Hope springs eternal. No three words pack more punch for baseball players and fans when winter turns to spring. But this spring was different, as baseball fields all over the country — from Surprise, Arizona, to Lake City, Florida, — sat idle when they usually bustled. At Major League Baseball spring training camps and youth sports complexes alike, the engines that fuel America’s pastime stalled.
As of this writing, MLB’s Opening Day was in the summer, and high-profile events such as the 12-team World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Tucson, Arizona, and state high school baseball tournaments around the country were postponed or canceled — all casualties of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
But when social distancing gives way to bleacher seating, when “flattening the curve” becomes “throwing the slider” and when #saferathome morphs back into “safe at home,” the following seven destinations will be ready to take all of us out to the old ball game once again.
The Kino Sports Complex in Tucson recently expanded its 300-acre facility to now include 10 grass baseball fields (plus 22 soccer fields and 20 pickleball courts). The site originally served as the Cactus League spring training home of Major League Baseball’s Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks until 2009, back when the facility was called Tucson Electric Park.
When spring training left the city, Pima County officials repurposed the complex, opening it up to community baseball and soccer organizations and welcoming “youth tournaments galore,” says Rennie Ochoa, director of the Kino Sports Complex. In fact, she says the facility under normal circumstances receives inquiries from youth tournament directors on a weekly basis.
All rental fees are customized based on the needs of specific organizing groups and events, Ochoa says, and the facility also offers spacious clubhouse and locker room spaces.
The complex has hosted the annual Mexican Baseball Fiesta in October featuring six teams from the independent Mexican Pacific League, and several international teams travel to Tucson to conduct their own versions of spring training.
The World Baseball Classic Qualifier, originally slated for March 13-25 and featuring a dozen teams from around the world, has been postponed indefinitely. Tucson was the only city in the world hosting WBC qualifying rounds, Ochoa says, and this was to be the first time all 12 teams would compete at the same venue. A total of four teams were expected to leave Tucson with a guaranteed spot in the 2021 World Baseball Classic (still scheduled for next March, as of this writing).
“We wanted to take that opportunity with the World Baseball Classic Qualifier to show people what Tucson and Pima County can offer the rest of the world,” Ochoa says.
About 150 miles northwest of Tucson, in Surprise, Arizona, the 2020 spring training season was in full swing before training camps were closed in mid-March on account of the virus. As the Cactus League home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, life in this south-central Arizona city revolves around baseball.
“Spring training is an important economic driver for the City of Surprise, as well as the State of Arizona,” says Kendra Pettis, the city’s sports and tourism director, adding that the annual economic impact of the Cactus League is $644 million. “The investment in top-tier facilities provided a foundation to develop other sports programs that call Surprise home. Our partnerships with the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers, as well as our year-round Major League Baseball operations, also demonstrate Surprise’s ability to host high-profile sporting events and have helped us attract other large-scale events.”
Central to Surprise’s success with baseball is Surprise Stadium, which holds more than 10,000 fans and anchors a complex boasting an additional 12 practice fields, two bunting fields and two agility-training fields. Completed in 2002, the venue underwent a $500,000 renovation of its stadium field prior to the start of 2020 spring training.
The complex was designed specifically for baseball tournaments, Pettis says, and boasts amenities that allow for the customizations of space to fit the needs of professional, college, high school and amateur tournaments. Surprise also offers several youth baseball fields throughout the community, including the three-field Youth Baseball Complex at the Surprise Stadium Complex.
In 2017, the City of Surprise created a new department dedicated to sports tourism with the goal of attracting more events. That decision proved to be a home run. According to Pettis, the number of baseball games played in Surprise jumped 90 percent from 2018 to 2019, and the number of participants and spectators soared by 468 percent.
Heading east, baseball ranks among the most popular sports Lubbock, Texas, attracts. “It’s a big draw for us around here,” says Scott Harrison, sports director for Visit Lubbock, adding that the northwest Texas city’s facilities and rich baseball history — along with the perennial success of Texas Tech University’s baseball team — make Lubbock an ideal tournament destination.
Lubbock is anchored by two popular collegiate turf baseball facilities. Dan Law Field at Rip Griffin Park at Texas Tech has hosted multiple NCAA Super Regionals, and Hays Field and City Bank Clubhouse at Lubbock Christian University is one of several venues used for the annual Five Tool West 14U-15U Championships in June and Premier Baseball’s Sophomore Showcase National Championship in July.
Meanwhile, several fields throughout Lubbock had been slated to host the March Freeze, a United States Specialty Sports Association tournament with nearly 200 teams, mainly from Texas and New Mexico.
“Lubbock is a premier destination for baseball tournaments,” Harrison adds. “The city hosts 10 tournaments on average every year because of its world-class facilities, great weather, convenience and West Texas hospitality.”
Last summer, the Ruston Sports Complex made its debut by hosting the 2019 Dixie Youth Baseball World Series, which brought in 76 teams and more than 13,000 fans over a two-week period. The event earned the city-owned facility, which boasts 17 lighted synthetic turf baseball/softball fields, an award for being a “Small Market Champion” in Sports Destination Management’s 2019 Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism program.
Every field includes covered bleacher seating and a press box, and each of the four quads features a championship field with a 500-seat grandstand. Jay Ellington, administrative services director for the City of Ruston, says the facility focuses on local community use during the week and, prior to the pandemic, was booking regional tournaments for most weekends between March and August.
The Ruston Sports Complex is part of the $35 million Moving Ruston Forward initiative that included many other improvements around the city. Crews upgraded existing grass baseball fields on the complex site and added new ones, and future plans call for building a 100,000-square-foot building with six gymnasiums. The city currently offers 775 hotel rooms, and “several conversations are happening about what should happen next,” according to Amanda Quimby Carrier, marketing director for Experience Ruston.
“Every team within 500 miles of us is interested in coming here,” Ellington says. “There’s nothing like it in our region of the country.”
Peoria enjoys its own status as a baseball tournament destination, thanks to several major facilities.
The Louisville Slugger Sports Complex is an indoor/outdoor venue that boasts 10 outdoor synthetic turf fields with lights and heated dugouts plus two indoor turf fields; the EastSide Centre in East Peoria offers 10 lighted grass baseball fields with concessions; and Avanti’s Event Center is a 76,000-square-foot dome with synthetic turf and four outdoor baseball fields.
Additionally, 7,500-seat Dozer Park is home to Minor League Baseball’s Peoria Chiefs (the Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals) and also hosts the high school baseball state tournament.
“Baseball is our strength,” says James Welton, sports sales manager for Enjoy Peoria. “Pretty much any tournament you can think of will come here.
In a neat twist, Welton has competed at three of Peoria’s four large facilities as a former high school baseball player, which he says speaks to the city’s long baseball tradition. Past and present Major Leaguers Jim Thome, Ben Zobrist and Zach McAllister and Joe Girardi also all hail from the Peoria area.
“If you’re from Illinois and you play baseball, you’ll want to make it to Peoria for the state high school finals,” he says. “And that translates down to younger players, too.”
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Another Minor League city with a major baseball presence is Fayetteville, North Carolina. Segra Stadium, a $40 million venue that seats 5,300 fans, opened in 2019 as home of the Fayetteville Woodpeckers, a Class A affiliate of the Houston Astros.
The U.S. Army’s Fort Bragg, the largest military installation in the world with more than 50,000 active-duty personnel, also is located in Fayetteville. As a result, the city and — by extension — Segra Stadium promote healthy doses of patriotism.
“Our CVB slogan is Victory Means More Here,” says John Meroski, chief executive officer of the Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Not all military personnel live on the base; they’re in our neighborhoods and schools and coaching youth sports teams. People here walk and play among American heroes. That brings American values to our local culture, which is really needed today.”
Segra Stadium hosted the 2019 NCAA Big South Conference Baseball Tournament and was set to host the event in 2020 until college baseball was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
J.P. Riddle Stadium, meanwhile, the former home of a collegiate summer baseball team and owned by Fayetteville Technical Community College, hosted a “grand re-opening” earlier this year, Meroski says. The 3,200-seat stadium houses the college’s recently established baseball team, and the CVB is looking to bring more baseball and other events to the venue.
Fun side note: Babe Ruth hit his first home run in Fayetteville on March 7, 1914.
Columbia County, Florida
When Columbia County took over operations of the 140-acre Southside Sports Complex in Lake City, Florida, a few years back, the goal was to place a greater emphasis on baseball-related sports tourism. The 13-field complex now is known as one of North Florida’s premier baseball facilities and hosts multiple USSSA Baseball and Perfect Game events, as well as an annual Babe Ruth Rookie Qualifier tournament and several other Babe Ruth local, state and regional tournaments. Each grass field includes 84 covered seats and covered dugouts, and there have been discussions about expanding the total number of fields.
“There’s an increase in interest in the facility and the number of events we’ve been hosting,” says Alden Rosner, sports marketing director for the Columbia County Sports Commission. “Typically, there is a baseball or softball event out there every weekend, and the impact of having travel teams coming to our small community is tremendous.”
The population of Lake City is about 12,000, and a six-field complex in nearby Fort White is available as an “auxiliary facility” when needed, Rosner says.
“We’ve got the largest collection of fields in the state, and we’re very close to a lot of markets to draw a lot of top-tier teams,” he adds. “It’s fun to show people from other places what we are capable of doing.” SDM