The opening of Sloan Park was one of the biggest events in spring training 2014, as a sellout crowd was on hand to witness the start of the next era in Chicago Cubs spring training. In fact, the crowd of 14,486 was the largest ever in the Cactus League.
It was a record that would not last, as the Cubs drew even larger crowds and ended up being a huge success in the new Mesa ballpark. And while the team may have been disappointing during the regular season, spring training was an enormous success for the team, and perhaps the most notable spring training for a team whose history is filled with interesting spring-training developments.
In fact, the Cubs have had one of the most interesting spring-training histories of any MLB team, with bases ranging from Avalon Park on Catalina Island (Cal.) to Long Beach to Mississippi to Tampa to Scottsdale and Mesa. Former Cubs owner William Wrigley wasn’t shy about leveraging the Cubs against his other real-estate investments, and so over the years baseball needs were secondary to promotional and personal needs. (We’ll discuss some of them later in this chapter.) In recent years team ownership has settled for basic facilities like Rendezvous Park, Fitch Park, and HoHoKam Park for training and games.
So it’s been a long time since the Cubs have opened a new spring facility capable of generating a lot of enthusiasm from fans. That’s certainly been the case for Sloan Park, which kept Cubs fans happy in 2014 and should be a solid base for the team for decades to come, as the Cubs drew the most fans of any spring-training team: some 222,921 folks attended games at Sloan Park. The largest crowd ever in Cactus League history, 15,276, came out for a March 25, 2014 game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
It’s hard not to spend a lot of time comparing Sloan Park to HoHoKam Park and Fitch Park. First: the ballpark. Sloan Park is located in Mesa, but this isn’t the same part of Mesa as HoHoKam Park: it’s part of a larger park area right on the edge of Tempe. It’s not the most scenic of sites, with a water-treatment facility and a freeway serving as a grandstand backdrop. (Fans down the first-base line do have a decent view of the Superstition Mountains, however.) It’s also not one of the most accessible of locations, either, with just one four-lane road – Rio Salado Parkway – providing east-west access. (In other words, plan ahead and be prepared to wait in line for a parking spot before the game or to leave the ballpark after the game.) A street does encircle the ballpark – Clark on the west, Sheffield on the east – and fans can drive around the ballpark to view workouts and check out the facility on a non-game day.
A Cubs spring game has always been a mix of diehard fans (probably more than the average spring match) and those attracted to a more casual experience, hanging out on the berm with the likes of Ronny Woo Woo and downing an adult beverage or three. Still, HoHoKam Park wasn’t the friendliest of venues – you were pretty much assured of bad sunburn and a break from the game during a concessions run – and, worst of all where the Cubs were concerned, featured separate major-league and minor-league training facilities.
The new spring-training facility is in two parts, albeit in the same block: the ballpark is separate from a 65,000-square-foot administrative facility with 10,000 square feet of workout space, multiple clubhouses, team offices, rehab facilities, meeting spots and more. The workout area is spacious, with the latest in workout gear on two levels and plenty of Cubs branding within, including championship banners, logos on the actual workout machines, and a huge mural of Wrigley Field at one end. The workout space opens up via garage doors to a football field (yes, football fields are big in training facilities) and a shaded area. Multiple practice fields are to the west and east of the building. If you’re going to watch a practice, this is where you’ll go: the main training field is open to the public on one side, with some limited seating on hand.
The team dresses in this administrative space and then walks to the ballpark via a dedicated roped-off area before the game. It’s not too daunting a barrier, and spring-training fans have plenty of opportunities to snare a player for an autograph before the game.
You can enter the ballpark from any gate no matter your ticket, and there are three on the south side of the ballpark. Before the game, take a minute to walk along the south side of Sloan Park (the side facing Rio Salado Parkway) and check out the montage of Cubs logos on the ballpark exterior. The Cubs have always been the best-branded team in baseball, and looking at the changes in the Cubs logos over the years is a nice reminder of that branding.
Once in the ballpark, fans will be treated to lots of shade, plenty (but not too many) Wrigley Field touches, and upgraded concessions and amenities.
The Wrigley touches are there, but not overwhelming. The same type of bricks used in Wrigley Field have been installed in the backdrop as well as the suite level. The lighting supports on the grandstand mimic those used at Wrigley Field, and there’s plenty of steel on the second level to remind folks of the Friendly Confines. A clock atop the videoboard is the same design as the center-field scoreboard clock at Wrigley. The outfield dimensions are exactly the same as Wrigley Field. The pitch of the berm resembles the fabled Wrigley Field bleachers. And don’t miss the baseball cards and evolution of Cubs logos painted on the exterior of the ballpark on the first-base side. Most fans will park east of the ballpark, and the natural tendency will be to enter the ballpark in the right-field corner, but walk around the exterior of the park past the first-base gates and enter the home-plate entrance to see the exterior touches.
The biggest fan attraction with a direct tie to Wrigley Field: a replica of the famous marquee installed at ground level down the right-field line. (Renderings of the ballpark showed this mounted on an exterior wall a la Wrigley Field and raised on a tower; putting the marquee on ground level was sheer genius.) Fans can request a custom message on the marquee and take a picture with their names displayed to the crowd. Yes, there will be lines of fans wanting to send a marquee photo home – but it’s well worth the wait.
One more tie to Wrigley Field: bleachers in the outfield. Now, we’re not talking bleachers just beyond the home-run fence – instead, in a move so appropriate for spring training, there’s a berm seating some 4,000, designed with the same incline as the famous Wrigley Field bleachers – but rather a left-field structure with concessions and restrooms on the ground level and seating on the top. You are quite a ways from the action up in the 1876 seats, but the Cubs enhanced the rooftop experience with four sections of seating – two sets of bleachers, two sets of covered four tops – and plenty of concession stands. (Why 1876? It’s generally regarded as the first year of play for the Cubs as a charter member of the National League, and it’s also the year sponsor Budweiser debuted as a national brand.) You need a special 1876 ticket to be up in this area, but once you’re there there’s plenty of room at the four tops. (Warning: it’s a sun field out there, and it got pretty toasty on the bleachers. Be sure to use from of the free sunscreen, located in dispensers near the restrooms.) The whole point is to mimic the Wrigley Field rooftop experience.
If you want to be near the bullpens, head for the berms. Both are located on field level beyond the home-run fence, with the Cubs in left field and the visitors in right field.
Finally, we have the seating bowl and grandstand. The second level features suites and two 400-capacity event spaces at each end. Most fans will be assigned to one of the 9,000 seats within the 15,000-capacity ballpark, but expect the concourses to be crowded: lots of drink rails ensures plenty of fans will be hanging out in the back of the grandstand, watching the game with shade and a cool breeze coming in from behind home plate. (The grandstand was obviously designed to allow in as much breeze as possible. It does.) The Cubs and ballpark architect Populous designed the ballpark to feature plenty of shade in the grandstand: they estimate 60 percent of the seating is shaded at the beginning of the game, thanks to canopies over every section of grandstand, including two freestanding seating areas with their own canopies down the first-base line, with that number increasing to 70 percent by 2 p.m. For the 1:05 p.m. game time on Opening Day, that estimate would appear to be correct: by 12:30 p.m., all seats between the dugouts were in the shade, save the first four rows behind the home dugout. Sections 103-104 were partially in the sun as well. You’ll also be in the shade at the concession areas behind home plate.
Does Sloan Park work? Yes. It’s a vast improvement on HoHoKam Park in every way: more shade, better concessions, better places to just hang out, and a enhanced, more fun atmosphere. It’s in a better part of town as well, making a day trip to a Cubs game mandatory for anyone visiting the Valley of the Sun for spring-training action. The one thing from Wrigley that couldn’t be replicated in the new ballpark? No ivy on the outfield wall. That’s something that could not be imported from Wrigleyville.