Cactus League's Top Booster Left Void

March 2, 2012
The Arizona Republic
Jim Walsh

As Mesa settles into its comforting spring rituals, with pitchers and catchers reporting and hard-core fans discussing the Cubs’ rebuilding efforts, there is one fact no one can deny.

Spring training always ran like clockwork with Robert Brinton at the helm, and no one knows exactly what Hohokam Stadium will be like without him.

The 2012 Cactus League season will be a year of tribute and transition as the Mesa HoHoKams, the civic organization that sponsors Cactus League baseball in Mesa, carry on without a leader who was irreplaceable.

Brinton, who died unexpectedly in October after decades of devotion to the Cactus League, will be honored in a variety of ways. He was the executive director of the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau as well as past president of the Cactus League Association.

Family members will throw out the first pitch on March 5. Ushers will wear Robert Brinton pins. The HoHoKams will wear special hats, the first change to their trademark uniform in years.

All the Cactus League stadiums will honor Brinton during opening-day ceremonies using a ceremonial ball that will be displayed at one of his most beloved projects, the Cactus League Museum.

But everyone involved realizes that the best honor of all is to carry on Brinton’s selfless work at the stadium and throughout the league, helping terminally ill children, putting the fans first and their egos last.

While the HoHoKams labor through their first season without Brinton, the stadium also is auditioning for a future without the Chicago Cubs.

Oakland Athletics officials will be monitoring the operation closely as they evaluate whether to move from Phoenix to Mesa in 2015 to replace the Cubs, who are scheduled to open their new park at Mesa Riverview.

With the Cactus League’s thirst for new stadiums thwarted by a lack of revenue, the A’s would move into a larger, more modern park than Phoenix Municipal Stadium but would face training limitations at the nearby Fitch Park practice facilities, which are considered subpar by Major League standards.

It was Brinton, naturally, who first reached out to the A’s about a potential move to Mesa before his untimely death.

“What I always tell people is that we were always learning from Robert, whether we knew it or not,” said Gayle Savo, office manager at the Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Now, it’s time for the dreaded final exam when we try to live without him,” said Savo, who worked with Brinton for 23 years, meticulously collecting statistics and doing countless other chores.

For stadium manager Mark Gallo, Brinton was “my answer man, that big brother everyone needs, that guardian angel.”

Gallo said the void everyone feels is a combination of Brinton’s game-day savvy and emotional withdrawal caused by his sudden death.

“We know what to do, but part of that is because Robert showed us how to do it,” he said. “He’s still watching over us but from across the street.”

Gallo was referring to Brinton’s resting place at the Mesa City Cemetery, across Center Street from Hohokam.

For Cactus League president Brad Curtis, the man who followed Brinton in the post, Brinton was a mentor and a trusted adviser with an encyclopedic knowledge of all things Cactus League.

Hohokam ticket manager Nancy Hunter said Brinton could solve virtually any problem using his people skills.

“He was a gentle giant,” she said. “He was a very calming factor in this little world around here.”

Bud Page, a Mesa Realtor who is president of the HoHoKams, said most members of the civic organization have worked at the stadium for years, but none have Brinton’s level of knowledge.

“I look up at the sky and say, ‘Robert, what would you do right now?’ ” Page said. “I think he’d want us to carry on the tradition he was totally involved with and see if can continue to be successful and do whatever we can to help the community.”

Dilworth Brinton Jr. thinks about his late brother every day and finds it ironic that a man who never wanted any honors during his lifetime will be honored in a multitude of ways posthumously.

“He said, ‘You take the honor, I don’t need another plaque,’ ” said Dil Brinton, who usually sells programs at Hohokam on game days. “The one thing I would like people to remember about Robert is service to others: Serve others before yourself.”