From the Pages of Vine Line: Sloan Park, a place in the sun

Sloan_Park

(Photo by Stephen Green)

The Sloan Park facility has given the Cubs the best Spring Training home in the game, but it’s much more than that. The site is buzzing all year long with everything from player development activities to civic events. The following can be found in the March issue of Vine Line.

It didn’t take long for fans to feel right at home at the Cubs’ new training facility in Mesa, Arizona, on the ballpark’s inaugural Cactus League Opening Day. With the temperature hovering at a perfect 75 degrees on Feb. 27, 2014, under an infinitely sunny Arizona sky, then-Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija let the first pitch fly at 1:10 p.m. When he set the visiting Arizona Diamondbacks down with a pair of strikeouts to end the top of the first inning, all was right with the world.

In a matter of minutes, the record-setting crowd of 14,486 settled into the Cubs’ friendly new spring confines, surrounded by sights, sounds and scents reminiscent of the team’s 100-year-old cathedral back home in Chicago, Wrigley Field. By the time they played “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch, you almost expected to see Harry Caray or Ron Santo leaning out of the press box window (it was actually Hall of Fame hurler Fergie Jenkins who did the honors in front of the Cubs dugout).

Even though it was the first real game played at what was previously called Cubs Park—the Cubs signed a naming-rights agreement with new legacy partner Sloan Valve Company in January—the whole place felt comfortably familiar. Like Yogi Berra said, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”

While the Cubs’ Spring Training exploits might garner the most headlines, the Sloan Park facility isn’t in the spotlight for just two months every February and March. The mammoth 145-plus-acre, multipurpose complex at the center of Riverview Park is utilized by the organization and the city of Mesa all year long for Cubs player development, Arizona Fall League games, NCAA baseball tournaments, civic events and more. As the state-of-the-art facility reached its first anniversary, it had already become a thriving hub in the Valley of the Sun and an indispensable part of how the Cubs train and rehabilitate players.

SPRING FLING
Aside from providing a huge facilities upgrade to Cubs players and personnel, one of the primary goals of the new ballpark in Arizona was to create a sort of Wrigleyville west for fans to enjoy.

There are obvious touches that harken back to Wrigley Field, such as the familiar clock atop the scoreboard and the replica marquee on the concourse down the first-base line, where fans can take pictures with their names emblazoned in lights. Concessions include Taste of Chicago booths offering Vienna Beef hot dogs and Italian beef sandwiches or individual deep-dish Chicago-style pizzas. There’s also the Eighteen/76 section beyond the left-field wall, where the view is similar to watching a game from one of Wrigleyville’s famous rooftops.

Of course, you can’t actually forget that you’re in Arizona, as the whole place is surrounded by majestic mountain vistas and desert terrain.

Sloan Park has the largest seating capacity of any major league Spring Training ballpark, but the Cubs still managed to sell out 12 of their 15 home games in 2014, shattering previous Cactus League attendance records in the process. They also surpassed the all-time major league Spring Training attendance mark, which includes Florida’s Grapefruit League, drawing 213,815 fans, with a 14,254 per-game average, including an all-time high of 15,276 against the Angels on March 25, 2014.

Given the modern amenities and the crowds, it was no surprise Sloan Park was selected by the Phoenix New Times weekly newspaper as “The Best Place to Watch Spring Training.”

“Spring Training was an overwhelming success from both a player development and a fan experience perspective,” said Justin Piper, Cubs general manager of Spring Training business operations. “We now have the top 12 attended Spring Training games ever. It blew away our expectations. We were very thrilled with how the fans enjoyed the ballpark. We were trying to create a dynamic experience that’s reminiscent of Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs brand with attributes unique to the Cactus League and Spring Training.”

While many of the Cactus League’s 10 Spring Training complexes are shared by two teams, including the other four facilities added since 2003, Sloan Park is completely devoted to the Cubs and their far-flung fan base, with many of the amenities designed to reflect a Chicago feel.

“It was exciting to see how fans responded to our twist on the Wrigley Field marquee, putting it on the concourse and letting fans pose with custom-tailored messages,” Piper said. “That experience was then shared on their Twitter and Facebook pages. As a single-team facility, fans were able to enjoy an authentic Cubs experience. You know it’s a Cubs game when you walk in the gate.”

YEAR ROUND
On just about any given day, you can find members of the Cubs organization, from the low-minor league level to the big leagues, participating in official games, working on strength and conditioning, rehabilitating injuries, or simply practicing and refining their skills at the facility. And most, if not all, of these activities are open to the public.

Cubs Director of Player Development Jaron Madison, who spends a great deal of time at Sloan Park throughout the baseball season and in the offseason, said the new space has given the organization a central headquarters for the team’s player development program.

“It’s first class all the way,” said Madison, who previously worked in the scouting departments of the Padres, Cardinals and Pirates. “It’s the best Spring Training complex in all of baseball, and it really gives us the opportunity to provide our players with the resources and the tools to continue to develop. We do a lot of work with the mental side of the game. There’s a theater in there that we use for media presentations and movies and all types of things.

“Everything is centrally located. Whether we put the major league guys on one side and the minor league guys on the other, there’s a lot of synergy between the two sides of the complex, and it makes it easier when you have to run guys over to the big league games or vice versa. It just makes everything more convenient, and it flows well.”

For the past three and a half decades, the Cubs’ major and minor league Spring Training facilities were divided between Hohokam Park and the Fitch Park training facility in Mesa, which are located about a mile and a half apart. Though the distance wasn’t great, having two separate facilities created challenges for the player development team.

“Trying to do things with the major league and minor league sides, shuttling guys back and forth, and just the disconnect made it difficult a lot of times when we needed guys to run up to the big league games or get at-bats for the big leaguers in the minor league games,” Madison said. “It definitely posed a challenge for us, but fortunately now with everything being right there in one place, it’s amazing.”

Sloan Park provides all the amenities the organization needs in one location, with six practice fields, one infield practice diamond, 12 indoor batting cages, a two-story weight room and gym, four whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool. Madison said the Sloan Park complex is in motion from January through December.

“In January, we conduct strength-and-conditioning camp for our minor leaguers, so we have about 40 players and staff out there working specifically on nutrition and strength training. But they’ll also do some on-field work. That runs through the end of the month, and big league Spring Training will open up shortly after that in the middle of February. We’ll have some board meetings out there that will run right into the big league reporting dates for pitchers and catchers. Minor league guys will show up first week of March and stay there until they break up for the minor league season, which will be the first week of April. Then we have extended Spring Training that runs all the way through the middle of June when the [rookie] Arizona League starts and runs through September. We give our guys about three weeks off, and then we have a group of about 75 select players that come in for our instructional camp, and those guys spend three weeks going through some intensive training, fundamental work, and a lot of mental work and presentations from our mental skills director.”

Sloan Park is also home to the Mesa Solar Sox of the Arizona Fall League, which kicks off just after the major league regular season ends in early October and runs through mid-November. The six-team league is comprised of top prospects from all 30 major league squads, with five different big league clubs represented on each team. Frequently, players chosen for the AFL find themselves on big league rosters within one year, so it’s a great place to see up-and-coming players before they hit the big time.

Although AFL games are not nearly as well-attended as Cactus League games—even in this high-powered league, the focus is generally on scouting and player development—Piper said the games were still a big hit for those who came.

“It’s a continuation of the player development programs at the facility,” Piper said. “And our guys get to be in their home facility while showcasing the facility to the other teams’ players.”

After the AFL slate ends, the Cubs hold another strength-and-conditioning camp during the first three weeks of November, and players on rehab assignments continue to use the facility through the middle of December.

“[The park] really only shuts down for the Christmas holiday through the New Year,” Madison said. “Right after the New Year, we start back up with that strength-and-conditioning camp again, so it’s an all-year operation. We’re really happy with the ability to be open and to be a resource for our guys.”

CORE STRENGTH
During its first year, the Sloan Park facility was an integral part of getting players to the next level, whether they were rehabbing from injuries, working on their skills or both. Outfielder Jorge Soler, the Cubs’ fourth-ranked prospect according to MLB.com, is a perfect example. Though he signed to great fanfare in 2012, Soler’s stock was slipping by the start of 2014 due to a rash of lower-body injuries that were keeping him off the field. After suffering another leg injury in his first game of the year at Double-A Tennessee, he returned to Mesa for a rehab assignment and spent about a month there.

“Our strength-and-conditioning guys came up with a program for him not only to rehab and get healthy, but also to change the mechanics of the way he runs to help him avoid some of those nagging injuries he’s had over the past couple of years,” Madison said. “Having that facility and all the space we needed from the strength and conditioning to the development standpoint and the biomechanical standpoint really allowed him to excel and hit the ground running as soon as he got back to Tennessee, Iowa and the big leagues.”

And once Soler was back on the field, the path from Double-A to Wrigley Field was a short one. The Cuban expat hit .292 with five home runs, 20 RBI and a .903 OPS after being called up to the Cubs on Aug. 27, kicking it all off with a monstrous, 400-foot home run to dead center field in his first big league at-bat off then-Reds starter Mat Latos.

Many of the team’s top prospects begin and end their baseball seasons at Sloan Park, some of them making frequent return visits. Athletic outfielder Jacob Hannemann, a two-sport star at BYU before signing with the Cubs in the third round of the 2013 draft, was part of a mini-camp at Sloan Park during the last two weeks of February 2014 and remained there all the way through Spring Training. When camp broke, he went to Kane County and was quickly promoted to Daytona. After the Florida State League playoffs, he came right back to Sloan Park for the instructional league and stayed there through the Arizona Fall League.

“He spent quite a bit of time [in Mesa],” Madison said. “A lot of our guys spent quite a bit of time, but it’s a place they don’t mind being because of all the facilities. The weight room is amazing. We have a Gatorade smoothie station that’s like a smaller version of a Jamba Juice in there. It’s a pretty good place to be.”

Though the Cubs organization keeps Sloan Park buzzing almost every day of the year, the facility is used for some non-Cubs activities as well. The park hosted everything from the NCAA’s Western Athletic Conference baseball championship, to a local, Chicago-style 16-inch softball tournament in which corporations played on the practice fields and held their championship game on the stadium field.

Sloan Park will also host the Walk to Cure Diabetes celebrating Ron Santo later this year, and the Great Arizona Beer Festival is scheduled to take place at the complex on April 18.

“We had some private rentals as well for festival-type events,” Piper said. “I think we’ll see more of that in the next year now that we’ve had a year to understand the facility.”

No matter what extracurricular activities the facility hosts, at its heart, Sloan Park bleeds Cubbie Blue. With its first year in the books, it definitely feels like home and has already made itself an integral part of how the Cubs do business, both on and off the field.

—By Charlie Vascellaro

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