Meghan McNamara

Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016

Parking and ticket-taking bring benefits far beyond Cactus League stadium walls

Communities that welcome teams and their fans to spring training each year love baseball. And it turns out baseball loves the communities, too.

Spring training brings people from across the nation to see their favorite teams play in relaxed, intimate settings around the Valley. Meanwhile, volunteer civic support groups at many of the venues, including the Surprise Sundancers, Peoria Diamond Club and Tempe Diablos, are on hand to make the fan experience enjoyable while also raising funds for community projects.

Each organization has different responsibilities at its respective ballpark, and structure is different across the groups, but they all share the common goal of making spring training come off without a hitch while helping their communities.

The organizations raise money with their work during spring training that is pumped back into the community in the form of scholarships and programs that help children and adults.

Surprise Sundancers

Founded in 2002, the Surprise Sundancers now have more than 750 members based at Surprise Stadium, spring home of the World Series champion Kansas City Royals as well as the Texas Rangers.

In 2007, money raised by the Surprise Sundancers went toward design and construction of DreamCatcher Park, a fully functioning baseball park for people with special needs located just down the street from Surprise Stadium.

“It has a rubberized surface so people in wheelchairs can go around the bases,” said Travis Ashby, sports tourism and special events supervisor at Surprise Stadium. “It’s an entire ballpark made for special needs children to be able to experience baseball.”

Retired aerospace engineer Alex Thanos, a Sundancer assigned to parking duty during spring training for the past 16 years, initially was a member of the Peoria Diamond Club before joining the Sundancers because they were closer to his home. He said he loves parking duty because he finishes early enough to watch most games.

“You really run into some really terrific people,” Thanos said.

Ashby said the volunteer work can be demanding, with as many as 200 volunteers working in jobs ranging from parking cars to helping fans in wheelchairs reach their seats. Tempers can occasionally flare, but volunteers find a way to make it all work.

“At the end of the day we’re family,” Ashby said. “We can’t operate without (the Sundancers).”

Peoria Diamond Club

The Peoria Diamond Club, established in 1993 and now boasting more than 600 members, helps out at the Peoria Sports Complex, where the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners train in the spring.

The Diamond Club’s motto: “Where children are the winners.” The volunteer group pairs with several different community organizations that benefit kids and even some adults.

Organizations such as Arizona Burn Foundation, Teen Lifeline, Special Olympics and others have received grants from funds raised by the Diamond Club.

The club helped fund the expansion of Billy’s Place, which offers grief support for youth ages 3 to 18. Juli Schragel, founder of Billy’s Place, said the Diamond Club also made it possible to take children on field trips and to provide books that help them to learn how to handle the different emotions associated with grieving.

Schools also benefit. The club is currently funding an “Emerging Leader Scholarship” for the Peoria Unified School District that provides scholarships to outstanding eighth-graders and high school seniors, the club’s general manager Erin Shreenan said in an email.

Tempe Diablos

The Tempe Diablos is one of the oldest civic organizations tied to spring training.

The Diablos are responsible for parking at Tempe Diablo Stadium, where the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim train. The Diablos also organize volunteers to handle other game-day duties.

Founded in the 1960s, the club started with 12 members. The Diablos are smaller than the other organizations, with just 30 members. Unlike the other groups, the Diablos are invitation-only, according to Ron Lynch, president of the Tilted Kilt Scottish-themed restaurants and pubs, and a member of the Diablos. There is no application process.

Lynch said current members try to identify people who share the same values and then recruit them.

The Diablos provide local schools with scholarships and started an “Excellence in Education Awards Ceremony” that is coming up on its 27th year.

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