PHOENIX – It was one of the last things I expected to see.
While walking around the concourse that completely circles the playing field at the beautiful Ballpark at Camelback Ranch just to the west of Glendale before the start of a Cactus League game between the Chicago Cubs and the host Chicago White Sox, I spotted a patron wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jersey.
The crowd – and it was a sellout of more than 13,000 – was almost entirely decked-out in Cubbie Blue or White Sox Pinstripes (it’s worth noting that there were a lot more Ron Santo and Frank Thomas jerseys being worn than those of any current Cubs or White Sox players) so the gentleman wearing Cardinals Red stood out like a rose popping out of the desert floor.
It was about straight up noon and the man was already enjoying a Budweiser (of course he was, he’s a Cardinals fan), and I approached him and asked him why he was out here in the desert at a Cubs-White Sox game instead of being near Atlantic Ocean beaches over in Jupiter, Fla., where the Cardinals have their Grapefruit League headquarters.
He explained that he was visiting family in the Valley and that he is from the Midwest and gets to several Redbirds’ games during the regular season. “Besides,” he then said smugly, “us Cardinals fans don’t really get serious about baseball until October.”
Touché; point well-taken. When your favorite team plays in the World Series at least every other year, it doesn’t really matter all that much what teams are actually on the field playing during a Spring Training game.
The Cactus League, in particular, is all about color and sunshine and peanuts and cold beer and all those other clichés, and can be enjoyed at some of the most eye-pleasing and state of the art facilities and training complexes in the country.
I have been at the Camelback Ranch complex – the Cactus League home of both the White Sox and Dodgers – dozens of times in the past two or three years while it has served as host for several premier Perfect Game tournaments. Recently opened in 2009, it is a fan favorite during Spring Training, even though the only way to get there is via Camelback Road, and traffic can back up for a miles to the east of the stadium on game days.
Scottsdale’s Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the Cactus League home of the Diamondbacks and the Rockies, opened in 2011 and regularly sells every one of its 11,000 seats. New Cubs Park, a magnificent 15,000-seat, $99 million complex in Mesa, gives the East Valley another state-of-the-art venue.
As impressive as those parks are – and other newer but smaller venues in the West Valley cities of Goodyear, Peoria and Surprise – I’m a fan of the older, more intimate parks still in limited use. Venerable Scottsdale Stadium in Old Town Scottsdale is one such gem, and the San Francisco Giants have held their spring camp there for the past 33 years. Another is Diablo Stadium in Tempe, the home of the Los Angeles Angels.
Which brings the discussion to Phoenix Municipal Stadium or, as it is known locally, Phoenix Muni. I have now visited all 10 of the Spring Training complexes in the Valley and Muni is my favorite only because of a personal relationship I once enjoyed with its current – and soon to be former – tenant.
Phoenix Muni has been hosting Spring Training games for the last 50 years, once upon a time welcoming the Giants and for the last 33 years the Oakland Athletics. The A’s played their final Cactus League game at Muni on Wednesday (March 26) and will take over a refurbished Hohokam Stadium in Mesa – the facility the Cubs left behind to move into their new digs – in time for the 2015 Cactus League season.
The setting is pretty remarkable, really. When you look out over the left field fence and catch a pretty dazzling view of the Papago Buttes, it’s easy to forget that you’re only about a 15 minute drive from the heart of downtown Phoenix.
There is a lot of history at Phoenix Muni – according to a recent column in the Arizona Republic, Willie Mays slugged the first home run ever hit there and the light towers from the old Polo Grounds are still in use. But when I made my first visit to the park earlier this month, it was memories of three remarkable Oakland A’s teams from the early 1970's that came rushing to the front of my mind.
The A’s conducted their Spring Training camp in Mesa before the 1972, ’73 and ’74 seasons and didn’t move into Phoenix Muni until 1982. But there are plenty of reminders of those great A’s teams at Muni in the form of banners, logos and other references.
The A’s won three consecutive World Series Championships from 1972-74 and why that shaggy and mustachioed group of superstars aren't as highly regarded as Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine that came along in the years immediately following the A’s dominant run will always be a mystery to me.
I was 15, 16 and 17 years old during those years, and there was no bigger Oakland A’s fan in all of Eastern Iowa than me. They were my team in a Strat-O-Matic league I played in with a group of like-minded friends; I listened to Harry Caray broadcast White Sox games on the radio only because the Sox were always chasing the A’s in the old AL West back in those years and Caray would provide constant updates on how the A’s were doing (if they weren’t playing on the West Coast).
Owned by the frugal and eccentric Charles O. Finley, the A’s were looked upon as a ragtag band of white shoe-wearing misfits representing a city that at the time was also home to the renegade Oakland Raiders who got their start in the upstart American Football League, the Hells Angels motorcycle gang and the Black Panther Party, a revolutionary socialist group. With the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal grabbing headlines, social unrest and the East Bay walked hand-in-hand in the early 70’s.
But the A’s were also very charismatic, led by Hall of Fame right-fielder Reggie Jackson, baseball’s Mr. October in Oakland before he was formally anointed the title after joining the New York Yankees via free agency. Joe Rudi was an exceptional defensive left fielder who hit .300 in 19 World Series games during his career.
The left side of the infield was one of baseball’s best with Sal Bando at third and Bert “Campy” Campaneris at short. And who among us can forget when catcher Gene Tenace -- who hit five home runs and drove in 32 runs during the regular season -- belted four home runs and drove in nine runs in seven World Series games in 1972.
And then there was the pitching staff, an “all-name” group if there ever was one.
It started with Catfish Hunter, the A’s Cy Young Award winner in 1974 who won 21 games or more for five straight seasons from 1971-75. The left-hander Vida Blue was named the AL MVP and received the AL Cy Young Award as a 21-year-old in 1971 when he won 24 games and posted a 1.81 ERA. Blue Moon Odom and Ken Holtzman were other reliable starters.
Rollie Fingers, best known perhaps for his trademark handlebar mustache than his wins and saves, anchored the bullpen. Jackson, Hunter and Fingers are all in the Hall of Fame; Jackson’s plaque portrays him in a Yankees’ cap and Fingers’ in an A’s cap while Hunter – who finished his career with the Yankees before passing away in 1999 – has no team logo on his cap. All three are honored with banners at Phoenix Muni.
It was a remarkable team, a group of ballplayers who made no more money than school teachers and firefighters – kind of the way it should be, perhaps – and stuck together long enough to win three straight World Series titles. Ironically, Hunter and Jackson were among the first “big-money” free agents when Finley wouldn’t pay them and they left the East Bay for the riches in the Bronx in the mid-70’s.
All those memories came rushing back to me as I walked around Phoenix Muni on another glorious mid-March morning in the Valley. And while the A’s are leaving Muni in 2015, baseball in its entirety is not.
Arizona State is playing its final season at historic, on-campus Packard Stadium this spring and will move into a remodeled Phoenix Muni next season. All of those banners recognizing the former Oakland A’s greats and their championships will be replaced by those honoring former Sun Devil greats and their championships. Coincidentally, perhaps, those former Sun Devils legends include Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando. Will the circle be unbroken …
In a related note involving Cactus League facilities, Perfect Game Western Tournament Director Matthew Bliven has been hard at work securing venues in the East Valley for PG tournaments as early as this summer.
The new Cubs Park in Mesa, the A’s Hohokam and Fitch Fields in Mesa and the Angels’ Diablo Stadium complex in Tempe are among the facilities that will be used. And while I look forward to working PG tournaments at those venues, I will also make sure to stop by an ASU game just to take another look around Phoenix Muni.