The End of an Era

hi+corbett-1Bye, Bye Baseball…

It’s going to be a sad day at the ballpark today in Tucson, Arizona.

Since 1947, a major league team has conducted spring training at wonderful old Hi Corbett Stadium not far from downtown. Today’s Colorado Rockies – Arizona Diamondback spring training game will be the last at the old ballpark – probably forever.

Spring training in Tucson has fallen victim to the increasingly pernicious economics of the great game. The owners of the Rockies and D-backs could no longer resist the lure of the big city – Phoenix – and will move spring training next year to a brand spanking new $100 million field of dreams south of Scottsdale. The teams are following in the wake of the Chicago White Sox who left Tucson two years ago.

All 15 Cactus League teams are now concentrated in the sprawling Valley of the Sun, in part because that’s where the money is for the new, modern ballparks and because the juvenile millionaires who play the game just couldn’t tolerate the 90 minute bus ride from Tucson to Phoenix. In fact, most of the big egos rarely make the trip south. Now they can quit their whining and battle the freeway traffic in Maricopa County. But, I digress.

I first came to spring training at Hi Corbett in 1992 and immediately fell in love with the place. It’s always been like watching a major league game in a minor league park. You sit in the sun, close to the field and inevitably strike up a conversation with folks from Denver, or Montana or Tucson. The crowds at spring training games tend to be different than regular season baseball crowds. Most spring training fans really know the game. They follow their teams and know the players.

When I first came south in ’92, the Cleveland Indians were in residence and had been since 1947 when the legendary Bill Veeck, then the Indian’s owner, concluded that his new star, Larry Doby, the first African-American player in the American League, would find Arizona more welcoming than Florida. Veeck, the great promoter who once sent a midget up to bat in a regular season game, enjoyed a friendship with a Tucson political and business leader – Hi Corbett – and they made the deal to make Tucson a major league city.

The Rockies have made Hi Corbett their spring training home since their first season in ’93.

Now that its all coming to an end – 63 years of spring training in Tucson – the locals feel like they’ve been hit by a pitch. Spring training means millions of dollars of lost economic activity for local hotels, restaurants and merchants. Pima County built the fine Tuscon Electric Park in 1996 for the D-backs and ChiSox – it was state of the art then – and the county is now left holding a $22 million bag as ticket revenue leaves with the teams, while the bond payments remain.

Arizona Daily Star columnist Greg Hansen says there is blame to go around for the loss of baseball in Tucson, including the obvious fact that the city didn’t wake up to the loss of spring training until it was too late. Hansen wrote today:

“It’s more realistic to say that baseball changed and we didn’t. No one in City Hall had the vision, or moxie, as Hi Corbett did in 1955, to establish a “Keep Cleveland in Tucson Project” thereby giving Tucson its only link to the big-leagues until Lute Olson came along.

“The last person who could have saved spring training in Tucson was Jerry Colangelo, the czar of Phoenix sports, who was forced out of office in 2004. Once the Diamondbacks dumped Colangelo, Tucson lost its most powerful advocate.

“The business people who run the White Sox, Rockies and Diamondbacks have no allegiance to anything but the bottom line. Colangelo, who worked on credit, was an idealistic, old-school baseball guy who liked the idea of training in a remote location, thereby whetting the appetite of his hometown fans for the regular season. That’s the way it had been done for 100 years.”

Meanwhile, up north, the man who allegedly leads Major League Baseball is sticking his nose into the next major spring training controversy. Mesa wants to keep the Cubs, who are the spring’s biggest draw, while a bunch of high rollers in Florida seek to lure them there with offers of a new, free stadium. Like I said, pernicious economics of baseball. At least Bud Selig has ruled out a tax on all the other Cactus League teams in order to help Mesa build yet another new park in the Phoenix area.

I’ll feel like I have lost something when I walk out of Hi Corbett for the last time today. The place reeks of spring training history. More than 70 of the 292 members of the baseball Hall of Fame laced up their cleats here. Joe DiMaggio played his last spring training game at Hi Corbett. Mickey Mantle played his first there. Mays was here and the Williams boys – Billy, Dick and Ted. Satchell Paige threw from that mound and Juan Marichal made his high leg kick at Hi Corbett. Duke and Casey, McCovey and Catfish all played in the sun in Tucson.

The great Veeck once said “the most beautiful thing in the world is a ballpark filled with people.” No more of that in Tucson.

Today, a little baseball history – the greatest thing about the great game – dies in the desert. I hate it.

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