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Angels Come Home to the Cactus League : Sports: Nomads no more, the team has settled in at a new preseason headquarters in Arizona.

March 23, 1993|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEMPE, Ariz. — Seated along the first-base side at Tempe Diablo Stadium, Carl Lolley of Buena Park watched intently as the California Angels stretched in the outfield some three hours before they were to play the Seattle Mariners.

Kids leaned over a railing, asking players and coaches for autographs. Adults were content to observe batting practice unfold at its leisurely pace. Around the batting cages and in the outfield, players laughed and talked, seemingly without a care.

These are the timeless images of another season of Cactus League spring training in the Arizona desert.

What sets this scene apart is that it's happening at the new spring home of the Angels, who, after 32 seasons of nomadic wandering, have finally settled at newly remodeled Tempe Diablo Stadium. They have said goodby to Palm Springs, Mesa and Casa Grande, Ariz., and Holtville, Calif., which have at one time or another served as their spring headquarters. And a bonus to unprecedented comfort and stability has been a record-breaking exhibition season at the turnstiles.

Nestled between Interstate 10 and the picturesque buttes that rise just beyond the left-field wall, Diablo Stadium has undergone a $5.8-million face lift that includes a new grandstand and a grass picnic area, concession stands, administrative offices, and clubhouse and training facilities. The complex includes the 9,785-seat stadium, two practice fields and an extra infield, something the Angels didn't have in Palm Springs.

What's more, they don't have to spend half of the spring training schedule on the road before heading to Palm Springs for the final two weeks. Now, they will play all their home games in Tempe. And the Angels, their fans and Tempe--a Phoenix suburb of 141,865 and home to Arizona State University, the Phoenix Cardinals and the Fiesta Bowl--couldn't be happier.

"This is where we've always wanted to be," Angel President Richard Brown said several months ago. "We looked at a lot of different spring training stadiums in Florida and Arizona, and we incorporated what we saw and liked from those into this place. A strong foundation is critical for a club, and we have that here."

Lolley and his wife, Doris, have had Angels season tickets since 1977. They liked what they saw on their first trip to Diablo Stadium.

"We used to go to all the games in Palm Springs," he said. "We thought we'd give this a try. This will probably work out better for them. The Giants and the Cubs all have big followings over here, so I don't see why the Angels won't, too."

A few days later, fans proved his point by setting a stadium and Angels spring training single-game attendance record of 8,483. To be sure, they were lured in part by a baseball bat giveaway and a chance to see the expansion Colorado Rockies, who have developed a passionate following in their first spring. It was also the Angels' first night game in Tempe.

Still, they almost outdrew the Arizona State-Georgetown National Invitation Tournament basketball game, which had a crowd of 8,777 at the Sun Devils' campus arena a few miles away.

So far, the Angels are averaging 5,879 fans, just off the Palm Springs single-game record of 6,002 set in 1986. The club, in 12 dates, has drawn a spring training home attendance record 70,552 fans. Along the streets near the stadium, there are blue and red banners hanging from street lamps welcoming the Angels. There have been a number of dinners for Tempe and Angels officials and players after games.

Fans hoping to catch a glimpse of "the Cowboy," Angels owner Gene Autry, had better look sharp. Now 85, he has made only a few public appearances. But he and his wife, Jackie, have attended all the Angels' games and several social functions with Tempe officials.

For the players, the new digs are a pleasant change, particularly the 15,000-square-foot clubhouse.

"It's awesome," veteran pitcher Chuck Finley said. "We're so used to walking into that other place (in Palm Springs) that was kind of like a warehouse.

"I liked Palm Springs because it kind of broke up spring training, but this is nice, too."

That sentiment is universal among Angels players, who describe their new surroundings as "great."

"I live in Michigan now, so the weather's great," said outfielder Chad Curtis, who played at Benson (Ariz.) High School and later at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix. "It's a great facility, and the clubhouse is spacious."

Upstairs in the stadium's souvenir store, salesman Tom Stumper said he has heard only glowing reviews.

"The first thing people say is, 'Wow, this is a beautiful ballpark,' " said Stumper, a Tempe native who often attended Seattle Mariners games when that team called Diablo Stadium home from 1977 to 1992.

Out on the grassy embankment beyond left field, Mike Caplan and Luciano Stella, teachers on spring break from Vancouver, Canada, hunkered down to watch batting practice.

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