have, the numbers certainly support him. Scottsdale Stadium, which opened in 1992 and replaced its aging predecessor that bore the same name, seats 11,200. Hohokam, which opened in 1997 and replaced an older facility, seats 12,500.
Spring training stadiums also are more casual and less commercial than big league stadiums, said New York residents Newville Roberts, 40, a detective, and Paul McGuinness, 41, a nurse, who watched practice while their wives attended a convention.
"I know it’s a new world and things are changing, but I like some of the old-fashioned things," Roberts said.
There’s timeless charm to stadiums that feature manually operated scoreboards, but not half-empty luxury suites.
The constant barrage of advertising at Yankee and Shea stadiums in New York drives McGuinness nuts, he said.
"The scoreboard, there’s always something flashing in your face. You can’t watch the game sometimes," he said.
While the face of the Cactus League has evolved greatly since the Cleveland Indians and New York Giants first arrived in Arizona in 1947 to train, the reason for teams coming here has not: It’s still all about preparing for the rigors of a very long season in a place that offers a favorable climate in late February and March.
"I’d say things are pretty much the same now as they were when I first came up,’’ said Maddux, a 19-year veteran now in his second tour of duty with the Cubs. "It’s still all about getting in baseball shape and working on baseball skills.’’
What has changed, however, is the nature of that training.
"I remember when I came up a lot of players used the first two or three weeks to get in shape, and that was on top of all the hours spent out on the field working on baseball skills,’’ said former Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, who retired in 1997. "It made for some really long days. Now, because players report in shape, they’re just working on baseball skills, which means there are a lot of short days early in spring training."
Hall-of-Famer Billy Williams, who played for the Cubs from 1959 to 1974, said the competition in spring training has evolved, too.
"When I was playing, there weren’t that many spots open on the big-league club. Spring training was used mainly to look at one position or two, or to look at a player to see if he could help you on the big club. Now, there are a lot of spots open in the spring, and a lot of players competing for them.’’
The most obvious difference, though, is conditioning.
"Now, just about every player has a gym in their home and a lot of them have personal trainers,’’ Williams said. "They stay in shape yearround. In my day, you didn’t have that.’’
There was a time when the Pink Pony steakhouse in downtown Scottsdale was the clear champion of Cactus League hangouts. In fact, for years it was the only real spring training hangout.
Executives, players, broadcasters and fans shared barbs and bar tabs for decades in the dimly lit restaurant at 3831 N. Scottsdale Road.
Fewer of baseball’s current stars stop by these days, though.
Instead, more often they head over to Don & Charlie’s, a rib and steak restaurant at 7501 E. Camelback Road.
The place is filled with hundreds of signed baseballs, bats and photos. And on most nights, some of the game’s biggest stars.
Players, their families and fans are treated alike. It’s a restaurant where people eat, not exchange autographs.
There was a time a few years ago when former San Francisco Giants star Willie Mays and former Chicago Cubs star Ernie Banks were both at the restaurant, but didn’t realize either was there until they ran into each other in the lobby.
"They shared a few ‘How-areyous?’ and ‘What’s-going-ons?’ and ‘It’s-great-to-see-yous,’ " said restaurant manager Phil Bedel.
Not long ago, former St. Louis Cardinals player and broadcaster Joe Garagiola Sr., a Valley resident, and former New York Yankees star Yogi Berra dropped by.
Berra ordered barbecued ribs and after a while asked for a bib.
"If I could find a catcher’s chest protector, would that work for you?" Bedel asked.
"Yeah, I think I know what to do with one of those," he replied.
Meanwhile, Sluggo’s Sports Grill, a hamburger joint at 161 N. Centennial Way in Mesa, has been Chicago Cubs domain since it was owned by Cubs broadcasters Harry Caray and Steve Stone.
The other top spring training hangouts are all in Scottsdale, said Oakland A’s shortstop and manabout-town Bobby Crosby. The best:
• Ra Sushi Bar Restaurant, 3815 N. Scottsdale Road.
• Kona Grill, 7014 E. Camelback Road.
• Six nightclub, 7310 E. Stetson Drive.
• Suede Restaurant and Lounge, 7307 E. Indian Plaza.
• Axis/Radius nightclubs, 7340 E. Indian Plaza
The true purpose of spring training is more about tourism than about baseball. The six-week Cactus League baseball season serves as the featured attraction during Arizona’s tourist season. Each of the 12 teams draws thousands of out-of-state visitors who cheerfully contribute to the state’s economy. "It’s a big role. It’s a couple of hundred million dollars a year in revenues," said Gov. Janet Napolitano. The statewide economic impact exceeded $201 million in 2003, according to a study conducted for the Cactus League Association by the Tucson polling firm FMR Associates. Game attendance topped 1.2 million in 2004, a record, according to the clubs. Both figures appear to be headed higher. Dave Yoblick, 67, a retired schoolteacher from Bryn Mawr, Pa., is doing his part. He has been a fan of the Oakland A’s since the team was based in Philadelphia and has made 12 trips to Arizona for spring training since the early 1980s. He and his wife have come every year since 1999.
"It’s great just being out here," Yoblick said while shagging autographs at the A’s practice site at Papago Sports Complex in east Phoenix. "It’s a nice change from the snow and cold weather."
That’s the ticket.
Forty-eight percent of Cactus League fans in 2003 came from outside Arizona, according to the survey. They traveled from 46 states, plus Canada, Mexico and 12 other countries. The top three states: California, Washington and Illinois.
Baseball tourists tend to stay longer than other tourists and that means spending more money here.
"They actually come for two or three games. They stay for four of five nights," said J.P. de la Montaigne, president of the association.
March is one of the two best months of year for Kona Grill in Scottsdale, said manager Donald Hunt. "It’s definitely because of spring training," he said.
Business at the restaurant at Scottsdale Fashion Square picks up around 4 p.m. for reverse happy hour, which just happens to be the same time San Francisco Giants games end at nearby Scottsdale Stadium.
In 1951, Mesa businessman Dwight Patterson met with Chicago Cubs owner Phil Wrigley. By the end of that meeting, the two had a handshake agreement to bring the Cubs to Mesa for spring training. The Cubs would train at the city-owned Rendezvous Park.
One problem loomed: The wooden bleachers were worn out, and neither the city nor the Mesa Chamber of Commerce could be convinced to cough up the $3,000 needed to replace them.
So Patterson formed a group of Mesa businessmen, who took out a $3,000 bank note to fund the refurbishment. The group called itself the HoHoKams and helped make the Cubs a success in those early years. In doing so, they became a model for groups such as the Charros in Scottsdale, which hosts the Giants, and the Diablos in Tempe, which hosts the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
"Early on, we were involved in just about every aspect of spring training,’’ said Rudy Campbell, who holds the distinction of being a charter member of both the HoHoKams and the Diablos. "Now, we mainly do things like parking, ushers, selling advertising and programs.’’
The Diablos were formed in 1968 to help accommodate the expansion Seattle Pilots at Tempe Diablo Stadium. Over the years, Tempe has been the spring training home to the Milwaukee Brewers, the Seattle Mariners and now the Angels, whose full name changed during the offseason.
The Charros were founded in 1961 as an outgrowth of the Scottsdale Chamber of Commerce. In fact, the Charros lease the stadium from the city and sublet the facility to the Giants for spring training.
"Our primary role today is selling the advertising at the ballpark,’’ said Ed Reading, Charros chairman of baseball activities. "Through that, we’ve been able to generate thousands of dollars for our charities. It’s been a very good association.’’ While the duties of the sponsoring organizations today have diminished, Campbell said the Cactus League probably never would have survived without the groups during the early years.
"We did just about everything,’’ said Campbell, 82. "If the teams would have had to pay for the things that we did in our groups, I doubt they would have made it. ‘’
WEST VALLEY FLIGHT
The threat to the Cactus League traditionally has come from civic leaders in the East, specifically Florida.
Municipal leaders there tried, but largely failed, to raid Cactus League teams.
Recently, though, the more serious threat to East Valley host cities has come from the West — specifically, West Valley cities.
For those keeping score at home, the West Valley, which was a baseball wasteland until the 1990s, now has more spring training teams than either the East Valley or Tucson.
The West Valley has five teams. The Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres play in Peoria, and the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers play in Surprise. The Milwaukee Brewers train at Maryvale Baseball Park in west Phoenix after vacating Compadre Stadium in Chandler in 1998.
The East Valley has four teams — the San Francisco Giants in Scottsdale, the Chicago Cubs in Mesa, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in Tempe and the Oakland A’s in east Phoenix. Tucson has three — the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies.
"It seems like our experience in Peoria was that you built a stadium, then other amenities came in around it, whether it’s restaurants or hotels," said J.P. de la Montaigne, director of community services for Peoria.
"It seemed to prove successful, so I think a lot of people are trying to copy that," said de la Montaigne, who also servers as president of the Cactus League Association. "Find some vacant land to build those facilities, and then hopefully the economic development aspects fill in around it."
Goodyear was the latest city to try muscle in spring training. Goodyear officials struck an agreement with the stadium-financing Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority last year to build a complex for the Angels.
However, the deal fell apart and the Angels extended their lease in Tempe.
Former state Sen. Slade Mead, chairman of the new Arizona Baseball and Softball Commission, said Goodyear likely will remain a contender for teams moving from Florida.
East Valley communities such as Chandler, Gilbert, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community also may get into the action, he said.
New stadiums require more than just community goodwill. The Goodyear complex was budgeted for $40 million.
When Tempe and the Angels agreed on a 20-year extension to keep the team at Tempe Diablo Stadium, it not only preserved the city’s 38-year association with Cactus League baseball, it also signaled a new era of stability for the Cactus League.
With the November agreement, which included a $20 million renovation of the Angels’ facilities in Tempe, and the planned expansion of the San Francisco Giants facilities in Scottsdale, all the Cactus League facilities will have either been built or renovated within the past 12 years. New stadiums in the West Valley, such as those in Peoria and Surprise, have bolstered the Arizona spring circuit. The new and upgraded facilities appear to have beat back the overtures of places like Texas and Las Vegas.
"It’s pretty much a two-horse race now,’’ said Brinton. "It’s Arizona and Florida. Will we trade horses at some point? It’s hard to say, but it’s not our top priority.’’
Even so, Napolitano formed a commission last week to explore the possibility of luring other major league teams to Arizona, home to 12 of 30 spring training venues.
While the Cactus League isn’t opposed to bringing in more teams, the emphasis appears to be on making sure the current tenants are happy.
"We want to maintain the stability we have now,’’ de la Montaigne said. "When their contract comes up for renewal, we want to take care of them, make them happy and sign another long-term contract.’’