MESA, Arizona -- If you're planning a trip to the Cubs' spring training home at HoHoKam Park, you'd better hurry.
That's because the Cubs have just one more year at this historic location, where they have trained since 1979, before moving to a new complex that will be constructed about five miles west of the current stadium and be open for the 2014 spring training season. The new location is where a local golf course is currently situated; the course is closing this weekend so that they can begin the process of moving some trees off-site for construction (the trees will be re-planted there eventually).
But enough of the new; here's what you can expect if you head to Mesa now or in 2013 to see a game.
As noted, this is the 34th season the Cubs will have trained at 1235 N. Center Street in Mesa. Right across the street from HoHoKam Park, at 1212 N. Center Street, is the large City of Mesa Cemetery.
There are almost certainly several hundred Cubs/cemetery jokes going through your head right now. Go ahead, I'll wait.
"HoHoKam" refers to a tribe of Native Americans who inhabited the area and it's also the name of the civic group that runs the stadium. In fact, Dwight Patterson, one of the original founders of that group in the early 1950s, is largely credited for luring the Cubs away from Catalina Island off the coast of California, where they trained for decades, to Arizona, as well as being one of the driving forces behind the creation of the Cactus League itself. The playing field at HoHoKam is named after him.
The original HoHoKam Park was, like its counterpart in Scottsdale, getting old and tired by the late 1990s. The Cubs also wanted a larger seating capacity and saw how successful the grass berms that had been installed in the new parks in Scottsdale and Peoria. So the city of Mesa did precisely what had been done in Scottsdale -- closed the original park right after spring training in 1996 and had the new one open for the spring season in 1997.
The stadium is comfortable, with quite a number of good lower box seats close to the action, as well as aluminum bleachers down both the right field and left field lines. The back rows of the seats between the dugout are mostly in the shade. While the grass berm is spacious (seating approximately 2,500), there is a walkway down the middle of the right field side, which means some people have their view blocked by people walking (and those seating areas are quite far away).
Also, there was an incident several years ago in which a small child was trampled by an adult running for a baseball on the berm during batting practice. As a result, the Cubs don't open the lawn area until the team is finished hitting before games. Since the Cubs don't have adjacent practice fields, they hit in the main stadium as they would during regular season games. This should change once the new complex is completed and the Cubs have practice fields adjacent to the stadium (now, their minor-league complex and practice fields are located three-quarters of a mile south of HoHoKam at Fitch Park). Once the berm is open, if you head to left field, you'll find a large group of friendly spring-training regulars, some of whom are also Wrigley Field denizens; others are local residents or winter Arizonans who found each other through baseball.
Food choices and prices are pretty average. There's a soba noodle stand as there is in just about every spring stadium in the Valley; they've added several other new portable food stands (the pulled pork appears to be pretty popular, though I haven't had it myself) near the left field corner and beer vendors are plentiful (domestic 16-ounce bottles are $7).
Souvenir prices, however, are astronomically high. Your jaw will drop when you see the $35 caps and $40 T-shirts (some are cheaper, but those never seem to be the ones you actually want). I would not recommend buying souvenirs at Mesa.
Parking is on grass fields on the north and south sides of the stadium. (Helpful hint: be ready to leave fairly quickly when the game is over; otherwise you could get caught in pretty bad traffic jams.) The price went up this year to $7 -- here's hoping that doesn't portend further price increases when the Cubs move. While ticket prices at Mesa are fairly affordable (ranging from $9-$31), the other prices are in major-league range, which begin to border on unreasonable.
After the game, many fans head to Diamond's Sports Grille (formerly named, under various ownerships, "Harry and Steve's" and "Sluggo's"), 161 N. Centennial Way. It's large enough to accommodate a lot of people and has typical bar fare. A new Italian restaurant, La Cucina di Venti, just opened near Fitch Park at 223 E. Brown Road. And for a non-food-and-drink entertainment option, you can visit "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience", an exhibit of memorabilia from six decades of spring training baseball in Arizona, at 51 E. Main St. in Mesa, next to the Mesa Arts Center.
And the park might not be on its last legs. Representatives of the Oakland Athletics are observing spring training in Mesa this season with the idea they might take over the stadium and leave their current location, Phoenix Municipal Stadium; the A's have an exclusive negotiating window that lasts until May 15.
HoHoKam Park is worth a look, if only for its history and to see the perennially-optimistic Cubs fan in his or her native habitat. It's the one time of the year when the Cubs can lose and the Cubs fan shrugs and says, "But [insert name of hot prospect here] had a great day!"