Cactus League Looks to Future with East Valley in Play

April 2, 2012
East Valley Tribune
Mike Sakal

Year after spring training year, the pendulum tied to Arizona’s Cactus League seems to find itself swinging the other way. One year it’s the players front and center; that was the case this month – and in the East Valley in particular – with the arrival of future Hall of Famer Albert Pujols to Tempe Diablo Stadium.

The next year: It’s the newest spring training complex becoming the crown jewel of preseason play.

As the 2012 spring campaign nears its conclusion and fans already begin planning for 2013 and beyond, it appears the latter may be set to take shape again – and again be centered in the East Valley. Work on the Chicago Cubs future spring home is underway, and it’s also possible that the Cactus League may tip the scales on Florida’s Grapefruit League by luring another team or two for yet another new facility. That prospect would open the door for Arizona to host the majority of big league teams for what has become both a tourist draw and a local economic engine – benefitting the state by an estimated $350 million a year or more, according to Cactus League statistics.

Any way you look at it, Arizona’s baseball future is in a good position — one that appears to benefit the East Valley more with each new season as well.

2012 game changers

As season tickets in Anaheim, Calif., have increased by 4,000 from a year ago, the Angels’ spring home has also reaped the benefits of two newly-acquired superstars — first baseman Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson, widely considered this year’s top free agent slugger and pitcher, respectively.

Spring training ticket sales for the Angels jumped 19 percent from a year ago and Tempe Diablo Stadium has had more than double the number of sellouts this season (from four to nine) compared to 2011, according to Ryan Cavinder, a media relations representative for the Angels.

“We’ve really seen a change this year,” Cavinder said. “We’ve never sold out that many games before.”

Overall, ticket sales for Cactus League games are up 176,000 — a 15 percent jump from this point a year ago, according to Brad Curtis, president of the Cactus League.

Cubs setting off chain reaction

The Chicago Cubs are annually one of the Cactus League’s top attendance draws, a scenario only likely to get stronger as the Cubs leave Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium (and nearby practice facility Fitch Field) for a new $99 million complex at Riverview Park, near Dobson Road and the Loop 202, in time for the 2014 season. With the recent closure of Riverview Golf Course, dirt is beginning to turn and trees are being removed to make room for what will be practice fields and a miniature version of Chicago’s iconic Wrigley Field.

While the Cubs still have one more year left at Hohokam, the attention in 2013 is undoubtedly going to be on the nearby construction of the spring training’s newest palace.

But that could be just the start of the next great stadium race, and the East Valley could be the prime recipients of such a seismic shift.

A’s, Brewers may be on the move

With the Cubs moving up the road, the Oakland A’s are in exclusive talks with Mesa to become the primary tenant at both Hohokam and Fitch.

A deal between the A’s and the city could emerge as early as April, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said.

The team has used the negotiation period to watch how the city’s Hohokam Stadium and Fitch Park have served the Chicago Cubs during spring training. They’ve identified improvements they’d like, most of which are at Fitch, Smith said.

Oakland’s agreement with Phoenix expires at the end of the 2014 spring training session.

The Milwaukee Brewers are also weighing their options, and may consider leaving Phoenix’s Maryvale Baseball Park for a potential 80-acre site in Scottsdale or one on the Gila River Indian Community in Chandler. The Brewers, who have until April 14 to exercise the first of three two-year club options to extend their Maryvale lease, wouldn’t be the first team to try and play ball with Gila River; it was proposed that the Cubs move to a site near Wild Horse Pass and Interstate 10 in Chandler, but the voter passage of Proposition 420 in November 2010 kept the Cubs in Mesa.

Teams continue, however, to look for close proximity to a highway, lots of land for future growth, and interested areas to build a stadium — a formula that helped the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community bring the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies to Scottsdale with last year’s debut, Salt River Fields.

The Brewers are continuing talks with Phoenix this week to discuss possible upgrades to Maryvale, where they’ve spent each spring since leaving Chandler’s Compadre Stadium in 1998.

Curtis downplayed any talks that the Brewers have had with Scottsdale and Gila River, noting that when a team nears the end of its lease with a city, it is commonplace to put together a “wish list” of upgrades; it’s also common to visit other locales to discuss the possibility of resting their gloves in a new location.

However, Curtis added that spring training facilities accommodating one team are becoming a thing of the past.

It isn’t known at this time whether the Brewers would share any new site with a second team, but it’s probable if a new facility is built.

Peoria Sports Complex, Surprise Stadium, Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Goodyear Stadium and Salt River Fields in Scottsdale all have been built in Arizona in the last decade and accommodate two teams.

“It is unlikely that anyone would build a new facility for one small market team,” Curtis said. “Let’s face it, a one-team facility is rare these days.”

Two Fla. teams scouting new Ariz. digs?

Not citing which teams, Curtis said he knows of two Grapefruit League teams that have visited Arizona to talk to cities who have put together proposals.

Reports have said the Toronto Blue Jays and the Houston Astros have expressed an interest in leaving Florida for Arizona, but Curtis said that any preliminary discussions are confidential.

“Teams from the Grapefruit League visit Arizona for a number of reasons,” Curtis said. “One, everyone wants the new stadiums and the best of the best — and Arizona has the most state-of-the-art stadiums. They also want to see what the Cactus League is about and if there’s space out here for them. But they also use us to work one community against the other in trying to get what they want in Florida.

“These things don’t happen overnight,” Curtis added of any new teams coming. “Bonds have to pass and financing has to be arranged.”

But for now, the A’s and Brewers looking to relocate locally may be enough to change the game.

Zuzette Kisto, a spokeswoman for the Gila River Indian Community, said this week the community has no comment about the status of talks with the Brewers.

Although Brewers executive vice president of finance and administration Bob Quinn could not be reached directly for comment, he said in a team-issued news release last week that the club remained open to all of its options, including staying put at Maryvale.