SURPRISE, Ariz. – In 2002, the Rangers moved their Spring Training destination to a relatively small town in the desert of Central Arizona.
Surprise, Ariz., about an hour outside Phoenix, had around 50,000 residents and a lot of wide open space.
Since the turn of the century, though, Surprise has seen a population growth of more than 400 percent. The city claims to be one of the nation’s fastest-growing in that time, and it now boasts over 130,000 residents.
Baseball is in large part to thank for that.
“Spring Training has really helped get us on the map,” said Kendra Pettis, the director of sports and tourism for the City of Surprise. “That’s been exciting to see us grow.”
Sure, a population boom here might be surprising (sorry) for those outside the greater Phoenix area. But the town has been around since 1938 – and only claimed about 20 residents in 1940 – so why the heck is it called Surprise?
The answer, of course, may come as a surprise.
It’s a story that goes back to May of 1938, when a woman named Flora Mae Statler bought one square mile of farmland – While some have proposed it was actually a Glendale landowner who made the purchase, Maricopa County records show it was indeed Statler.
“If someone told her that girls couldn’t do something … she missed that lesson,” Surprise historian Carol Palmer says in one of the city’s historical videos. “She never got that, because she always just marched forward.”
Thus, it was Statler who had the power to name the city.
“The rumor is that our founder … told her daughter she would be surprised if it ever amounted to anything,” Pettis said, somewhat reluctantly.
With that mindset, it seems like an odd purchase. But hey, hindsight from 80 years in the future is a crystal-clear 20/20.
Statler obviously wouldn’t have pictured two Major League Baseball franchises – the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, neither of which existed in 1938 – moving their more than a month-long annual Spring Training to the city.
She’d also be surprised to see the dozens of businesses and restaurants that line Bell Road through the heart of the now 100-square-mile city, or the baseball stadium and athletic complex down Bullard Avenue.
Surprise Stadium was built just for the Rangers and Royals, who each play a handful of preseason scrimmages there during February and March. By Statler’s standards, it was an unlikely courtship 16 years ago, when the clubs were moving Spring Training away from Florida.
“This was a good fit for them. Similar hometown values, and they thought they could bring a little bit of their culture and their values to Surprise,” Pettis said.
“And the city was really willing to work with them, along with the Cactus League, to bring them out here and make sure they had all the amenities they needed.”
Those amenities include 14 practice fields for the big league teams and a few more youth fields, a batting cage and locker room facility for each team and offices along the stadium’s concourse.
Surprise Stadium is set for $22 million in additional improvements in the coming years, too.
What started as one square mile of farmland – home only to the Mount and Oden families – eight decades ago is now a spring break destination for Rangers and Royals fans a time zone away.
And the city wants visitors to feel like it’s a home away from home.
“Because we are such a new community, a lot of Dallas and Kansas City culture has been infused, and we love when they come out and get a piece of that," Pettis said.