When Bill Keller landed a 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 a Cubs bat boy 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. 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 — often touted as Wrigleyville West — after it’s completed in time for the 2014 Cactus League season.
The Kellers were among more than 500 people who attended a July 2012 groundbreaking for the facility — a day in the sun that included 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.
“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.”
Not only are the Cubs not moving away from the Valley, but it’s as if it’s becoming easier for Cubs fans to feel at home as the new stadium gets closer to reality.
Cases in point: Spirit Airlines announced last July that it’s adding nonstop flights from Phoenix/Mesa Gateway Airport to Chicago O’Hare International Airport. And just down the street from the Cubs new Riverview location, one Windy City favorite — Portillo’s, which specializes in Chicago-style hot dogs and Italian beef — is slated to open a 7,000-square-foot eatery at nearby Tempe Marketplace this summer.
An eventual permanent spring training museum is also likely to make Mesa its home, and the city explored last year an idea of linking a new Tempe streetcar project to the new Cubs facility and expected surrounding business developments.
Cubs spring training history
Nearly three years ago, the prospect that the Cubs — one of the Cactus League’s attendance darlings year after year — would leave Arizona was certainly a possibility. 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 other Arizona site prospects as well — an outcome that could have resulted in the loss of an estimated $138 million in economic impact for the Mesa area.
The new 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.
That threatened move to Florida, tense bond election to help pay for the new facility, and the closing of a local golf course later, and the Cubs are on track to make the south bank of the Salt River home less than 12 months from now.
Long ago, the Cubs used to travel to Southern California’s Santa Catalina Island — the semi-secluded isle is just 22 miles off shore from Los Angeles, and owned some time ago by the Wrigley family of Wrigley’s chewing gum fame. The Wrigleys also owned a significant stake in the Cubs, which would train on the island until 1951. The following year was the team’s first in Mesa.
Since that first year in Mesa at Rendezvous Park, the Cubs have trained at a number of sites, including back in Long Beach, Calif., in Scottsdale, back in Mesa at the old stadium at Hohokam Park, and since 1997, the rebuilt Hohokam Stadium.
The Cubs franchise will celebrate its final season at the facility this year, but that won’t mean the less-than-two-decade-old Cactus League gem will go without a tenant.
The city of Mesa and the Oakland A’s agreed in principal in December to bring the A’s to Hohokam beginning in 2015 for at least 20 years, giving Mesa two teams in its spring training arsenal.
The A’s move to Mesa in theory would leave the near half-century-old, Phoenix Municipal Stadium empty, but nearby Arizona State University’s nationally-renowned college program recently got approval to move to “Muni” in 2015 as well. The Sun Devils were initially expected to share the Cubs’ new Riverview facility, but when that deal fell through, the dominos began to fall into place for a different ASU move after Oakland’s jump.
But none of that down plays the impact the Cubs have on the area.
“It marks a new beginning. Player development is the key to playing baseball in October,” Tom Ricketts, who bought the Cubs in 2009, said last year. “The Chicago Cubs are a part of the city of Mesa and we look forward to being a good neighbor.”
• Brett Fera contributed to this report.