By David DeVoss
If baseball is played in Heaven it probably resembles spring training in Arizona’s Cactus League. Every year, during the glorious month of March, 15 major league teams prepare for summer baseball at ten fan-friendly stadiums designed for culinary indulgence, relaxing in the sun and meeting friends you didn’t know you had. Spread across Phoenix’ Valley of the Sun, the stadiums are surrounded by practice fields where established veterans and rookies out to make the team are happy to meet fans, sign autographs and recommend their favorite local restaurants and bars.
The Cactus League features 200 games and every one’s a party. You don’t have to love baseball to enjoy spring training. You definitely need a high tolerance for craft beer, margaritas and Mexican food.
The best way to experience spring training is not to closely watch the games – nobody but the rookies care who wins – but to experience the ambience of the different baseball stadiums and the bars and restaurants that surround them. Enjoy the food offerings in every stadium. Each offers a twist on a baseball classic and vendors change from year to year. When it comes to baseball eats, every spring training season is slightly different. So dig in, fans. You’re on vacation.
Located on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian land near Scottsdale, this beautiful complex is shared by the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. It’s also famous for the $12 Mega Dog, a foot-long hot dog topped with green chili mac and cheese and pulled pork. Beyond the grassy knoll in center field is an array of gourmet food trucks serving sushi, crepes and lobster rolls. Catching an afternoon game? Then head out early
for brunch at Butters Pancakes & Cafe. If you’re not in the mood for a Sonoran-style breakfast go to Grassroots Kitchen, a burger, sandwich and salad café that’s a local favorite. After an afternoon of beer and sunshine the best way to end the afternoon is with another beer at Zipps Sports Grill. Play shuffleboard and eat Zipps’ famous buffalo wings while watching – what else – a Cactus League baseball game on TV.
There’s a high-rise hotel and Indian casino at Salt River, but the best place for an elegant dinner is Local Bistro on Hayden Road. Italian, French and Spanish dishes are served along with more than 120 different wines.
Home to the San Francisco Giants, Scottsdale Stadium is in the middle of Old Town Scottsdale, an upscale, artsy community that’s a favorite nightspot for all teams training in Phoenix. The area is loaded with excellent restaurants and bars so skip the stadium food. Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Ernie Banks and Dizzy Dean all played in Scottsdale and several of their favorite watering holes remain along the “Cactus League Legacy Trail.”
Don & Charlie’s is a must-see bar and restaurant with walls covered with memorabilia representing decades of baseball history. The conversations you’ll have at the bar are equal to the prime steaks and barbecue ribs that attract players like Mike Trout and Kris Bryant. Those willing to walk a half-mile from the center of Old Town will find the Bespoke Inn B&B whose Mediterranean restaurant, Virtú, whose owner-chef Gio Osso offers a delicious $10 brunch for guests staying in one of the Inn’s four rooms. After chugging down a 24-oz. Anchor Steam at the stadium, Virtú is the ultimate return to civilization for those who enjoy duck confit benedict and charred octopus.
Rookies struggling to make the team do not hand out at the Bespoke Inn. You’ll find them at the Sugar Bowl, an ice cream parlor that also serves soup, salad and sandwiches, or enjoying a cleansing ale at the Coach House Tavern, a classic cowboy bar once beloved by the Boston Red Sox who trained in Scottsdale back in the 1950s.
The most centrally located of all Cactus League stadiums, the home of the Los Angeles Angels is close to Arizona State University and all of the great bars attending a college town. It’s one of Arizona’s older ballparks, but there are tremendous views and the grassy slopes surrounding the outfield have plenty of space for families to spread out blankets and picnic. Pavilions along the left field sell nachos in souvenir Angels batting helmets.
People searching for an early lunch should go to Little Miss BBQ, a Texas-style barbecue pit two miles from the stadium on University Drive. Go early because the brisket is gone by 2 p.m. After BBQ there’s always room for beer, especially if you’re going to Boulders on Broadway in Tempe. The bar has more than 30 beers on tap and an additional 70 available in bottles. If you’re traveling with children they’ll appreciate your stopping four miles from the stadium at Oregano’s Pizza Bistro. It serves both thin and deep-dish pizzas along with beer and wine for the parents.
If you want to know what Wisconsin residents like to eat go to Maryvale and enjoy fried fish filets, fried cheese curds and Bratcho, kettle chips covered with nacho cheese and bratwurst slices. Two of Phoenix’ better Mexican restaurants are close to Maryvale. Those on a budget will like Popo’s Fiesta Del Sol, which has All-U-Can-Eat Mondays, 99¢ Margarita Tuesdays & Saturdays, Build Your Own Burrito Wednesdays, 99¢ Taco Thursdays, and a daily happy hour from 3-7 p.m.
For a more leisurely and upscale experience drive east beneath the 17 freeway to Richardson’s, a New Mexico restaurant that serves small plates some of them spiced with green chilis food on a leafy patio with a fire pit. Carne adovada ($17), the relleno platter ($16) and blackened scallops ($19) will transport you to Santa Fe. Also not be missed is the prickly pear margarita, which was a favorite of Seattle Mariners manager Lou Piniella.
The Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals play ball in Surprise, AZ in the northwest corner of the valley. Royals tickets cost only $19 and if you are a family with children it’s possible to pay $8 and sit on the grass just beyond the outfield fence. Food and drinks are bargain priced, ranging from $3 to $11. Cactus League training facilities are open to the public and if you tire of the game it’s possible to buy a margarita and wander about the practice fields looking for your favorite Ranger or Royal.
If you by now are tired to chili sauce try the Irish pub food at Irish Wolfhound Pub on North Litchfield Road. In addition to fish and chips try the grilled tenderloin steak salad and drink up! Happy Hour lasts from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Hound.
Located in Mesa just east of Tempe, Sloan Park is home to the World Champion Chicago Cubs. It is the newest and largest Cactus League stadium and anchors a 140-acre complex called Wrigleyville West. For people from Chicago it’s like they never left home: Chicago Dogs, Chicago Burgers and the incredibly awful Mac-and-Cheese dog. Beyond the outfield there are food trucks parked in a citrus grove, but better to eat Chicago food outside the park in places like Portillo’s that sells meat smothered in everything and Asian Cafe Express, a Hong Kong-style eatery with incredible chili sauce dumplings.
Still hungry for the taste of home? Then the Cub Hub menu at Match Cuisine and Cocktails is the place for you. It features a Pizza Puff with Calabrian pepperoni, a Pulaski Park Pierogi with sauerkraut, Rising HY mustard and Crow’s Dairy quark and the Parthenon Pizza with lamb gyro, kasseri, marinated olives, and Crow’s Dairy peppercorn feta. I have no idea what this stuff is but Cubs fans eat it up.
Shared by the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox this 141-acre baseball facility on the western side of Phoenix in the community of Glendale encompasses grapefruit, orange and lemon groves, a five-acre lake and a comfortably intimate and immaculately clean stadium. The “All You Can Eat Bullpen Patio” a few feet above the Dodgers bullpen makes you feel part of the game. Gorge on Dodger Dogs, peanuts and nachos, but watch out for line drives! Did I mention you’re part of the game.
If you don’t know exactly what you want for dinner, jump in the car and drive to the Westgate Entertainment District surrounding the stadium where the Arizona Cardinals play. There are dozens of restaurants, bars and shops that range from the Yard House where you can grab a burger and beer to the Saddle Ranch Chop House, an urban cowboy themed restaurant that features excellent steaks, an enormous bar and blonde coeds in skinny jeans trying to ride the mechanical bull. You don’t need testosterone to like Saddle Ranch.
For something more sedate drive five miles outside Glendale to Litchfield’s, one of the best restaurants in the Valley of the Sun that’s located in the Wigwam Resort. Come with a dozen people and an advance reservation and celebrity chef Chris Knouse will serve food prepared over a fireplace family style on a huge table.
A few miles east of Sloan Park is HoHoKam Stadium, the old home of the Chicago Cubs that now belongs to the Oakland A’s. Along the right field line is a shaded pavilion featuring Oakland food favorites. Grab an Ike’s Place sandwich and watch your children frolic at Stomper’s Kid Zone. More distinctive fare can be had in Mesa at Republica Empanada, which makes 15 different types of empanada. For something a bit spicier drive three miles from HoHoKam to Los Dos Molinos, a New Mexican restaurant that has the hottest food in Phoenix thanks to the generous application of traditional red or Hatch Valley green chili sauce. Seriously, this food is HOT!
Unlike the Grapefruit League in Florida, Cactus League baseball stadiums are all within an hour’s drive of each other so take advantage of logistics to discover new teams in different venues. From Camelback Ranch in Glendale take Highway 101 a few miles north to Bell Road and you’ll be at the Peoria Sports Complex shared by the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.
Peoria seems a bit sterile at first glance but there are some interesting attractions that start with the nearby Arizona Broadway Theater and continue with surprisingly affordable restaurants like the cowboy-themed Lone Spur Café and the Angry Crab, a Cajun seafood place where boiled lobster, shrimp or crab come in plastic bags doused with the sauce of your choice. Phoenix has some of the best Mexican food in America, but it’s nice to enjoy oysters, calamari and clams to a change.
For a real change test your aim and try your luck at Modern Round, an upscale bar, restaurant and shooting gallery with guns that fire virtual bullets. The place calls itself a New West saloon, but the clientele is dressed more for Casino Royale than Westworld. If a woman with a glock in her garter drinking a mojito turns you on, then Modern Round is your place.
If you drive to Phoenix from Los Angeles on Interstate 10, the training facility of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds is the first ballpark you’ll see. You may not want to stay in Goodyear because of its remote location in the far west valley, but be sure to take in a game because the ballpark is beautiful. Order a Skyline chili dog for $3.50 and douse it with Bertman Ball Park mustard from Cleveland. Be sure to leave room for funnel cake. Ballpark eats at Goodyear are very affordable. A 44-oz beer in a souvenir cups costs $8 and can be refilled for $2.
The dining scene outside the ballpark is pretty bleak except for Ah-Hai Sushi, which makes superb $5.50 sushi rolls and sells Sapporo beer for $2.50 during its daily Happy Hour.
David DeVoss is the editor-in-chief of the East-West News Service