MESA, Az.---Every winter when I settle into Mesa for a few days the growth of the Sonoran Desert city blows my mind.
The spring training home of the Chicago Cubs has 467,000 residents; more than Miami, Fla. or St. Louis, Mo.
When the Cubs new $84 million baseball complex opens in late 2013 in Mesa, it pretty much will be a year-round facility used for organizational meetings, draft day events and long rehabs for Aramis Ramirez.
The complex will be near the Riverview Mall at the intersection of freeways 101 and 202. More than 200,000 cars a day drive through this juncture.
"It's the geographic center of the valley," Mesa Mayor Scott Smith told me a couple weeks ago........
.......Mesa was settled in the late 1800s by Mormon pioneers.
In the early and mid-20th Century Mesa was the agriculture center of eastern Arizona with acres of cotton fields and citrus fields--now developed.
"Until the 1990s Mesa was self-sufficient economically," Smith said. "We've turned into the ultimate bedroom community. Most people don't realize Mesa builds the Apache helicopter here. We had a significant Motorola presence in Mesa until about eight years ago. It was devastating when the plant shut down. There were 5,000, 6,000 employees there. In many ways we're like the Midwest. We had a GM factory shut down.
"The only difference is that instead of having line workers we had engineers ripped out of our community. We've had a hard time recovering from that. We have Midwestern values. We're much more Midwest than we are California.
"We're a city of 467,000 people still looking for opportunities to keep our kids here."
The Cubs came to Mesa in 1952.
They played at Rendezvous Park (cap. 3,000) near downtown Mesa, about a mile south of the current HoHoKam Stadium.
HoHoKam is Native American for "those who vanished."
Robert Brinton, 59, is Mr. Mesa Baseball. He is past president of the Cactus League and current President and CEO of the Mesa Convention Bureau. He is a lifelong Mesa resident. He saw his first spring training game around 1957 at Rendezvous.
"I remember going to the game, but what I remember at that age I was being more infatuated with the Eskimo Pie salesman than I was with other things," he said during a walk through the Cubs Fitch Park complex. "I picked up the broken bats after the game was over. Then when I was eleven (late Cubs second baseman and 1963 rookie of the year) Ken Hubbs talked to me and gave me an autographed baseball and that's when I said, 'This is the game and Chicago's the team.'
Brinton still has the Hubbs autographed ball.
The Cubs play games at HoHoKam Park (cap. 13,074). The park was fully renovated in 1996. The Cubs' clubhouse, offices and training area is at nearby Fitch Park, renovated in 1997. The facilities are operated by the City of Mesa. The Cubs will control their new complex.
NOW THIS IS BONDING; THE CUBS AT BUCKHORN BATHS, THE MINERAL BATH-SPA EAST OF MESA POPULARIZED BY BILL VEECK (Cleveland Indians) and HORACE STONEHAM (New York Giants) WHEN THEY BROUGHT THEIR TEAMS TO ARIZONA IN 1947.
Mesa rancher/real estate developer Dwight Patterson and developer Del Webb spiked the development of spring training in Arizona. Patterson mentored Brinton. He took Brinton to baseball's winter meetings. Brinton is passionate about making sure spring training continues and flourishes in Patterson's spirit.
"My Dad was one of the HoHoKams in 1952, the original group with Dwight that bought the Cubs here," he said.
Mesa is aiming to bring another team in from Florida to replace the Cubs at Fitch. That would give Arizona a 16-14 team lead over Florida, but more importantly would elimianate the need for split squad games with the current 15-15 split in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues.
"If we're going to attract another team to Fitch, we're going to have to improve it," Brinton said. "No one is going to come in and say, 'This is leftovers?' We're going to have to spend millions fixing that up. We hope to retrofit Fitch with another team."
There's a lot of work to do.
The new Diamoindbacks clubhouse-office area at Salt River Fiels is 85,000 square feet, as are the new digs of their partner Colorado Rockies. The Cubs have 35,000 square feet at Fitch. Women media members have to walk through a bathroom and shower area to move between the major league and minor league clubhouses.
Spring training used to be about conditioning players and eliminating beer guts after a long frothy winter.
"I can remember when you only had one or two practice fields," Brinton said. "Now six fields are essential because of the number of players you have in camp. The stadiums are the showpiece. Spring training is also about fan conditioning and sponsor conditioning."
Contrary to published reports, the HoHoKams will not be phased out when the Cubs move to their new complex.
"I've talked to the Cubs and they recognize the role of the HoHoKams," said Brinton, who just finished a term as president, a.k.a. "The Big Ho." "We have to work out the role we play. The Cubs will be running everything. The role we play will be different. We're involved in helping the Cubs with their golf tournament coming up. And the Cubs will still have to have people to run spring training."