From the Pages of Vine Line: An inside look at the new Cubs Park

Cubs-Park-6

(Photo by Charlie Vascellaro)

The paint is still drying on the new Cubs Park Spring Training and player development facility in Mesa, Ariz. No one has grilled a hot dog or spilled a beer. The bathroom fixtures are clean enough to eat off of—not that you’d want to. The sights, scents and sounds that will craft cherished memories have yet to occur. The place is a blank canvas waiting to be colored in the blue and green hues of spring baseball.

It takes a while for a ballpark to develop a personality of its own. Something has to happen—a mammoth home run hit by a rookie prospect, an anonymous young pitcher emerging from a corn field to strike out the side, or a brushback pitch revisiting a previous season’s rivalry and inciting a bench-clearing brawl. There must be something fans can look back on later and say, “I was there.”

But the crack of the bat and the thwapping of balls into gloves can finally be heard at the facility, as pitchers and catchers officially reported to camp Thursday.

The Cubs had a spectacular run at two different Hohokam Parks from 1979-2012—setting Cactus League and MLB Spring Training attendance records and enjoying a wonderfully symbiotic relationship with the ballpark, the city and the fans—but the team’s new multipurpose Spring Training and player development facility is a vast improvement for both the organization and its loyal fans. Coming on the heels of the new training academy in the Dominican Republic and in conjunction with the restoration of Wrigley Field, the Cubs have made great strides under owner Tom Ricketts in terms of facilities and comprehensive player development accommodations—an essential step for a team looking to build from the lower levels up.

The new complex also simplifies things from a logistical standpoint. Previously, the organization’s minor leaguers conducted workouts at Fitch Park, about three-quarters of a mile down the road from Hohokam, where the big leaguers practiced and played games. The new facility puts all of the Cubs’ operations under one roof. This is an improvement for both the front office—which can keep better tabs on the team’s young players—and fans—who no longer have to make a trip down the road to watch top prospects like Albert Almora, C.J. Edwards and Pierce Johnson make their way to the big leagues.

BIGGER AND BETTER
Designed by Populous, formerly the renowned HOK ballpark architectural firm of Kansas City, Mo., and built in conjunction with the Hunt Construction Group of Scottsdale, Ariz., the $99 million facility was approved by city of Mesa voters in a 2012 ballot measure. Keeping the Cubs in town was a front-burner issue for the city and its mayor.

“The Chicago Cubs have been coming to Mesa each spring for more than half a century,” said Mayor Scott Smith. “The team is a part of who we are as a community, and I am excited to see that legacy continue for my children and grandchildren.”

The massive 125-acre complex contains six practice fields, one infield practice diamond, 12 indoor batting cages and a huge, 70,000-square-foot player development facility. Aside from the vast physical resources, the team is also taking advantage of new technological advances. The Cubs’ new home comes equipped with a 120-seat theater for meetings and video review, and each practice field offers a camera feed to the video rooms to enhance evaluations.

For a team that has dealt with substandard strength-training areas at both Wrigley Field and Hohokam Park, the new player development complex is quite a luxury. It includes a two-story weight room and gym filled with stationary bikes, four whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool, and floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the scenic McDowell Mountain range. The big league clubhouse, which dwarfs the space at Wrigley Field, has 63 lockers, and there’s another clubhouse for minor league players with 200 spaces.

In addition to being the Cubs’ Spring Training home, the new site will also be the team’s year-round player development and rehabilitation headquarters, and home to the club’s Rookie League and Arizona Fall League teams.

“This is our space to develop players to move onto the big league club,” said Cubs Park Facilities Manager Justin Piper. “So there’s also been a lot of focus and attention from the Cubs on our player development facilities and practice facilities on the site.”

JUST LIKE HOME
As Major League Baseball’s scope continues to evolve and grow, Spring Training has become a big business, with host cities aggressively competing for entertainment and tourism dollars. It seems like almost every year another big league club is moving into an updated, state-of-the-art facility.

The Cubs’ brand new Spring Training site, the fourth new ballpark to arrive on the Cactus League’s desert horizon in the last six years, is located in Mesa’s booming Riverview Park entertainment district. It’s adjacent to the sprawling new Riverview Park and Mesa Riverview shopping center on Rio Salado Parkway by the busy crossroads of the 101 and 202 loop freeways near the Mesa/Tempe border.

North Side fans have always had a way of making themselves feel at home in Mesa, and while Cubs Park is not intended to be a scale model of Wrigley Field, reminders of the Friendly Confines abound in features like the light towers, scoreboard clock and replica Wrigley Field marquee.

“People will be able to walk up right next to it,” Piper said. “We can put their name on the marquee, and they can take their photo next to it.”

Already being heralded as the crown jewel of Spring Training facilities, the ballpark boasts a seating capacity of nearly 15,000, the largest in the Cactus League. The stadium has 9,200 fixed seats, and the expansive outfield berm, a signature component of Arizona’s Spring Training ballparks, has room for 4,200 more sun-worshipping fans.

Because Arizona’s atmospheric conditions cause the ball to carry farther than it does in Chicago, the dimensions of the outfield wall are about 15-20 feet deeper than those at Wrigley Field, but the two outfields share the same shape. Just like at Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ home dugout is situated on the third-base side (it was located on the first-base side at Hohokam Park), and the wall behind home plate is made of red brick. This will make Spring Training games broadcast on television appear strikingly similar to Cubs regular season home games when the center-field camera is in use.

Of course, the ballpark’s southwestern setting is also evident in many design touches, including the massive louvered awnings that provide shade over most of the seating bowl and the red-clay exterior that reflects the facility’s desert surroundings. There’s also a beautiful mountain vista beyond the outfield walls, including such iconic local imagery as the Superstition Mountains to the right, Four Peaks and Red Mountain to dead center, and the vast McDowell Mountain range to the left. Phoenix’s signature Camelback Mountain is farther to the left, but still visible, off in foul territory.

While Cubs Park will be a huge upgrade for players, it will also provide a better overall experience for fans. Throughout the past several decades, Spring Training baseball has evolved from a destination for die-hards to a prime vacation spot for spring revelers. For many, the game on the field is secondary to other amenities and a chance to spend time with friends in the Arizona sun. The new Cubs Park has adequately addressed this phenomenon as well.

One of the most unique features of the facility will be the left-field party deck, which is designed to be reminiscent of the rooftops outside of Wrigley Field. The second-story deck comes equipped with bleachers and patios with loose patio furniture, and can be accessed with a general admission ticket.

“You’ll have 1,000 people mixing and mingling, sitting in the bleachers and having a great time,” Piper said. “It’s going to be pretty unique.”

But the best aspect of Spring Training has always been the opportunity to rub shoulders with professional ballplayers in a relaxed environment. The walkway from the ballpark to the clubhouse is designed with this in mind. It’s a long, narrow dirt path where players will pass in close proximity to fans, who will undoubtedly line the sides seeking autographs and pictures. There are no walls or barriers of any kind on either side of the trail, but a string of dwarf oleander bushes have been planted and will eventually create a natural barrier.

ARIZONA LEGACY
Cubs fans have been making the religious pilgrimage to Arizona for more than six decades since the team first set up a spring camp at Mesa’s Rendezvous Park in the spring of 1952. Prior to that, the club spent time on Catalina Island in California, where they conducted Spring Training for 30 years on former owner William Wrigley Jr.’s island paradise, 25 miles off the Los Angeles coast.

After the team’s first spring season at Rendezvous Park, which was originally constructed in 1920, owner Phillip K. Wrigley (William’s son) paid $20,000 to build a grandstand in exchange for the city of Mesa footing the bill for a new clubhouse on the third-base side. The grandstand’s exterior Rendezvous Park sign and the water towers looming beyond the outfield walls would become the signature images associated with the facility.

The Cubs remained at Rendezvous Park until 1966, when they moved to Long Beach, Calif., for the spring. But they returned to Arizona in 1967, taking up residence at Scottsdale Stadium, where they remained until 1979. The Cubs then moved to the original Hohokam Park in Mesa, swapping sites with the Oakland Athletics, who had occupied the stadium for two years following its opening in 1977. The Cubs remained at the original Hohokam Park until a new one was built at the opposite corner of Brown and Center streets in 1997. With the team now moving into Cubs Park, the A’s will again take over Hohokam Park in the spring of 2015.

The idea of moving into a new ballpark after just 17 years at the renovated Hohokam is more a testament to the advances being made in ballpark design than a reflection of the old ballpark’s obsolescence. And with the recent addition of three spectacular new training facilities in the Cactus League cities of Glendale, Goodyear and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, it’s also a matter of keeping up with the Joneses.

“We’re real excited about the new Cubs facility,” said Cactus League President Mark Coronado. “It’s these opportunities that continue to be the magnet for us to draw fans from across the country, and the Cubs facility is going to be a Wrigleyville mecca—the Disneyland of Baseball. It will be the jewel of Spring Training facilities, there’s no question about it. It will be a standard that [others] will be hard-pressed to duplicate because they’ve spared no expense. I think once again you’ll start to see the Cubs become the No. 1 attraction in the Valley.”

2 Comments

Makes me thirst for a trip to Arizona! Seems like the Cubs are finally understanding that to have a winning team they need a solid foundation. Not that the facilities are going to make them “winners” but with shoddy facilities they were less likely to build the franchise they promise to deliver every year. Kudos to the writer who brought it all to light.

Oh my Charlie, you have certainly captured the spirit of the Chicago Cubs to include the facility, team, player enhancements, fan access, and, I would be negligent if I did not mention your esteemed attention to left field amenities.
Your description of the entire complex has a certain feeling of “take me out to the ball game!” I can hear Harry Carey singing to the fans as you speak so wonderfully about the new Chicago Cubs playing fields.
Thank you for the love of the park. . . you tell a story that is timeless.

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