TUCSON, Ariz. – For the last 18 Februarys, the path alongside the Colorado Rockies’ practice diamonds adjacent to Hi Corbett Field was an ideal spot to grab an autograph or see a favorite player. Cleats crunching on the asphalt parking lot that separated the clubhouse from the fields, they all came through, from Larry Walker and Vinny Castilla to Todd Helton(notes) and Matt Holliday(notes) to Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) and Troy Tulowitzki(notes).
On some days the desert wind whipped so hard that players and spectators alike had to beware of palm fronds falling from the trees that lined the fields. The mood was buoyant nonetheless. It was spring training, and uniquely Tucson. Quaint. Secluded. And decidedly not Phoenix.
Today the fields remain perfectly manicured, the green grass and red clay beckoning a ballgame. All that’s missing are bodies. The only bat at the complex a couple days ago was swung at a SpongeBob piñata by a 4-year-old, his family utilizing picnic tables outside the empty stadium for a birthday party.
The scene was similar a few miles south at Tucson Electric Park by Interstate 10. Gorgeous fields sat vacant, that incessant wind the only sound. Like the Rockies, the Arizona Diamondbacks had conducted spring training in this city of 550,000 since the team’s birth in the 1990s, and they’d shared TEP with the Chicago White Sox from 1998 to 2008. Now the teams are like grown children who’ve left home, and Tucson is struggling with empty-nest syndrome.
It's the first year since 1946 that no major league team is holding spring training here. The Cleveland Indians trained at Hi Corbett Field until 1993 when they moved to Florida and the expansion Rockies took their spot.
The White Sox were the next to depart, moving to the opulent Camelback Ranch facility in Glendale that they share with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Construction on the $100 million, 140-acre Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale began shortly thereafter, and spring training in Tucson was doomed. The Diamondbacks and Rockies began workouts at the complex last week and are delighted with the digs.
Nothing against Tucson, the players say. But they won’t miss the 120-mile drive to games against the dozen other teams training in the greater Phoenix area.
“I missed a start last year because of an accident on the freeway,” Jimenez said. “I sat in traffic for four hours and didn’t get to the game until the fifth inning.”
Jimenez enjoyed the slow pace of Tucson, enjoyed the people, enjoyed cozy Hi Corbett Field. The commute to Phoenix and that blasted wind, he won’t miss. He was seated in front of his locker in the gleaming Salt River clubhouse. He looked around and shrugged.
“This place has everything you need as a player to get ready for the season,” he said. “It’s awesome. To tell you the truth, I like Tucson a lot. But you can’t argue. This is progress.”
Jimenez and other pitchers said the wind made it difficult to get a good feel for the baseball during workouts, in addition to being an annoyance.
“It was crazy on those practice fields,” he said. “It would be OK, and then all of a sudden, whoosh, it would be howling out there.”
Tucson firefighters call the gusts “microbursts.” Just last weekend an inflatable bounce house was lifted off a front yard with two young girls inside, dumping one girl on the lawn and carrying the other more than 100 feet and dropping her onto the roof of a neighbor’s house. She suffered serious head lacerations.
Wind also can make the drive to and from Phoenix treacherous. Tumbleweeds fly across the highway and enough dust is raised to limit visibility as badly as driving through a fog bank. Accidents are frequent, and the I-10 becomes a parking lot.
Meanwhile, the Salt River Fields are billed as the “Disneyland of baseball.” Who could fault the teams from making a move to the happiest place on turf? Not even the good people of Tucson.
“The efforts to keep them were limited, I think,” said Ed Cvitkovich, a retiree who has lived in Tucson since 1985. “When the White Sox left, the writing was on the wall. At that point, no way anybody else was going to come here.”
Cvitkovich and his grandson, Kevin Brady, were sitting together watching a University of Arizona ballgame, the best baseball in town these days. Brady, a U of A alum born and raised in Tucson, said his grandfather took him to spring training every year.
“We loved it,” Brady said. “The people of Tucson support baseball, but the passion wasn’t there to keep it. It only made sense for the Rockies and Diamondbacks to leave. The reaction here was mostly resignation.”
Attendance at Hi Corbett Field and TEP had dwindled in recent years. Folks complained that the Diamondbacks’ facility had been built too far from downtown. Hi Corbett is centrally located and, as the Cactus League’s oldest ballpark, has unmistakable charm. But the Rockies’ weight room was located under a banquet tent cover, the clubhouse was antiquated and fans sat on aluminum benches.
The biggest supporter of Tucson baseball was former Diamondbacks owner Jerry Colangelo, who believed that keeping the team out of Phoenix during the spring made the fan base more excited about the regular season. He was forced out as general managing partner in 2004, and the grumbling about the long drive and the wind and sleepy Tucson got louder by the year.
Pro baseball won’t completely vanish from Tucson, at least not yet. The San Diego Padres Triple-A team will play at TEP – now called Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium – for two years while a new stadium is being constructed in Southern California and the independent minor league Tucson Toros use Hi Corbett Field. Also, the Diamondbacks and White Sox will play a game March 7 at the Kino stadium for a charity fund in the name of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl killed in the horrific mass shooting in Tucson a month ago.
Then attention will return to Salt River Fields, which undoubtedly will be a hit. Close to 100,000 tickets have been sold before a pitch has been thrown, equaling the entire attendance at TEP last spring. Most of the seats are shaded, there’s a Wiffle ball field for kids and three large party areas for adults. And the view beyond the outfield wall is stunning, the Valley floor giving rise to mountains, the farthest capped with snow.
The field complex is on Native American land and was funded by the Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. The Talking Stick reference harkens back more than 150 years to a birch branch topped with eagle feathers that a tribe member held when speaking during a council meeting. Now the location will be filled with the sounds of cheering fans and the crack of the bat. And 120 miles away, the fields in Tucson will be silent.