This year I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days down in Arizona for Spring Training. For those who have not had the opportunity to visit Salt River Fields, I cannot recommend it enough, or convey just how much dimension this added to my experience as a baseball fan. A few hours spent around a cluster of playing fields watching minor league practice provided richer insight and experiences into the profession of the baseball player than any game at a major league ballpark ever can.
Behind home plate of one field, the coach had tipped a 5 gallon bucket over and fed balls to a machine as a few players took bunting practice. The coach had promised a dollar to the player who could bunt their ball into the bucket. Time after time after time the ball would miss. One guy in particular was struggling. "Nonono," one teammate kept saying. The next bunt popped about 15 feet into the air. "Nonono," he repeated, laughing.
I watched as the players worked at pitching, base running drills and batting practice. On one field, the coach running hitting practice would announce the situation and as the hitters came up- "hit and run," he yelled, or "runner on second, two outs."
At the far end of that field, there were three or four players clustered at each outfield position waiting to field fly balls. There was a small kid lingering near that outfield fence. His eyes got wide as on guy jogged over with a ball in his hand.
"This one is yours but I have a quiz that you have to answer correctly first. Is that cool?"
"Sure..." The kid was wide-eyed and looked more than a little doubtful. After answering the question correctly (he said that his favorite team was the Colorado Rockies), he caught the ball as it was flipped to him and walked away with a gigantic grin on his face. I would bet the bunting coach's dollar that the kid is going to remember that small encounter for the rest of his life.
The fan experience at Salt River Fields is the legacy of Keli McGregor. The unique fan experience found here is McGregor's brainchild and it has been executed very well. The curtain dividing player from fan is dissolved. One the one hand, the experience is intended to provide insight into how the top players of the sport have to hone and refine their game. More importantly, though, it is intended to bring young people into the fold of Rockies fandom.
This season, the Rockies will enter into their third decade. Even though this makes them one of the youngest teams in baseball, there are now multiple generations of Rockies fans. There are fans of the game who were around to hear the chants of "Go Rockies" at old Mile High stadium and fans whose first memories were of the Blake Street Bomber days. Some fans had the bad luck to arrive on scene during the drought of successful seasons in the first half of the 2000s but there are some whose first memories of the team are of the sensational run in 2007.
There are several reason why it is necessary to bridge fans of generations and introduce new fans to the game. From a baseball business perspective, establishing a fan base for ten or twenty years down the road is essential. This is something that is unique to how most sports must run as a business; businesses in most other sectors consider 5-10 years to be longest they can plan for. From the perspective of a young fan, having players to emulate and act as role models is often important for their own lives.
From the few facilities I explored, there were few better than what the Rockies and Diamondbacks have established in terms of allowing young fans to absorb and fall in love with the sport and their team. It is something that is worth visiting for any fan of baseball- young and old alike.