MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Salt River Fields delivers in debut season

Bloom: Salt River Fields delivers in debut year

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies played their final games this spring at the new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick complex this week with what has become commonplace during this Cactus League season: more sellouts.

The D-backs played in front of a full house on Monday and the Rockies followed suit on Tuesday, meaning that 21 of the 33 games played at the Stick were sold out, drawing 12,000 or better. The two teams had great expectations last month as they moved into the shared facility after a generation of training in Tucson, Ariz., but nothing to quite equal what has come to pass in six short weeks.

The D-backs led all of baseball in attendance this spring and were followed in the Cactus League by the Rockies, the San Francisco Giants and the perennial favorite Chicago Cubs.

After a small slump in 2010, overall Cactus League attendance has soared again to record levels, and the $120 million complex financed by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is certainly a big reason for it. Through 222 games, the Rockies and D-backs had accounted for 22 percent of this year's total Cactus League attendance of 1,523,880.

"We knew it was going to be asthetically better than any of the other [spring] parks in baseball, we really did," D-backs president Derrick Hall said on Monday as the D-backs drew 12,412 for their game against the Rangers. "But the attendance is what has overwhelmed me. We knew from Day 1 that it was going to be a big hit. Fans just raved about the place."

And they've just kept coming back. The D-backs averaged 11,161 for their 17 games played at the Stick, slightly eclipsing the powerhouse New York Yankees, who averaged 10,854 at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Fla. The D-backs, with 189,737, shattered their own spring attendance record by 52,797. They nearly doubled last year's mark of 99,698, playing their last of 14 seasons in what was then called Tucson Electric Park. This year, they sold out 11 games.

The combined attendance for the Rox and D-backs of 359,308 set the record for most fans attending games at a single complex. The old mark was 230,146, set by the Mariners and Padres at the Peoria Sports Complex in 2008.

The Rockies are doing handstands. They began training in Tucson's ancient Hi Corbett Field with the inception of the franchise in 1993. But their fans were content to visit the Phoenix area and wait to see the Rockies in the local ballparks up there rather than take the 120-mile trek down I-10 to the south.

Last year, the Rockies drew 78,638 and averaged 5,243 fans in Tucson, and this year they more than doubled those numbers to 169,571 and 10,598, including another sellout throng of 12,289 for their spring finale against the Mariners on Tuesday. The sellout was their 10th in 16 games.

"We are proud and thrilled that the fans have spoken loud and clear about their experiences at Salt River Field," said Dick Monfort, the Rockies' chairman and chief executive. "They'll remember it forever."

And well they should. From March 12-20, the two teams sold out 10 consecutive games, no matter who was hosting.

What a difference a year makes. Last spring, the D-backs and Rockies weren't even close to selling out their swan song games in Tucson. This spring, the D-backs played a pair of charity games there to raise money for the victims of the Jan. 8 mass shootings that killed six and wounded 13, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The games combined to draw 18,239, with a sellout against the Dodgers this past Friday that raised $100,000.

The D-backs are not counting the Tucson split-squad games in their spring attendance records.

Part of the attraction this spring has been that the D-backs have been able to sell tickets during Spring Training in their own market for the first time, but the exquisitely designed ballpark, with its sloping green-grass outfield berms that hold 4,000 sunbathers is obviously the main attraction.

"I've talked to a lot of people and I haven't heard one negative comment," Hall said. "I worried at first before the opening. How are the traffic patterns going to be? How is the parking going to work? I've been waiting for complaints and we haven't had any. What I've heard most is that they love the closeness to the field and the players. They love the concessions."

The success of the Rockies and D-backs, though, has had an unintended ripple effect on the rest of the Valley, although Cactus League attendance is poised to surpass the record mark of 1,578,709 for 246 games set in '09. Last year, attendance dipped 107,987 because of the recession and a rainy spring that washed out a number of games.

The Cubs, who usually lead the Cactus League in attendance at venerable HoHoKam Park in Mesa, Ariz., slipped past last year's 152,493 on Tuesday. Including their final game against the D-backs, they drew 160,536. This year that places them fourth. But the good news is that the Cubs will have a new $80 million complex in Mesa by the 2014 season.

Though there was considerable buzz around the defending World Series-champion Giants, their attendance at Scottsdale Stadium was up slightly from 155,819 in 2010 to 160,574 this year.

In the West Valley, the numbers weren't as pretty. The Dodgers, closing at 103,114 fans this year at the three-year-old Camelback Ranch complex in Glendale that they share with the White Sox, were down 18 percent from a year ago.

Dodgers owner Frank McCourt seemed unfazed, even though attendance was down 29,054 from 132,618 last spring.

"I would hope that new facilities are built, and new facilities are wonderful," he said last week. "It's most especially great for baseball and great for the fans. We're extremely happy with our facility and it serves our purpose very, very well. We continue to get great feedback from our fans that it's a great Spring Training experience, and for us it's been a great place for our Minor League operations. It's worked out very well."

Down the road in Goodyear, the Reds and Indians, playing in cozy three-year-old Goodyear Ballpark, combined to draw only 104,230.

Despite an average 3,789 for their first 14 games, the Reds are content in the area, said team owner Bob Castellini, a winter resident and Phoenix-area hotel owner. The Reds drew 66,725 last year, and 53,050 heading into this week's action.

"I'm very happy," he said. "I'm not too happy about the Diamondbacks coming to town and taking some of our attendance away, but we'll make up for it."

Asked his thoughts on the Salt River Fields complex, Castellini added, "It's over the top. Unbelievable."

Certainly that's the way baseball fans voted with their hearts and wallets this spring. Attendance at the Stick went "over the top," making it a month to remember at Salt River Fields.

Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.