Nature’s clutch play saves Cactus season

Braced by better weather, the crowd at Sloan Park in Mesa last weekend stood at attention for the National Anthem before a Cubs game. [Pablo Robles/AFN Staff Photographer]


After a cold, wet start, the Cactus League last week staged a late-inning rally at stadiums across the Valley.

The impact of sunny skies and higher temperatures beginning last weekend was especially visible at Sloan Park in Mesa, where more than 16,000 fans basked in the sun as the Chicago Cubs – the league’s perennial meal ticket – helped propel a late surge in attendance throughout most of the league.

The latest Cactus League statistics, through Wednesday’s games, show that Sloan Park and Cubs fans were the clean-up hitters in the Cactus League’s rally in the usual balmy conditions.

The Cubs had drawn 189,041 through 14 games, for an average crowd of 13,569.

Elsewhere around the league, the usual teams were leading in attendance at a level far below the Cubs’ benchmark. The Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants were locked in a close battle for second place in the attendance sweepstakes.

The Giants have drawn 128,041 to Scottsdale Stadium through 14 games, an average of 9,146 a game and 583 fans less than a year ago.

The Los Angles Angels of Anaheim had drawn 102,471 through 15 games for an average crowd of 6,831 at Tempe Diablo Stadium; and the Oakland Athletics had drawn 58,978 in a 10-game abbreviated schedule, for an average crowd of 5,898 at Hohokam Stadium.

The Dodgers have drawn about 300 more fans than the Giants, 128,475 through 13 games, but were still down 271 fans per game at Camelback Ranch in Glendale.

The Cleveland Indians suffered among the deepest declines in attendance this year at Goodyear Ballpark. The Indians had drawn 70,481 through 13 games, an average of 5,422, a decline of 1,045 fans per game.

Even though the Arizona Diamondbacks were rained out at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick a few miles up the Loop 101 on March 12, the Cubs got in their game against the Cincinnati Reds on that cold, damp night and still drew 12,536 fans.

“The weather wasn’t perfect. It was cold, not Cactus League-like,” said Tim Baughman, president of the Mesa HoHoKams, a civic organization that raises about $500,000 a year for charity by parking cars and performing other duties at Sloan Park and Hohokam Stadium.

Cactus League President Jeff Meyer predicted the strong finish, attributing the sluggish start to more games starting early in February and the unseasonably cool temperatures.

“It’s down, but it’s early,” Meyer said, referring to league statistics that reflected a decline in the average number of fans per game at most Cactus League stadiums through March 12. “I’m optimistic about it. I think we will have pretty good success. I can tell with the traffic.”

Overall, incomplete statistics through 190 games for the season showed the Cactus League has attracted 1,440,976 fans, or 355,427 less than last year so far, with an average crowd per game of 7,584, a drop of 126 fans from a year ago.

The league has no control over the early start, which Meyer describes as a new normal that fans haven’t accepted yet after decades of games starting at or near the beginning of March.

Although fans don’t associate February with baseball, games need to start earlier because Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Players Association requires more days off during the marathon regular season.

Meyer said part of the February attendance issue is that out-of-state fans make their travel plans for March, reducing the pool of potential fans.

Rather inauspiciously, the league’s first game, between the A’s and the Mariners at Hohokam Stadium, on Feb. 21, was rained out in the second inning.

Rabid Cubs fans also undoubtedly contributed toward the Diamondbacks setting an all-time attendance record of 14,035 for a game against the 2016 World Champions on March 16 at Salt River Fields.

“It’s been great for player development and for our fans. It’s a great asset for the City of Mesa,” said Justin Piper, general manager of Sloan Park for the Cubs.

He said Sloan Park has been open since 2014 and has been a big hit since opening its gates for the first time.

“On every possible level, it has exceeded our expectations,” Piper said. “Attendance has been strong.”

He said the attendance for those games has been the highest for any MLB team in spring training, including the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League in Florida. The leagues have 15 teams apiece.

Contributing factors for spring training attendance include a team’s following and the size of the ballpark.

In contrast, Tempe Diablo Stadium, the league’s oldest and most intimate facility, has a capacity of about 9,500 and the Angels of Anaheim, like most other teams, don’t draw the same loyal throng as the Cubs.

“It’s not too bad. We had four games in February. It’s been very early,” said Jerry Hall, manager of Tempe Diablo. “I think we will have a strong finish.”

Some out-of-state fans seemed a bit surprised by the cooler weather in February and early March, but they were more than satisfied with the season after a long winter in the Midwest.

“We got here on Valentine’s Day and it was rainy and cold. Then, it started to change. I think this is the hottest day since we have been here,” said Bill Shannon, a longtime season ticket holder at Wrigley Field in Chicago who has been coming to Mesa for spring games for 30 years.

But Shannon and friends were not complaining and said they were enjoying their time in Arizona as usual.

“We will miss this beautiful weather in April and May,” he said.

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