Quick visit to Fitch Park & Hohokam Stadium

Before I headed back to the Bay Area, I quickly drove by Fitch Park and Hohokam Stadium to see how the improvements there were progressing.

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The City of Mesa has a progress report page on the project. Things seem to be going to schedule, with completion expected before the end of the year.

In related news, a Maricopa County judge has declared illegal the car rental tax that provides funding for all of the area spring training facilities and larger facilities like the Cardinals’ University of Phoenix Stadium. Car rental companies had argued for years that any taxes on car rentals have to go towards road projects and maintenance, not unrelated things such as stadia. While the expected to be appealed, the potential impacts on local Arizona governments are potentially huge. The state would have to refund the tax to car rental agencies, but oddly enough, not consumers even though consumers ultimately paid the tax on their individual car rentals. The ruling won’t stop funding for the A’s project as it’s likely that it will be completed by a final ruling in either a state appeals court or the Arizona Supreme Court. Should the ruling be upheld, it would be a double whammy on Maricopa County as they’d have to rebate the already collected funds and figure out where another source would come from. Or you could be Pima County (Tucson), which paid for upgraded spring training facilities and are left holding the bag because the teams left anyway.

Rust Belt Trip 2014

So far this year I’ve gotten my baseball fix in numerous ways. I spent 2 weeks in Arizona for Cactus League action, and I’ve gone to 10 A’s home games so far this season. Yet there’s one itch I still need to scratch, and that’s a Major League ballpark trip. This time it’s the Rust Belt, covering games in Michigan, Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. If I can work it out, there may also be a trip to Toronto. Here’s the schedule I’ve drawn up so far, starting with some A’s-Tigers games at the end of the month:

  • 6/30 – Oakland @ Detroit, 7:08 PM
  • 7/1 – Oakland @ Detroit, 7:08 PM
  • 7/2 – Milwaukee @ Toronto, 12:37 PM -or- Arizona @ Pittsburgh, 7:05 PM -or- Oakland @ Detroit, 7:08 PM
  • 7/3 – Arizona @ Pittsburgh, 7:05 PM
  • 7/4 – Toledo @ Columbus (AAA), 7:05 PM
  • 7/5 – Milwaukee @ Cincinnati, 1:10 PM
  • 7/6 – Kansas City @ Cleveland, 1:05 PM

If I can fit it in, there will also be trips to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. If you have any suggestions for the trip, drop them in the comments. And if you’re a reader (NRAF) in one of these great cities, let me know and we might be able to catch a game together.

Last 2014 Cactus League Ballpark Reviews

I’ve been playing catch up in terms of news, so for the sake of consolidation I’m putting the remainder of my Cactus League ballpark write-ups in a single post. Enjoy.

Peoria

No Cactus League ballpark typifies the 90’s more than Peoria Stadium. From the color choice to materials and signage and circulation, it all feels 20 years old. Sure it feels dated the way anything a generation ago feels dated. Then again, personally, I enjoyed the 90’s. There’s nothing cool about Peoria. It isn’t old enough to be regarded in a retro-cool or ironically cool way. There is, however, plenty of good.

For decades the Padres played way out in Yuma, a 2-hour bus ride from Phoenix. The team’s move to the West Valley suburb of Peoria marked the start of consolidation within the Cactus League. They also share the Peoria Sports Complex with the Mariners, the first such arrangement when the complex opened in 1994.

Like most of the West Valley ballparks, access is a little painful. Instead of dealing with the awful I-10/I-17 weeknight traffic headache, I took the Loop 101 around North Scottsdale and Phoenix to get there. The main exit to get to the park was severely backed up, so I drove one further and found a back way to get to Peoria Sports Complex. A shopping center is adjacent to the complex. Parking costs $5, though you could probably get away with parking for free at the shopping center.

I was extremely fortunate when I got to the gate. I walked up to a table selling $8 lawn tickets. The sellers asked me if I was alone. When I replied that I was, they handed me a ticket given to them by some Giants fans (game was Giants-Padres) who had an extra. The ticket was for the upper grandstand behind the plate. I happily took the ticket for free and walked in. Later I spoke to the wonderful ladies who furnished the ticket and found out that they were from the South Bay. One of them was an A’s fan.

There’s a pronounced carnival atmosphere inside the concourse, with a kids’ field not far away and numerous food tents. The concourse is incredibly spacious, though the game can’t be seen from behind the grandstand. A full upper level includes the press box, suites, and club seats. One major demerit is the almost complete lack of a roof for shade. Day games here can be brutal when it’s very warm.

Banks of bleachers are set up down the lines, leading to the outfield berm. Food and beverage tents and trailers are set up behind the berm. Four Peaks has a beer tent with the most reasonably priced craft brews in the region at $7.50. A frybread stand is not far away. More diverse food offerings are available at Peoria than at any other Cactus League park, probably because Peoria and the M’s/Pads aren’t afraid to let independent vendors work the concourses. If you’re sick of the standard ballpark food available at many other parks, Peoria has you covered.

Prior to the start of the Cactus League season, the City of Peoria finished numerous improvements to the complex. The vast majority of those improvements focused on the team facilities. The Padres and Mariners both got upgraded administration buildings, replete with new weight rooms and other modern touches. Little was done to Peoria Stadium. The old scoreboard remains. No seating changes were made. No new buildings within the ballpark were constructed. The upper half of the grandstand, whose first row is elevated several feet above the concourse, allows for fans to stand directly in front of it without impacting the views of other fans seated behind the standees. This was preserved. That alone may make Peoria the best ballpark in the Cactus League. All of the newest parks have standing areas 25 rows back along the concourse. In Peoria it’s half that distance.

The quirkiest playing element within the Cactus League also resides at Peoria. The batter’s eye is integrated into the outfield fence, which means that a home run to center has to clear a 40-foot wall. That seems sadistic.

Peoria doesn’t attempt to mimic a Major League experience. The City and teams know what works best there, and they haven’t tried to change it much. Eventually cosmetic changes will need to be made, but those shouldn’t affect the overall feel of the ballpark. Keep it fan-friendly, keep it casual, and the winning recipe at Peoria can continue indefinitely.

Maryvale

The Brewers have spent spring training at Maryvale for seemingly forever. The neighborhood in West Phoenix is no garden spot, yet Maryvale provides a nice oasis. As a single facility with a stadium and training facility, Maryvale does the job for the Brewers reasonably well. The team has made murmurs about getting upgrades, but the City of Phoenix isn’t having any of it for now. Might as well make the best of it.

The complex is within Phoenix city limits, so it’s not way out in the sticks. Access can be a chore thanks to a single main road leading to the stadium from I-10. A good alternate route is to check the streets west of the complex, most of which allow for parking. A regular bus travels along Indian School road to within a 10 minute walk of the complex.

Maryvale received a wholesale revamp in 1998. Far more stylized than Peoria or HoHoKam, many of the design elements work well. There’s a good mix of sun and shade along the concourse. The concourse itself is fairly narrow, creating jams at all of the concession stands. The press/suite building stands on stilts above the concourse, which was necessary because space is at a premium here. A benefit of this is a 360-degree concourse with views from everywhere. From afar the press box looks like it’s floating above the rest of the ballpark. Expansion anywhere within the ballpark seems unlikely unless the Brewers or Phoenix plow a lot of money into the project.

One oddity of the ballpark is that there are only two gates, each well down the lines. It’s common to see fans looking for a gate at home plate and having to walk around much of the stadium to find a gate. The lack of an entrance or anything else besides a fence behind the plate makes the park look facadeless.

The outfield berm is split by a walkway. Many fans sit along the back berm despite being obstructed by other walking fans because trees provide shade. The lower berm extends behind the batter’s eye and around the left and right field foul poles past the bullpens. Unfortunately there are no concession stands along the berm, forcing berm attendees to travel to the main concourse to get anything besides beer. That makes the concourses even more cramped. A basic scoreboard is in left, sans video or graphics.

When I visited, the Brewers AA/AAA camp was hosting the A’s equivalent side, so I headed to the auxiliary fields to check the games out. If you’ve never watched minor league camp games, you should at least once. Few fans attend, and you can sit or stand right along the backstop. Have your minor league rosters handy, as there are no PA announcers. Sometimes you’ll see rehabbing major leaguers in short stints. It’s easy to move between the fields, and you’ll frequently share the common area with players. There are no concessions sold here, and it’s free. You can bring whatever snacks you like.

Back at the ballpark, food offerings are spartan. The expected list of Miller and Leinenkugel beers are available. The Brewers brought their trademark brats and stadium sauce. Beyond that there isn’t much. A shopping district with fast food and other restaurants sit north of the complex along Indian School.

Maryvale could use a little more space on the concourses, and more food variety. The scoreboard needs an upgrade. Other than those quibbles, the ballpark and complex perform their duties competently. Unless the Astros come to the Cactus League and partner up on yet another dual-team facility, this will be the Brewers’ home for some time to come.

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Tempe Diablo Stadium

There’s little to say about this place other than the word “Diablo” is appropriate. It’s a devil of a time parking near the stadium or walking along the 15-foot-wide main concourse. About the only thing good about Tempe Diablo is its relatively central location, but even that is problematic because the park is nudged up against a freeway. Visit it once and never again, unless you’re an Angels fan and you have no choice.

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.

hohokam-12-new_gate27

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.

hohokam-11-new_gate24

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.