MLB says goodbye to spring training in Tucson
By BOB BAUM
AP Sports Writer
TUCSON, Ariz. — The cradle of the Cactus League says goodbye to major league baseball this week.
The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, the final two teams with spring training in Tucson, are moving north to swanky new digs near a Scottsdale-area casino. They will leave behind empty fields of manicured grass and a history that stretches back 64 years.
On March 8, 1946, the first spring training game in Arizona was played at Tucson's Hi Corbett Field between Bill Veeck's Cleveland Indians and Horace Stoneham's New York Giants. Bob Lemon pitched the Indians to a 3-1 victory.
That venerable stadium, built in 1937, will host Tucson's final spring game, between the Diamondbacks and Rockies, on Wednesday. The Diamondbacks played their last game at their Tucson Electric Park home on Tuesday.
"I feel a little sad because we're not going to have this here," said 78-year-old Lefty Provencio, one of the legion of mostly older folks who help out at the ballparks for nothing each spring. "It's been something I've been volunteering for since I retired."
Hi Corbett Field, named for a long-ago state legislator, has been home for the Rockies' spring training for all 18 seasons of the franchise's existence. Parts of the movie "Major League" were filmed there.
"We're going to miss Tucson in many ways," Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd said. "I realize we're not going to miss the travel and our minor-league clubs have struggled because of the inability to play any kind of quality competition. But as far as the intimacy of the ball park and how we all interact with one another and see each other on a daily basis, in impromptu settings — because of the way the set up is — I think we're going to miss that a lot."
Don't count Colorado first baseman Todd Helton among those waxing sentimental.
"I'll miss the town some, I'm not going to miss this facility," he said. "... To me it's old and it doesn't have much character. The movie was filmed here 'Major League.' I know there was a lot of good teams that have worked out here and all that stuff, I don't know. I think it's time for a change."
The Indians stayed in Tucson through 1992, when the franchise was lured to Florida.
O'Dowd remembered the cramped quarters he had when he worked in the Indians front office.
"Three offices — one for Hank Peters, John Hart, one for myself. Mine was really a closet they turned into an office," he said. "Slanted ceilings, couldn't stand up to walk out, had to walk out bending over."
Negotiations with agents were conducted on folding chairs under the stands, O'Dowd said.
Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella was a young player with the Indians organization.
"This was my first major league spring training, right here in Tucson," he said. "In 1966, '67, '68, right here at Hi Corbett. ... When I got sent down to the minor leagues, all I had to do was walk through the right field gate over there, behind that 349-foot marker, and I was in Triple-A camp real quick. I made that walk three years."
Modern Tucson Electric Park was built, unfortunately, in a dusty industrial area on the far east side of town, unlike Hi Corbett, which is nestled in a green park adjacent to a golf course in the middle of town.
Tucson Electric has had its share of odd occurrences.
It's where Randy Johnson killed a bird that made the unfortunate decision to fly between the mound and home plate. There also was the classic "bee game," when swarms of bees assaulted the players in the field and forced cancellation of the contest.
In 1993, the year after the Indians left, the expansion Rockies moved to Hi Corbett after the old stadium underwent one of a long series of refurbishing efforts. Five years later, in 1998, the Diamondbacks were born and moved into state-of-the-art Tucson Electric, sharing the facility and its expanse of practice fields with the Chicago White Sox.
The exodus began last year, when the White Sox paid $5 million to get out of their lease and moved to a new facility in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, sharing it with the newly arrived Los Angeles Dodgers. Then the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community agreed to build a spring training home for the Rockies and Diamondbacks, at a cost of more than $120 million, near a new casino resort hotel on the outskirts of Scottsdale.
Once the White Sox left, the Rockies and Diamondbacks had an out clause to get out of their leases, leaving Pima County stuck with millions in debt for its work on the Kino Sports Complex, which includes Tucson Electric Park.
All 15 teams that train in Arizona will now be in the Phoenix area, making that 2›-hour trek to and from Tucson a thing of the past.
"Those bus rides almost every other day, they wear at you pretty good," Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds said, "and when we play home games, teams don't necessarily bring their 'A' squad and the competition goes down. Next year I think being up there is going to be good competition, a great place to play, a lot of local fans."
Arizona's Triple-A team left Tucson a year ago for a new park in Reno. The Toros of the independent Golden Baseball League play at Hi Corbett. Tucson Electric Park will stand vacant while county officials try to lure Japanese teams to have spring training there.
If that happens, Diamondbacks president Derrick Hall said his team would come to Tucson to play them. Even if the Japanese idea falls through, Hall said he'd be willing to play a spring training game in Tucson and said others should do the same, as long as the field is up to big-league standards.
For now, though, Tucson is in baseball's rear view mirror.
"No more spring training in Vero Beach after so many years, either," Indians hitting coach Sandy Alomar said. "Dodgertown is no longer Dodgertown anymore — it's gone. It goes in cycles. That's the way it is."