Filling the void: Baseball fans flock to Tempe Innings Festival in absence of spring training

Ryan Dempster, left, and Roger Clemens laugh during Dempster’s talk show, “Off the Mound with Ryan Dempster” during the recent Tempe Innings Festival. (Photo courtesy of Charles Reagan/Innings Arizona)

PHOENIX – The ping of metal bats meeting baseballs in the cages could be heard from blocks away. Fans dusted off their favorite jerseys and memorabilia pieces to be signed by MLB legends as they scarfed down funnel cakes and corn dogs. Sharpies and sunscreen filled up purses and strollers galore.

The whole experience was rather blissful, and it all took place under the warm Arizona sun.

Other than those metal bats, the sights, sounds and smells could have come from Sloan Park, Scottsdale Stadium or any of the other Cactus League ballparks around the Valley. Instead, amid an MLB lockout, fans were getting their fix of spring baseball at Tempe Beach Park last weekend when the Innings Festival made its return.

After spending a year on hold because of COVID-19, the Innings Festival brought together baseball fans and rock-and-roll diehards, who merged for a two-day festival where MLB legends greeted fans and bands rocked out along Tempe Town Lake.

Major League Baseball, and by extension the Cactus League, is still on pause as the league and its players continue collective bargaining negotiations. Many fans who attended Innings Fest said their initial intention was to attend spring training games in addition to experiencing the festival, which is the whole concept of the event. After Tuesday’s failed negotiations, spring training is still on pause and early games in the regular season have been canceled.

After spending a year on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Innings Festival brought together baseball fans and rock-and-roll diehards at Tempe Town Lake. Bands including Black Pistol Fire, St. Vincent and Foo Fighters performed. (Cronkite News Photo)

Evan Thompson and Corbin Clark, both 27 and San Francisco Giants supporters from Northern California, were two of many fans dressed head to toe in their team’s gear. When they purchased their Innings Fest tickets in October, they hoped to pair the experience with a Giants game during the daytime.

“We like Foo Fighters. We like Tame Impala and we like baseball. It’s kind of the trifecta,” Thompson said. “The fans are the ones that are kind of helpless. We don’t really have a say in what’s going on (with the lockout).”

Clark, while also disappointed, expressed interest in meeting Jim Abbott, the New York Yankees’ legend who is largely known for making it as a professional (and throwing a no-hitter) with just one hand. Abbott, who spoke to fans on Sunday, wrote a biography that inspired a young Clark, who is hopeful for a swift conclusion to the league’s negotiations.

“I want to see some baseball, I just don’t want to see them compromise on what makes it baseball,” he said.

Cactus League games provide a fan-friendly way to engage baseball’s younger audiences through face-to-face player interactions that do not break the piggy bank for parents. While the price point for Innings fest was fairly steep at around $150 per day for admission, children of all ages received a similar experience to the ballpark.

Of course, there is no shortage of adults – or pricey adult beverages – during spring training, either.

In addition to Abbott, MLB Legends Roger Clemens, Kenny Lofton, Rick Sutcliffe and more signed baseballs and made small talk with thousands of fans. Former Diamondbacks’ pitcher Dontrelle Willis also made an appearance.

Clemens, 59, won seven Cy Young awards and two World Series titles as a player. Sporting his sizable University of Texas national championship ring, he took time to give young players and fans some pointers and baseball grip techniques. One of those lucky fans was a 12-year-old Padres fan Rowan Ward from San Diego.

Ward and his family planned to come watch the Padres play in Peoria in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic suspended all league activities. Now, two years later, they’re missing out on spring training baseball again.

“Originally I was here for both (the music and the baseball). Now that it’s just the music, I’m kind of sad,” he said. “I would have preferred to maybe see some baseball played, but that’s definitely not a bad way to spend my day.”

Regardless, Ward walked away with an autographed baseball – and a new grip for his fastball – from Clemens.

The Tempe Innings Festival brings together fans of baseball and music and was a welcome event for supporters of a sport that is dealing with a work stoppage. (Photo by Jim Jacoby/Cronkite News)

“You see a lot of good kids come through, you see a lot of good fans from all the different teams you played for,” Clemens said. “Even though spring training is not taking place right now, it’s still great that everybody came out to enjoy the weekend.”

The artists did not shy away from the festival’s clear ties between song and sport. Rock artist Del Water Gap took a minute from his set to proclaim his love for the Diamondbacks, and how watching Randy Johnson inspired him to want a mustache when he was younger.

Dawson Daugherty is the lead singer of San Diego-based indie pop band “almost monday.” Daugherty made sure to leave some time to express his Friar-fandom in between songs with an exclamatory, “Let’s go, Padres!”

“(The Padres) are a bunch of really fun, young and rad dudes,” he said after the show. “When I was really little, I went down with my dad (to Peoria Sports Complex). I think I got (current Dodgers manager and former Padre) Dave Roberts to sign my hat and a ball. I wish he was coaching the Padres.”

He added, “I hope that the season happens. I kind of wanted to say something (during the show), like, ‘Hey, MLB, can we figure this out?’”

He says that he feels sad for the fans who expected to catch spring training.

Sal DiSanto, 26, is a Red Sox fan from Gilbert. DiSanto called the festival a perfect combination of baseball heroes and rock stars that people his age watched develop over the span of their lifetimes.

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“If you love baseball, you want any fix you can get,” DiSanto said. “We have Foo Fighters, good music, too. For the people from my generation, Roger Clemens and Dontrelle Willis, those are my guys.”

Paul Auday, 52, a writer and teacher who pens biographical poems about sports legends, spent about an hour looking on as Lofton gave young fans some swing tips.

Auday said that for baseball fans like himself, it is satisfying to have an outlet like Innings Fest to meet players from past generations. Any spring training baseball on top of that is “an extra bonus.”

Innings Festival will host a second event in Tampa in March to complement Grapefruit League spring training games in Florida. With a fresh slate of artists and MLB legends, one of the few constants is former Chicago Cubs pitcher Ryan Dempster.

Dempster, a two-time All-Star, hosted talk shows with the other MLB legends all weekend long in Tempe, and he will host a similar event in Tampa. In a traditional year, Dempster would be working at Sloan Park in Mesa with the Marquee Network that broadcasts Cubs games and other Chicago baseball content.

“I don’t think the intention was ever to fill a void, because (the festival) has been here in the past,” Dempster said. “I think it is more to add to the experience, but maybe it does that right now. We’ve been without live music for a couple years around the world, and now we have this opportunity to have a festival again.

“You kind of get the feel of something you’re missing right now. If we can give a little bit of that, and fill that void just a little bit over this weekend, we are doing a great thing.

“Because music and baseball, there is nothing better.”

Kevin Redfern KEV-in RED-furn (he/him/his)
Sports Broadcast Reporter, Phoenix

Kevin Redfern expects to graduate in December 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Redfern worked as a digital reporter with Cronkite News last spring.