Compadre Stadium

Sheep graze in a field behind the former Compadre Stadium in Chandler where the Milwaukee Brewers once played their Cactus League games, shown Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011.

Tim Hacker/Tribune

For most commuters, it is easy to miss behind grassy hills at the corner of Ocotillo and Alma School roads.

For business people, it is a graffiti-plagued eyesore, a monument to a troubled economy.

For baseball fans, it is a depressing sight.

Compadre Stadium in Chandler is a shell of the facility that opened 25 years ago this spring as a groundbreaking Cactus League venue, the spring-training home of the Milwaukee Brewers. The team left for Maryvale in 1997, leaving land that sits vacant as restaurants, shopping centers and thousands of homes have sprung up nearby.

"It's a little surprising that we're still here," said Frank Pezzorello, CEO of the Chandler Compadres, which has office space at the stadium and has used some of the 70-acre complex as farm land. "I know people have discussed a resort project and such, and hopefully, things will turn around after the economy gets better."

A month ago, Pezzorello said, sheep grazed on the same stadium grass that was once patrolled each March by Brewers stars Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, both Hall of Famers.

As a spring-training site, Compadre is "no longer a viable option," said Boyd Dunn, Chandler's mayor from 2002 until January. There is not enough space to accommodate the practice fields and other infrastructure that big-league teams desire in a spring facility.

Salt River Fields, which opened this year on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community as the spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, covers 140 acres.

"Every time a new spring-training park opens, the next team is going to want everything that stadium has, and more," Dunn said. "I really don't think Chandler has that kind of land."

The land is owned by Ocotillo Companies, which has developed the Ocotillo master-planned community surrounding the stadium. President and CEO Bernie Hoogestraat said that the land is not on the market.

"Right now, everyone is looking for a bottom-dwelling price, and they want to build bad things," Hoogestraat said. "That isn't going to happen in Ocotillo."

He added, "I'm the one who decides market value on the land."

The stadium - which has been mentioned as a potential resort site for years - debuted on March 7, 1986, when 6,075 fans watched the Brewers host the Chicago Cubs. It was the first Cactus League facility with grass seating behind the outfield walls, which has been standard in any new or renovated spring-training park since.

"We had a lot of great, annual visitors from Wisconsin and the Midwest, some of which still stop in and say hello," Pezzorello said. "(Compadre Stadium) kind of changed the concept of spring-training baseball, putting the fans more close. That's how you see it in pretty much every park today."

But the press box in which Brewers announcer Bob Uecker once delivered his trademark quips and Harry Caray was once invited to sing "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" - even though the Cubs were the visiting team - was open-air, and there were no private boxes. When those, and other amenities, were included in such facilities as Peoria Sports Complex and renovated Scottsdale Stadium in the 1990s, the Cactus League arms race was on.

Chandler opted not to try and keep up. Dunn, then a city council member, was involved in talks between Chandler and the Brewers, who sought up to $15 million in stadium improvements. The sides stalemated, and after voters rejected a $5 million bond election in 1996, the Brewers went to Maryvale, where developer John F. Long offered land, and the Maricopa County Stadium District pledged $17 million for facility construction.

Since then, Chandler has successfully built its economic identity on technology.

"When the Brewers were in Chandler, we didn't see much economic difference because the times were different," Dunn said. "We didn't have hotels and restaurants we have now."

With the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority facing a shortfall, and other funding streams that fueled the stadium surge of previous years lacking, teams and municipalities have had to come up with more creative facility financing. Mesa has pledged up to $99 million for a new facility for the Chicago Cubs, and Salt River Fields is owned by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

Dunn said that if Chandler were to get back in the Cactus League, an agreement with the Gila River Indian Community, with a facility near the Price Road corridor, would be an ideal scenario.

That facility would require a lot of bells and whistles - a long way from the simpler game days at Compadre Stadium. However, Pezzorello said that no memories are evoked when he arrives at the stadium for work.

"We still have the old Brewers memorabilia around, and you'll see some of the newer (Compadre) members ask about it," Pezzorello said. "I'll talk about it with them, but mostly, those times are long gone."

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