Spring Training baseball opens in Arizona this week with 15 teams playing more than 200 exhibition games. All of the games take place throughout the Greater Phoenix area from now until March 22.
People can argue about the relative popularity of football and baseball, but for native-born Americans baseball will always be the national pastime. The feel of a freshly oiled glove, the smell of outfield grass, the crack of a line drive and the taste of Topps bubble gum. They all live forever in our memories, if not our souls.
As we grow older we lose sight of baseball’s simple pleasures. We witness the arrogance of owners and agents, the greed driving cable television deals and the blast of ego music attending players’ parade to the plate. Often the baseball beloved by kids and their parents is all but lost in a fog of sabermetrics, sign stealing and drug testing.
There is a place, however, where you can go to recapture the joy and simplicity of baseball. It’s Arizona’s Valley of the Sun in March where 15 major league baseball organizations gather for spring training. It’s a time for warm afternoons, cold beer and people from throughout the U.S. who share a love of baseball similar to that of former commissioner of baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti who wrote before his death, “Baseball begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings…. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive….”
Arizona’s Cactus League differs from Florida’s Grapefruit League in that all 15 teams play within a 25-mile radius of downtown Phoenix. Baseball clubs love the proximity. In Florida, the Detroit Tigers have to drive 256 miles round trip from their home in Lakeland when they play the New York Mets in Port St. Lucie. In Arizona, the Tempe-based Los Angeles Angels are no more than 35 minutes away from all the other Cactus League clubs.
The Valley has ten baseball complexes, most of them shared by two teams. The stadiums seat around 11,000 but can accommodate many more on grassy lawns around the outfield where tickets are as low as $5. Because the games are training exhibitions with plenty of substitutions, players often spend time talking to fans and signing autographs before and after games. During the games, teams like the A’s and Cubs have past All Stars in the concession areas talking with families and giving tips to Little Leaguers.
A Cactus League game is more party than serious sporting event. Instead of asking fans to sing God Bless America, Cactus League stadiums play Louie Louie. The atmosphere promotes social interaction. Fans from Milwaukee, Cleveland or Dallas, who might never speak to each other inside the massive parks where the Brewers, Indians and Rangers play, mingle freely to see if they have mutual friends back home.
Spring training facilities usually pair teams from different leagues. The Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians share the Goodyear ballpark. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox both call Camelback Ranch home. Salt River Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies train, is beauty incarnate. Families camped on the grassy outfield berm have free sunscreen and access to Maine lobster bisque and rolls. The Cubs play in Mesa’s Sloan Park, which resembles a mini version of Chicago’s Wrigley Field and feels like a month-long Cubs Convention.
All 10 parks are surrounded by practice fields which come alive every morning when rookies and veterans alike practice. Fans can visit the fields and talk to the players once their work is finished. Shared by the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, the Peoria Sports Complex is especially welcoming. Volunteer retirees shuttle fans in golf carts between fields where young rookies will confide their hopes and anxieties, and happily give autographs.
Spring training pumps well over $400 million into the Phoenix area economy. Many of the games are sellouts; hotels are full. The occupancy rate at the Hyatt Place near the Cubs’ Sloan Field soars to 97% during the month of March. “By December more than 60% of our rooms already are reserved,” says Hyatt General Manager John Bersch.
Warm weather and warm people make spring training a delight for the entire family. Most parks have small diamonds beyond the outfield where young children can play ball supervised by a stadium employee. A. Bartlett Giamatti would like Arizona. It’s certainly a perfect beginning for the baseball season.
When your afternoon baseball game ends drive to Gilbert just south of Mesa for some Top
Golf. A three-level entertainment facility that combines a driving range with lawn darts, Top Golf players hit micro-chipped golf balls that track each shot’s accuracy and distance while awarding points for hitting targets on the 215-yard fairway. There are 102 hitting bays that are served by an attendant who brings everything from mixed drinks and milk shakes to chicken and waffle sliders and injectable donut holes served with chocolate, raspberry or Bavarian crème fillings. Kids love this place, especially at night when the fairway targets are illuminated in different colors. There’s an indoor sports bar with lounge areas, pool tables and enormous screens for playing video games but the attraction here is family friendly golf that nobody takes too seriously. Top Golf, 1689 S. SanTan Village Parkway, Gilbert, AZ 85295
Want to explore the Valley of the Sun in the morning before Cactus League games begin at 1 p.m.? Then head to the Queen Creek Olive Mill 45 minutes south of Phoenix on Meridian Road. Operated by Perry Rea and his wife Brenda, the mill is the Valley’s most successful agri-tourism destination. Visitors can sample a variety of extra virgin olive oils, tapenades and bath and beauty care products all made with extra virgin olive oil from the farm’s 7,500 olive trees. The Mill also serves tasty lunches both inside and out. Come early enough and they will prepare a box lunch for you to take to the game. If you don’t have time to visit the Mill you can sample and buy their olive oil at retail shops in Scottsdale and the Biltmore Fashion Park. Queen Creek Olive Mill, 25062 S. Meridian Road, Queen Creek, AZ 85142
From sports bars to fine dining, the Valley of the Sun has some excellent restaurants, many within a short drive of a baseball complex. Follow the P83 markers to Diesel in Peoria
Just across from the Peoria Sports Complex where the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres play is Diesel Country Rock Bar & Grill, a new sports bar on 83rd Ave. Diesel has humongous burgers, fries and salads. For desert try the deep-fried peanut butter & jelly sandwich drizzled with chocolate sauce. Cock Diesel Country Rock Bar and Grill, 15814 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria, AZ
For the best Mexican food this side of the Distrito Federal seek out the Barrio Cafe in Central Phoenix. Decorated with colorful murals, the café serves Chilango dishes like chilies en nogada and pescado con pipian verde. During the 3 pm to 5 pm Tuesday thru Friday Happy Hour tacos cost $2 and all tequilas are half price. Barrio Café, 2814 N. 16th St., Phoenix, AZ
Los Dos Molinos styles itself as the hottest food in Phoenix, a claim that’s probably beyond dispute. More New Mexican than Tex Mex, the restaurant’s two locations also serve the Valley’s best prickly pear margaritas. If your mouth starts to burn order a Sombrero (two shots milk, one shot coffee liqueur) to quench the fire. Los Dos Molinos has an uptown address at 1044 E. Camelback, Phoenix, AZ and a South Central location at 8646 South Central Avenue.
Located in downtown Tempe, the Blasted Barley Beer Company serves way more than pub grub. I liked the curry cauliflower with cheese and the sweet potato waffles. There are 30 craft beers, a dozen inventive cocktails and bottomless mimosas if you go for brunch. Blasted Barley Beer Company, 404 S. Mill Ave., Ste 101, Tempe, AZ.
The great thing about spring training baseball is that fans don’t really care who wins. The worst thing that can happen is that you go to an Angel game hoping to see Mike Trout and end up watching an AA prospect try to make the 40-man roster. After the game and a nap wait for the sun to set and then enjoy Phoenix by night.
Raise your kilt on the Four Peaks Brewery terrace in Tempe
The Four Peaks Brewing Company is located just north of Arizona State University in a
red brick 1892 dairy with wooden ceilings. Oatmeal Stout, Hafeweizen and the brewery’s bestseller, Kilt Lifter, are brewed here along with an IPA and a pale ale. The large oval bar attracts an interesting mix of locals who often buy carne asada tacos and panko crusted calamari but mostly drink beer. Four Peaks Brewery, 1340 E. 8th St, #104, Tempe, AZ with additional locations in Scottsdale and Sky Harbor International Airport.
For something stronger than beer go to TQLA where tequilas on tap are hyper chilled to 5° F so they go down smoothly. There’s a special tasting room for aged premium tequilas. TQLA, 1840 S. Val Vista Dr., Mesa, AZ