On calm, warm mornings, when the grass is still glazed with dew, the players gather. They loosen the muscles, take some grounders and practice their swings. They listen to coaches, share stories with each other, chat with fans and, after a long winter, begin to embrace the rhythm of baseball. Before they become the Boys of Summer, there is spring training, when all teams have hope to win it all.
If you share the passion for this annual ritual, pack a bag and take the 4-5-hour drive from Las Vegas, made easier this year with the opening of the Hoover Dam bypass.
Fifteen teams, including for only the fourth time ever the two teams involved in the previous year’s World Series (the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers), work out within a 35-mile radius in the Phoenix area. New this year is Salt River Fields at Talking Stick on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Reservation in Scottsdale, where the Diamondbacks and the Rockies have moved from Tucson. A little planning (CactusLeague.com) and you can catch two games in one day. By the way, the Giants and Rangers go head-to-head twice: 7:05 p.m. March 7 in Scottsdale and at 1:05 p.m. March 13 in Surprise.
Here’s a quick guide to get the most out of your stay.
Practice: Most teams roll out no later than 9 a.m. to begin drills, bullpen sessions and batting practice. Parking and admission are free. This is the best time for fans to see the players up-close, get autographs and take pictures. Patience and politeness often are rewarded; find a location between fields, or a rope line from the main field to the clubhouse.
Games: Most games begin at 1:05 p.m. Tickets range from $6-$23 at the Peoria Sports Complex (Padres and Mariners) to $8–$47 at Camelback Ranch (Dodgers and White Sox). Most fields have an outfield berm, perfect for families. Most starters just play a few innings, run a little on the outfield warning track and get back to the clubhouse (that path is another prime spot for autograph hounds). After the stars leave, prospects vie for a shot in the Show. After about March 15, minor leaguers frequently have unpublicized practice games on adjacent fields, where admission is free.
Where to stay: Scottsdale is known for its beautiful resorts, including the chic Hotel Valley Ho (6850 E. Main St., 480-248-2000), which opened in 1956 and was renovated in 2005. Packages begin at $249, which includes breakfast at ZuZu and VIP nightclub access to Axis/Radius, Myst, RnR and Suede. Also recommended: JW Marriott Camelback Inn, 5402 E. Lincoln Drive, (800) 582-2169; and The W Scottsdale, 7277 E. Camelback Road, (480) 970-2100.
Where to eat: Don & Charlie’s, 7501 E. Camelback Road, and the historic Pink Pony, 3831 N. Scottsdale Road, (which reopens this month after closing in 2009) are great spots to check out baseball memorabilia. Alice Cooper’stown (101 E. Jackson St., 602-253-7337) in downtown Phoenix is owned by Alice Cooper and former pitcher Randy Johnson, among others. Former Cubs announcers Harry Caray and Steve Stone originally owned Sluggo’s Sports Grill (161 N. Centennial Way, Mesa, 480-844-8448).
Things of beauty: Scottsdale Stadium (Giants) boasts distinctive red brick and dark green wrought iron, a lively neighborhood and the defending world champions. … Mill Avenue and nearby Tempe Beach Park capture Arizona State University’s energy. Check out the Great Arizona Beer Festival on March 5 and the St. Patrick’s Day Bash with Flogging Molly. … The Desert Botanical Garden and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, the architect’s winter home, studio and architectural campus, are well worth visits before the drive back to Vegas.
Closer to Home
For the 21st time, Cashman Field hosts Big League Weekend, featuring three of baseball’s most legendary teams. The Cubs play the Cincinnati Reds on March 12, and the Cubs and Dodgers play on March 13. Both games begin at 1:05 p.m. Tickets are $35 for reserved seats, berm and grandstand, $45 for plaza seats and $50 for field seats. Call 798-7825 or go to Ticketmaster.com for tickets.