By Charlie Vascellaro
From the balcony of my room on the sixth floor of the Talking Stick Resort, I could see the new ballpark in the distance. Illuminated by light towers on the eve of spring training's opening day, the traffic buzzing by on the freeway looked like one of those time-lapse photography sequences.
Both Salt River Fields and Talking Stick are grounded in Native American roots. At Talking Stick, the sense of where I was was evident in the slightest details, from the slate-tiled bathroom wall to the toiletries infused with such indigenous scents as cholla bud, mission fig and mesquite bean, all prevalent in native culture. Not only did I ask the housekeeper for a couple of extra soaps and shampoos, but I also bought larger sizes in the spa gift shop.
The architects at Dallas-based firm HKS incorporated elements from other ballparks as well as from historic Native American architecture in creating Salt River Fields. Preliminary research took the designers to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Casa Grande (home to the ancient civilization of the Hohokam people), about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. One of the state's most prominent prehistoric ball courts was unearthed here in 1918, although archaeologists didn't at first realize what purpose the hard surface they'd uncovered served. It wasn't until a much larger court with definitive markers was discovered at Snaketown on the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix during an excavation in the 1930s that the ball courts were recognized for what they are.
Archaeologist Doug Craig, who gave me a personal tour at Casa Grande, told me that more than 240 prehistoric ball courts have been discovered across Arizona. To see more of them, I made my way to the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park, right near Sky Harbor Airport in the middle of Phoenix, the spot where another significant ball court was unearthed. Though I'd lived in the greater Phoenix area for 20 years, I'd never been to one of its authentic wonders. The oval ball court in the archaeological park at Pueblo Grande has been carefully preserved and is so well defined that it looks like a re-creation, not an artifact from thousands of years ago. It seemed amazing that remnants of an ancient settlement could be found so remarkably preserved in the middle of today's bustling metropolis.