MESA, Ariz. -- With 15 teams and 11 modern facilities, the Cactus League never seems to stop improving. And come next month -- as another spring slate of exhibition games begin -- fans should be pleased to find a pair of upgraded and renovated ballparks at both ends of the Valley of the Sun.
Here, near the intersection of Center Street and Brown Road, the A's will move into new digs at HoHoKam Stadium after 32 years of playing at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, now the home of Arizona State baseball. The A's reconstructed practice facility at nearby Fitch Park offers the American League West club new dimensions in time and space.
They are leaving an antiquated 17,000-square-foot facility at Papago Park to 54,000 luxurious square feet on the old footprint of the Cubs' separate practice complex, accommodating all their needs year-round.
At the northern end of the Valley, in Peoria, Ariz., fans of the Padres and Mariners will find Peoria Stadium replete with new blue seats, fresh coats of paint, a new main entrance and team store, an expanded concourse, drink rails above the bullpens, a new restaurant tower and a much-improved playing field.
"We're putting fresh lipstick on everything," said Chris Calcaterra, the sports facilities manager for the city of Peoria who is overseeing the massive three-phase construction project.
The most recent round of Cactus League improvements began with the opening of Camelback Ranch for the Dodgers and White Sox near Glendale, Ariz., in 2009. Since then, sprawling Talking Stick at Salt River Fields for the D-backs and Rockies in North Scottsdale was inaugurated in 2011, and this past spring, the new $99 million facility that includes Sloan Park for the Cubs opened on 142 acres of land at the western edge of Mesa.
On Center Street, A's managing general partner Lew Wolff, team president Mike Crowley and director of Minor League operations Ted Polakowski were the design and execution team. But Wolff said that Polakowski was the point man, pulling the practice facility and stadium projects together.
"Lew kind of just said, 'Ted, it's your project. Go do it,'" said Polakowski, referring to the owner who is ecstatic about the spectacular results.
The Cubs moved out of HoHoKam two springs ago, giving the A's and the city of Mesa a full year to plan and make $27 million in improvements to those practice and stadium sites -- $17 million in public money and another $10 million added by the A's. Save for a few touch-ups and punch-list items, that construction is complete. All signs of the Cubs have been expunged as Cubbie blue has given way to A's dark green and gold throughout the ballpark. There's a media walk-through scheduled for Feb. 20, an open house coupled with A's batting practice for the fans on Feb. 21 and the first Cactus League game against the rival defending World Series champion Giants on March 3 at 1:05 p.m. MT.
Fans will discover a new state-of-the art video scoreboard hovering above left-center field, new green seats, the old metal bleachers replaced by party decks, new signage, a new team store, new concession stands and large color photos of famous A's up and down the repainted concourses. The A's players will discover a substantially upgraded and expanded clubhouse, with a weight room larger than the entire locker room at Phoenix Muni.
From the outside, HoHoKam looks like a different ballpark. Behind home plate are the ticket windows with a landmark huge white A's logo on a green tower above it. A new era is about to begin.
"The biggest challenge was rebranding," Polakowski said. "Nobody will forget the Cubs. HoHoKam is synonymous with them and all their history. The idea was beginning to change all that and being a presence in the community. We have the green stadium and the gold entrances, and we did the same thing [at Fitch]. But the biggest thing is that the two facilities are brother and sister now. So some of the same elements that we used over [at HoHoKam], we used over here."
The Cubs may have played at HoHoKam from 1979-2013, but it was the A's who christened the original wooden structure in '77 before moving on to the original Scottsdale Stadium in '79 and ultimately flipping spring sites with the Giants, who are still in Scottsdale. The A's went to Phoenix in 1982.
This is the second major renovation of the Mesa ballpark. The original timber was torn apart in 1996 and replaced by the current cement and steel structure, which acted as the skeleton for the spruced-up edifice.
To be sure, the A's would have been content to remain in Phoenix, which made $6.4 million in improvements to Phoenix Muni in 2003 -- enclosing the press box, widening the concourses and adding new dugouts, signage and bleacher benches -- but there wasn't any money in Phoenix to improve the stadium this time around. After years of negotiations, the A's opted for the empty facilities in nearby Mesa, and they quickly closed the deal.
"[Phoenix officials] came up with $10 million [for the Papago practice facility], and nothing at the stadium for 20 years, and the stadium had all the issues," Polakowski said. "I think Arizona State is figuring that out now. Everything over here is bigger and better."
In Peoria, there was no such luxury of time, and construction is ongoing with workers racing toward a deadline of a college game scheduled for Feb. 19 and the traditional exhibition opener between the Padres and Mariners on March 4 at 1 p.m. MT. Workers have summers and winters to complete each phase of the project.
The $42 million in improvements, funded by the public, began with last year's $15 million each to gut and expand the practice facilities and clubhouses for each of the teams. Next year, the metal bleachers will be removed and a new scoreboard will be put in place.
Once acres of lush orange groves, the facility opened in 1993 and was the first joint tenancy of two teams in the Valley. The Padres moved from Yuma, Ariz., three hours to the southwest, and the Mariners from Tempe Diablo Stadium, which was immediately renovated and since then has been inhabited by the Angels. The three-year project has been the first major renovation of the Peoria Sports Complex since it opened without a main gate behind the plate. It finally will have one this spring.
When the Cactus League season begins, fans on either side of the Valley should be very pleased with the results.