I’m walking down a long, paved sidewalk in early March, with a practice baseball field on my left and a grove of well-trimmed trees on my right. I’m worrying about the snow that fell as I left Washington, D.C., the night before, worrying about work and bills and the hassles of everyday life, worrying about the sunscreen I left at home.
A hundred yards from the stadium, I hear what has become an annual ritual: A cheer rising from the stands, the cheer of a happy and hopeful crowd that has traveled to Phoenix to watch their baseball team prepare for the season ahead.
In that moment, I stop, I breathe deep, I smile to myself. Weight lifts off my shoulders.
The players call it spring training. I call it the end of winter, the end of a long, cold season of being locked indoors and the beginning of a new time of year, marked by the return of baseball and my annual pilgrimage west. For this weekend, I will care only about our national pastime, and the joy it brings those of us lucky enough to be worried about sunscreen in March.
Today, my team, the Seattle Mariners, is playing the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryvale Baseball Park, on the west side of the Valley of the Sun. It is 90 degrees – a dry heat, the locals insist, and it truly is a bearable and happy heat. My parents have flown down to meet me; we sit a few rows up the first base line to watch the game, in which the rising star Taijuan Walker, since traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, pitches a few meaningless innings behind a team of minor leaguers in Major League jerseys. We feel, like we will for the next several days, as if we’re sitting on top of the game, close enough to overhear the conversations between the players and the umpires.
Over the following long weekend, I will visit three more stadiums in all quadrants of the Phoenix area. Each of the 10 stadiums scattered from Mesa to Glendale, Scottsdale to Surprise, is unique, built over the last 20 years as Arizona’s Cactus League has evolved from quiet ritual to reliable tradition. While different in their own ways, each stadium offers the same feelings of proximity and intimacy; enterprising young fans have far better odds of scoring an autograph along the outfield wall, more seasoned fans a far better chance that their shouts of encouragement will be heard than in any Major League park.
Most important, every stadium offers cheap tickets. While tickets to Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City can be quite a bit more expensive, admission to a Royals game in Surprise, in the northwest corner of the Valley, can be had for $19; tickets to the beautiful outfield lawn, where children spend the game playing catch and families spread picnic blankets, cost $8.
Try ticket resale websites such as StubHub or VividSeats, especially during weekday games, and those prices can fall more. A few years back, as I wooed his daughter, my now-father-in-law was impressed that I scored seats to a White Sox home game, behind home plate, for just $5 each.
Proximity is the biggest selling point to Cactus League fans: spring training brings 15 teams to 10 stadiums around the Valley of the Sun, all within driving times of 45 minutes or less. It is not uncommon for the hardcore fan to spend an afternoon in the sun, at a game that starts at 1 p.m., and an evening in the cool desert air at another game that begins at 7 p.m.; a few years back, in what I considered the pinnacle of my baseball fandom, I hit eight games in five days, accompanied by any and every friend I had ever made in Arizona.
The variety of the stadiums themselves makes for an eclectic experience. Each ballpark has its nods to hometown fans: At Maryvale Baseball Park, at 20 years old the second-oldest of the stadiums around Phoenix and home of the Brewers, we ate bratwurst. In Surprise, where the Royals share a stadium that rises out of the middle of the desert with the Texas Rangers, we ate barbecue and pork tenderloin.
At the glistening Salt River Fields, which opened in 2011 for the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies, I had a decadent Sonoran hot dog, wrapped in bacon, drenched in chili and dressed with aioli that defied my best napkin-aided efforts at protecting my shorts almost immediately. (“So,” my wife summarized, after I told her the ingredients, “it’s a bacon dog with mayonnaise?” She was not wrong.)
Spring training in Arizona offers the best of baseball for both the obsessive and the casual fan; as life has intruded, I increasingly find myself shifting from the former category to the latter, and the experience of a trip to Phoenix never diminishes. At Maryvale, a fellow Mariners fan in front of me kept detailed notes about each player’s time on the field. At Surprise, where my parents and I watched the Mariners beat the Rangers, I chuckled to myself when young guys with jersey numbers in the 80s – players unlikely to come anywhere close to the Major Leagues this year or next – trotted out to replace others in the middle of a game. The Mariners hadn’t even bothered to sew their names on the back of their jerseys, and several went unacknowledged by the public address announcer, perhaps because their names had not been included on the team’s official roster.
The informality is not unusual. In fact, the entire spring training experience has a delightfully casual feel about it, as if even the announcers are working out the winter kinks and everyone knows that nothing is to be taken too seriously. At Surprise, someone forgot to turn off the Lady Gaga song playing over the loudspeaker while the live vocalist belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner”; at Tempe Diablo Stadium, just south of Arizona State University’s campus, where I watched Los Angeles Angels slugger Mike Trout launch a massive home run before heading to the airport to catch my flight home, silence echoed around the park for a solid 45 seconds before the recorded version of the national anthem struggled to life. At Salt River, a Padres pitcher ran warm-up sprints along the outfield track in the middle of an inning.
Phoenix, too, has a casual feel. Over years of visiting my father-in-law there, even during Christmas, I cannot remember the last time I wore anything other than shorts.
The valley itself, which has grown explosively in recent years thanks to an influx of snowbirds from Chicago to Seattle (every third license plate, it seems, is from Illinois or Washington), is becoming perpetually more refined while maintaining its laid-back appeal.
That is not to say, by any means, that the valley has no charm beyond spring training. After a hard day of eating salt-laden ballpark fare while watching others exert themselves in the hot sun, fans have limitless dinner options ahead of them. Phoenix, the land of strip malls, offers every possible chain – I will confess to a predilection for Red Robin, the cheapo burger chain founded in my home town of Seattle, where the basic Tavern Double burger with bottomless steak fries has added inches to my midsection.
Phoenix is quickly developing its own foodie culture, happily independent of chain thinking. Fans who head to Surprise to see the Rangers or the Royals should stop on their way back at one of two Rio Mirage Cafes, hallmark Mexican restaurants where my fajitas were delayed because the chef was still making that night’s flour tortillas. (Given the impeccable quality of the final product, I would have gladly waited another hour; my wife picked the correct location, the hostess told us, because theirs had the mariachi band that night.)
Near the Peoria complex, which the Mariners and San Diego Padres share, a hole-in-the-wall sushi joint called Fresh Wasabi delivers what its name promises, along with about two dozen specialty rolls, including the shrimp-and-tuna Booty Booty roll and the Sweet Thang roll, filled with salmon, cream cheese and crab.
After a day at Salt River Fields, drive north on the 101 for just a few exits until you reach Hayden Road and the Local Bistro; my parents caught up with an old friend, newly retired to the Phoenix area, over a delectably eclectic menu that included a preassembled Swiss-style fondue, perfectly cooked salmon, mussels my mother raved about and pizzas after which we all pined. The wine, ranging from Oregon pinot noir to a Spanish white I had never before encountered, set the reminiscing into overdrive. Even the strip malls are not without their charm: Tutti Santi by Nina, a favorite of locals who love Italian food, served as a perfect venue for a belated birthday dinner for a relative; the pasta three ways delivered a ravioli in tomato sauce, spinach gnocchi and a walnut sauce over tortellini that the carb-lover in me cannot forget.
Previous visits have highlighted other exceptional restaurants, in every part of the valley. My father-in-law and I made a mess of ourselves at Honey Bear’s BBQ, in downtown Phoenix, thanks to fall-off-the-bone ribs and sauce-laden pulled pork. During that same visit, a source and I spent an endless lunch at Richardson’s, north of downtown and famous for its stuffed chile rellenos.
Glendale, west of Phoenix, is replete with authentic Mexican joints in which families who have run restaurants for longer than Arizona has been a state continue to serve tortilla chips that haven’t been out of the deep fryer for more than a few minutes. Guacamole made table-side is the rule, not the exception.
On this weekend, after three full days with my parents, I have one more task to complete: While my father-in-law delivers my parents to the airport, I want to get a few more hours in the sun. So I meet my friend Seth at Tempe Diablo Stadium to try to squeeze in a few more innings before I have to return to reality.
I am not disappointed: Because it does not count, spring training is for experimenting, and that means the excitement of stolen bases. In the regular season, the rise of Sabermetrics and other cold analyses of baseball statistics means few players risk the long-shot option of swiping second.
In spring training, such larceny is a common feature, and in my final few moments in the sun I witness a half-dozen acts of brazen base-stealing. Half a dozen foul balls come close enough that we leap out of our seats, threatening the safety of Seth’s pretzel and my Cracker Jacks, a thrill that only happens in the rich seats in the Major League parks.
After six innings, I have to get to the airport. Seth and I walk to his car, the occasional cheer of Angels and White Sox fans cascading over us like a reminder that the warm blanket of a Phoenix March will follow me back to Washington. As I sit on the plane, waiting to taxi from the gate and head back home, I am calm, comforted by the unarguable fact that spring is here. When I land in Washington later that night, the snow is gone.
If you go
Where to stay
Arizona Biltmore Hotel
2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix
A luxury resort with two 18-hole golf courses that offers easy access to Sky Harbor International Airport. Rooms from $458 per night.
300 E. Wigwam Blvd., Litchfield Park
Hotel features four pools with water slides, three golf courses close to several West Valley stadiums. Rooms from $169 per night.
Where to eat
Rio Mirage Cafe
13863 W. Bell Rd., Surprise
Authentic Mexican cantina with fresh-made tortillas. Call ahead to check which location has the mariachi band that night. Entrees start at $11.50.
20581 N. Hayden Rd., Scottsdale
Eclectic, mid-scale Italian fare with a strong wine list. Entrees start at $12.
Tutti Santi by Nina
6339 E. Greenway Rd., Scottsdale
Expect authentic Italian family fare. Entrees start at $14.95.
Honey Bear’s BBQ
2824 N. Central Ave., Phoenix
Casual Tennessee-style barbecue. The Central Avenue location is right in downtown Phoenix. Entrees start at $7.50.
What to do
Cactus League games run from Feb. 24 to April 1. Prices vary by park and team, but general-admission lawn seats start at $8 per game. Tickets on resale websites such as StubHub.comcan fall even lower, and virtually every stadium has tickets available until just a few hours before first pitch. Tickets to Chicago Cubs and Seattle Mariners games tend to be more expensive, while tickets to Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals games are generally the least expensive. Visit cactusleague.com for a complete schedule.
Wilson is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter at @PoliticsReid.