The Cactus League

The Cactus League has staged a late-inning rally at stadiums across the metro region. (Photo by Pablo Robles)

After a cold, wet start, the Cactus League was staging a late-inning rally at stadiums across the metro region.

More than 16,000 fans basked in the sun at Sloan Park on St. Patrick’s Day as the Chicago Cubs, the league’s perennial meal ticket, helped propel a late surge in attendance in Mesa and throughout most of the league.

The latest Cactus League statistics, through the March 20 games, show that Sloan Park and Cubs fans are the clean-up hitters in the Cactus League’s rally in the usual balmy conditions.

After another 16,000 fans enjoyed a game with the Los Angeles Dodgers on March 20, the Cubs were on pace for at least six games with such lofty attendance figures beyond capacity.

The Cubs had drawn 189,041 through 14 games, for an average crowd of 13,569; the Los Angles Angels of Anaheim had drawn 102,471 through 15 games for an average crowd of 6,831 at Tempe Diablo Stadium; and the Oakland Athletics had drawn 58,978 in a 10-game abbreviated schedule, for an average crowd of 5,898 at Hohokam Stadium.

Elsewhere around the league, the usual teams were leading in attendance at a level far below the Cubs’ benchmark. The Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants were locked in a close battle for second place in the attendance sweepstakes.

The Giants have drawn 128,041 to Scottsdale Stadium through 14 games, an average of 9,146 a game and 583 fans less than a year ago.

The Dodgers have drawn about 300 more fans than the Giants, 128,475 through 13 games, but were still down 271 fans per game at Camelback Ranch in Glendale.

The league statistics showed the two teams based in Glendale, the Dodgers and the Chicago White Sox, drew a combined 205,915 fans. The average crowd in 2019 was 8,237, an increase of a modest 278 fans.

The White Sox were responsible for the small gain, drawing 688 more fans per game than the year before for an average crowd of 6,453.

The Cleveland Indians suffered among the deepest declines in attendance this year at Goodyear Ballpark. The Indians had drawn 70,481 through 13 games, an average of 5,422, a decline of 1,045 fans per game.

That was offset somewhat by their partner at Goodyear Ballpark, the Cincinnati Reds. The Reds drew 65,164 through 12 games. Their average crowd per game increased by 717 fans to 5,430.

Overall, the combination of the Reds’ increase and the Indians’ decrease created a decline of 194 fans per game at Goodyear Ballpark through 23 games.

A rare series of five rainouts on March 12 throughout the league seemed like a distant memory, however, as fans laid out on blankets in the sun on the outfield berm behind the left field fence at Sloan.

Even though the Arizona Diamondbacks were rained out at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick a few miles up the Loop 101 on March 12, the Cubs got in their game against the Cincinnati Reds on that cold, damp night and still drew 12,536 fans.

“The weather wasn’t perfect. It was cold, not Cactus League-like,” said Tim Baughman, president of the Mesa HoHoKams, a civic organization that raises about $500,000 a year for charity by parking cars and performing other duties at Sloan Park and Hohokam Stadium.

Cactus League President Jeff Meyer predicted the strong finish, attributing the sluggish start to more games starting early in February and the unseasonably cool temperatures.

“It’s down, but it’s early,” Meyer said, referring to league statistics that reflected a decline in the average number of fans per game at most Cactus League stadiums through March 12. “I’m optimistic about it. I think we will have pretty good success. I can tell with the traffic.”

Overall, incomplete statistics through 190 games for the season showed the Cactus League has attracted 1,440,976 fans, or 355,427 less than last year so far, with an average crowd per game of 7,584, a drop of 126 fans from a year ago.

With two sellout games against the 2018 World Champion Boston Red Sox, who as of print time are making a highly unusual Cactus League appearance at Sloan on March 25 and March 26, it appeared the Cubs will easily erase an early season attendance deficit.

The Cubs’ deficit was whittled down from 906 fans per game on March 12 to 307 through Wednesday night.

Even a split squad game featuring a few Cubs starters and pitcher Yu Darvish, versus a Mariners team composed of mostly minor leaguers, drew more than 13,000 fans on another sunny day on March 18.

“It’s going to work out for the Cubs. Plus, we have those last two games against Boston,” Baughman said. “We are going to finish the season strong at Sloan Park.”

The league has no control over the early start, which Meyer describes as a new normal that fans haven’t accepted yet after decades of games starting at or near the beginning of March.

Although fans don’t associate February with baseball, games need to start earlier because Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Players Association requires more days off during the marathon regular season.

Meyer said part of the February attendance issue is that out-of-state fans make their travel plans for March, reducing the pool of potential fans.

Rather inauspiciously, the league’s first game, between the A’s and the Mariners at Hohokam Stadium, on February 21, was rained out in the second inning.

The A’s and the Mariners major leaguers also left Arizona early to start the regular season in Japan, where Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki enjoyed a swan song at the Tokyo Dome, creating another quirk in this year’s Cactus League season.

But Meyer’s faith in an attendance comeback was rewarded on a sunny St. Patrick’s Day weekend when the Cubs recorded their second crowd of more than 16,000 fans of the season at Sloan Park, which has an official capacity of about 15,000.

Predictably, the Cubs’ first crowd beyond capacity was 16,069 fans on March 3 against their cross-town rivals, the Chicago White Sox.

Rabid Cubs fans also undoubtedly contributed toward the Diamondbacks setting an all-time attendance record of 14,035 for a game against the 2016 World Champions on March 16 at Salt River Fields.

“It’s been great for player development and for our fans. It’s a great asset for the city of Mesa,” said Justin Piper, general manager of Sloan Park for the Cubs.

He said Sloan Park has been open since 2014 and has been a big hit since opening its gates for the first time.

“On every possible level, it has exceeded our expectations,” Piper said. “Attendance has been strong.”

He said the attendance for those games has been the highest for any MLB team in spring training, including the Cactus League and the Grapefruit League in Florida. The leagues have 15 teams a piece.

Contributing factors for spring training attendance include a team’s following and the size of the ballpark.

In contrast, Tempe Diablo Stadium, the league’s oldest and most intimate facility, has a capacity of about 9,500 and the Angels of Anaheim, like most other teams, don’t draw the same loyal throng as the Cubs.

Tempe Diablo also benefited from the league’s late season rally, with the Angels drawing back-to-back capacity crowds of 9,655 fans on March 15 for a game against the Diamondbacks and 9,693 on March 16 against the Cleveland Indians.

“It’s not too bad. We had four games in February. It’s been very early,” said Jerry Hall, manager of Tempe Diablo. “I think we will have a strong finish.”

Diablo had somewhat less of a buzz this year because Shohei Ohtani, a two-way Japanese star, was in rehabilitation after arm surgery and was unable to play.

“We definitely would have gotten a lot more attention,” especially from Japanese media, if Ohtani had been able to take the field, Hall said. “It would have helped.”

Some Cubs fans seemed a bit surprised by the cooler weather in February and early March, but they were more than satisfied with the season after a long winter in the Midwest.

“We got here on Valentine’s Day and it was rainy and cold. Then, it started to change. I think this is the hottest day since we have been here,” said Bill Shannon, a longtime season ticket holder at Wrigley Field in Chicago who has been coming to Mesa for spring games for 30 years.

But Shannon and friends were not complaining and said they were enjoying their time in Arizona as usual.

“We will miss this beautiful weather in April and May,” he said.

He said it will be June until Cubs fans feel the sun’s warmth again at Wrigley.

Kerry Bonora, who has coming from Chicago to Mesa for Cubs games since 1996, said he likes Sloan Park even more than Hohokam Stadium, where he said the parking was tighter.

“I love Sloan. It’s bigger and it has better facilities for the Cubs,” he said. “I think it’s beautiful.”