The Cubs are beginning their third spring training at their new facility, Sloan Park, in Mesa, Arizona. It’s a gorgeous place. It’s also a big place, with a listed seating capacity of 15,000. That’s easily the largest spring training park there is, with no other place larger than 13,000. They’re skewing larger these days. The Arizona parks, which are generally newer, are larger than the Florida parks for the most part, but fourteen of the 24 current parks are still under 10,000. Sloan is Sovereign-class starship compared to the Constitution and Excelsior-class places in Florida and Arizona.
Today the Cubs played the Angels at Sloan Park in their first home game of spring training. They set a Cactus League record for a spring training game: 15,446 souls on board. The most attended spring training games of all time have been in major league parks like the old Joe Robbie Stadium, but those were one-offs. This is the biggest for anyone in their regular, permanent facility I suspect.
The attendance certainly speaks to the pent-up excitement of Cubs fans who enjoyed a 97-win season last year and acquired the biggest free agent position player in the game this past offseason in Jason Heyward. The future in Chicago is extraordinarily bright and it’s understandable that fans out in Arizona are excited. It was probably a fantastic atmosphere at Sloan Park today. At least until the starters all left after two or three innings and it became like every other exhibition game.
The crowd certainly says a lot about what spring training has become in general as well. This is not meant to be any sort of lamentation or a “back-in-my-day” kind of thing, but there is no escaping how different an experience spring training is now than it was even a decade ago. Crowds are bigger, tickets, food, beer and merchandise are more expensive (the food and beer is better too, it should be noted) and promotions are more formalized. Such things are likely inevitable and, as the crowds show, demand for spring training baseball is high so it follows that the prices will be higher too.
But there are some folks, older folks, like your author, who remember spring training as a different sort of beast. It still exists here and there, but it’s not going to be around forever. Dunedin, where the Blue Jays play, may as well exist way back in the early 1980s, for better and for worse. The Phillies’ joint in Clearwater is newer and nicer, but still feels like old spring training in many respects. It’s hard to put a finger on why. Maybe the palm trees at the tiki bar out in left field. Bradenton and the Pirates is sort of its own beast — it’s a city park, with a modern training facility down the road — but it’s legitimately old timey. HoHoKam Park got an upgrade when the Cubs moved out and the A’s moved in but it retains an older feel. We lost Phoenix Municipal in that move too, however, and that’s kind of a shame. I miss the poured concrete. There were cats there too.
Change is inevitable. I try not to be nostalgic about most things and I’m not really spending a ton of mental energy mourning the loss of old spring training ballparks either. But it is worth noting the change and nodding at the passing of some of these places as they go. We’ll have plenty of time to carry on with progress after that nod. And their will be plenty of room in the new parks once we get there.