When Bill Keller landed a store manager’s job with Dillard’s department store in the Valley 34 years ago, his wife, Dianne, said she wasn’t excited about moving to Arizona, much less Mesa — from Minneapolis.
But when Dianne heard that Mesa was the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs, she changed her mind.
Dianne, a lifelong Cubs fan from Milwaukee (the Braves had left for Atlanta and the Brewers weren’t there, yet), said she and her husband have had spring training season tickets at Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium for the last 33 years. Their son, Matt, was the Cubs batboy during spring training for 10 years from the time he was a third-grader at Mesa’s MacArthur Elementary School (where Dianne taught second grade) through his senior year at Phoenix’s Brophy Prep Academy. He got to witness the Cubs’ first night game at Wrigley Field on Aug. 8, 1988.
“Ernie Banks was always my hero,” Dianne Keller said. “He always had an enthusiasm for the game with his saying, ‘Let’s play two!’ When it comes to baseball, the Cubs have been our lives.”
Now, the Kellers will continue their tradition of being ticket-holders at the Cubs forthcoming spring training facility touted as Wrigleyville West after it’s completed in time for the 2014 Cactus League season.
Crammed inside a tent under a pale blue sky and unusually humid conditions, many of those officials connected to the culmination of the $99 million facility were at Mesa’s Riverview Park for the groundbreaking on Wednesday. The city said the ballpark is estimated to cost $84 million and $14 million for infrastructure and currently is $1 million under budget. Any costs over the $99 million, the Cubs have agreed to pay.
The Kellers were among more than 500 people attending the groundbreaking with Cubs co-owners Tom Ricketts and his sister, Laura, Mesa Mayor Scott Smith, Robert Hunt, president of Hunt Construction, David Bower of Missouri-based Populous that’s overseeing the project’s design, Mesa City Council members and members of Mesa’s Westwood Little League. Former Cubs catcher Jody Davis emceed the event.
Like a baseball game itself, attendees passed through turnstiles and were handed programs and boxes of Cracker Jack from vendors and commemorative bats and baseballs for those who tested their throwing speed at a pitching machine. Similar to a spring training game at Hohokam Stadium where the Cubs now play spring training games, the Mesa Hohokams dressed in familiar maroon polo shirts guided people where to park.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Dianne Keller said of the team’s forthcoming 125-acre facility that will seat 15,000 and resemble Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ iconic ballpark in Chicago. “I was afraid they’d move to Florida.”
Nearly two years ago, that almost was the case. The Ricketts family considered uprooting the team with a near 60-year history in Mesa to Naples, Fla. to join the Grapefruit League. However, the Cubs opted to give the city a chance to work out a deal that included dodging the Gila River Indian community’s desire to land the Cubs on the reservation south of the Valley and lose an estimated $138 million in economic impact.
The complex will provide 70 percent of its seating in the shade, a large concourse featuring a party deck in left field, state-of-art weight and training rooms as well as the potential for private commercial development.
Tom Ricketts said, “This is an exciting day and a day we’ve been waiting for a long time. It marks a new beginning. Player development is the key to playing baseball in October. The Chicago Cubs are a part of the city of Mesa and we look forward to being a good neighbor.”
Ricketts also took time to remember the late Robert Brinton, the former president of the Mesa Visitors and Convention Bureau who was an ardent Cubs fan and Cactus League advocate. Brinton, who sold programs at Cubs spring training games as a kid at Mesa’s long-gone Rendezvous Park where the Cubs used to play, unexpectedly died last October at age 60.
“Robert, this one’s for you. If it weren’t for Robert Brinton, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” Ricketts told the audience that included Brinton’s widow, Nanette, and their children.
Hunt said, “Once in a great while, there comes a project that challenges us to complete a project with a personal touch. We’re extremely proud to be a part of this exciting ballpark and we’ll make sure that it’s done right.”
Smith expressed gratitude to Mesa residents for stepping up to the plate and approving the city to spend the $99 million for the facility.
“Not only is this day a continuation of the relationship between the city of Mesa and the Cubs, this will be a park that is not only second to none but an experience for anyone who comes upon this site. It’s not about sticks and bricks, it’s about people.”
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