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Cactus League baseball: Soaking up the sun while hope steps to the plate

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

Los Angeles Daily News

PUBLISHED: March 13, 2021 at 3:43 p.m. |

“Spring training is a sign of hope and optimism, and that’s true this year more than ever.” – Bridget Binsbacher, executive director of the spring training Cactus League in Arizona.

I’m good to go. I’ve had my Moderna vaccine shots, got my tickets, a place to stay, and a car to get me there. For the first time in a year, I’m heading out of town, and going to a place where hope and optimism springs eternal.

There isn’t a better vaccine for the mind than sitting in the sun at the ballpark watching a spring training game, feeling like a kid playing hooky again.

There was no hope and optimism last year after the games ended abruptly halfway through the season. Health officials were worried about something they called the coronavirus. What the heck was that? We’d find out soon enough.

“It just didn’t seem real that something would hit that would require us to shut down completely,” says Bridget Binsbacher, executive director of the Cactus League, the spring training home to 15 major league clubs, including the Dodgers.

The league began in 1947 with only two major league teams, and has been an all-volunteer organization, with many volunteers coming from out of state to sell the tickets, man the gates, and clean up the mess we leave behind.

They and the locals arrived this year, Bridget says, “like kids looking forward to summer camp.”

The Cactus League is big business in Arizona – “a key driver in the state’s economy,” she says. In 2018, spring training generated $644 million in revenue for the state and created 6,000 jobs. In 2020, it reached a little over half of that before Covid-19 shut the gates and sent everyone home.

“We’ve focused on health and safety this year,” she says. It’s priority number one. There are seating pods for families and small groups spaced apart from others, social distancing throughout the ballparks, and face covering is required, even when eating.

Nah, I just threw that last part in to see if you were paying attention. Each of the 10 ballparks has significantly cut back on how many fans can attend the games, which has driven up ticket prices in the secondary market, but the demand still far exceeds the supply.

“The energy is high, and people are happy to be out and about in the fresh air watching a ballgame,” Bridget says. “I’d give anything to be sitting up in the stands watching a game with my grandfather right now.”

She’s not talking as an executive director now, she talking as a fan, and the granddaughter of a wise man we could all learn something from.

Angel Flores was a Mexican immigrant who came to this country legally, learned to speak the language, and became a citizen. He didn’t have a lot of money, but he always found enough for a few tickets in the grandstands for his grandchildren to take turns with him watching the Padres play in their hometown, San Diego.

“He was a proud man, a patriot,” Bridget says. “I learned my work ethic from him. He pushed his grandchildren constantly to speak and read, and if you do people will not pay attention to your gender or nationality. They will look at what you have to contribute, and they will respond to that.”

Angel was prepping his grandchildren for real life in his new country. He wanted them strong and ready to take on any challenges from people who look at a person’s gender and nationality, but never seem to see the contributions they make.

His granddaughter would spend 20 years in the banking industry before realizing her heart was in the non-profit sector. She joined the Cactus League as a volunteer, becoming the first female to serve on its executive board. When it came time to choose a leader for these challenging times, the board looked at all the contributions she had made, and chose Angel Flores’s granddaughter for the job.

And now, it’s another spring training filled with all the hope and optimism the coronavirus robbed us of last season, and the new boss wants to play hooky – sit in the sun watching a baseball game with her grandfather one more time.

For that, she’d give anything.

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