In 2020, the Innings Festival — a combination music and baseball festival that takes place during spring training in Arizona and Florida and allows fans the opportunity to meet their favorite players in between sets from their most beloved bands — got in just under the wire. The relatively young festival, then just in its third year, was held just two weeks before the whole world shut down due to COVID-19.
Naturally, the 2021 edition of the fest was scrapped as the pandemic continued to wreak havoc on both baseball and live music (and just about anything else that involved large crowds of people gathered together). For a while, this year’s event looked dicey as well, thanks to the twin threats of the Omicron variant and the MLB lockout. And while they managed to dodge one of those bullets, the latter loomed over Innings Festival in Tempe, Arizona this weekend.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of fun to be had anyway. Thousands flocked to Tempe Beach Park to catch headliners like Tame Impala and the Foo Fighters, and despite the fact that spring training remains a pipe dream at this point and Opening Day is in danger (as of this writing, the MLB players’ union has reportedly rejected owners’ final offer, meaning the league will start canceling games), fans of the sport had plenty to latch onto, from taking hacks at the batting cages on site or testing their velocity at the speed pitch booth to meeting and posing for photos with legendary players like Roger Clemens, Tim Raines, Rick Sutcliffe and Kenny Lofton. In between sets by the musical acts on the bill, former pitcher Ryan Dempster even hosted several live tapings of Off the Mound, his late-night talk show featuring interviews with current and former baseball stars.
Dempster has been a staple of the festival, attending and hosting Off the Mound at it every year since its inception in 2018, and he’s got no plans to stop any time soon.
“It was a no-brainer to me,” Dempster told InsideHook at the festival on Sunday before he taped an episode of Off the Mound featuring Raines and Sutcliffe. “There’s this cohesive thing between baseball and music. And I love music and I love baseball. And so just being a part of it all, and a chance for us to come out during spring training and watch these amazing bands do what they do. Yeah, it’s just an easy fit.”
Truth be told, it’s the Off the Mound tapings that really set Innings Festival apart. Activations like the “game-saving catch” photo op, in which attendees can leap onto a mat while holding a mitt with a ball in it in front of a backdrop that makes it look like they’ve just robbed someone of a home run, are fun, and we can all agree that every music festival should also have batting cages, but Dempster’s show is what truly gives fans a chance to see their favorite players in a new light. Because he’s a former player — and in some cases, as when he was chatting with Jonny Gomes, a former teammate — his interviews feel much looser than what we typically see from MLB pros when they’re addressing the media.
Save for one guy yelling something about steroids during Roger Clemens’ appearance (which Dempster and Clemens both pretended not to hear), the Off the Mound segments were largely devoid of controversy. Dempster sang karaoke with David Ross, held a “home run derby” with Gomes knocking autographed baseballs into the crowd off a tee and listened to Sean Casey tell a story about meeting St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein backstage at a Pearl Jam concert. The lockout was addressed each time, but most of the players being asked about it limited themselves to diplomatic platitudes like “hopefully both sides can reach an agreement soon.”
Sutcliffe, however, did not hold his tongue. “I know you’re going to have to cut this out,” he told Dempster, before recalling meeting a Cubs fan at the festival who had saved money for a year to be able to purchase a trip to his first spring training, only for it to be canceled due to the lockout. He also likened the current situation to the work stoppage that ended his career in 1994.
“I didn’t retire in ’94, I quit,” Sutcliffe told the crowd, saying he felt as though he could have physically continued playing had he not grown frustrated with the labor dispute. “I’m pissed. I don’t have a chip on my shoulder, I have a boulder on my shoulder about it.”
But despite the obvious frustrations over the lockout, Innings Festival felt like a nice stopgap to tide us over until baseball returns. It was a spring training of its own, in a sense, easing us back into the festival experience after two long years during which we’ve forgotten how to brave endless Port-a-Potty lines, navigate bottlenecks as we try to get from one stage to another or hand over $14 for a beer.
There were a few logistical issues that could stand to be ironed out as the festival continues to grow. Relegating all the food vendors to one area was a mistake that led to particularly huge lines during the evening dinner rush. The two music stages were located extremely far apart, and while that means sound bleed isn’t a concern, it also means attendees have a massive hike ahead of them if they’re looking to catch a band playing at the opposite end of the festival. Of course, that’s assuming they even know where to find the stage; there were no paper maps of the festival grounds available on site, so fans had to save a photo of it to their phone and hope their batteries didn’t die or simply wing it. But Innings is still a relatively new festival, and walking around the grounds this weekend, it’s easy to imagine those kinks getting worked out as it naturally expands.
“I think that could be an easy thing, to just sit there and continue to try and grow it,” Dempster says. “And that’s the easiest temptation. But I think keeping it small and intimate and personal is also really good. And I felt like there was the most people we’ve had there last night. It was the most people we’ve had over at our show. And I just think continuing to grow that opportunity to keep it the same, but better, just fill it, pack it in, and everybody’s just having a blast. Bigger isn’t always better, you know? Better is better.”
He’s got a point, and especially in a year when it’s the closest thing we have to actual baseball, Innings is worth the price of admission for anyone who considers themselves to be a lover of both music and America’s pastime. Neither steps on the toes of the other, and instead they complement one another, working in tandem to provide a truly unique festival experience.
As Dempster puts it, “I just love Innings Fest and anybody who comes out. For anybody in the future, looking for an amazing good time of music, and baseball, and just people — sometimes I walk around there and I feel like I’m at Disneyland, just all the staff, everybody, all the people there, just smiling and having a great time. And that’s what music does, what baseball does. And to see those two worlds collide is just really cool to be a part of.”