Mariners 6, Cubs 4: Cubs Drop HoHoKam Finale

Al Yellon

The Cubs ended the Arizona portion of preseason play by blowing an eighth-inning lead. We hope this is not an indication of things to come. Meanwhile, fans bid a fond farewell to decades of spring baseball at HoHoKam Park.

MESA, Arizona -- You know, I didn't think I'd get emotional over the Cubs' final game at HoHoKam Park.

And yet, I lingered just a bit longer than usual after the Cubs' 6-4 loss to the Mariners, soaking in the HoHoKam scene one last time. Of course, we'll all be back there at some point in 2015 and beyond, seeing the Cubs as the visiting team when the Oakland Athletics become the hosts at the stadium on Center Street in Mesa, but with renovations scheduled to be made at HoHoKam before the A's take over, it will be a different experience (not to mention that Cubs fans will be in the minority there).

I've spent the better part of 17 Marches at HoHoKam; the baseball hasn't been what's important to my memories, since many of the players I saw there -- including today's -- are guys who never made the major-league Cubs, never had any impact on the franchise's history. What I remember most about my time under the clock on the HoHoKam scoreboard is friends, friends who came down from Chicago and the Midwest to join our group at various times during their own spring breaks, and friends made in Mesa, much as I have made lifelong friends in the Wrigley Field bleachers.

Because this version of HoHoKam is relatively new -- I'd spent just seven springs over a 13-year period at the old one, then the last 17 consecutively at the current stadium -- there aren't the lifelong memories made there. Further, spring training goes by so fast, generally finished in a month's time, so the emotions aren't as strong toward that place as they are toward Wrigley Field, where I have spent much of my summers for decades. Finally, there isn't the melancholy that accompanies the end of a baseball season in late September or early October.

When spring training ends, it's the end of a beginning, the beginning of a regular season of baseball right around a weekend corner. Regardless of how the Cubs are going to do this year, and we all know it's not likely to be anything close to playoff contention, it's always exciting to see the beginning of a new baseball season. I often quote A. Bartlett Giamatti's "The Green Fields of the Mind" at the end of each baseball season, but there's a part of Giamatti's prose worth remembering now, on the cusp of a new year:

The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings

Indeed, indeed. We are in the spring, no matter how cold it is right now, and we await the blossoming of a new baseball season, what we have waited for through that cold winter. Time for rejoicing, not sadness. Those of us who have shared the left-field berm at HoHoKam for all these years will simply reconvene, four miles west, at the Cubs' still-unnamed new ballpark.

For friends made and memories shared, I am grateful. They'll continue next spring.

About Thursday's game, it was played mostly by Cubs minor leaguers after Dale Sveum took out all the starting regulars by the fourth inning (save Dioner Navarro, who played six). Alfonso Soriano left HoHoKam's denizens with a fine memory, a home run launched to the back of the berm in left-center, his fifth of the spring. That gave the Cubs a 3-1 lead after Michael Morse had homered earlier for Seattle. The Mariners tied the game thanks in part to an error by second baseman Tim Saunders, and then some daring baserunning by Brett Jackson helped the Cubs take the lead. Jackson advanced from first to second on a medium-deep fly to center field, then took off for third on a Navarro groundout, and when Mariners first baseman Nate Tenbrink tried to nail him there, Tenbrink's throw got away and Jackson scored.

Nice work by Jackson, who had a good spring even though he missed a couple of weeks with a minor shoulder issue. Now he heads to Iowa, presumably on the Rizzo Plan, where he tears up Triple-A until June, then comes up to possibly replace David DeJesus, if DDJ can be traded somewhere.

Hisanori Takahashi was tagged with the loss after getting hit hard in the eighth inning and giving up three runs, the final two on a double down the left-field line by Kelly Shoppach. Takahashi threw two good innings -- which included a nicely-done pickoff of Jason Bay -- so maybe he was being extended too far by having to pitch a third relief inning. It appears Takahashi has made the team; I'd expect him to be used as a situational lefty, a luxury the Cubs can have with James Russell also in the pen.

Attendance for the final HoHoKam Cubs game was a larger-than-expected 11,635. That makes the season total 145,381, an average of 8,552 per date. Both the total and average are down from last year's 153,281 and 9,580; there was one more date in 2013 (17 compared to 16). But the drop in average attendance of 1,028 per date equates to a drop of 10.7 percent. There are several reasons for this; the early start due to the World Baseball Classic is one, and an unfavorable schedule that had the Cubs playing five home dates by March 1, with unusually cold weather. Still, it is also a reflection of the reduced interest in the team due to several straight bad seasons. It's something the Cubs need to consider when pricing tickets for the new complex.

Now the Cubs head to Houston to play two exhibition games against the newly-minted American League Astros, one Friday night, the other Saturday afternoon, before the regular-season opener in Pittsburgh Monday. Edwin Jackson will face Houston's Alex White on Friday. There will be plenty of season-preview and other content here over the weekend, so don't go away!

And I will treasure my memories of Cubs spring baseball at HoHoKam Park, and look forward to beginning new traditions in March 2014 at the intersection of highways 101 and 202 in Mesa.

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