If It Doesn't Have Water in It, It's Not a River: Again Contemplating Arizona
by Mark T.R. Donohue
I hate people who complain about the weather. When I was in college in the Bay Area, nothing made me more frothing-at-the-mouth mad than Southern Californians who would complain about the cold. I remember waiting for the bus as a junior high kid winters in Illinois where it would regularly hit like minus-40 with the wind chill. When you finally got inside from the cold, you could actually feel your face loosening. But I wouldn't complain then, and I'm not complaining now. For a person who actually enjoys the change of seasons and is subliminally unsettled by winters without snow, Colorado is actually a really nice place to live. The summers are very mild, it's sunny all the time, the air is clear, and it's pretty common to get a freak 70-degree day in the middle of winter, which I assure you does not happen in the midwest.
Still, this morning as I was trying to figure out where my hiking boots were so I could fight my way through two feet of snow to get to the 7-11 for staple items, I couldn't help thinking about spring training. It's not so far off! For several years running, my father and I have made the trip down to Arizona around the last week of March, when there are more games on the schedule and the stars play into the middle innings. As an added bonus, if the timing works out we often get to take in an exhibition game or two at Bank One Ballpark/Chase Field, home of the most expensive McDonald's in the U.S. Yes, even more than at airports. Why does an "extra value meal" taste better when it costs eleven dollars? I don't know, but it does.
So when I returned home with my staples (Diet Coke, corn chips, SweetTarts), visions of $6 Big Macs dancing in my head, I was mildly surprised to see today's one obligatory Postcursory Rockies article bearing the alarmist headline "Spring training in Tucson now concern for team." What does that mean exactly? Well, the White Sox are trying to move to Glendale, joining the Dodgers, Coyotes, and (football) Cardinals. On the whole, I am in favor of the whole plan for a new joint stadium for Chicago and Los Angeles in Glendale, which is one of the mass of central AZ municipalities arbitrarily given separate names (Glendale, Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, Peoria, Surprise) even though they're all basically just metro Phoenix. The more teams in greater Phoenix, the more games Dad and I can jam into each action-packed late March trip. Plus having every NL West team in the Cactus League will be nice for scouting purposes. If the cost of yet still more Phoenix teams is no more spring baseball in Tucson, though, I'm against it.
Every team in the Cactus League plays in the Phoenix cluster except for the Rockies, Diamondbacks, and White Sox, who all play in Tucson, which is an actual separate distinct city about two hours and one creepy plane graveyard south of Phoetempmesurpeordale. I don't know, to tell you the truth, whether having only two teams in Tucson would be logistically unworkable or not. Traditionally, teams don't start travelling until a few weeks into the spring, scheduling various informal scrimmages with the other neighborhood teams until then. With more than fifty guys to a team on those early spring rosters, would playing nobody but other Rockies and Diamondbacks for a fortnight be the absolute end of the world? I get kind of bored seeing the Diamondbacks 18 times a year during the regular season, so I can see some weight to that argument. I doubt that overly familiar competition is really the problem, though. The catch is attendance. Two teams might not be enough critical mass to get people to schedule a day or two down south on their Cactus League visits. And look at which two teams would be left. The Diamondbacks play in Arizona all summer anyway -- no real urgency to go see them in March. And the Rockies don't have any fans, besides me, and I only go to one home game every spring. (I'm sorry if that makes me a bad fan. Going down to Tucson usually means missing a second game at night in Phoenix, and the whole beauty of spring training is quantity over quality, eight games in five days or whatever. Also, one round trip through the scary plane graveyard is plenty.) No doubt about it, the White Sox are the big draw in Tucson, if only because of the great unwashed masses of hooting Cubs fans who descend on the state every spring and can't possibly all get tickets to every game at HoHoKam.
If a new team can't be enticed to come a little ways south or an extremely long ways west, the Rockies and Diamondbacks will probably be forced to accept the inevitable and find new homes in the greater Phoenix area. That would be a shame. Phoenix is an odd, rootless, strip mall-jungle kind of place and whatever its spring ballparks provide in convenience they lack in character. Sure, there are a couple of neighborhood-y joints up north, like the Giants' little nook in Scottsdale and and the Brewers' criminally underattended gem in Maryvale, but the signature Phoenix spring yards are jr.-sized mallparks like the shared Padres/Mariners and Rangers/Royals complexes in Peoria and Surprise. The new DodgerSox home base in Glendale will surely be along the same lines. The other Phoenix teams (A's, Cubs, Angels) have older, generic minor league parks about which I am wholly neutral. Hi Corbett Field, spring training home of your Colorado Rockies, provides a unique experience. It gives you something that no other Cactus League park can offer. Hi Corbett has free parking.
Seriously, though, if the rest of Arizona spring training gives fans the idea of what it used to be like to go to regular season games, Hi Corbett gives fans the experience of what it used to be like to go to spring training games. It's in the middle of a slummy, brown-grassed public park. Almost all of the seats are bleachers. It's the only park where I can remember arriving for a game and seeing top prospects just hanging out in front of the box office in their uniform pants and undershirts. Players wander into the stands during games. The whole joint has an amateurish, who-really-cares vibe that's utterly unique in pro sports. In a good way! It's my kind of place, even though I persistently get so sunburned there that I am stiff through mid-April. It has history, too, having been built in the 30's and serving as the spring home of the Indians for many years.
As I understand it, under the terms of the lease the White Sox have with Tucson's monumentally less grungy other spring training ballpark, they can't leave without providing a substitute major league tenant until 2012. For scheduling purposes, things would be much more convenient for the Cactus League if a second Florida team besides the Dodgers moved west at the same time. I'm sure they'll probably get one. Houston, maybe? I would have to do more research into the inner workings of the Grapefruit League, which I have only visited once and know next to nothing about, to be sure. But the writing may be on the wall for spring baseball in Tucson, as the next team paired with the D-Backs at the Electric Park will probably have a much more favorable lease. I'm certain there's another Phoenix suburb desperate to get its own ballpark. For sure, I am going to relish my one game at Hi Corbett this spring with extra fervor.
Update: The Chicago Tribune's Mark Gonzales covers the story of that tricky lease from a White Sox perspective. Gonzales notes that both the Diamondbacks and the Rockies would prefer for the third team in Tucson to be an AL squad. Named as options are Baltimore and Cleveland, who already played in Arizona (at Hi Corbett) from 1947 to 1992.