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Baseball's paradise lost in Arizona

CASA GRANDE, Arizona — Baseball abandoned Casa Grande, so Casa Grande abandoned baseball.

In 1961, San Francisco Giants owner Horace Stoneham opened a state-of-the-art training facility in this city, between Phoenix and Tucson in south central Arizona. It was a place where Willie Mays and Willie McCovey would slam baseballs over the stadium fence in the morning, then blast golf balls down the longest fairways in the state next door.

The centerpiece was a hotel that was a baseball fan's dream. The swimming pool was shaped like a bat, next to a whirlpool shaped like a ball. The parking lot was laid out like a mitt, while the hotel tower itself mimicked the architecture of a stadium with a curved face and exterior staircases. Atop it all was a concrete lip meant to look like the bill of a baseball cap.

For two decades, the Giants started spring training in Casa Grande, before leaving the aging facility after the 1981 season. The California Angels moved in for parts of two springs, from 1982 to 1983. Reggie Jackson, Rod Carew and Fred Lynn would warm up for the regular season on the three practice diamonds laid out at the foot of a two-story observation tower, where coaches could watch hundreds of players on three fields.

After 1983, the Angels left and no one moved in. Casa Grande was left with a very nice golf course, an aging hotel and acres of baseball fields turning to weeds.

If baseball was going to turn its back on Casa Grande, then Casa Grande would turn its back on baseball. In a project that cost $20 million, the baseball fields were bulldozed for nine soccer practice fields, six with professional-grade lighting. Modern locker rooms, classrooms and training facilities opened their doors. Casa Grande has turned from the National Pastime to "The Beautiful Game."

"We transformed the site for soccer," said Tim Alai, the general manager of what is now known as Grande Sports World. "We have had 15 of the Major League Soccer teams train and play here."

For baseball fans, it's strange and a little sad to visit Casa Grande today. The 7,400-yard, 18-hole golf course designed to hold the titanic drives of Mays and McCovey remains, and draws the bulk of visitors.

The Francisco Grande Hotel still rises out of the desert. It underwent an $8 million refurbishing a few years ago that saved it from years of decline. The big sign atop the hotel that once said "Giants Hotel" is long gone. What remain are the baseball-themed architecture, the bat-shaped pool and mitt-shaped parking lot.

Between the lobby and the golf pro shop are three glass cases bearing battered home plates pulled from the practice field. Two of the three are surrounded by baseball cards from the San Francisco Giants. The third is from the 1982 California Angels. All have been bleached of much of their color by three decades of sun.

If you ask, the hotel will give you a one-page printout of its baseball history.

Moving to Casa Grande for spring training turned out to be a tonic twice, for two teams. The Giants' first year, in 1962, they won 103 games, taking the National League pennant before losing the seventh game of the World Series to the New York Yankees. When the Angels moved in 1982, they enjoyed the franchise's best season to that point, winning 93 games before losing the American League Championship Series to the Milwaukee Brewers.

For Orange County visitors, there's another draw — the bar is named after John Wayne, who owned a ranch nearby and would celebrate Thanksgiving at the Francisco Grande. The walls are lined with photos and paintings of "The Duke." In another nod to Orange County, the premium version of the bar's signature hamburger comes with roasted Anaheim peppers.

But everything else related to baseball is pretty much gone. There are some large photos of the San Francisco Giants in their 1960s heyday that adorn the walls between the bar and the soccer facility. But baseball is clearly the now-distant past.

Outside, the observation tower that was once the center of a massive baseball complex sits in the middle of a dirt field like some ancient obelisk of a forgotten era.

As the sun sets over the mountains in the west, the sky lights up pink under the clouds. The birds tweet that night is coming, but out beyond the grass and dirt, the training goes on. As darkness falls, the lights burn bright, illuminating a patch of green with men playing ball amid miles of darkness. It reminded me of the night shots from "Field of Dreams."

Only it's a different kind of field. And the dreams aren't about baseball anymore.


Gary A. Warner:

Copyright © 2015, CT Now
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