Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Takashi Sato
GCU News Bureau
The Arizona spring training portion of the Major League Baseball world descended on Grand Canyon University on Tuesday. The hope is that it’s just the start of a rapidly ascending relationship.
But having the 2019 Cactus League Luncheon in GCU Arena for the first time represented much more than just an annual opportunity for representatives of the 15 teams to break bread and get the ticket-buying public excited about the start of exhibition games this week.
In his remarks to the attendees, GCU President Brian Mueller stressed the importance of giving west Phoenix families new baseball facilities that will grow their love of the game.
“I wanted to have this here because I wanted to expose as many people to what’s going on in Maryvale as we can,” he said. “Things are moving here, but baseball should be a big part of it. I know that we’ve got great facilities in Scottsdale and in Gilbert and in Chandler and those are great places, but we’re excited about the role that baseball can play here.”
What’s going on, Mueller noted, is the rise of the GCU baseball program, which plays in a stadium – Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark – voted the most improved in the country.
“Our baseball program, very soon, will be a top-20 baseball program in the country,” Mueller said. “We have a great coaching staff, we have one of the best facilities in the country, we have a great budget, we’ve got great weather here. We’re very determined.”
The Milwaukee Brewers’ new spring training facility in Maryvale, which will include a GCU Learning Lounge starting April 16, also is a key part of the equation. Mueller, who was a high school sophomore in Milwaukee when the Seattle Pilots moved there and became the Brewers in 1970, said he pleaded with the club to stay in Maryvale and is thrilled that they have joined GCU in anchoring west Phoenix.
But he wants to see more.
“If we’re really serious about baseball, which we should be because it is America’s pastime, we’ve got to get kids out of their rooms, away from ‘Fortnight’ and we’ve got to get them out playing baseball,” he told the audience. “As I go around the city, around the Valley, I see these complexes with Little League fields and Pony League fields and softball fields and baseball fields and batting cages.
“You don’t see anything like that (here). I drive up and down Camelback, up and down Indian School, and I see old warehouses that have been vacant, I see vacant land.
“Somebody needs to create to build, and we want to be part of this – build a complex like none other in this neighborhood. Somewhere between Grand Canyon University, which is going to have one of the best university programs in the country, the Brewers are now one of the four best teams in the country (they came within one victory of the World Series last year), somewhere in the middle of that needs to be a baseball facility for kids like no other that can get immigrant kids excited about playing baseball.”
GCU is equally excited about helping its students work in baseball. Soon after he took over the sports business program in the Colangelo College of Business (CCOB) last year, Dr. Mark Clifford sought out Joseph Pun, Director of Spring Training Business Operations of the Oakland A’s, when Pun gave a talk on campus.
Pun, who now sits on the sports business advisory board, gave him contacts at other Cactus League teams. Before long, Clifford had organized a job fair at the new CCOB Building last fall that drew virtually all 15 teams plus representatives from the Arizona spring training facilities.
“That helped solidify that we have a great program with great students that can offer them something that can really help them,” Clifford said.
The new relationships with the teams led him to Bridget Binsbacher, Director of Operations for the Cactus League. She was seeking bids for the annual luncheon, and GCU Arena represented a nice upgrade from previous sites.
“It was such an unexpected surprise,” she said. “This is different from how we’ve done it ever before. We’ve either been at one of our spring training facilities or we’ve been in a hotel. This is new and different and I absolutely love it.
“This is amazing how they’ve transformed this arena. It’s more dynamic. When you look at the presentation, the video, the audio, it really is going to help us highlight what we do and who we are as the Cactus League. I cannot stress enough that this truly is a result of a partnership, and it’s just starting to foster great working relationships.”
Binsbacher added that the Learning Lounge component is an important piece of what GCU and the Brewers are doing and also was thrilled with how the CCOB job fair worked out.
“We had hundreds of students come in and apply for jobs,” she said. “It’s great because we’re all over the Valley, and this gives us another central and West Valley option for those facilities that are farther out.”
Several sports business students attended the luncheon (see video above) along with GCU baseball players and coach Andy Stankiewicz. There also was a roundtable discussion, emceed by Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Steve Berthiaume, that included former D-backs owner and Phoenix business icon Jerry Colangelo and Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and Robin Yount, and MLB Network anchor Greg Amsinger was one of the speakers.
But the main reason for the luncheon itself is to celebrate the start of spring training games. Five new members of the Cactus League Hall of Fame – Jenkins, Yount and another former player, Ken Griffey Jr.; Diamondbacks organist Bobby Freeman; and longtime MLB executive Roland Hemond – were inducted Tuesday.
An organ was set up for Freeman to make it feel more like a baseball game – he performed before the luncheon and later played the national anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” He’ll be back out at the Diamondbacks’ Talking Stick facility later this week – an early start because the MLB season has been moved up by a few days to avoid playing World Series games in November.
“This is our big event we have each year,” Cactus League President Jeff Meyer said. “We promote the Cactus League, and it’s getting the message out to everybody around the country that the season is here again.”
It also got the message out to the Cactus League that GCU and west Phoenix have a lot to offer baseball – with facilities, with students and with a passion to grow the area.
“It feels like home,” Binsbacher said.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].