Cubs fans due for a surprise at Sloan Park The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

Cubs fans due for a surprise at Sloan Park

Cubs fans due for a surprise at Sloan Park
City News

By Jim Walsh
Tribune Staff Writer

The annual throng of Chicago Cubs fans who jam Sloan Park for every Cactus League season will encounter a surprise even before they settle into their seats, bask in the sun and eat their first hot dog.

About 800 spots have vanished from the stadium’s largest parking lot as some once-popular soccer fields make way for The Union, a massive office park billed by the city as an important source of new high paying jobs.

Sabine Ellis, Mesa’s traffic engineer, has a plan to replace the lost parking spaces with three new lots and even a ride-sharing drop-off lane.

“We are working with The Union to maximize the area leftover (for baseball parking) as much as we can,’’ Ellis said. “Right now, there will be enough to compensate.’’

But she acknowledges there likely will be learning curve for fans – many of whom are from out of town and don’t know about the construction.

It’s not as if a few new wrinkles in the parking arrangements will deter famously loyal Cubs fans – who are facing some changes with their team anyway as well as another early-season start at a time when the weather hasn’t been conducive to sitting outside.

Former Cubs Manager Joe Maddon is out, now managing the revamped Los Angeles Angels at Tempe Diablo Stadium this spring.

After a meltdown cost the Cubs an opportunity to make the playoffs last summer, the unconventional, free-wheeling Maddon was replaced by David Ross, a popular ex-player and broadcaster.

Cubs fans have been the Cactus League’s meal ticket for decades, not only packing cavernous Sloan but also Hohokam Stadium, also in Mesa, before the new park opened in February 2014.

The Cubs reeled off a series of sellouts in March last year buoying the league after a slow rainy start, with a big assist from the then World Champion Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox normally train in Florida and made a rare appearance at Sloan for two sold-out games at the end of the season.

League president Jeff Meyer is hoping fans conditioned to watching Spring Training games in March come out to the ballpark a week or so earlier.

For the third consecutive year, the league starts play the last week of February – and loses the prime weather in the last week of March because of a change in the MLB regular season.

While Hohokam and Diablo are typically overshadowed each spring by the newer and larger Sloan, each park boosts a loyal following of its own, even if the Cubs sometimes draw more fans in a season than the two other parks combined.

The Mesa HoHoKams and the Tempe Diablos serve as ambassadors for their cities and their teams in all three parks, keeping alive a proud Cactus League tradition of commitment to community service, and raise about $1.5 million a year for a wide variety of charities.

Ellis said she views the parking complications at Sloan as a challenge, but she remains undaunted, having found an adequate number of spaces in three additional lots.

A large dirt lot near Larry Miller Toyota, at Dobson Road and Cubs Way, only a short distance farther from the ballpark, will accommodate 700 vehicles.

City crews have graded the lot and installed temporary ramps to better accommodate fans.

Two much smaller grass lots, located between the Sheraton Mesa Hotel at Wrigleyville West and Riverview Park, will add another 220 spaces.

But she acknowledges the three new parking lots and a ride-share lane in front of Sloan Park will present a bit of a “learning curve’’ for fans after no changes in the past couple of years.

“It will work out OK. It always takes a few days to make adjustments,’’ Ellis said. “We have four elements brand new we have never done before.’’

Ellis and her traffic team plan a high profile at Sloan Park, especially for the early games of the season.

They set up a command post near the press box, where they can monitor traffic on surrounding streets with cameras and laptop computers, changing the timing of lights as necessary.

Although Meyer is hoping for a better early turnout, the smaller crowds in February may give fans a chance to learn about the parking changes before the bigger crowds show up in March during spring break for Chicago-region schools.

“We have lots of coordination going on. Its constant communication going on,’’ Ellis said.

She said the new ride share lane along Rio Salado is intended to make it easier for fans to take an Uber or Lyft to the ballpark, helping to keep impaired drivers off the road, but it’s not a panacea.

“While it reduces the need for parking, it increases the congestion,’’ with drivers dropping off and picking up fans, Ellis said.

No one knows the Cactus League and parking better than the HoHokams, a volunteer organization that has hosted Spring Training in Mesa since 1951 and handles parking at Sloan and Hohokam Stadium.

The HoHokams red shirts and bola ties have symbolized the Cactus League for decades and they have raised millions for charity, including a record $501,000 last year.

“Parking is going to be an issue this season. We are encouraging fans to come earlier,’’ said Tim Baughman, the HoHokams’president.

In recent years, the 50-50 raffle, a mainstay at most sporting events, has turned into a major source of revenue for the HoHoKams, who are hoping to contribute as much or more to charity this year, he said.

Because of their success, the HoHoKams and Cubs Charities were able to finance the refurbishing of Westwood High School’s baseball field.

“We try to make a good first impression,’’ Baughman said. “We are ambassadors for baseball and Mesa.’’

Diablo Stadium, built in 1968, is throwback to the traditional Cactus League, before the bigger stadiums arrived in a building boom topped by the addition of Sloan.

The Tempe Diablos, also a fraternal organization sponsoring the Angels in Spring Training, raise about $1 million a year for charity with fundraisers going beyond baseball.

Jerry Hall, Diablo’s long-time stadium manager, said about half of revenues go to Tempe charities, thanks largely to the generosity of Angels owner Arte Moreno.

“I think we’re very strong. We still do pretty well in attendance, despite being the smallest stadium. We’re never going to compete with the Cubs. It’s true of anybody,’’ Hall said.

Hall is hoping for another good season, given the return of superstar outfielder Mike Trout, the arrival of Maddon and the addition of star third baseman Anthony Rendon.

“We do love it. It’s the most wonderful time of the year,’’ said Bill Ottinger, president of the Diablos. “We want people to have a great experience when they come to the ballpark. How do you not love spring training, the spirit of it, being out in the sun?’’

Ottinger said about 75-100 Diablos work each game, directing traffic and supervising a crew of about 75 volunteers from Sun Lakes who serve as ushers.

He said the Diablos fund a variety of charities in Tempe, focusing on education and youth sports program.

“It’s what drives us to be out there. We know the hard work goes back into serving the community,’’ Ottinger said. “It’s not a drain, it’s a labor of love. There’s nothing we enjoy more.  γ

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