A Quarter-Century Of Cactus League Memories

Some of the most memorable anecdotes, stories and performances from more than 20 years of watching Cactus League spring games.

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A Quarter-Century Of Cactus League Memories

You know the old saying, "Spring training stats are meaningless", and "The results of spring training games don’t matter".

While those are generally true, it doesn’t mean that you can’t get great baseball events and memories from these March games played in warm sunshine (sometimes – but see below!) far from your team’s home city.

Here are some of my most memorable moments, games and players from twenty-plus years of attending spring training in Arizona.

1984: Fergie. Ferguson Jenkins won 284 games and struck out 3192 batters in a Hall of Fame career. But in the spring of ’84, he was just trying to hang on after having a bad season at the age of 40 for the 1983 Cubs. He came to spring training and got lit up, and the Cubs lost 13 spring games in a row. Oddly enough, that may have been the catalyst for the Cubs’ NL East title year – the losses shook up GM Dallas Green so much that he made the late-spring deal that brought Bob Dernier and Gary Matthews to the team; without them the Cubs wouldn’t have won. They did win without Fergie; he was released before Opening Day, and never did get to play in the postseason (he had also been traded away from the Red Sox before 1978; maybe with him, the Red Sox would have won the AL East before the Bucky Dent game).

March 16 and 17, 2003: Rain. It doesn’t rain that often in the Valley of the Sun in March (though it sure did last weekend!), but on consecutive days in 2003 the Cubs were rained out of games at home against the Rockies and on the road against the Royals. With umbrellas prohibited (why?) at HoHoKam Park, they nearly had a disaster with people running for shelter, and the next day at Surprise, they never started – but opened the park anyway for two hours, apparently to sell some beer. I wrote two rants about the various rain policies at the time. A followup to the Royals rainout: they refunded my ticket, including the Ticketmaster service fees, without me even asking.

March 22, 2004 (and most of spring 2004): Put Him In The Spring Training Hall of Fame. Unless you’re a Rays, Cubs or Giants fan, you have likely never heard of Scott McClain, who in 16 minor league seasons hit 292 home runs (and 71 in four years in Japan), but only got a handful of the proverbial coffee cups in the majors. But in spring 2004, he hit everything in sight – leading the Cubs in spring HR with six and hitting .333. On March 22, in a spring night game in Mesa, he hit a solo HR and Greg Maddux threw five shutout innings in a 1-0 win over the A’s in a game that clocked only 1:59 – a rarity in the 21st Century. McClain was the last roster cut that year, but on September 3, 2008, as a Giant, he registered a record-book distinction when he homered off the Rockies’ Steven Register, becoming at age 36 the oldest player to hit his first major league home run. He’s in minor league camp with the Cubs this spring, likely hoping to hook on with the organization as a minor league coach.

March 22, 2007: Past vs. Future. Or so we thought, anyway, when Mark Prior, trying to come back from injury, faced former Cub Maddux in a Cubs vs. Padres tilt at Peoria. Prior pitched reasonably well, giving up only four hits and a run and striking out three in four innings. But Maddux the master craftsman was better, shutting out his former teammates for five innings, allowing only three singles, at which time the game was called for rain. That game was the last time Mark Prior threw on a major league mound.

March 27, 2007: Walkoff! On a wild and windy day that featured 25 hits, nine walks and five lead changes, the Cubs came back from a 6-1 deficit to the Royals only to have Ryan Dempster, then the closer, blow a two-run lead in the top of the ninth at Mesa. No matter! Ronny Cedeno hit the fifth home run of the game, a three-run walkoff, in the last of the 10th inning – made even more memorable by the fact that it nearly hit me in my spot on the left field lawn in front of the scoreboard. Unfortunately, it bounced away and landed in the hands of a lucky kid.

March 26, 2009: Wind! Game recaps said winds were gusting to "33 MPH" at Scottsdale Stadium during an evening affair between the Cubs and Giants. It felt like 40 or 50 MPH, though, as baseballs flew around – Cub starter Sean Marshall couldn’t throw strikes, walking five, although he managed to get out of his four innings allowing only two runs. Now-departed Cubs OF Milton Bradley hit a windblown HR, but in the bottom of the 7th, both teams agreed they’d had enough and the game was called, a 5-3 Giants win. I’d left about half an inning earlier, because with the dust blowing in my face, it was getting impossible to watch the game. Giants manager Bruce Bochy was later quoted as saying, "I got a pound of dirt in my eyes. The risk of injury factor became involved. It was the right thing to do."

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