Cactus League, recreation visionary Coronado dies at 59

Surprise Community and Recreation Services director Mark Coronado speaks during a 2013 meeting at Surprise City Hall to discuss how to use more than $3 million in contingency funds for park upgrades. [Independent Newsmedia File]
Richard Smith
Independent Newsmedia

Mark Coronado, the driving force in bringing the Cactus League to the West Valley and Surprise Community and Recreation Services director since 2000, died June 15. He was 59.

He is survived by his son Matthew, sister Alice and brothers Richard and Tommy. His service will be at 10 a.m. Thursday at St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Basillica, 231 N. 3rd St., Phoenix, followed by a procession to the St. Francis Catholic Cemetery, 2003 N. 48th St., Phoenix, and a reception at Coach’s Corner Grill, 333. E. Jefferson St., Phoenix.

Mr. Coronado served as Recreation Supervisor at the city of Peoria for the bulk of the 1990s, overseeing the construction of the Peoria Sports Complex and operating it after the league’s first two-team ballpark opened in 1994.

Shortly after being hired in Surprise by City Manager Dick McComb, Mr. Coronado had a second chance to build a spring training stadium. He and McComb’s successor, Bill Pupo, were charged with putting the growing but unknown city of less than 40,000 in the game.

“Mark was really the architect of that and managed the creation of the recreation campus,” Mr Pupo said. “Mark was the quarterback. He was the project manager for all that. He would bring me all the recommendations and I would say, great, just get it in under budget.”

The result was Surprise Stadium, opening in 2003 as the spring home of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. Plus he planned the rest of the recreation campus, including the Surprise Aquatic Center, Northwest Regional Library, Surprise Community Park and Surprise Tennis and Racquet Complex.

Two-team baseball complexes followed in Glendale and Goodyear in 2009.

While his reputation statewide was primarily as a Cactus League visionary, longtime residents of Surprise credited Mr. Coronado with more than a stadium. He built a rapidly-growing young city’s recreation program from the ground up.

Mike Planeta was the chairman of the city’s parks and recreation committee when Mr. Coronado arrived. He said the veteran leader’s expertise transformed the city’s small recreation program into one of the best in the state.

“Mark Coronado’s legacy in Surprise will live on through the smiles of the thousands of children that play at our recreation campus- the campus that was built thanks to his leadership and vision,” stated Surprise Mayor Sharon Wolcott in a press release. “I’ll never forget the look of pride on his face at a Cal Ripken baseball event when he saw the hundreds of young athletes walk the bases at Surprise Stadium. He was also at the forefront in attracting spring training here which helped to shine a spotlight on our city to baseball fans across the country. Our hearts are heavy at City Hall and we send thoughts and prayers to Mark’s family.”

Mr. Coronado served as CRS director until early this year when complications from cancer and diabetes forced him to take a leave of absence. Donna Miller was recently named the acting CRS director.

Both Mr. Pupo and Mr. Planeta said Mr. Coronado set up Surprise recreation for success by reaching an intergovernmental agreement with the Dysart Unified School District to share facilities as the district’s elementary schools doubled in less than a decade.

He built partnerships with local schools for after hours programs and insisted each school build a gym on its campus.

“Mark understood why it was important to have a good IGA with the district,” Mr. Planeta said. “To me as a taxpayer it makes perfect sense, since we’re paying taxes for the schools, we should be able to share facilities.”

He also, Mr. Planeta said, led the charge for Surprise to kick in an additional $3.5 million at Valley Vista High School for baseball and softball fields, a running track and an extension of the gym.

In the run up to the creation of Surprise Stadium, Coronado and Pupo had to manage large sums of borrowed and TSA money. And, oh yeah, they had to find two teams willing to relocate to Surprise.

The duo was in for a lot of discussions over beers, late nights and number crunching.

“I remember taking a call at 2:30 a.m., ‘Bill, it’s Mark. I need to talk to you about the numbers.’ I said, ‘Mark, do you know it’s 2:30?’ He said no,” Mr. Pupo said.

Community and Recreation Services director and interim city manager Mark Coronado shows a replica plaque of Ron Washington during a luncheon for business sponsors and city officials in 2011. [Independent Newsmedia file]
For Coronado, it was also a chance to learn from the construction of Peoria Stadium. For example, he changed the configuration of the diamond and seats so the spectators would not bake in the midday sun.

Mr. Coronado was not the first person to bring the Cactus League to the West Valley. The Milwaukee Brewers trained at Sun City Stadium from 1973 to 1985.

But with the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners still playing in Peoria 23 years after moving there, it is fair to say Mr. Coronado was the man that made spring training stick in the West Valley.

“We are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of our friend, Mark Coronado. Mark was a valued colleague, partner and supporter. He was a valuable employee during his time with our city.  As a champion of the West Valley and a huge proponent of spring training, Mark made a lasting impact on the Valley’s recreational and sports offerings. We send our heartfelt condolences to his family and friends, especially those who worked closely with him at the City of Surprise,” stated soon-to-be Peoria City Manager Jeff Tyne June 15.

The big league connections he made while at Peoria helped him reach out to the Rangers and Royals, and his stature in the baseball community opened doors previously closed to Surprise.

“He was the driving force in convincing both the Royals and Rangers to make the move from Florida to Arizona for spring training.  His efforts and dedication to the project have allowed both of our franchises to flourish in our year round training programs in Surprise,” read an excerpt from a statement by Royals Senior VP of Business Operations Kevin Uhlich.

Mr. Coronado served as the Cactus League President from 2012-2016. He was a member of the Phoenix Regional Sports Commission, National Parks and Recreation Association and Arizona Parks and Recreation Association.

““It was his vision, determination, and years of effort that resulted in Major League Baseball coming to Surprise. The Rangers and Royals have a strong and successful relationship with the City of Surprise because of Mark,” read an excerpt from a statement by Rangers Executive Vice President of Business Operations Rob Matwick.

During his tenure with Surprise, Mr. Coronado also held the roles of Interim City Manager, Acting Economic Development Director, Acting Public Works Director and Acting Communications Director.

More than anything else, though, he paved the way for the city’s signature amenities.

“To this day, that is still the crown jewel of this city. It’s because of him and his contacts that we were able to pull it off,” Mr. Planeta said.

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