HoHoKam: The Once and Future Spring

Just one day before I arrived here in the Valley of the Sun, the A’s had a media reveal at HoHoKam Stadium, the new spring training home for the team starting in 2015. Reporters gathered in the parking lot of the teamless stadium and were shown images of what HoHoKam will look like next year. Saturday morning I took some time to check out the renovation’s progress.

A previous venue called HoHoKam Park (née Rendezvous Park) hosted the A’s during the 70’s. As you might imagine, the park was far more modest than many of the palatial digs of today’s Cactus League.

Rendezvous Park

The Cubs moved to HoHoKam in the 1978 and haven’t left the city since. HoHoKam was relocated to the west in 1997, yielding at the time a large, superior stadium compared to its peers. HoHoKam had a berm wrapping around the outfield, 13,000 seats, plenty of concourse space, even suites. This year the Cubs opened Cubs Park, still in Mesa but closer to the Tempe border. The A’s, who had unsuccessfully tried to work with the City of Phoenix to get improvements for Phoenix Municipal Stadium, turned their attention to Mesa and worked out a deal to be the new tenants at HoHoKam and Fitch Park, the training complex.

Piles of dirt stood in front of the entrances, evidence of trenching. The grass field has been removed, as have most of the stadium seats. Eventually the bleachers down the lines will be removed and replaced with roofed bars. The scoreboard will be replaced as well. A big change at HoHoKam will be green and gold paint and materials along the exterior. The very beige, very-90’s façade will get a major pop of color and a real sense of identity in the process. The small tower at the home plate gate will feature a big “A’s” logo.

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New look for HoHoKam comes with strong A’s colors

The existing beige clashes in a big way with green and gold, so there’s hope that the whole place will get a proper paint job that matches. If you look closely, the pic on the right shows a #27 above the entrance, a nod to the late, great Catfish Hunter. That isn’t the only tribute in store.

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Third base “24” gate as part of renovated façade

It makes sense that Rickey’s gate is outside third base, right? I’m sure that at first naming/numbering gates in this manner will sound weird from a wayfaring standpoint, but I’d love to see all of the gates treated like this. If you know HoHoKam, you know that there are two more fan gates in the left field corner and outside first base that could also be numbered. Who should get the honor?

Despite being one of the largest Cactus League ballparks, HoHokam managed to maintain a level of intimacy due to its traditional concourse design, where fans move from the concourse to the grandstand through tunnels. There’s no 360-degree view from the concourse, and no fancy detached club level. Capacity will be reduced to 10,500, making HoHoKam a middle-of-the-pack ballpark in terms of size. Other plans called for extending the outer boundary fence so that the grounds can be larger in order to accommodate food trucks. That’s a good alternative to the food tents seen at some of the other parks. The fact that the architect in charge of HoHoKam is the same one who did the Muni renovation over a decade ago is a good sign. Muni still looks as good as it can get in spite of its old bones. This gives me hope for some boldness when it comes to the A’s future stadium in the Bay Area – one that isn’t handcuffed by having to share it with a football team.

I didn’t visit Fitch Park, the other half of the A’s-Mesa deal. Most of the work there will be focused on improving the training facilities for the A’s, under-the-hood types of improvements that benefit players, not so much fans.

Sadly, the lovely view of Papago Park that came with games at Muni will not be moving to Mesa with the A’s. That said, it’ll be nice to see a bunch of fans lazing on the berm. My brother’s buying a house in Mesa, and when I stay there during the spring I’ll be able to bike from his house to HoHoKam along a canal trail. I can’t think of a better way of spending time during March.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick opened three years ago as the latest (perhaps last) two-team spring training facility in the Cactus League. It’s unique in that it sits on the western edge of the lands of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a group of federally recognized Native American tribes. The Rockies and Diamondbacks came over after spending a stint in Tucson, formally making the Cactus League a Phoenix operation in the process.

Coming from Tempe, I found myself driving through a shopping center to get to the ballpark. In the process I avoided the $5 parking fee by parking at the shopping center. From there I followed a large crowd past a movie theater to the south entrance to the baseball complex. A gently rising path elevated above the Rockies’ practice fields. The path deposits fans at the main concourse level, high above the field. Prior to the opening of Cubs Park, Talking Stick was the most expansive ballpark in Arizona. Wide concourses open to even wider spaces. The press/suite level, with its dark metal and amber lighting, is reminiscent of a resort. Instead of bleachers, bars flank the grandstand down both lines. Team executive offices look the part.

Proximity to a mall notwithstanding, Talking Stick takes some of the lessons learned from Camelback Ranch and Goodyear Ballpark and applies them well. Camelback is too isolated and sometimes feels more like a landscape architecture exercise than a baseball experience. Goodyear is nearly devoid of character due to its cold, spartan appearance. The lighting along the main concourse at Talking Stick may be too casino resort-like at times, but get out from under the shade and the little pleasures start to take hold. Everything feels very angular and shows differently depending on the sunlight. The split roof structures don’t contour with the grandstand. Stairs and ramps leading down to the lower walkway invite fans to stop and appreciate the views of the field. At sunset a little dust kicked up to lend a little mystery. Camelback Mountain looms in the distance behind the grandstand, majestic and stark. Trees sit on the berm.

The big critique of Talking Stick is that it lacks intimacy. The different eras of spring training ballparks have proved this out. The older parks are simply closer and more geared towards watching the game than the new ones, which are designed for easily getting to the concourse for concessions. Those concessions, however, aren’t bad. The pulled pork nachos were decent.  Beer selection was poor. There’s a fry bread stand in center, and I wonder why fry bread isn’t more available throughout the Cactus League. And there are complimentary SPF 30 sunscreen dispensers along the berm. Those things should be mandatory.

As the Cactus League continues to evolve, we’re in a spot where we haven’t yet hit the net era. Cubs Park marks the end of the current era. A modified and smaller HoHoKam Stadium is a stylish refurb of a 90’s era park. Maryvale is something of a question mark for the Brewers going forward. And the two-team facilities appear to be solid, though the Mariners and Padres could choose to squeeze Peoria for upscale renovations. For now, let Cubs Park and Talking Stick be the standard-bearers for single and dual-team facilities, respectively. Long live the Cactus League.

 

Goodyear Ballpark

The circumstances that made Goodyear Ballpark possible are similar to those that built Camelback Ranch. Both opened in 2009. Both are two-team facilities involving recent Grapefruit League exiles. And both are on the West Valley outskirts, where nothing is tall and the desert is endless. That’s where the similarities end.

Goodyear’s design is contemporary and unlike Camelback, doesn’t seek to be at one with the desert. Nor is Goodyear’s complex as prettily integrated as Camelback’s, with the separate team facilities two large blocks away from the ballpark.  Much of the area immediately surrounding the ballpark is undeveloped, but could be built up when the economy is good enough to pull the trigger. Perhaps that’s what came with the much lower price tag of $108 million, $50 million less than Camelback Ranch. If Camelback tries for authentic Sonoran desert feel, Goodyear tries to be more authentically Arizonan, with human input making its own mark. Not far beyond the complex to the east is the Phoenix Goodyear airport, home to an impressive aircraft boneyard. Camelback likes to be referred to as a campus, not a complex. Goodyear has no qualms about being the latter.

Other than the green grass and seats, the prevailing color scheme at Goodyear is gray and a dark, rust red. This makes sense because both Cleveland and Cincinnati have red in their uniforms, but darker to avoid any direct association. I entered from the the first base side instead of home plate, where a lengthy gate entrance aligned with the team store leads to the single concourse. One unique element of this ballpark is that the press/suite level is some 20 feet or more above the concourse, give the whole place a much more airy feel than many other Cactus League parks. It also isn’t very extensive, making the concourse even more open. The downside is that the press level looks rather disjointed and not unified. There’s a lot of unpainted steel used here, giving the place an industrial chic look. I would say that it works, except that everything’s so scaled down here that it almost disappears. That really just leaves the baseball game being played, which I suppose is just fine for most fans. It would’ve been cool to orient the field southeast so that the boneyard would be in view, but considering Camelback’s problems with that orientation and sun/shade, the traditional arrangement is probably for the best.

Besides the outfield lawn seating, there are huge flat lawn areas on either side, great for games of catch. Then the concourse abruptly meets its outer limit. Beyond the steel fences are plain dirt with no landscaping. I went to a night game, where the lacking view was saved by some clouds providing a great sunset and moonrise. It reminded me of West Texas.

At some point other stuff will come in to surround Goodyear Ballpark. For now it’s a rather lonely place, in and out. I didn’t see any distinctive food or beer options. If you’re a Reds or Indians fan coming in the morning to watch workouts, it’ll do fine. Other than that, Goodyear is a pretty ho-hum ballpark. The good thing is that there is room for improvement.

Surprise Stadium

When considering the history of the Cactus League, it’s helpful to group the various ballparks into different eras. The classic era included Phoenix Municipal and Tempe Diablo Stadium, both dating back to the 50’s and 60’s. Inactive parks like Tucson’s Hi Corbett Field and Yuma’s Desert Sun Stadium are in this group, as well as the original Scottsdale Stadium, which hosted the A’s long ago. The first iteration of HoHoKam came in the late 70’s, followed by nothing until the 90’s. Then the new wave of ballparks was built, including the new Scottsdale, Maryvale, and Peoria parks plus Tucson Electric Park (no longer used). The latest wave includes Camelback, Goodyear, Salt River Fields, and Cubs Park.

In between the current era and the 90’s was Surprise Stadium, which opened in 2003. Not the first dual-team facility, Surprise was the first fringe locale in Phoenix. As teams started to leave Tucson and the Grapefruit League, they came to the Phoenix area eyeing undeveloped land on which they could house huge, spacious facilities. Surprise followed that trend in luring the Rangers and Royals, who had been in Florida for decades. No longer division rivals, the teams were free to each take half of a stadium and half of a sports complex.

Getting to Surprise can be an ordeal if you’re coming from anywhere east of Sky Harbor airport. It took me 1 hour, 5 minutes to get to Surprise from the Tempe/Mesa border. No main freeway runs anywhere near Surprise Stadium, with only US-60 providing somewhat direct access. As is the case at many of the western Cactus League parks, parking is free and plentiful.

Upon entering, I was immediately struck by how “minor league” the place felt. That’s not a bad thing per se, minor league denotes a sort of intimate charm that can’t be found in the majors. Architectural elements of Rangers Ballpark/Globe Life Park are present in scaled down form. The effect works around the grandstand, where the proportions scale well. The suite/administration buildings in the corners don’t work quite as well, as they appear as if someone dropped a couple of themed motels on the premises.

Permanent concession stands are along the infield part of the main grandstand, but much of the concessions elsewhere are tents, the type you’d expect to see at a fair. Cheesy at that sounds, the booths down the third base line were busy most of the night, offering state fair-type eats. A carousel sits along the first base concourse. There’s no kids field, but the outfield berm is expansive, providing plenty of room for games of catch. I walked up to get an $8 lawn ticket and sat in between the dinner porch in right and the RF fence.

Beer selection was lacking. Concession stands pushed combos at every opportunity. I spent $10 on the “Five Item Combo” which included a small hot dog, soda, popcorn, peanuts, and cookie. If that deal were available in every ballpark I would take it.

Overall, Surprise isn’t much of a surprise at all. It’s very family-friendly, comfortable, lived-in, reasonably priced, and adequate for now in terms of amenities. The presentation works considering the fanbases the park is catering to. In the coming years the teams could look to add more upscale facilities, following the prevailing trend. That would be too bad, and yet, also not a surprise at all.

Camelback Ranch

Scottsdale debacle out of the way, my first game attended would have to be on Sunday, March 16. I decided that needed to head out west. I’m staying in Tempe, so getting out to the ballparks in the western outskirts of Phoenix can be a bit of a chore, usually with an hour drive. Even though the A’s were in Goodyear playing the Reds, I figured I should visit Camelback Ranch first, because the game was the last Cactus League date for the Dodgers before they headed out to Australia. So Camelback Ranch it was.

Opened in 2009, Camelback Ranch (and to a lesser extent, Goodyear Ballpark) became the standard bearer for the newest generation of spring training facilities. Spread out over 141 acres of former farmland, Camelback Ranch is expansive to put it mildly. It is the home of two teams, the White Sox and Dodgers. The Dodgers were lured over to the Cactus League from their long-held but aging home in Vero Beach, Florida. Now that the Dodgers are training much closer to Los Angeles, more of the recent generations of Dodgers fans can come during the weekends to watch the team, and it shows.

The complex is split into the White Sox side to the west and the Dodgers to the east. A lovely man-made lake divides the two halves. While both teams have two major league fields and four minor league fields on which to train, the way the two teams approached designing their part of the complex was quite different. The White Sox consolidated much of their team facilities into a single building, with a tunnel providing access to the fields. The Dodgers split up their half into multiple buildings, while allow for a fan access point where players and coaches routinely pass by fans lined up four or five-deep on their way to and from the fields. Both teams also allow for fans to walk among the minor league fields, which for both teams were in use. The A’s and Giants both have the split facility setup, with major league games played at the stadium and the bigger training facility and minor league fields in a different location (Papago Park and Indian School Park, respectively). Even when the A’s move to Mesa next year, they’ll continue to have a split-facility arrangement with games at Hohokam Stadium and the training facility at Fitch Park a few blocks south. That’s the tradeoff, as established teams have to work in already well-developed communities while incoming teams or teams looking for brand new facilities end up decamping in the outer Phoenix suburbs. Both the Dodgers and White Sox came from Florida, the latter by way of Tucson. Grounds were beautiful, with minimal team branding and great attention to detail in the landscaping. About the only thing the stadium will need in the future is a new scoreboard, as the video screen proved rather small during an early replay challenge.

I didn’t have a car today, so I took the 90+ minute trek on public transit to Glendale. This involved a trek on Valley Metro’s light rail, followed by a long bus ride on Route 50 past the depressed West Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale. On the bus with me were a handful of Korean fans, who came out to see Hyun Jin Ryu pitch. Driving to Camelback Ranch is not too difficult due to its proximity to the Loop 101 freeway and free parking. A CVS pharmacy sits outside the grounds if fans need to grab a bottle of water or other sundries, water inside costs $4.

A beer costs $7.50, with a single stand along the 1st base line providing craft brews from Four Peaks, Firestone, and Sierra Nevada. Food offerings are split between the two teams, with concession stands offering Dodger Dogs and Chicago-style hot dogs, along with other types of sausages. The concourse got cramped frequently because many fans were taking advantage of the limited shade the concourse provided. Also available were pizza from local chain Barro’s, barbecue, and a soba noodle booth.

While I sat at a picnic table in the centerfield court, I was joined by a couple of workers who were taking a break during the 7th inning. One did the bag check at a gate, the other worked retail. I asked them what the difference was between the crowds for the Dodgers and White Sox, and they agreed that it was no contest. Dodger crowds were much larger on the weekends, naturally. The five home dates lost because of the trip to Australia would mean less revenue at Camelback Ranch compared to last year. In response, Dodger fans may have come out in greater numbers to the shorter slate, knowing that their window to watch their team would be short. As for the White Sox, I’m sure that Jerry Reinsdorf is simply happy to have a stable home for his team, his had gone through three previous spring training homes during his ownership tenure.

The City of Glendale has staked its future on the profitability of its numerous sports venues, which include Camelback Ranch, University of Phoenix Stadium, and Jobing.com Arena. The arena is a particular sore spot because the NHL Coyotes have been a money pit, only staying in town because of a $15 million annual subsidy to new Coyotes ownership. UoP Stadium has performed well, hosting one Super Bowl to date and next year’s as well. Camelback Ranch has good attendance, though the lack of ancillary development around the complex may limit tax revenue potential. Camelback Ranch, which cost $158 million in public funds, may have been one-upped by Salt River Fields and the new Cubs Park in recent years, but time will wear well on the complex.

P.S. – Monday night (3/17) I’ll be at Surprise for the Rangers-Royals game at 6:05. If you’re there, look for me in the gold A’s 1969 cap. I’ll be roaming around. 

Together We Are Giant-ly Ripping Fans Off

I was supposed to go to the A’s-Rangers game today. Delays at baggage claim forced me to consider a later game, the A’s-Giants tilt at Scottsdale. After a late lunch I headed over to Scottsdale Stadium. At the ticket window I was greeted with the grisly reality: no tickets for the near-sold-out game were available for less than $55. Just as bad, the cheapest ticket by face value was $30 for lawn or standing room, which is the Giants’ weekend pricing policy. $30 for lawn during an exhibition? No thanks. $16 for the same ticket during weekdays? Now that’s a lot more reasonable.

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I’m upset enough that I may take Scottsdale Stadium out of my trip completely because of the price-gouging that the Giants are practicing. These are exhibition games, people. But I get it. The Giants are finding a market for these tickets. There are tons of Bay Area fans making the short flight to Phoenix to take in a weekend of games, so in the grand scheme of things $60-100 for two games is not that big a deal. If like me, you want to take in two weeks of games, the pricing is completely out of line. It violates the spirit of Spring Training, which is supposed to be a cheaper, more accessible alternative to regular season Major League Baseball.

Part of the problem is the enormous popularity of the Giants. Like it or not, A’s fans, down here Giants fans outnumber us significantly. I saw it on my plane, at Sky Harbor Airport, and around the stadium. As long as Giants fans are willing to make the trek and pay these prices, the Giants will continue to charge silly amounts. The franchise has always taken advantage of every opportunity to rake in the dollar, whether it was by pioneering dynamic pricing, overcharging to sit on top of the right field wall (Arcade), or their Cactus League pricing. It’s not only the American way. It’s the Giant way.