Farewell, Phoenix Municipal

PHOENIX -- How far back does Phoenix Municipal Stadium go? So far that longtime Athletics equipment manager Steve Vucinich can remember when there were signs on the walls indicating the stadium doubled as a Cold War civil defense site.

“After the Giants left and we were cleaning up the locker room in 1982, we found the kind of food that the government put into rations if you had an emergency," Vucinich said. “We had to throw it away because it was 20 years old, but it was amazing. It had fallen behind one of the lockers. So the clubhouses were approved civil defense bomb shelters."

In other words, in case of nuclear war, Phoenix residents were supposed to seek refuge in the stadium clubhouses. Which would have posed a considerable problem because there wasn't even enough room for all the players back in those days.

“We had a bunch of guys doubling up with lockers and we used the visiting clubhouse, which was real small on this side, for the overflow," Vucinich said. “It was a mess. They had to move out when we had teams coming in for games. So they had to take their stuff home."

This is the 33rd and final spring that the Athletics will train at Phoenix Municipal, the oldest park in the current Cactus League. Next year they will move into the Cubs’ old Hohokam Stadium facility in Mesa, Ariz. Phoenix Muni was the spring training home for the Giants beginning in 1964 (as well as the regular-season stadium for San Francisco’s Triple-A team), and then the Athletics after that, but in less than three weeks, this will no longer be a Cactus League site.

“It will be bittersweet because we are moving to a better facility, but there are a lot of memories here," Vucinich said. “I’ve spent a lot of years here, in both clubhouses. And knowing how you couldn’t maneuver because we were behind the times. Now, we’re up-to-date as far as room, but behind times as far as amenities. But there is just a lot of history here."

A lot of history, some of it older than the stadium itself. The light towers that surround the field are from the Polo Grounds in New York. “That’s what they discovered when they did the last remodel," Vucinich said. “There was a story written in the last year that said when they took the towers down at the Polo Grounds, they were actually property of [former Giants owner] Horace Stoneham, so he shipped them out here."

The new spring facilities are damn nice, but none of them can say that Willie Mays hit a home run there. Or that Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire used to hit home runs onto the neighboring roadway and off passing cars. And none has the Cactus League atmosphere that Phoenix Muni does, what with the buttes of Papago Park rising beyond the left-field fence, or the occasional early-morning sound of elephants carrying from the nearby zoo.

Oakland hitting coach Chili Davis played here when he was starting out in the Giants' organization. Asked how the place has changed in the more than 30 years since then, he replied, “It hasn’t." He meant that as a joke -- that this is an aging, old park well past its prime. But Phoenix Muni has changed, undergoing renovations in 1995 and in 2003.

“It was state-of-the-art in 1995. Now it’s fallen behind the times," Vucinich said. “That’s the biggest reason we’re moving to Mesa."

I understand that. You can’t be considered a first-class spring training site these days unless you have a half-dozen fields, a dozen or so batting cages, spacious clubhouses with cherry-wood lockers, rows of expensive luxury suites, and weight rooms large enough for a college football program.

But as nice as the newer facilities are, they lack the charm and the history of the old ballparks. The new ones are increasingly corporate, designed to pamper the players and vacuum money from fans. Spacious is nice, but so is cozy. Bigger isn't always better, nor is newer. And it’s always better to see buttes, mountains and cacti beyond the outfield rather than shopping malls, eight-lane highways and water treatment plants.

Call me an aging, nostalgia-addled fan reluctant to say goodbye to an old park. But I’m not the only one who will miss spring training at Phoenix Muni.

At least the park won’t go to waste. The Arizona State baseball team will move in next season. Here’s hoping Vucinich can find some of those old civil defense rations to leave behind for the Sun Devils. And that I didn’t unknowingly buy some in the concession stands over the years.