HoHoKams again elevated Spring Training in Mesa

Mar. 24—The 2024 Spring Training season is wrapping up the second "normal" season since the pandemic, and by many accounts it's been a good year for the Cactus League, including Mesa's two teams, the Chicago Cubs and Oakland Athletics.

The last Cactus League game is Tuesday, March 26, when the Cubs host the St. Louis Cardinals at Mesa's Sloan Park.

Justin Piper, vice president of spring training operations for the Cubs, said this month the season is "going really well."

Joe Pun, the Athletics' director of spring training operations, agreed, calling 2024 a "true Arizona spring training" despite a rare rainout due to a late winter storm.

"We've gotten some great crowds recently," Pun said. "It's great out here."

Mesa is arguably the Cactus League capital as it has the Cubs, the league's largest draw, and Sloan Park, the largest stadium in either the Cactus League or Florida's Grapefruit League.

With the Athletics based at Hohokam Field, Mesa can also brag about being the only Valley city with two teams in their own stadiums.

Mesa boasts something else that gives its spring training some extra zest — a 73-year-old volunteer support organization with all the traditions and quirks that comes with that long of a history.

'Some of the nicest people'

Thirty-five community leaders created the HoHoKams in 1951 to nurture spring training in Mesa. Its first president — or "Big Ho" — was Dwight Patterson, regarded by many as the father of the Cactus League.

There was a time when members welcomed ballplayers at the train station at the start of the season and organized carpools to take players out to Buckhorn Baths for steak fries.

The train has stopped and the Buckhorn is closed — its fate in limbo — but the HoHoKams have retained many traditions from that time and remain "vital," according to Big Ho Mark Fullerton.

It has 160 members who clear out their March calendars every year and commit to service; they must volunteer at least 75% of the games. One volunteer said they are likely to be "razzed" if they only do the minimum. Many do 100%.

Fullerton, who goes to every Cubs and Athletics game, said he only had four days off this season, but it hasn't been too hard. "Everything this year has run very smoothly," he said.

The HoHoKams who volunteer at games enjoy their work, energized by the crowds from near and far streaming into the stadiums and their belief in the mission of supporting youth.

Fullerton said his favorite part of the work is the camaraderie.

Today, the HoHoKams have two goals: enhance spring training for fans and raise money for local youth sports programs.

"If (fans) have a good experience, they'll come back," HoHoKams council member Anita Peters said.

The HoHoKams, with their signature red shirts and kachina-inspired bolo ties, are often the first people fans encounter when they come to a Cubs or Athletics game in Mesa. Peters said at one time, the volunteers wore cowboy-style ponchos, but that has been replaced with the polo shirt.

An oversized bolo worn by Fullerton mimicking Native turquoise and silver jewelry has been handed down from Big Ho to Big Ho. Rank-and-file Ho's wear smaller versions of the trademark bolo.

Other Cactus League teams have volunteer support organizations that give back to the community, but none have quite the character, quirks or traditions of Mesa's "Ho's," as members are affectionately called by group members and by team personnel.

Both the Cubs and Athletics partner with the HoHoKams to help manage parking at the stadiums, usher and serve as park ambassadors, among other jobs.

At Sloan Park alone, HoHoKams helped to park 52,000 cars last year.

"It's a big operation, dude," said 27-year HoHoKam Paul Buser, a co-leader of parking at Sloan Park. "It takes a lot of people all doing their thing to make sure that it runs smoothly."

Buser, an insurance agent, said he and other HoHokams eagerly await the publication of the Cubs' schedule each year to see what their springs will be like. On game days, he's at the stadium between around 7 a.m.

Buser said his crew of HoHoKams are "very familiar with the traffic pattern. They're very familiar with their lots. They become friends with the people that park in their lots. It's fantastic."

The interview with Buser was cut short when a private security guard pulled up to his cart with a woman anxious to find her car — her husband had a medical issue at the game and was taken to the hospital.

With his extensive knowledge of the parking, Buser knew where she needed to go, and he whisked her away in the golf cart.

The HoHoKams present a friendly, knowledgeable face to fans, and the work also plays an important role in its other main mission — raising money for youth sports.

The teams pay the HoHoKams for their services. Crucially, the teams also allow the HoHoKams to operate 50/50 raffles at the games.

Fullerton said the raffles alone raised $426,000 last year, a large share of the $600,000 they brought in, according to the organization's filings with the IRS.

As the Cubs faced the Seattle Mariners at Sloan Park this month, "respectfully assertive" HoHoKams in bright pink shirts circulated the stadium and competed with cries of mobile vendors offering "cold beer!"

Thanks to efforts like these, the HoHoKams gave $400,000 to dozens of nonprofits last year. They were also equal partners with The Cubs on a $200,000 donation for the Monterey Park expansion.

The HoHoKams also encourage youth athletics by hosting an annual track meet and swim and dive championship.

Renewing the partnership

The Cubs and Athletics are both celebrating 10 years in their respective stadiums. The Cubs moved into their brand new stadium in 2014 as part of a 30-year agreement after Mesa voters approved the $99 million project.

With the Cubs' previous facility, Hohokam Stadium, now available, the Athletics signed a 20-year deal to move into Hohokam.

As the teams moved into their respective stadiums, both decided to partner with the HoHoKams to manage games and give back.

"That was kind of a no-brainer for us," Pun said. "The knowledge base, the heritage, the history here, the connection with the community ... and quite frankly, they are really some of the nicest people that we have on staff. Just so welcoming, so happy that people are coming here."

Piper said the group's relationship with the Cubs "in many ways couldn't be stronger."

"They do a fantastic job working with the city and Mesa (Police Department)" on managing parking.

He said working with the HoHoKams fits with the Cubs ethos of being a good neighbor and "just like in Chicago, we want to honor the history and tradition that is here in Mesa."

The feeling is mutual.

"I have to say, the Cubs have been very good to us," Fullerton said. Each year the team gives an appreciation dinner, and last summer Fullerton threw out the first pitch at a Cubs game — at Wrigley Field.

Another 70 years

The HoHoKams were created in the '50s, and in many ways the organization was a product of its time, when fraternal organizations like the Elks were a primary vector for citizens to give back to the community.

Originally an all-male club, the HoHoKams have evolved, beginning to accept women into the organization in 2000. It's more focused on fundraising for youth sports.

But the organization has retained a lot of the flavor of its past. New members must be voted in. The HoHoKams have a lodge called "El Perro Rojo" near the Athletics' training facility on Center St. "Newbies" are initiated by joining a group sing-along of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" when the Cubs give the HoHoKams the microphone once a year.

Fullerton said he has no doubt the HoHoKams will continue to host spring training for another 70 years.

"It's a tradition we have in town," he said.