It’s here. Baseball is back. Camps don’t officially open until later this week, but at every facility in the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, big leaguers and non-roster invitees are already getting to work. The fields at Fitch Park, spring and player development home to the Oakland Athletics, are no exception. Earlier today, close to 60 players were on the fields taking batting practice, throwing bullpens and working on fielding drills. Players and staff will continue to arrive each day as the A's second season at Fitch Park officially begins.
Inside the facility, everything looks great in the Lew Wolff Training Center. The walls, lined with photos from great moments in Oakland’s history, welcome those who enter as if to say, “All is well with the world because you are here and there is baseball to be played.”
Stepping outside, the fields, of course, look spectacular; head grounds keeper Chad Huss would have it no other way. The almost-90-degree temps, with no relief in sight, can be intimidating this early in the year, but stand in the shade and cool off quickly. It really is a dry heat. Then you hear the familiar sounds of players calling out to one another, bats hitting balls that are caught and thrown; you can see the play in your mind just by the sounds. Yes, baseball is back. Everything just as it was when we left last fall.
Well, there is one change.
And it’s pretty cool.
Fitch Park is little-over half a mile south of Hohokam Stadium on Center Street. To enter the fields and watch workouts or minor league games, you turn off Center and head down to the public parking area off to the right. This is a short private road that houses a building belonging to the City of Mesa on one side, and the Arizona offices of the Oakland A’s on the other. Only two buildings on the street, only two buildings with the street address of 6th Place. Same address the previous inhabitants, the Chicago Cubs, used for the many years they called Fitch Park home.
Sixth place, huh? You’re in a five-team league and you’re on 6th Place. Your address, that is. Well, that’s ok, that didn’t hurt the Cubs any did it??? Wait… So it may not have been the name of the street that did in the Northsiders, but why take any chances?
On February 2, 2015, while doing one of my photo updates of the new facilities, I took 100 photos, and didn’t really look at details until I got home. That’s when I read the sign: “Welcome to the Lew Wolff Training Complex. Public Parking on 6th Place.” Ugh. This needed to changed. I had to say something.
I’ve said it a thousand times; Oakland A’s fans are smart, loyal, and tough. They know, and I mean *know*, baseball. They stay through the down times – though they may be vocal, they pack a football stadium during the decent times, and they celebrate like nothing I’ve ever seen during the great times. They know, and can identify front office personnel, the players and coaches in the minor league system, and they even know some of the scouts.
They know all the details of the latest issue preventing them from buying season tickets at a stadium with brand new plumbing. They want their team(s) to stay IN OAKLAND and not move to San Jose or LA. They’ve been through a lot, but they take nothing for granted. They know it’s not going to be easy and they put almost every other fan base to shame.
Many travel to spring training and stay for more than a day or two. They know their team’s spring training home, and it was safe to say most were sad to be leaving the majestic setting of Papago Park, and the institution known as Phoenix Municipal Stadium. This is a tight fan base, steeped in its tradition.
So, while it may not seem like much to most, leaving Papago, where you entered on Walter Haas Hwy, to fields named after beloved managers like Mack and LaRussa, for the new digs on 6th Place, it just didn’t sit well with me.
I approached the mayor of Mesa, Arizona – John Giles. I had never met him before last spring. I don’t live in Mesa, never have. Matter of fact I live about 45 minutes northwest of Fitch. There was nothing in it for him to even entertain my idea of changing the name of the road to anything but what it was. But he listened anyway.
At one point he reminded me that the Cubs had the same address for all their years at Fitch. I asked him how many championships the Cubs won during that time. We briefly discussed name options, including my first suggestion “Bob Welch Way”. Bottom line, it was clear that the mayor thought this could work. He said it would. But I’ve worked with enough elected officials to know that I don’t write in ink.
About a month ago I heard from the mayor and he said I would soon receive an invitation to the renaming of 6th Place. That was the first contact I’d had with him since the end of spring training – 10 months ago.
This afternoon, Tuesday, February 16, 2016, the unveiling of “Athletics Way” took place at the north east corner of Center Street and – what use to be – 6th Place.
It was a lovely ceremony with speakers including: Mesa’s City Manager Chris Brady, Oakland A’s president Michael Crowley, Mayor John Giles and District 4 Councilmember Chris Glover, who represents the area of Fitch Park. Also in attendance were Vice Mayor Dennis Kavanaugh, Councilmember David Luna, and Councilmember Kevin Thompson.
Crowley spoke about the fact that coming to Mesa has always felt like “coming home” even before the record-breaking spring in 2015, and he is happy and proud to have Athletics Way on the map.
Mayor Giles began his speech admitting that he has been an Oakland A’s fan from when he was a little boy watching games in Rendezvous Stadium. Named all the greats he saw: Rollie Fingers, Reggie Jackson, etc. who were his heroes growing up. Very cool. He then shared some far-too-generous words about me. (However, if you come to my house, you may find that snippet playing on a loop for the foreseeable future.) Wonder if I can make a ring tone from it? But I digress…
Lily King-Cisneros and the crew with Mesa Channel 11 covered the ceremony, and famed photographer Bill Mitchell took some beautiful photos, as always. Among those in the small crowd were members of the Mayor’s exceptional staff, including Melissa Randazzo and Jessica Stone; and from the Athletics, Brad Huss, Steve Vucinich and Ted Polakowski.
If you see Mayor Giles around during spring training, be sure to thank him for his efforts. Remember, he’s an Oakland Athletics fan, too.