New Arizona ballpark a tribute to McGregor
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Keli McGregor Reflective Path winds its way from a small wooden bridge adjacent to a man-made creek just to the north of the home plate entrance to the nation's newest Spring Training complex.Along the way there are small metal placards honoring some of his sayings and that also tell the tale about his 48 years of life, which ended so abruptly last spring. McGregor was the Rockies president, who teamed with Derrick Hall, his D-backs counterpart, and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, to construct the first Major League ballpark of any kind on Native American land. "I dare say it won't be the last once other teams get a look at it," D-backs managing general partner Ken Kendrick said Friday, which was a day of looking forward, but also looking back as the new complex officially opened. D-backs pitchers and catchers report Sunday with the first formal workout slated for Monday. The Rockies are only a day behind. The two teams meet in the first game at what is lavishly called Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in an afternoon game on Feb. 26 with Commissioner Bud Selig expected to be in attendance. Salt River Fields is a nod to the Indian community, which funded the $120 million complex on its own land located near the Native American-owned hotel/casino and golf course. Talking Stick is a reference to the traditional Pima calendar stick on which carvers historically etched community events and milestones. The carvers had another etching Friday as the 15-month construction project officially ended. The Rockies and D-backs had called Tucson their Spring Training home until last spring when both departed. Hall recalled the process of how he and McGregor toured a number of sites in Maricopa County looking for just the right place to relocate and join the other 13 Cactus League teams located in and around the area. When they stood on what was then a bare patch of land located between three distinct mountain peaks to the north, east and south, there was no doubt about that decision. "This was it," Hall said. And now that it's done in all its glory? "It's the best," Hall said. "There will never be another one like it." Hall may be a tad biased because the newest is always the best with all the accompanying bells and whistles. Plus, it's also his baby. HKS Sports & Entertainment designed the ballpark and certainly improved upon its own Dodgers-White Sox complex, which opened two springs ago at Camelback Ranch far to the west in Glendale. Unlike the Ranch, most of the seats at the new ballpark will be ensconced in shade, making life much more comfortable for fans during day games. Just having the D-backs in the Phoenix area some 10 miles from Chase Field is going to make a big difference in Spring Training attendance, Hall noted. To illustrate that point, on the first day tickets to their Cactus League games at the new complex went on sale, the D-back sold 37,000 compared with 4,700 the first day last year at Tucson Electric Park. To date, the D-backs report having already sold 88,000 tickets for 18 dates, nearing their total attendance of 99,778 last year 120 miles away. The D-backs have tentatively slated a split-squad game against the White Sox in Tucson on March 6, but on a piecemeal basis is the only way they will ever again play spring games elsewhere in the state. The agreement between the Rockies, D-backs and the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community is slated for at least an initial 25 years. "We're expecting many sellouts," Hall said. "We're expecting our attendance to be right up there with the Giants and the Cubs." Ditto the Rockies, who experienced the phenomena of having more of their own fans see them play road games in the Valley than travel I-10 to Tucson. The five-hour round-trip bus excursions for both teams to play games in the Phoenix area are also now a memory of the not too distant past. "I loved Tucson. It was a great place, said Charlie Monfort, the Rockies' chairman and chief executive officer. "But let's face it, teams didn't bring a lot of their star players to face us down there, and maybe now without all that time on the road this will help us get off to a faster start in April and May than we used to." So much for looking forward. As far as looking back, about an hour before the grand opening ceremonies just inside the center-field gate, a much quieter dedication to McGregor was offered by the reflective path. With McGregor's widow, Lori, in attendance, a few of the participants offered solemn and kind words. One can't help picturing McGregor, a still strapping former NFL player at 6-foot-7, 250 pounds the picture of health, talking last March about the prospective move from Tucson at Hi Corbett Field. A month later, he died in a Utah hotel room from what was later revealed as a rare virus that fatally disrupted the beating of his heart, suddenly and irrevocably ending his nine-year tenure with the Rockies. The death left his family and closest friends stunned. They still are. "I shed a lot of tears that day," Monfort said. "If calories were tears I would've lost a lot of pounds. This was very emotional here for me today." In McGregor's memory, this message was printed on one of the metal plaques that line his path: "Thank you, Keli McGregor, for your leadership and for your courageous spirit. Your vision allowed Salt River Fields to take flight." No question about it, Hall said. McGregor's life and untimely death are now another significant etching on the calendar stick. "We dreamt it together, designed it together, and it's terribly sad to me that he can't be here today to see the end results," Hall said. "But he's here in spirit, I really do believe that. He would have been so proud. Keli will live on here forever."
Barry M. Bloom is national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.