Mesa Mayor Scott Smith: No time for Cactus League to rest
February 26, 2014
Two days before the first pitch at Cubs Park, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith made a major pitch of his own to the movers and shakers of the Cactus League.
Speaking to several hundred people on Feb. 25 at the annual Cactus League lunch in the new ballpark, Smith said the league needs new sources of funding if it is to stay viable.
“This was not an easy path,” Smith said of the five-year journey that began when the Cubs threatened in 2009 to leave for Florida and was to end on Feb. 27 with the home opener between the Cubs and the Arizona Diamondbacks.
He noted that voters had to be sold on the idea of spending nearly $100 million to preserve what he called an essential part of Mesa’s civic fabric.
But that part of the fight was easy compared with finding the money. Mesa’s efforts to obtain legislative backing for a funding source in 2010 died amid a withering fusillade of criticism from other Cactus League teams and even Major League Baseball itself.
Unlike other Cactus League cities, however, Mesa had the wherewithal to fund the stadium on its own, a trove of land in Pinal County that is being sold to finance the baseball facilities.
“We were able to step up and do this on our own,” Smith told the audience, which included mayors and council members from several other Cactus League cities as well as officials of the league itself.
“That’s not going to be the case for most of us going forward. This has got to be an investment we keep making. It’s amazing how today’s facilities become yesterday’s facilities so fast.”
He mentioned that Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium, where the Cubs played until last year, is not yet 20 years old. It’s being renovated at a cost of more than $21 million for the Oakland Athletics.
Smith, who is a Republican candidate for governor, said the Legislature must craft a funding mechanism to sustain the league when old stadiums need replacement or major renovations. The Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority, which was created in part to do that, is all but tapped out.
Cactus League President Mark Coronado, who also is director of community and recreation services in Surprise, said the league already is in the game politically.
It hosted more than 40 legislators during an event at the Capitol on Feb. 24, and Coronado said, “I left that day letting the Legislature know we would be knocking on their doors. ... The Cactus League, for its vibrancy and success, needs to be proactive.”
He added that estimates of the league’s annual economic impact on Arizona now stand at $700 million, and that money is coming in all year as teams sustain training operations in the Valley.
Tuesday’s Cactus League lunch also served as the debut for the Cactus League Hall of Fame.
Robert Johnson, who is leading efforts by the Mesa Historical Museum to build a stand-alone baseball museum in the Valley, inducted the hall’s first seven members.
The class includes Ted and Alice Sliger, who for decades hosted big-league ballplayers at their famous Buckhorn Baths, and Dwight Patterson, the rancher and civic leader who brought the Cubs to Mesa in 1952.
Patterson’s daughter, Ann Patterson Cleghorn, accepted the plaque for her father, who died only days after throwing out the first ceremonial pitch in Arizona Diamondbacks history in 1998.
“He was a visionary,” Cleghorn said. “He was a wonderful father. He was a wonderful human being. He loved Mesa and he loved Arizona, and baseball especially.”
Ted Sliger Jr. accepted the award in honor of his parents.
“The Giants coming to the Buckhorn every year was a big part of our lives,” Sliger said. “I can remember arm-wrestling in our museum with Willie Mays. ... It was a great childhood.”
The other inductees are former New York/San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham; Bill Veeck Jr., who brought the Cleveland Indians to Arizona in 1947; Hi Corbett, who launched Cactus League baseball in Tucson; and former Gov. Rose Mofford, who led efforts to save the Cactus League when its future was threatened a quarter-century ago.
For now, the hall of fame exists online only, at www.azspringtrainingexperience.com.