Phoenix Muni Too Puny for Spring Training

The Oakland A's have played their final game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium (via k/mc).

The Oakland A’s have played their final game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium (via k/mc).

Baseball history was made on March 26, 2014. You probably didn’t hear about it unless you live in Oakland or Phoenix, and even in those locales it wasn’t headline news.

I refer to the final spring training game played at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The contest itself was no big deal. The visiting Angels defeated the A’s by a 6-2 score in front of 5,033 patrons. As is the case with games in late March, the regulars logged more time and the minor leaguers less time than they would have a few weeks earlier. The starting pitchers (C.J. Wilson and Sonny Gray) gave up just one run each and appeared to be ready to start the season.

To be precise, spring training baseball at Phoenix Muni officially gave up the ghost when A’s shortstop Dusty Coleman, who would start the regular season with the Double-A Midland Rockhounds, struck out in the bottom of the ninth. (The inning before, Coleman hit the last spring training home run at the park.)

Following the game, there were no ceremonies. The fans headed for the exits, and the two teams hustled off to Sky Harbor International to head back to California for their respective exhibition games against their crosstown rivals (Angels-Dodgers; A’s-Giants) before Opening Day.

Phoenix Municipal Stadium (an earlier ballpark with the same name was located on south Central Avenue from 1947-1959) sits on the east side of the city on the border with Tempe. In 2014, it was the oldest spring training ballpark in Arizona.

Phoenix Muni, as it is more popularly known, opened as the home of the Triple-A Phoenix Giants in 1962 (the team had played at the older Muni in 1958 and 1959, then transferred to Tacoma for 1960 and 1961). For regular-season perspective, keep in mind that 1962 was also the year Dodger Stadium opened, and it is now the second oldest ballpark in the National League. The same year, D.C. (now RFK) Stadium opened for baseball in Washington. It was the first of the giant doughnut, multi-purpose stadiums, which have fallen by the wayside one by one since Camden Yards opened in 1992. So Phoenix Muni has its place in baseball history.

In the Cactus League, a number of facilities have come and gone since Phoenix Muni was erected. Among them are the Brewers’ former homes at Sun City Stadium (1973-1985) and Chandler’s Compadre Stadium (1986 to 1997), and the White Sox/Diamondbacks spring training complex in Tucson, Tucson Electric Park, which was vacated in 2010.

Phoenix Muni was a busy place even after the big league teams went north, as the Pacific Coast League Giants (later the Firebirds) played at Phoenix Muni through 1991, returning for a curtain call in 1997 before the Diamondbacks arrived in 1998.

The major league Giants had trained every spring in Phoenix since 1947, except for 1951, which they spent in St. Petersburg. In 1964, they made Phoenix Muni their spring training home. Willie Mays hit the first home run there on March 8 in a 6-2 victory over the Indians.

At the time, it was a big deal. Commissioner Ford Frick, NL President Warren Giles, and Giants owner Horace Stoneham (a member of the 2014 inaugural class of the Cactus League Hall of Fame) were among the 8,582 on hand. This was an outstanding crowd for a spring training game in those days, and is respectable even by today’s standards (8,078 was the average attendance for all spring training games in 2014).

Mays, of course, was a throwback to the New York Giants. The only other man on the roster who had played in the Polo Grounds was pitcher Stu Miller. But there was a non-human link with the Polo Grounds. The light standards from that venerable facility, torn down in April 1964, were transferred to Phoenix Muni.

Despite the presence of the Diamondbacks since 1998, the Giants’ strong presence in the Valley of the Sun continues. In 1984, the Giants moved spring training to Scottsdale Stadium after 20 springs at Phoenix Muni. And there they have been every spring since.

Swapping places with the Giants, the A’s moved from Scottsdale to Phoenix Muni in 1984. So Phoenix Muni’s spring training history wrapped up in its 50th anniversary season of spring training baseball, and its 30th anniversary season of the Oakland Athletics’ tenancy. Of the 15 teams that hold spring training in the Valley of the Sun, only one, the Brewers, still plays in Phoenix. (There is an odd jurisdictional paradox for the Dodgers/White Sox facility, which is within the Phoenix city limits, but is overseen by the City of Glendale; the facility is billed as Camelback Ranch in Glendale.)

Phoenix Muni is best known for spring training and Pacific Coast League ball, but there is more to the story than that. The Phoenix Desert Dogs, a charter member of the Arizona Fall League in 1992, played there through 2012 and won six league championships. The stadium also hosted Arizona Rookie League ball, amateur league championships, and rock concerts.

An interesting footnote to stadium history took place in the fall of 1989. When the A’s-Giants World Series was interrupted by an earthquake, the former team decamped to Phoenix Muni, where some A’s minor leaguers were participating in the Instructional League. A simulated game between the A’s and the minor leaguers attracted 5,000 spectators at $5 a pop, with the proceeds donated to an earthquake relief fund.

Getting the jump on the Astrodome, Phoenix Muni was the first air conditioned stadium! A network of evaporative coolers was used to moderate the heat in the seating bowl. This isn’t a big issue in March, but for Pacific Coast League games in mid-summer, it might have had some value.

Rumor has it that Phoenix Muni even had its own minor league version of an “incident” during a Ten Cent Beer Night. Apparently, some misbehavior ensued after a power failure knocked out the lights.

Phoenix Muni was extensively renovated in 2003, but there were trends at work that would render it outmoded even then. For one thing, the park had no berm, which has become all but de rigueur in minor league and spring training ballpark design. Adults sprawled on blankets and barefoot children gamboling on the grass are iconic images of spring training – but never at Phoenix Muni.

In addition, two-team stadiums (pioneered by the Mariners and Padres in Peoria in 1994) were looming larger in the Cactus League, since such facilities could guarantee a solid month of home games, as opposed to just 15 or so contests. Phoenix Muni could no longer host minor league ball (unless the Diamondbacks wanted to place a team there or an independent league team moved in), so that potential revenue source was gone.

So the crack of the bat will no longer be heard at Phoenix Muni, but don’t look for the buzzards to start circling the carcass, for Arizona State University has signed a long-term lease on the facility. So less than a year from now, the dry desert air will be pierced by the ping of aluminum colliding with horsehide ( or is it cowhide?). Technically, it may not be on-campus baseball, but it’s just a short light rail ride (and a short walk) from the ASU campus.

Actually, it’s a case of history repeating itself, as the University of Arizona moved its games to Hi Corbett Field in Tucson (built in 1937, spring training home of the Indians from1947-1992), after the Rockies bolted for Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in the spring of 2011.

Phoenix Muni may have been at the bottom of the pecking order so far as spring training facilities goes, but it is a significant upgrade from Packard Stadium, ASU’s current home. At Phoenix Muni, ASU plans to add a new scoreboard, a walk of fame honoring ASU’s best known players, and a wall that lists the names of anyone who has ever played for the school.

The A’s, by the way, will not be far away next spring. They’re taking over Hohokam Stadium, the former home of the Cubs, in Mesa. The A’s don’t draw as well as the Cubs, to put it mildly. Their attendance was at the bottom of the Cactus League teams in the East Valley (also including Tempe, Scottsdale and Mesa), where attendance tends to be greater than in the West Valley (comprised of Goodyear, Peoria, Surprise, Glendale and Maryvale). Consequently, after the A’s finish renovating Hohokam, it will actually have less capacity, dropping from 13,000 to 10,500… but the square footage in the clubhouse will more than triple. This points out the fact that most spring training franchise shifts have more to do with the needs of the team than the desires of the fans. At least, I never heard any fans complaining about Phoenix Muni.

For the record, the oldest Cactus League ballpark next season will be Tempe Diablo Stadium, spring home of the Angels since 1992. Tempe Diablo opened in 1969, and the photogenic butte looming behind the left field fence has long been a popular background for photographers. An added distinction is that Tempe Diablo was the home of the Seattle Pilots during their lone year of existence.

Tempe Diablo didn’t seek out gray eminence status any more than Phoenix Muni did, but until the Angels get itchy feet (or should I say wings?), that is how it will remain. Since the Angels are involved in a long-term lease, Tempe Diablo’s status as elder statesman is assured for the time being – though someone should tell Angels owner Arte Moreno that his ticket prices are way out of line.

Now that we’ve reviewed the old-timers, for the sake of contrast, we should at least take a cursory at the new kid on the block. By coincidence or not, it came on line the same spring that Phoenix Muni went off line. I refer to Cubs Park in Mesa.

I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the place, as it was built up as the Next Big Thing in spring training long before the first game was played there, and a lot of articles have been written about it. In a nutshell, Cubs Park has been designed to evoke Wrigley Field in many ways (no ivy on the walls, however…perhaps because of the desert climate?), some obvious, some subtle.

Notably, the larger capacity enabled Cubs Park to set a Cactus League record of 14,486 the day it opened (Feb. 27 versus the Diamondbacks). They continued to surpass that figure as the schedule progressed. When all was said and done, all home games were sold out, and Cubs Park owned the top 12 all-time Cactus League single-game attendance records. The Cubs had six crowds of more than 15,000 (the single-game record, set on March 25 in a Cubs-Angels match, now stands at 15,276), and a total attendance of 213,815.

To put all these stats in perspective, of the roughly 1,680,000 tickets sold during the 2014 Cactus League season, roughly 13 percent involved Cubs Park – particularly impressive since the Cactus League has five two-team complexes with double the home openings of Cubs Park. When the Cubs played two exhibition games at Chase Field (capacity 48,663) to close out the exhibition season, they drew fewer than 17,000 for each. If not for the Mesa fire marshal, they probably could have played those games at Cubs Park.

It has reached a point where the Cubs, as the top draw in spring training, are overlapping the regular season attendance of some of the lower-ranking major league teams. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the Cubs (along with some other teams) have now gone to a premium-pricing policy during spring training games. Most price differentials are minimal, but a premium Giants game at Scottsdale Stadium could cost you as much as $60 for a box seat or $29 for a lawn seat.

At Cubs Park, premium pricing means that some sold-out games are more expensive than other sold-out games, which sounds faintly Orwellian. For the first time ever, I had to pay a scalper for a spring training ticket. Believe it or not, the Cubs were promoting season tickets for spring training 2015 while the 2014 games were still being played.

Of course, the big hubbub over the opening of Cubs Park also dovetails neatly with the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field…and helps disguise the fact that the Cubs will likely be duking it out with the Brewers to see who finishes last in the NL Central in 2014. If you think about it, the Cubs have never won a World Series title during their century-long tenure at Wrigley Field…so why bother to re-create that losing atmosphere in spring training?

Well, the Cubs, like the Giants, have a long history in Arizona, most of it in Mesa. The Cubs first came to Mesa in 1952. Cubs Park is actually the fourth ballpark in Mesa they have called home. Rendezvous Park downtown was the first, and two versions of Hohokam Stadium (1979 and 1997), about a mile north of downtown, followed.

The second version of Hohokam Stadium had the biggest capacity in the Cactus League, and Cubs fans filled it up regularly. But the Cubs found their home park wanting. Apparently, the main problem was that the practice facilities were inadequate and separated from the ballpark. To local fans, it was unthinkable that the Cubs would move away from Mesa; but the Cubs were definitely thinking about it. They were even looking into going to Florida – where they had not trained since 1916!

If the panic in Mesa was palpable, it was understandable. According to a Cactus League survey, more than 55 percent of the people who attended a Cubs game were not from Arizona – and more than 70 percent of the fans who visited Mesa cited going to see the Cubs as the primary reason for the visit. And more than 25 percent of those fans stayed at least nine nights. Unless they all stayed with friends or relatives, that translates into big bucks at local hotels and restaurants.

So a new spring training complex for the Cubs in Mesa was inevitable. It was just a matter of where to put it. Even so, Cubs Park is an impressive place and well worth visiting, but something is lost in the transition to bigger and better.

When I first saw spring training games in the mid-1970s, the vibe was that of a Single-A ballpark that just happened to have some major league players on the field. During the 21st century, when I started going to spring training on a regular basis, the spring training parks reminded me of Double-A parks. Now with the arrival of Cubs Park, spring training looks more like Triple-A.

But how many of the people present in these bigger crowds are real baseball fans? Consider the following:

More than anything else, spring training baseball has evolved and morphed over time into a social gathering where the game on the field is only of secondary significance to many of those in attendance who’ve come mostly to spend time catching up with their friends.
Diamond in the Desert by Charlie Vascellaro
(From the Cubs spring training magazine)

More or less echoing those sentiments is Mark Coronado, the Cactus League president, who praised Cubs Park as “A Wrigleyville mecca…the Disneyland of baseball.” In other words, more bread and circuses!

Such extravagances were certainly not part of the Phoenix Muni experience. It didn’t offer much in the way of amenities. There are no sports bars, gastro pubs or shopping malls in the immediate area. There’s a Starbucks with a drive-through about a half-mile south of the stadium, but that’s about it.

What it did offer was the vastness of Papago Park, which began just across the street from Phoenix Muni (the A’s practice fields were at the north end of the park). Papago Park housed the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens – great places to spend a sunny spring morning before a 1 o’clock ball game.

At Phoenix Muni, you were not far from downtown Phoenix or Tempe, but you never forgot you were in the middle of the desert. Not only could you see the buttes in Papago Park, you could climb them before or after the game! They didn’t have room for one of those artificial rock-climbing attractions at Phoenix Muni – but they didn’t need one! They had the real thing! A unique feature, to be sure…but not one geared to generate revenue.

After the last ball game at Phoenix Muni, an article on same appeared in the Arizona Republic. Sportswriter Jim Walsh interviewed fans in attendance and came away with this consensus: “An intimate ballpark with affordable tickets and easy access to the players.”

There was a time – not that many years ago – when that description applied to every spring training ballpark. It was as integral to the spring training experience as palm trees and sun block. Now you have to seek it out. Perhaps Phoenix Muni’s greatest strength was also its greatest shortcoming. Yes, it was a great place to watch a baseball game, but it wasn’t Disneyland.

Old-school spring training hasn’t entirely vanished from the Cactus League. For the time being, the Brewers games at Maryvale (a desert version of Levittown that has since been incorporated into Phoenix) is your best bet for a traditional experience. If a psychobabble guru instructed me to “go to a happy place,” that is where I would go.

If watching a ball game in a relaxed atmosphere with a bunch of salt-of-the-earth upper Midwest types isn’t enough for you, consider this: at Maryvale Park, they sell soda in souvenir cups bearing a Seattle Pilots logo! You can’t get any more retro than that!

But there are rumors circulating that the Brewers are looking to move out of Maryvale. So don’t wait too long to visit. Spring training 2015 will be here before you know it.

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Comments

  1. Frank Jackson said...

    After I wrote the above, it occurred to me that there was a bit more to the Cubs-A’s contrast. The Cubs insisted that they needed their new complex to build a winning team. If they didn’t have that new complex, they couldn’t develop the players they needed to play winning baseball. Yet the A’s have won their division the past couple of years despite their “outmoded” spring training facilities. Teams used to use the same reason for inducing cities to build new ballparks for the regular season, but as more and more new parks got built without any dramatic changes in the won-loss records, that excuse was heard less and less.

  2. Winston said...

    As a former ASU student, I feel somewhat qualified to say that Phoenix Muni is unfortunately quite a long walk from campus, even North Campus.

    Great article, though. I remember being excited when the first fancy new spring training stadiums were being built, but now that they’re all fancy it’s not quite as exciting anymore. Regrettable, in fact.

  3. Mike said...

    Great article. Very close to home. I attended ASU and I currently live in Tucson. My father grew up watching the Phoenix Giants, there idolizing Willie McCovey (I do believe the old Muni) The move to Phoenix Muni is a big one for ASU fans as they will be vacating Packard Stadium, which I understand will be leveled for the renovated Sun Devil Stadium’s football parking. ASU baseball fans love Packard, as it is a gorgeous place to watch baseball.

    Being “off campus” is a huge win as the school will now be permitted to sell beer (big deal). U of A is having tremendous success with this since they left the aging Sancet Field, and since Tucson is not void of any and all minor league baseball (a city of million people with no baseball!), it is all we have.

  4. Wade said...

    Last month, I attended a game at Phoenix Muni as well as one at Packard Stadium on the ASU campus, and Packard Stadium was much nicer. I got the impression that ASU fans weren’t too happy about the upcoming move to Phoenix Muni. The beer angle is just more NCAA hypocrisy.

    It was fitting that the A’s played in the worst stadium in the Cactus League, since Oakland Coliseum is the worst stadium in MLB.

    The new Cubs stadium is nice, but imho the Salt River Fields are better.

  5. Paul Blocklyn said...

    Attention all journalism students: “Phoenix Muni Too Puny” is a prime example of the sort of headline good journalists kill for.

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