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The Cubs’ Last Hurrah At Hohokam Stadium

MESA, Ariz. — It’s not often commented upon, but Hohokam Stadium, where the Chicago Cubs have trained for the last 16 springs, is directly across the street from Mesa Cemetery, the largest burial ground in this low-rise burg of more than 400,000 living souls.

The lack of attention to this curious fact—so fraught with meaning for the historically moribund baseball franchise—is readily explained. Spring is when Cubs’ fans’ hopes are highest, and en route to the ballpark of a sunny March day it’s easy for them to ignore melancholy matters. I daresay that many if not most Hohokam attendees are blind to the graveyard, or effectively so.

For the aware, however, the ironies continue. While many local dignitaries are interred in Mesa Cemetery, the place’s best-known resident is Ernesto Miranda. He gained fame in 1966 when the Supreme Court threw out his three-year-old rape and murder conviction because Phoenix police had wrung a confession from him without informing him of his rights. The ruling led to the “Miranda Warning,” the reading of which has punctuated countless episodes of “Law and Order.”

Alas for Ernesto, he was retried without the confession, found guilty again, and handed the same 20-to-30-year prison sentence he got the first time around. He was paroled in 1972, but lasted just four years on the street before dying at age 34 of a knife wound suffered in a bar fight, a loser to the end.

Want more? Well, the stadium itself is named for the Hohokams, an Indian tribe that inhabited this area for more than 1,000 years before melting into the mists of history around 1450. The tribe’s disappearance remains mysterious, as does the origin of its name, which present-day Indians usually translate as “the old ones” or “those who have gone before.” Another translation I’ve seen is “all used up,” but I hesitate to advance it for fear of being accused of making it up.

The good news is that after this spring’s games, the Cubs no longer will have to schlep whatever symbolic baggage attaches to Hohokam Stadium, having already committed themselves to a new home being built in another part of Mesa. The move is a thoroughly modern one in that it is motivated by desire (the Cubs’), not necessity: Hohokam not only will stand but is supposed to become the spring home of the Oakland A’s beginning in 2015.

Further, and also up to date, is the fact that the Arizona municipality, not the team, will be paying for the lion’s share ($84 million) of the new digs, priced at $99 million. That the funding was obtained partially through coercion, much in the manner that the cops sweated Miranda back in ’63, is a footnote to history soon to be forgotten. It’ll be smiles all around when the first ball is pitched at the new park in late February or early March of next year.

That the Cubs and Mesa long have gone together like hotdogs and pickle relish meant little in the re-mating dance that led to the decision to abandon Hohokam. The team is a spring-baseball pioneer in Arizona, having trained on and off in the desert state since 1952, and has inhabited its current location on sleepy Center Street, just north of downtown Mesa, continuously since 1979. That span encompasses two stadiums—old Hohokam, which was torn down in 1996, and the newer, larger one opened the next year on the same site.

The city owned both of those, too, and allowed the Cubs to use them on generous terms. It’s in the baseball business for the same reason as are the other cities in the Cactus or Grapefruit leagues, which is that it’s good for the local economy. Indeed, a strong case can be made that of all public expenditures for sports, those for baseball spring training are most productive. That’s because the activity draws out-of-town fans for lengthy stays, while building or improving a stadium for a home team merely transfers money from the pockets of other local enterprises to those of the club.

Spring training’s bigger payoff comes from visitors who get the idea of moving to the Sunbelt city in question, then proceed to buy and furnish homes there. If all the ex-pat Cubbie fans in and around Mesa had to clear out tomorrow, the area would look pretty much as empty as it was when Barry Goldwater was a lad. Those folks contributed mightily to the Cubs’ establishing a string of spring attendance records in this century, capped by a 203,105-person gate in 2009. For the better part of a decade the Cubs in Hohokam were the horse in the Phoenix area’s horse-and-rabbit spring stew.

Mesa’s allegiance didn’t count for much when new-stadium crunch time arrived in 2010, though, nor did the government-off-my-back political conservatism of Joe Ricketts, the patriarch of the family that owns the Cubs. To make sure the city kept its eye on the ball in negotiations the team flirted with Naples, Fla., extracting a pledge for new-park handouts there if Mesa didn’t come through as desired. The recession was in full swing then, and the city’s budget was so strained that it was laying off teachers and garbage collectors, but its citizens nonetheless gulped and voted to pay up. The old Jack Benny joke, when the comedian answered “I’m thinking” to a gunman’s order to turn over his cash or die, came readily to mind.

If artists’ drawings are a guide, the new Mesa ballpark, as yet unnamed, will be spiffier than utilitarian Hohokam, and larger, holding 15,000 people to the older park’s 13,000. Spacious parking areas will provide the same pre-game tailgating opportunities as Hohokam; no other team’s fans here do that the way Cubs’ fans do. Practice fields will be near at hand in the 170-acre complex, not in a separate location, as at present. The team’s new training facilities will be state-of-the-art, the team assures, the better to hone the champions the Theo Epstein regime undoubtedly will produce.

cubs_rendering_spring_training_mesa_arizona

The deal’s kicker comes not through baseball but through real estate, in Cub options to purchase land in a 20-to-30 acre tract on the site that could be devoted to theaters, bars, restaurants and other shops eager to bask in the franchise’s glow. If plans pan out, the team could manage such properties directly or through joint ventures, adding to their revenue flow.

On the surface it’s a win-win situation. The Cubs probably don’t know much about retail management, but they hardly could do worse with it than they’ve done with their primary business.

cst_logo-sqEDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is published in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. To learn more about our partnership, read this note from our founders.

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