Brewers looking for oasis in desert

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Michael Hunt
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
— The Chicago Cubs are nearing the end of their 32-year spring run here at venerable HoHoKam Stadium, a quaint but hopelessly outdated training site.

By February 2014, the Cubs should be in their new $100 million facility just down the road, funded by the selling of city land and a higher hotel tax. Of course, the Cubs had that kind of squeeze-play juice when they put the 100-mph upgrade-or-else heater to Mesa’s temple.

Until the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks joined the Colorado Rockies this spring in moving from Tucson to the mother of all practice facilities on Native American resort land in north Scottsdale, the Cubs were the economic engine that drove the Cactus League.

So what about the Milwaukee Brewers? Their lease in the Maryvale section of west Phoenix, where they’ve trained since 1998, expires after next spring.

The Brewers will never have the commercial leverage of the Cubs, but it’s a safe bet they will have better spring digs before Zack Greinke keynotes the Rotary Club.

About the only thing I can say with 99 percent certainty is the Brewers won’t jump to Florida. As much as they can, they’ll use the Grapefruit League as the Cubs did to secure a better Arizona home. They’ll only relocate on the off-off-off chance that they cannot get what they want in the Valley.

Why would they even think about leaving Arizona? The weather is better. The bus rides are much shorter than in the spread-out Grapefruit League, especially now that every Cactus League team is in the Phoenix area. Lots of Brewers fans have retired or spend the winter here. Principal owner Mark Attanasio can get here in about an hour from Los Angeles.

The Brewers have been in talks with the city of Phoenix and the Phoenix Regional Sports Commission for a couple of years. The questions are how much of an upgrade do the Brewers really need and at what cost?

To general manager Doug Melvin, it’s about not being at a competitive disadvantage. He says the ancillary buildings—mostly for medical and workout purposes—need to be more spacious and modern like the others throughout the Cactus League.

The stadium itself is perfectly adequate for the Brewers’ needs. The sketchy neighborhood has not improved like developers hoped it would since they built the facility on spec more than a decade ago. In all this time, the area has never been a security issue for the players or staff, but the Brewers might draw larger crowds if they were in a better location.

On Saturday I went to the Diamondbacks-Rockies Taj Mahal in an upscale part of the Valley, where Bud Selig was introducing Joe Torre as MLB’s new grand potentate for everything the commish doesn’t handle. The news conference was held in an auditorium the size of the Brewers’ Maryvale clubhouse—and that was just on the Rockies’ side.

“For somebody raised in County Stadium, the locker rooms, the training facilities and the workout rooms are unbelievable,” Selig said.

No doubt. But to me, it felt like over-the-top extravagance, especially in an area that has been as economically ravaged as Phoenix in the last three years. I’ll leave the spend-money-to-make-money details to the financial people because they’ll have to explain the need for building a $100 million practice place to the local homeowners who have seen their biggest investment plunge like Jody Gerut’s batting average.

Nobody needs a spring-training facility that nice, but that’s the paradox of baseball, isn’t it? Since the economy went on the disabled list in 2008, the game has continued to grow.

“And I really feel good about this year,” Selig said.

So he should. His smallest market will likely draw 3 million again, which means the Brewers have the clout to get something better. I could see anything from a new shared facility with Oakland should the A’s solve their larger stadium issues at home to upgrades at Maryvale.

The only thing for certain is that some level of spring cleaning is inevitable.

Last updated: 4:51 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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