Programming note: For comprehensive A’s coverage from Arizona, watch SportsNet Central tonight at 6, 10:30 and midnight on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.
MESA, Ariz. – While the A’s still long for a modernized regular-season ballpark, their spring training accommodations have made a giant leap into the 21st century.
The team will open spring camp Thursday in lavishly renovated facilities in Mesa, having shifted their training headquarters from Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Nearly $27 million was spent on improvements to Hohokam Stadium and nearby Fitch Park, which will serve as the A’s spring practice facility and year-round minor league headquarters. Public money accounted for about $17 million and the A’s paid $10 million.
Fans who have previously visited Hohokam, the spring home of the Cubs from 1997-2013, will encounter a completely remodeled venue that’s undergone a green-and-gold facelift on the exterior. Inside, the concourse walls are lined with large pictures of A’s greats including Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart and Mark McGwire. The giant HD scoreboard in left field is the largest in the Cactus League and “party decks” have been installed on each side of the press box.
From the players’ standpoint, the most drastic improvements are found at Fitch Park. The A’s added 25,000 square feet to their new practice facility. Now encompassing 56,000 square feet, Fitch is more than three times the size of Papago Park, the A’s former practice facility in Phoenix.
“It’s amazing,” closer Sean Doolittle said Wednesday. “It seems like they thought of everything. We were joking about the minor league guys. They gotta watch out, they might get comfy over here in these fancy digs.”
Fitch’s massive indoor facility connects a series of long hallways that are lined with spacious offices. Right-hander Jesse Chavez said he’s gotten lost numerous times wandering through the facility, and a couple players joked that they would be sad leaving Arizona and returning to the antiquated facilities at O.Co Coliseum for the regular season.
The weight room in Fitch is four times the size of the one at Papago, a small area that Doolittle said “was like a scene out of a Rocky movie.” There’s a giant dining room with a restaurant-style kitchen attached to it. Next to that is a yoga room –- yes, a yoga room -- that will double as a meeting room. The main conference room includes electrical outlets at every seat and a 90-square-inch television on the wall.
“On a rainy day, I could hit ground balls in the trainer’s room,” said infield coach Mike Gallego, who wasn’t exaggerating about the massive space.
The rehab facilities include two inground pools – one hot water, one cold water – plus another pool that features a treadmill on the floor of it. Fitch’s indoor facility -- christened the Lew Wolff Training Complex, after the A’s co-owner and managing partner -- includes a cluster of four small locker rooms connected by doors. The split rooms potentially have the benefit of housing separate World Baseball Classic squads if Fitch were used as a hosting facility.
The design and remodel of Fitch Park and Hohokam Stadium was handled primarily by Ted Polakowski, the A’s director of minor league operations. A smile formed on his face when he talked about the rave reviews the facilities have gotten from players as well as manager Bob Melvin.
The A’s struck a deal to move to Mesa in 2013, and the planning has been two years in the making.
“Lew made the comment, ‘You know what we need. Just run with it,’” Polakowski said. “I guess my vision on the cocktail napkin finally came true.”
There are four diamonds at Fitch, plus a half-field and an agility field. In the middle of the diamonds sits a raised observation deck where A’s officials can watch the action taking place on any field.
Over at Hohokam, the A’s home clubhouse is bigger than the one at the Coliseum. There are outlets and USB ports in every locker, and the raised ceiling gives the room even more of a spacious feel. The weight room and training facilities also were expanded, and the complex includes two more inground pools.
Reliever Ryan Cook was blown away by the new accommodations, but he admitted he’s a bit nostalgic about the old facilities the A’s left behind at Phoenix Muni and Papago.
“The thing about those other places, they were kind of us,” Cook said. “It’s kind of our mentality. It’s kind of the Oakland A’s. It’s a lot like the Coliseum. It’s not the best facility, but we’re gonna be the best we can be in it. I think we can instill that exact mindset” in the new facilities.
A’s equipment manager Steve Vucinich also knows about nostalgia, having been employed by the team since it moved to Oakland in 1968. The A’s have switched spring facilities several times during his tenure, including a previous stint at Hohokam before the Cubs moved in. Though he admitted that Muni’s intimate charm will be missed, he’s thrilled with the new facilities and couldn’t resist a sly smile.
“We wish we had a forklift to take this to Oakland.”