Before the Diamondbacks and spring training, there was Arizona State - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Before the Diamondbacks and spring training, there was Arizona State

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

Posted: Saturday, March 19, 2011 1:00 pm | Updated: 11:59 pm, Sat May 21, 2011.

Today we're a pretty slick set of baseball towns here in the East Valley: Angels and Cubs and Athletics and Giants and Rockies and Diamondbacks.

We just learned how one of them was charging $26 just to sit on the grass.

Slick, indeed, and for that there comes a price.

Before the Diamondbacks became our home team - before people talked about the "economic impact" of baseball here as the first thing they could think of about it - there were the minor leagues, the Phoenix Giants and then the Phoenix Firebirds.

And before them was spring training, which since the 1950s had made a national destination out of this Valley for tens of thousands of shivering Easterners, and made our best of time of year, already overwhelmed by the scent of citrus blossoms, that much sweeter.

But before even them was Arizona State.

Now, yes, I'm old enough to have seen Tim Esmay play for ASU as much as see him coaching the team today.

But for years, long after the boys of spring began their annual monthly spins around local bases, the Sun Devils were the only game in town.

Some of those young men made it, with memorable names like Reggie Jackson and Floyd Bannister and Oddibe McDowell and Barry Bonds. But for every Devil who rose up from his desert diamond to play in the bigs, there were dozens who simply played to win for a league trophy and for the people in the stands who could afford the buck or two it cost to get in.

In the 1970s you would find me there with a bunch of fellow young fans who, after finding the buck and a half for a student ticket, each had just enough to spring for popcorn.

Packard Stadium, since also bestowed with the names of two great head coaches, Jim Brock and Bobby Winkles, was small even by spring-training standards.

Even for a ballpark banned by collegiate rules from selling beer, that was its best feature.

For although they did their best to ignore it, players could hear every cheer and every catcall from the stands. Organized groups of boisterous students would wave different signs encouraging ASU and disparaging their opponents.

"Don't take him out of the game, coach!" I remember one such shout. "His parents are here!" And of course, if the players could hear that stuff, so could most everyone else in the seats. It was intimate baseball, the kind you imagine might still be played in some small town, somewhere, the kind maybe they got to see in Mudville, you know, somewhere.

Maybe not.

Today not too much has changed. The basic ticket is more like $10 or $15. And they must have cracked down on the signs, because you don't see much of that anymore. Now, as then, ASU is a solid, usually ranked program, although this year they're dealing with the shadow of sanctions that, whoever's fault their coming was, it is universally agreed that it wasn't the fault of this year's players.

It's still a great place for intimate baseball in this age of mega-stadiums, still a spot where a semester-weary student can take a break on the cheap before hitting the books again. Even when the Devils are playing well, there's usually a good seat to be had most nights. You get to see some athletes who might well make it to the big leagues, although here there are no walkouts, no lockouts, no holdouts.

You don't have to have attended ASU to shout and cry out, to cheer and jeer. Just pretend that you did, and, like it's always been, that will be all you need to do.

 

Mark J. Scarp is a Tribune contributing columnist. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

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