Lights Out in Tucson

The Rockies beat the Diamondbacks 4-3 yesterday afternoon.  The game meant absolutely nothing, except for the fact that it was the final page in the 64-year epoch of spring training in Tucson.

Perhaps one of the most enduring, yet often overlooked, innovations in the lengthy legacy of the great Bill Veeck is the creation of the Cactus League.  The progressive-minded peg-legged chain smoker famously attempted to purchase the struggling Phillies in 1942 and rebuild their roster with Negro League all-stars, only to be stonewalled by Hall of Fame Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis.  Veeck settled for the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, and every spring he had run-ins with the mayors and police of the rural Florida towns where the Brewers trained.  He became vehemently opposed to the Jim Crow South, where even the grandstands at the ballparks were segregated.

Veeck sold the Milwaukee franchise in 1945 (for a handsome $275,000 profit) and retired to his pastoral horse ranch near Tucson.  Finally he broke into the major league owners’ ranks the next year when he and his partners bought the Indians.  State Senator Hiram “Hi” Corbett of Tucson invited the Tribe to The Old Pueblo for spring training.  Veeck, sensing the atmosphere of racial tolerance, agreed, and persuaded New York Giants owner Horace Stoneham to bring his team to Phoenix.  Thus, the Cactus League was born.

The Indians trained at Hi Corbett Field from 1947 until 1992; it was then the March home of the Rockies from their birth in ’93, until yesterday.  This was where Larry Doby attended his first big league camp, albeit with far less hostility than Jackie Robinson faced in Daytona Beach.  Three decades later, it was where Frank Robinson brought out the Indians’ lineup card as the first black manager.  Mays, Williams, Feller, Paige, Mantle, Banks, Ryan, Schmidt… it’s hard to find a Hall of Famer from the post-WWII era who didn’t play at the little adobe ballyard on the Camino Campestre, either in an exhibition game or in the Pacific Coast League.  (It’s also where Willie Mays Hayes woke up on the field and sprinted his way into cinematic baseball history.)  Hi Corbett Field is antiquated.  The concourse is under the stands, there is no video board, and it faces the wrong way (into the sun).  But its bucolic setting in a city park next to the zoo, its high wooden outfield walls, its invitingness to fan-player interaction (where else do you hear heckling in March?) – all these things are the same in 2010 as they were in 1947.

I always get a bit misty-eyed when a Cathedral holds its final Mass.  But when two of them shut their doors, and simply surrender their city to the pagan, barren outside world, well that’s unprecedented.  Tucson Electric Park, just a few short miles from Hi Corbett, is the only springtime home the Diamondbacks have ever known.  TEP, as the locals call it, is big and sleek and very 21st-century.  It features a 360-degree concourse, open seating on a grass berm behind the outfield, and dozens of air-conditioned suites.  It is precisely the sort of ballpark that every AAA team is pleading its civic leadership for.  Yet the Sidewinders left for Reno last year.  Now the D-Backs have just completed their last spring training in TEP, which apparently is finished as a professional ballpark.

My wife and I, and our 10-month old son, drove out to Tucson from our home in New Mexico for a short vacation in 2008.  In those days the White Sox also shared TEP, so there was sure to be baseball every day.  My soul craved nourishment from The Church, hers from the city’s enchanting arts district.  Our son’s baseball Baptism occurred at TEP, where he enjoyed crawling on the berm until the minor leaguers took over the game, at which point he took a nap.

In the evenings we would seek out handmade turquoise jewelry, and browse Navajo rugs and pottery.  On Easter Sunday we had breakfast on a rooftop on the outskirts of town, and watched as sunlight slowly crept into every crevice of the wild, saguaro-covered mountains.  We shared mimosas with a jubilant gay couple whose joie de vivre was contagious.  In frontier towns like this, on the outskirts of America’s consciousness, the day’s most hated minorities are welcome and free to be.  It’s the reason big league baseball came to Tucson.

Apparently I’m “a millennial.”  In my childhood I was told that I could be president.  Then, after enough of us had died in the foreign sands, the older generation finally leveled with us, told us “Congratulations.  You are the first Americans to inherit a broke, dysfunctional country.”  But I didn’t sense that in Tucson.  Instead of the ever-present cynicism, truthiness, and general despair of our post-9/11 clusterf*ck society, I saw optimism and faith in tomorrow.  I had the strange feeling that I was back in Jack Kerouac’s America, sampling his brand of ebullient patriotism for a continent bursting with promise.  Walking back to the hotel from TEP one day, three Mexican garbage men asked me about the game.  “Some kid named Greinke was on the hill,” I told them.  “Had pretty good stuff.”  Their cheerfulness betrayed not only a love of baseball, but also gratitude for their stinky, minimum-wage lives.  The hotel desk clerk was a full-blooded Pima with a silver cross around his neck, a long juvenile record and no living relatives.  He could not contain his excitement over his acceptance into college, where he hoped to become a social worker.  Inspiring individuals like this are everywhere, but they seemed especially prevalent in the hot melting pot of southern Arizona.  Tucson will always be a very special place for me, the only place I know where the American Dream is still alive.

So I’m very disappointed that the D-Backs and Rockies will be gone next spring, off to a shared state-of-the-art facility in North Scottsdale.  This means that fully half of the thirty clubs will be concentrated in the greater Phoenix metro area.  I can’t believe that such a setup is sustainable, but apparently it is.  I don’t understand the financial benefits, given that Tucson has over half a million residents and a healthy economy, and attendance had been good at both Cactus League parks.  I certainly don’t appreciate the whining about the two-hour bus rides to reach the other teams’ training camps.  But I digress.  Hi Corbett Field, since it’s publicly owned, will continue spreading the Gospel to the masses through the Tucson Toros of the independent Golden League.  I wish them luck.  13-year old TEP sits on a good location for a condominium complex, where old folks could someday gather around the pool and reminisce about Gonzo and the Big Unit.  When all is said and done, Major League Baseball marches on with the changin’ times, leaving the Old Pueblo behind where I guess it rightly belongs.

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