PHOENIX -- One might have expected Eric Thames to start with the new weight room, but no. When the musclebound Brewers first baseman arrived in Spring Training on Tuesday, he searched out the cafeteria first.In the old days of Maryvale Baseball Park, the "cafeteria" was little more than a food
PHOENIX -- One might have expected Eric Thames to start with the new weight room, but no. When the musclebound Brewers first baseman arrived in Spring Training on Tuesday, he searched out the cafeteria first.
In the old days of Maryvale Baseball Park, the "cafeteria" was little more than a food cart in a hallway off a cramped clubhouse. Now, in what the Brewers christened Tuesday as American Family Fields of Phoenix following a $60 million renovation, there are actually tables and chairs, with windows overlooking a central agility field, climate-controlled batting cages and a long row of covered mounds. Down hallways adorned with images of the Brewers' history was a huge new weight room, an athletic training center and therapy pools. And down another hall, where the clubhouse used to be, was a sports science wing still getting finishing touches.
Thames quickly realized the Brewers have caught up to the rest of the Cactus League.
"It's a maze," said Thames. "There needs to be a directory when you walk in the front door. I'm in disbelief. It's an awesome place."
Thames arrived in time for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the rebirth of the Brewers' longtime Spring Training home. Players knew it was coming, but the most common reaction to seeing the finished result in person was, "Wow."
"We needed this," said reliever Jeremy Jeffress, "and it's a testament to how we played last year. We're coming in and feeling good."
"This is definitely above expectations," said starter Jimmy Nelson, looking around a clubhouse that exceeds what the Brewers have up in Milwaukee. "You want to bring a blow-up mattress and spend the night."
Said president of baseball operations David Stearns: "We've spent years now looking at designs, crafting it, imagining what it would be. I think for all of us to get a chance to come out here and see it, it's a little overwhelming at first. They have transformed this into one of the elite complexes in Major League Baseball."
It happened fast. The Phoenix City Council voted in November 2017 to approve a renovation plan, which called for a $10 million investment over five years from the city, plus $5.7 million more from the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority. The Brewers agreed to pay the rest and to take over operation of the complex from the city. Architects from HKS drew up plans and the construction firm Mortenson broke ground in late March after the Brewers played their final 2018 exhibition home game. Less than 10 months later, HKS principal partner Mo Stein was one of the dignitaries cutting ribbon.
"We told you we could get it done, and we did," Stein said.
Spring Training gets the headlines, but Stearns noted that the Brewers will benefit year-round. The complex is home to two Brewers teams in the Rookie-level Arizona League and also serves as the rehabilitation center for injured players from throughout the organization. Including the sports science wing, it's now the hub of the Brewers' medical apparatus, Stearns said.
Before, the Minor Leaguers were crammed into a separate building. When their services were needed in big league camp, they would walk in uniform across a parking lot. Now they just walk down a hall. It's a manifestation of the concept of "connectedness" that manager Craig Counsell has stressed since taking over the job.
"One big unit," Jeffress said. "Everybody's together."
"It's something that could have been beneficial for me, seeing how a big leaguer preps for the day," said Corbin Burnes. "They're going to get to see that firsthand now, working out right alongside us."
Fans will also notice big differences, like wider concourses and a video scoreboard in the main stadium, renovated restrooms, seats where there once were bleachers, better access to concessions, and a large retail store off the new home-plate plaza entrance. Getting to the stadium gates will be an experience in its own. Fans coming from the east on 51st Avenue will stroll between two of the Brewers' practice fields, one of which was built to the exact dimensions of Miller Park. Other fans coming from the main lots to the south will pass through the agility field, which the Brewers envision using as players get loose before games.
Work continues on some aesthetic elements around the grounds, including signage to reflect the naming rights deal with American Family Insurance. The company, based in Madison, Wisc., signed an agreement last month that also gives it naming rights beginning in 2021 to what is now Miller Park.
"Fans are going to have a tremendous amount of access," Stearns said. "The fan experience is going to be as intimate, if not more intimate. And with modern amenities."
"When fans come, I want them to have the same reaction: 'Wow,'" said Brewers president of business operations Rick Schlesinger.
That is exactly what Tony Migliaccio said when he arrived. The Brewers' director of clubhouse operations has been coming to Spring Training since 1983, when he was a clubhouse assistant.
"I've been fortunate to be in Sun City, Chandler, the first Maryvale, and now here," said Migliaccio. "This is just unbelievable, the facilities and amenities we have. The club has done an awesome job."
It made him think back to the old days.
"Sun City was very basic," Migliaccio said. "When the Indians used to bus up form Tucson, we didn't have a visiting clubhouse. All our guys would go on one side of the clubhouse, and the Indians would take the other side of the clubhouse, and we would be in the same room. Nowadays you think, 'That could never happen.' But that's how we did it. That's all we had."
Now they have much more.
Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for MLB.com since 2001. Follow him on Twitter @AdamMcCalvy and like him on Facebook.