Nearly 10,500 fans gathered to bid a farewell to the 2013 Major League Baseball Spring Training season Thursday afternoon.
This was hardly the typical preseason sendoff; they were also saying goodbye to the Chicago Cubs’ long-running stint at Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium.
Next year, the Cubs are slated to begin anew about three miles up the road, at the club’s new Riverview facility.
According to City of Mesa spokeswoman Lily King-Cisneros, the turnout was about 3,500 fans more than closing day usually brings.
For nine years, Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins has signed autographs behind the leftfield bleachers for his charity, the Fergie Jenkins Foundation, which contributes to a number of other charities.
“It’s really too bad, this ballpark’s been going for over 30 years, and it’s been such a good ballpark for so many good players,” Jenkins said of the facility located on Center Street between Brown and McKellips roads.
Jenkins won the 1971 National League CY Young award with the Cubs, spending many spring campaigns in Mesa as a player, and again since retired.
“Like anything things have to be torn down or closed and with the new venue opening up next year,” he said, “I think people are out here to appreciate it.”
Jenkins, whose original stint with the Cubs was from 1966 to 1973 and who returned in the 1982-83 seasons to end his career, said Hohokam and Mesa spring training bring back a lot of memories.
“I roomed with Ernie Banks the last couple years he played,” Jenkins said. “I was a teammate of Ron Santo, Billy Williams — Glenn Beckert was my best man, you know. There’s so many things relative here. I mean this is a great stadium.”
Jenkins recalled a much smaller Cactus League back in those days, too.
“When I was here there were only six teams in the Valley,” he said. “Now there’s 15.
“The best facilities are right here in Arizona,” he added.
Originally built in 1976 when the former Rendezvous Park that was razed, Hohokam went under its own tear-down and re-build some 20 years later, in 1996.
It was then that Marilynn Wennerstrom, who moved to a large homestead near Center and Brown in 1965, started opening up her land as a parking lot.
When the stadium reopened in February 1997, a rain storm had just ended, leaving fields around the stadium muddy and parking minimal.
“I looked out my front window and said ‘My god, there’s five lanes of gridlock, what is going on?’” Wennerstrom said. “The cops are mad, the drivers are mad. … I said ‘pull in here.’”
She said about a two dozen drivers paid her $2 to park. From there it grew to renting out the entire lot for $3 per car.
“Some people have been coming back for the whole 17 years,” She said. “I like the socialization.”
Of the Cubs’ exit, Wennerstrom, who didn’t watch many games because she was running her lot, called it “a very sentimental experience. I’m a fan of the fans. I will miss the fans; really nice people.”
The park is only scheduled to be closed for one year. The stadium will undergo some upgrades before the Oakland Athletics, the original team to the occupy the stadium for its first three years, move in to a renovated Hohokam in 2015.
But Wennerstrom said she doesn’t think she will open her lot when the A’s come to town.
John Click, a Cubs fan who has been working as a security guard at Hohokam for 13 years, said he’ll also miss the people, including several regulars he sees at the games.
“I don’t get to see much of the games, but I love the people,” Click said.
He added that whether he’ll continue at Hohokam when the A’s arrive or follow the Cubs to Riverview will depend whether his company is contracted.
Joyce Williams, 76, of Muscoda, Wis., has been coming to Hohokam for spring training for the past eight years.
“Everybody is so friendly,” she said. “It’s a good place to get autographs.”
She said her favorite memory was “all the times Ron Santo would sign autographs. A line would form and he would sign down to the last one.”
She said he did it every year until he died in 2010.
“It’s a lot of history here that I guess is going by the wayside,” said Keith Davidoff, 48, of Victoria, British Columbia.
“There’s a classic feel to it. Everyone knows Hohokam Stadium,” he added.
Kathy Shaw of the Chicago suburb of River, said she has many fond memories of the 10 years she’s been coming to Hohokam for spring baseball.
“I love it here,” she said, adding that she owns a home in Avondale just because of Cubs spring training. “It reminds me so much of Wrigley.”
She said she remembers attending games with her son, who would also attend the Cubs training camp for children when he was a kid.
David Penning, 52, who has been attending spring training at games at Hohokam and other stadiums around the Valley for five years — making the trip each year from Omaha, Neb. — said he likes the amenities at Hohokam.
“I’m looking forward to a better team playing here,” said Penning, an A’s fan.
Then he turned to the infamous “Curse of the Billy Goat,” which superstitious Cubs fans blame for their lack of a World Series victory for the team in 104 years.
“It might be bad karma, I’m afraid. The Cubs seem to carry it with them,” Penning sniped.
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