Nobody loves the referees, it has been suggested, except by their families and friends -- and that's assuming those officials stay away from working a game involving a favorite team of those loved ones. If so, Wild Bunch Desert Guides owner and operator Laurel Darren is a notable exception – and for one very good reason after one of the Phoenix mountain bike tours she guided recently.
IF YOU BUILD IT: 'Field of Dreams' realized through business, friendship
“We go mountain biking in Arizona every year. There are two things we look for -- a challenging trail appropriate for our family, and an amazing guide. Laurel is an amazing guide we have worked with previously, and we couldn't have been more excited to support this business she is growing. Why was this excellent? We had full trust that she would pick a trail that fits us, and she knows when to push us and when to dial it back. Laurel has an amazing energy and positivity to her that's infectious. She works incredibly well with our son, who mountain bikes in middle school, challenging him appropriately, while also not letting those a little less fit (me) get too far behind. The bikes were fantastic, she had everything we would need for a fun day. It made it an incredible end-to-end experience and we will definitely see her again when we return to Arizona. I think you'll find Wild Bunch unique in the sense that if you are a hard-core mountain biker, you'll be challenged … if you are middle-of-the-road amateurs like us, you will be challenged and have fun, and even if you are somewhat of a beginner, you'll find that Wild Bunch can adjust to what's right for you and show you a great time!” – Willson, Detroit, Mich., on Tripadvisor, April 2016
Laurel (left) and her gal pals enjoy a Cubs spring training game.
Spring training is a time when hope springs eternal, as countless sports writers and baseball fans have repeated over the years while explaining the mystical qualities of an event helping to annually mark the beginning of the end of a cold hard winter for most across the country.
For residents in sunny and warm Arizona, particularly business owners here in Phoenix and Scottsdale, spring training also is an important time because it brings a boost of tourism dollars in the form of Major League teams and their fans visiting from mid-February to late March.
Personally, spring training is special because I get the chance to see some sports industry friends, including one who started the growing tradition of a guided mountain bike tour with baseball executives for my Wild Bunch Desert Guides, one of the highest-rated Arizona adventure travel tour companies.
Mr. Diamond, as I will call him in this Blog, is appropriately named because he loves baseball and absolutely sparkles brighter than the Crown Jewels.
He has risen steadily in his profession and is now in a prominent position, so I need to be careful to respect his privacy and protect both his identity and friendship. So, I will not be sharing any pictures with him, and as they used to say in the old “Dragnet” TV series, “the story you are about to hear is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent."
Suffice to say, though, Mr. Diamond’s career climb has been thrilling for me to witness, and I have heartwarmingly discovered him to be a genuinely good guy, who has been just as excited to see the growth of my small mom-and-pop specialty shop.
We are both among each other’s biggest fans.
Opening day for Cubs spring training games.
I never will forget that day in March 2015 when I first met Mr. Diamond.
At the time, I was working for another guiding outfit prior to founding the Wild Bunch Desert Guides. My phone rang and it was my old boss John asking me if I was able to do a solo Phoenix mountain bike tour at the last minute in the next couple of hours.
Of course, I would, I said. I always jumped all over any opportunity to take guests out on a guided mountain biking adventure in our beautiful Sonoran Desert.
So, I rushed over to the warehouse to get my paperwork, the bikes, and other details together for my guest. When I looked at the paperwork, I saw that my guest had a Chicago Cubs email address.
I looked at his name and thought, “No way! Am I going to take a player out on an Arizona mountain bike ride? Not during spring training! There must be something in their contract that does not allow them to do something that could be considered DANGEROUS.
I hail from John Deere country, on the Western Illinois/Eastern Iowa border, a couple of hours away from Chicago, where most are Cubs fans – unless they love the hated rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals.
I also played college softball and I love sports in general, so I was thrilled at the opportunity to ride with a Cubs person, player or not, even if the name was not familiar to me.
When Mr. Diamond arrived, he appeared to be a young, clean cut, professional – a front-office type. But as we were making our way to the Scottsdale mountain bike adventure, I still did not know who he WAS.
For all I knew, he could have been a maintenance guy for the Cubs or perhaps an intern because of his age. Not that it mattered in the long run – people are people, in the long run, and so a guest is important regardless -- but I was curious and anxious to start an “old home week” kind of conversation.
So, I finally just asked him: “So what do you do for the Cubs? I see you have a Cubs email address.”
Without hesitation, Mr. Diamond responded back very kindly and softly, “I am the (blank blank).” Again, I am keeping his position confidential to protect his privacy, but let us just say, Mr. Diamond was on the higher end of the executive team.
I got a laugh when I said back to him: “No way! Isn't that a position for somebody who is like 60 years old or something?”
Once we started riding bikes cruising around the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, I admitted I was the biggest Mark Grace fan on the planet.
Gracie has had his post-Cubs career, too, but a true fan supports their favorite player, no matter what.
That led to talking about the colorful Cubs of my youth in the '80s with the Penguin, the Hawk, the Bull, Ryno, Jodi Davis and Rick Sutcliffe. Even today, most everybody should know who Ryne Sandberg is, right?
We also talked about Harry Caray and the legendary loyalty of Cubs fans.
What a super-fun 3 hours we had just talking baseball. I felt so cool that I could hang and knew my Cubs history.
Looking back, I am positive Mr. Diamond also was trying to be extra respectful of the fact that he had a female guide that was probably a good 10 years older than him. He did not use the term “ma’am,” or anything like that, but you could tell he was just a kind-hearted soul, a real gentleman, you know?
Upon arriving back at the warehouse, Mr. Diamond asked if I had gone to a spring training game yet?
I told him no, because tickets were all sold out – the Cubs spring training games here in Mesa are super popular whether the team is good or not. Plus, I was in peak season with my guiding job and it was rough to try and figure out a date to go see a game.
Upon hearing that, Mr. Diamond gave me his email address and asked me to send him a few dates that were remaining and he would generously get me a couple of tickets to see my beloved Cubs.
I was thrilled with his offer, and not wanting to offend his kind gesture, I looked at my calendar when I got home, and found a date that worked with my former husband Bill. So, I emailed Mr. Diamond as instructed, and he later provided his personal cell phone number and instructed me to text once we arrived at the old Hohokam Park.
During the game, Mr. Diamond came over in the seventh inning and sat with Bill and I for half an inning, right there in the middle of the crowd, not too cool for school or anything. It was pretty darn awesome.
What the experience showed me was he is a follow-through kind of guy. Very detail-oriented, very down-to-earth, and very genuine. You can tell why he has risen quickly and enjoyed such great success in his profession.
To this day, Mr. Diamond inspires me to perform in the same way in my job. Humble, hard working and always being mindful of others.
Laurel celebrates a spring training trip to see her beloved Chicago Cubs.
The Grand Slam
From that first bike ride, and the resulting baseball game, we stayed in touch.
The following year in 2016, plans for an afternoon Phoenix mountain bike ride coincided with the founding of my own private boutique service, the Wild Bunch Desert Guides.
I remember picking up Mr. Diamond from the Cubs training facility in Mesa, which is now Sloan Field. We headed out on my mountain bike and my former husband's single speed.
I remember I had barely enough money to get my small business started, so I was using rental bikes for most Wild Bunch outings at first.
These bikes were personal, though, because Mr. Diamond is special to me. When he and his peers are here, they are focused on baseball, and this is a nice chance for them to get away from the worries for a few hours.
During that guided Sonoran Desert adventure, I presented him with one of my new Wild Bunch Desert Guides VR7 mountain bike jerseys to help break the news that I had decided to start one of those Arizona adventure travel companies on my own.
His reaction: “You are awesome for doing your own thing!”
I remember joking with him about wearing the jersey during Cubs games that season in hopes of getting some free advertising on the new jumbotron at Wrigley Field.
What was a solo ride between Mr. Diamond and I quickly expanded to a few more Cubs executives.
During that follow-up Scottsdale mountain bike ride, I discovered Mr. Diamond the butt of a lot of what I would call “man jokes.” So, he was well-liked by his peers, too, and confident enough in his own skin to both give-and-take the good-natured ribbing without any hint of malice.
One of my best guides, Rebel, and my friend Crystal, who owns Spur Cross Cycles, also joined us that day in 2016.
After the ride, I remember saying to him as he was getting in his car, “If the Cubs win the World Series, I am going to allow myself and my new company to be 10-percent of the reason why. You better give me some credit in those post-World Series interviews.”
All through that entire baseball season, every time I would be at a bar and a Cubs game would be on, something awesome would happen like a Grand Slam and I would text him and say, “Hey thinking of you! Nice Grand Slam!”
It might take 24 hours, but he always responded with something nice like, “thank you for supporting us” or something that was always professional and kind.
All those Grand Slam moments added up to the Cubs reaching their first World Series since the 1945. And then, they battled back from 1-0 and 3-1 deficits in the Series to force a winner-take-all Game 7 in Cleveland. Wow! What a thrilling ride!
That season’s epic final game was a night to remember.
My former husband and I were on a night mountain bike ride out of Aunt Chilada’s over at Phoenix Mountain Preserve.
We were with a bunch of other guys who were following the battle between the Cubbies and Cleveland Indians. One of my buddies had a radio on his backpack so we could all listen in.
The game was a real back-and-forth nail biter. The Indians tied the game with a three-run homer in the eighth inning. The game was tied 6-6 and headed to extra innings when a rain-delay added more drama. That is when we all took off on our mountain bikes to get back to the bar as soon as we could.
I still cannot believe this happened, but the only time I have ever “Supermaned over my handlebars" was that night.
We were rushing back to the bar, and here was this giant drop-off that I could not see, and I literally landed on my chest. I knew in my heart that we had to get going, so I got up and brushed it off with thoughts, “Oh my God, my buddy is going to win a World Series.” So, I had to see the ending.
Any Cubs fan like myself knows that this was something last experienced in 1908. Seasons melted into decades, with Cubs fans praying to break the curse, especially for the long-time older fans who had bled Cubbie blue for so long.
As I was watching the bench empty onto the field after the final out to celebrate a Cubs win, it was almost midnight central time. I sent Mr. Diamond a text message letting him know I was at a bar in “Valley of the Sun” so proud of him and so excited for him.
I thought to myself, how cool it was to have made a connection like that on an Arizona mountain bike adventure. What were the odds of being in exactly the right place at the right time? It is amazing how the world works and how we are all connected in some way.
Still, I was shocked when I got a response within the next day.
Can you imagine all the text messages and emails and calls Mr. Diamond received? To be on the list of people getting a response was quite a humbling honor.
I was just so excited for someone I knew who was so passionate about baseball to be at the pinnacle as a World Series champion.
Laurel enjoys a Cubs game at the Arizona Diamondbacks with her boyfriend Brett.
Seventh inning stretch
The next spring was pretty darn awesome.
In 2017, we decided to make it a spring training tradition for Mr. Diamond and some of his buddies to join the Wild Bunch Desert Guides for an Arizona guided mountain bike adventure at least one day during spring training.
Upon meeting, I was greeted with the biggest hug ever.
After our now-traditional Phoenix guided mountain bike ride, we went to breakfast with Mr. Diamond and his buddies from the world champs at a local Scottsdale eatery.
At breakfast, I got to see a World Series ring and I readily admit it was weird, but I got a little emotional when it hit me that I was sitting there with these guys who had just experienced the highest of highs, and what is more, I had established a sincere genuine friendship with them through something I am insanely passionate about.
But instead of the breakfast conversation being dominated by the World Series run, they all were asking me about my year-old small business.
Unfortunately, one Scottsdale guided mountain bike ride was not enough to push the Cubs back to the top of the mountain in 2017, 2018 or 2019.
Maybe we needed to add a second Sonoran Desert mountain bike tour for superstitious good luck.
At least our annual ride has become a very cool, low-key affair for Mr. Diamond and his team to have a little bit of fun away from the game on a day off.
I always have a little bit of concern in the back of my mind that if something were to happen to one of them on the bike -- like a minor crash -- what the media would look like on that.
Brett and Laurel enjoy opening day at Sloan Field for the Cubs spring training games prior to the pandemic.
I openly admit I am not knee-deep into Major League Baseball. I do not follow every single transition, trade or transaction that occurs.
So, I was literally stoked when I received a text message from another of my friends, whose husband also is an executive for the Cubs.
“Did you see that Mr. Diamond is now in an even higher executive position in Major League Baseball?” she wrote, including his title and new team that he was now involved with.
I stared at that phone a minute, I was so happy and proud of him. I literally jumped up and down in my kitchen to celebrate for my friend.
I immediately called her and asked if that news had been released, and if it was okay for me to reach out to him to congratulate him.
My next text went to Mr. Diamond right after that conversation and I immediately got a response from him.
That very first day I ever took him on an Arizona mountain biking adventure in 2015, I knew his new and current position was his ultimate goal.
Here was this nice, kind, young guy in a dream position and over the last five years, I have had the privilege of watching him enjoy success after success on the big stage. Meanwhile, all along, Mr. Diamond never hesitated to reply to one of my texts – or to send me a message occasionally to just check in.
One day, he even sent me a video of him and a buddy mountain biking to let me know that they were thinking of me and my business. What a goofball.
However, it should truly warm our collective hearts to know the age-old saying has been proven wrong: Nice guys DON’T always finish last.
Text string between Laurel and "Mr. Diamond."
In the hole
Mr. Diamond and the Wild Bunch Desert Guides were scheduled for a March 18 Scottsdale mountain bike tour when the CoVid-19 pandemic hit just days prior in 2020 and things began shutting down in rapid succession.
This is how good of a guy Mr. Diamond is, though. Despite all the decisions, countless worries and many headaches that come with his position, Mr. Diamond took time in the madness occurring to apologize for not being able to keep our mountain biking booking.
Of course, I understood, especially when I watched cancellation after cancellation come through for the Wild Bunch last March, April and May. All I could think about were the exponentially larger stresses Mr. Diamond had to deal with in his new position.
Every so often, I would send him a text to let him know that I was thinking of him as a friend and to make sure he was doing okay. Sometimes, it would take a few days, but I always got a super positive and happy response, which helped keep my spirits up through the tough times.
Fast forward to a year later and hope thankfully springs eternal again.
Spring training was up in the air for much of the offseason, but baseball is back now in the Phoenix area, even though pandemic precautions loom over the proceedings.
Spring training for Arizona adventure tour companies and the hospitality industry here in the “Valley of the Sun” is huge with the amount of revenue and tourists that come to support their teams.
Wild Bunch gets a lot of families and couples who want to experience a Phoenix guided mountain biking tour before an afternoon spring training game. We typically get a lot of people from Chicago, as well as Kansas City and California to support their teams, but I bet we have taken fans from every team in the Cactus League at least once over our 5 years in business.
I am also hopeful of seeing my friend again for our regular ride.
We have not yet set a date, though I did check in with him regarding spring training when there were questions swirling.
At that time, I shared my wish to celebrate the Wild Bunch’s 5th anniversary with him, though I totally understand the circumstances are a bit different this year. There are limits on how many fans can attend the games and teams must be extra careful about people they are in contact with for CoVid testing purposes.
This year, I just hope to have an opportunity to attend one of his new team’s games, even if it means I have to say hello from afar.
After this past year, that small consolation prize is something I would gladly accept.
The text I received back to my message about spring training 2021 is one that I have locked in my phone and saved to look at on days when things get a little bit rough for this small business owner.
The genuine, heartfelt text concluded with the words, “I am so proud of you.”
We all like to know that someone out there is a fan, right?
You know something? I have been a fan of his since that first bike ride, too.
He was one of the first people who knew I was starting my own business for a reason. And despite his demanding career, Mr. Diamond has been along for that ride from afar, too. He has never acted too busy or too important to be a decent human and true friend.
Every day when I pass by the new facility that he is based out of in “The Valley of the Sun,” I smile and think about how proud I am of him, too.
For this old Cubs fan, the song remains the same. So, sing it with me:
“Go Cubs Go, Go Cubs Go, Hey Chicago what do you say? The Cubs are going to win today.”
But if Mr. Diamond reads this Blog, he knows I will gladly sing his praises, too, and so it is perfectly fine if his new team wins the World Series.
I just want the 10-percent credit for mountain biking with my Wild Bunch Desert Guides.