From the Pages of Vine Line: The Cubs say goodbye to HoHoKam

Hohokam

When the Cubs defeated the Seattle Mariners 6-2 in their Cactus League home opener on February 28, 1997, it was something of an event.

Cubs ace Kevin Tapani was hurting, so Turk Wendell got the start and went two scoreless innings to earn the win. Ryne Sandberg and Sammy Sosa both homered, and rookie Kevin Orie tallied three hits.

But the real fanfare wasn’t about the box score. It was about the Cubs’ new spring home in Mesa, Ariz., HoHoKam Stadium, built on the same site (and given the same name) as the team’s previous facility. More than 8,800 fans were on hand on an uncharacteristically gloomy Arizona afternoon to check out the gleaming new venue, designed by HOK Architects of Kansas City, Mo.—the company behind Baltimore’s Camden Yards, Cleveland’s Jacobs Field and Denver’s Coors Field. The rebuilt HoHoKam was the biggest ballpark in the Cactus League at the time, seating 12,500 fans, and the first in the area to feature a Jumbotron.

When Cubs pitchers and catchers reported to HoHoKam for Spring Training this year, it kicked off their 17th—and final—season at their longtime Cactus League home. Though the team won’t be going far—a new spring palace is set to open in the Riverview area of Mesa for the 2014 spring slate—the venerable ballpark has seen its share of Cubs history, from Mark Grace, Sandberg and Sosa to Matt Garza, Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo.

“The ballparks in Mesa have evolved over the last 60 years along with the team,” said Michelle Streeter, director of communications with Visit Mesa. “This last season at HoHoKam Stadium is actually one of celebration because it’s not goodbye.”

Except for one year in 1966, the Cubs have trained continuously in Arizona since 1952. Spring 2013 marks the Cubs’ 35th consecutive and 49th overall spring camp in Arizona, and that stretch will only continue with the new stadium. Thanks to the city’s long relationship with Cubs baseball and the national reach of WGN television, the Mesa community has embraced the team and helped grow the organization’s fan base westward.

“HoHoKam has become a famous landmark in Mesa,” said Mark Gallo, stadium manager at HoHoKam. “Everyone hears the name HoHoKam Stadium, and the first thing they think of is the Chicago Cubs. The bond that has been built between the city of Mesa and the Cubs is very special.”

The Namesake

The original HoHoKams were an Indian tribe that flourished in central Arizona until they mysteriously disappeared around the year 1450—hence the literal translation for HoHoKam: “those who are gone” or “the old ones.”

In 1951, the HoHoKams were reborn as a civic organization dedicated to bringing Spring Training baseball to Mesa. Led by rancher Dwight W. Patterson, the 34-member committee succeeded in its task when it lured the Cubs away from Catalina Island in California, where they had trained since 1917.

At the beginning of their Arizona tenure, from 1952 to 1965, the team played at tiny, 3,000-seat Rendezvous Park, which was built in 1921 and featured a community pool beyond the left-field wall that provided a great target for right-handed hitters. After that, they had a brief dalliance with Scottsdale before moving into the original HoHoKam Park in 1979, where they stayed until 1996.

But the Cubs’ huge popularity in Arizona was actually at the root of the original park’s demise. HoHoKam Park seated only 8,900 fans. By the mid-’90s, the team, which was regularly setting Cactus League attendance records, had outgrown the facility and was looking for more space.

Suitors from other cities attempted to lure the Cubs away with the promise of a new stadium, but the city of Mesa ultimately agreed to build the team an $18 million complex for spring 1997 (the cost of the original HoHoKam, opened in 1977, was just $507,000). The deal also included a $10 million renovation of the Fitch Park practice facility just a few blocks away.

According to the terms of the lease, the Cubs were obliged to train in Mesa for 20 years, with eight one-year options that would allow the team to buy out the remaining term for $850,000 per year.

Since the new stadium opened in 1997, the Cubs have continued to lead the Cactus League in attendance. HoHoKam Stadium and the Cubs hold the Spring Training single-season attendance record of 203,105 fans, set in 2009. This mark topped the previous spring record of 193,993, also set by the Cubs at HoHoKam in 2005. The team’s 2005 spring average of 12,125 fans per game for 16 games is the all-time highest average spring attendance in major league history.

“For me, it has always been an event when you go to a game at HoHoKam Stadium,” said Cubs broadcaster Len Kasper. “The stadium is always sold out or close to capacity, and almost everyone has Cubs gear on. I really appreciate the dedication of the HoHoKams as well. They have taken a lot of pride in hosting the Cubs at the park over the years and are great hosts to us during Spring Training.”

Today the HoHoKams are responsible for running the ballpark that bears their name. The volunteer organization even includes the mayor of Mesa, who serves as an usher for the right-field bleacher section.

New Beginnings

When the final game was played at the original HoHoKam Park on March 26, 1996, the park was immediately torn down to accommodate the new structure. That won’t happen this time around. Though the Cubs are saying goodbye after 2013, the still modern-feeling ballpark will be renovated to become the new spring home of the Oakland Athletics.

The A’s will inherit a park not known for its character—when then-Cubs GM Larry Himes first conceived of the project, he envisioned a scaled-down version of Wrigley Field, but that idea was eventually rejected—but rich in Cubs tradition and scenic beauty.

“From the press box where I’m at, which is pretty much directly behind home plate, I get a panoramic view of the mountains. It’s really beautiful,” said Tim Sheridan, the public address announcer at HoHoKam since 1984 and creator of boysofspring.com. “I can look from my left to my right, going all the way across, and it’s one different mountain range after another. … I get to have that view, and the Cubs are down on the field right below me—it’s pretty amazing.”

No matter how beautiful a stadium is, it’s not the bricks and mortar that give it its worth. The real value of a ballpark is derived from the history that occurred there and the memories that are associated with it. And HoHoKam has seen its share of both, from Sosa putting the first dent in the outfield scoreboard with a mammoth homer against Oakland on March 1, 1997, to country music star Garth Brooks going 0-2 and committing an error as a Padres non-roster invitee on March 22, 1999.

“On a personal level, it means a lot, because the first game I ever called as the Cubs’ announcer was at HoHoKam in March 2005,” Kasper said. “[It was] Angels-Cubs. I remember an early Nomar Garciaparra double for some reason. And this was a meaningless exhibition game.”

PA announcer Sheridan has more than a few memories of both HoHoKam facilities. When he started in 1984, Spring Training was much different. There was no fanfare associated with Cubs games—no Jumbotrons, no music between innings, nothing but baseball and the Arizona sun. As a young man just out of college, Sheridan learned to do his job quietly, shoehorned between two Cubs broadcasting greats.

“The old [HoHoKam Park] had a wide-open press box,” said Sheridan, who was married at the newer HoHoKam in 2005. “It was basically like one long bench, and everybody was all lined up. I was right behind home plate. WGN to one side, WGN Radio to the other. Harry Caray was in one seat, and later on Ron Santo was in the other seat on the other side. So it was one of those ‘pinch me’ situations where I couldn’t believe that here I was sitting between these legends of the Chicago Cubs.”

Likely the biggest difference between HoHoKam Stadium and a major league ballpark like Wrigley Field (other than the weather) is the unrivaled access Spring Training offers fans. The stadium is smaller and things are more relaxed. Fans can get up close and personal with the Cubs before and after games, because players have a different mindset at Spring Training than they do once the regular season starts. They’re more at ease and having fun—it’s not do or die at that point. Plus, the demands on their time are fewer. It’s not uncommon to see Cubs management roaming the park or for fans to have a chance encounter with alumni like Rick Sutcliffe in the parking lot after a game.

“One of the best attributes of HoHoKam Stadium is the proximity of the fans to the field,” Streeter said. “You really feel like you’re part of the ballgame with how close fans can get to the players. If you’re sitting on the first-base line, you can overhear conversations from the dugout—you’re that close. HoHoKam Stadium is special because of the intimate feeling that catches you right upon arrival.”

In with the New

On January 25, 2010, the Mesa City Council approved a proposal to spend $84 million for a new, 15,000-seat Spring Training complex for the Cubs, thus marking the beginning of the end for the Cubs-HoHoKam partnership. From the preliminary designs, the new park will be modeled after Wrigley Field and will be built to the home park’s dimensions.

“Just as player conditioning has changed over the years, so has the fan conditioning. The new stadium is poised to offer some exciting elements not yet seen here in other stadiums that make up the Cactus League,” Streeter said. “Accommodating the Cubs fan has been just as much a part of the design and thought process with the new complex as it has been for the athlete.”

The Cubs will operate the new complex, which will be built east of HoHoKam Stadium on the site of the old Riverview Golf Course. Construction began on the project last year, and the basic structure of the new complex is already taking shape.

But Cubs fans will be leaving a lot behind when they walk away from HoHoKam Stadium at the end of March. They’ll be leaving a history that includes players from Banks to Barney, Santo to Samardzija. They’ll also be opening an exciting new chapter in their long history with the city of Mesa. Stadium manager Mark Gallo didn’t miss a beat when asked what he will miss most about the old ballyard.

“The Cubs fans—not only in February and March, but year-round,” he said. “I called them the three I’s. Cub fans from Illinois, Iowa and Indiana show up at HoHoKam at all times of the year just wanting to take pictures and walk around the stadium. Being able to open up the ballpark to the public is one of the great parts of my job. … Without a doubt, I have the best job in Mesa, thanks to Cubs fans.”

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