Play Ball! Spring training on the ‘rez’

Salt River Fields. (Photo courtesy of Discover Salt River)

Dalton Walker

Salt River Indian Community hosts first pitch of 2020 season

All eyes were on Sommer Lopez.

With a baseball in her hand and as hundreds watched from their seats, the nervous teenager launched the ball towards home plate to mark the opening of Arizona’s 2019 spring training season.

Lopez threw out the ceremonial first pitch at her park and on her land.

The 17-year-old high school senior was selected to throw out the first pitch last year at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, a ballpark home to MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies during spring training. Lopez’s people, the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, own the ballfield built on tribal land in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Caleb Dash took turns with Lopez in tossing out the first pitch to match the two professional teams that play at the ballpark. The two teenagers are members of Salt River’s youth council.

“There was a lot of pressure made when throwing the pitch,” Lopez recalled. “I was worried we were gonna mess up in front of everyone, but in the end it was all fun. I felt appreciated that the (tribal) council held us in such respect that they allowed us to represent Salt River.”

The first pitch in Salt River is a new and unique tradition for tribe.

This year, two military veterans from Salt River will be tossing out the first pitch on Feb. 22. The game coincides with Salt River opening its new USS Arizona Memorial Gardens just outside the ballpark.

Salt River isn’t alone in Indian Country with a special relationship to professional sports. The Mohegan Tribe in Connecticut owns a WNBA franchise, the Connecticut Sun, and the team plays home games on Mohegan territory at the 10,000-seat Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville.

The Mohegan Tribe was the first tribe to own a professional sports team when it purchased the Orlando Miracle and relocated and renamed the team in 2003. Council member Kathy Regan-Pyne is a fan of the team and has season tickets. She said the team is part of “our family.”

“The Connecticut Sun is part of our community, both our tribe and our business,” Regan-Pyne said. “They are awesome, from coaching, the vice president of sports to the women part of the team. They embody the spirit and the values of the tribe.”

The team practices in the tribe’s community center and hosts summer camps for tribal youth. The Sun’s new season starts in May. The tribe also owns the New England Black Wolves of the National Lacrosse League. The lacrosse team was purchased a few years ago and plays home games in the same arena.

Regan-Pyne emphasised a special connection that Mohegan women have with the basketball players. “Our tribe values and supports women,” she said. During a 2018 WNBA playoff run, Regan-Pyne was one of six Mohegan women featured in a minute-long inspirational video shown on the big screen before the game. The video was a surprise to the team and was a hit, she said.

Other tribes across Indian Country have built relationships with professional sports franchises.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians sponsor the Los Angeles Clippers’ minor league team, Agua Caliente Clippers of Ontario. The Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians has hosted Los Angeles Lakers preseason practices and basketball camps.

In Wisconsin, the Oneida Nation has a sponsored gate at historic Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers. The tribe’s casino is also the team’s “official casino”

In 2019, the NFL’s Las Vegas Raiders announced a partnership with the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians as a “Founding Partner” of Allegiant Stadium and team sponsor. The Muckleshoot Indian Tribe announced similar partnerships with the Seattle Seahawks and with NHL Seattle, an expansion team set to compete in 2021. The Seahawks will have dedicated space at CenturyLink Field called the Muckleshoot Plaza to learn about the tribe’s culture.

In Phoenix, Salt River has an imprint brand across the sports scene beyond the reservation. The Talking Stick Resort Arena in downtown Phoenix, home to the Suns and Mercury basketball teams, is marketed after the tribe’s flagship business and gaming enterprises, Talking Stick Resort and Casino Arizona. Phoenix Rising, a professional soccer club, has a small stadium in Salt River and plays on the Casino Arizona Field.

Another Phoenix tribe also brands its name on venues. In nearby Glendale, the Gila River Indian Community has naming rights of the Gila River Arena where the Arizona Coyotes play home hockey games.

The 11,000-seat Salt River Fields opened in 2011 and is surrounded by 12 practice fields. Last year, Baseball Digest named it the top spring training ballpark of the decade. Inside, along the ballpark’s corridor are a handful of posters that show some of the tribe’s baseball history, including former tribal president Paul Smith Sr. Smith threw out the ceremonial first pitch in 2018 alongside his great-grandson.

The Diamondbacks and the Rockies often host baseball clinics in Salt River. For the last few years, Rockies outfielder Ian Desmond has hosted his own camp on the reservation for tribal youth. Desmond has a special fielding glove that was designed by artist and Salt River tribal citizen Jacob Butler.

Salt River’s relationship with the Diamondbacks stretches into the summer. Salt River hosts a youth baseball tournament as part of a Diamondbacks promotion. The tournament concludes with players walking the baseball field before a game at Chase Field in Phoenix.

Salt River Fields anchors a bustling business corridor for the tribe that includes its casino resort, OdySea Aquarium, Medieval Times and a Great Wolf Lodge indoor waterpark. Salt River markets the area as the Talking Stick Entertainment District and as its tourism destination.

“My community owning Salt River Fields is an interesting fact to grow up with,” Lopez said. “I live in a generation that is seeing all these businesses open up in my community and it has opened my eye to different change and partnership possibilities. I feel blessed that our community has these opportunities and I hope that the future holds much more for us.”

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Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (Photo courtesy of Salt River Fields)

Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker

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