Phoenix Municipal Stadium has seen everything

March 18, 2014
Azcentral sports
Bob McManaman

From strikeouts to scorpion jars, Cactus League park has seen everything

Willie Mays hit the first home run there.

Jose Canseco hit what probably was the longest home run there — a batting-practice blast that cleared Van Buren Street and landed somewhere in the Phoenix Zoo.

It's where Matt Williams made his mark, where Brad Ziegler met his wife, where the light towers from the legendary Polo Grounds still stand, and where a colorful old minor-league manager named Rocky Bridges used to hold court.

It's also where I caught my first foul ball.

"I think we're all going to miss her," says Steve Vucinich, the longtime equipment manager for the Oakland A's. "But hey, she served her purpose for 50 years."

She is Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the grand dame of Cactus League ballparks, and one week from today, she will be hosting her final spring-training game when the A's meet the Angels.

Next year, the A's will move into the HoHoKam Stadium facility in Mesa vacated by the Cubs, who opened a new 15,000-seat, $99 million stadium this spring. Arizona State's baseball team, meanwhile, will move into Muni, ending the quaint and cozy ballpark's 50-year run with professional baseball.

"I think after that final game next week, I'm going to tweet out a picture from center field saying, 'Good luck ASU with all those leaks in the clubhouse,' " Vucinich said.

Yeah, Phoenix Muni has her warts. But that has always been part of her charm. Before two recent renovations, her clubhouses were about as spacious as your standard walk-in closet.

"Even now, there's just not enough room," said Vucinich, who has been the A's equipment man for all 33 seasons they've spent at Muni. "It's behind the times."

Vucinich realized that in 1982, when the A's took over Muni from the Giants and he and his staff were moving out panels of old, dingy lockers. Behind one of them, he discovered a cache of tin cans. They were government-issued food rations from the Cold War days.

"Turns out this place was a civil defense bomb shelter in case of a nuclear war," Vucinich said. "I didn't even want to open up one of those cans. They were packed in some sort of Styrofoam thing that the mice or the rats had gotten into, so I just chucked them all."

All types of critters have wandered into Muni over the decades — snakes, rabbits, coyotes and once, a dead javelina. Turns out Bridges, the longtime manager of the old Phoenix Giants, killed it during a hunt and left it in the middle of the clubhouse overnight.

"It absolutely scared the crap out of Tommy Gonzalez," Vucinich said, referring to the stadium's late groundskeeper.

Wild peccary isn't the only beastie Bridges brought down at Muni. Norm Frauenheim, who spent 31 years covering sports at The Republic, remembers Bridges capturing a giant scorpion during a pregame chat with reporters.

"It was as big as a Buick!" Frauenheim said. "I mean, it was a monster. Rocky put it in this big ol' jar, and it was in there crawling around while we talked to him. Why I remember that, I have no idea.

"Bet it's still got relatives in there somewhere."

Ziegler, a Diamondbacks reliever, met his wife, Kristen, at Muni when he was pitching there for the A's. Every time they drive by the stadium, it makes them smile.

"It's a cool place with some special memories for us," he said. "It's also where I got my first taste of the big leagues."

I have my memories of Muni, that lovable, little ballpark with the beautiful view of the Papago Buttes beyond left field. It's where my Little League coach used to take us when he thought we deserved a reward. It's where I learned how to keep a scorebook. And there's that foul ball.

It's where I saw Canseco hit that home run into the zoo and it's where I've interviewed hundreds of ballplayers and managers throughout the years.

Thankfully, they're not taking the wrecking ball to Phoenix Muni just yet. She'll be around for as long as she can hold up, offering a homey haven for college ballplayers aiming to make their own memories.

And that's a good thing.