After an extended cruise of Australia and Indonesia, I returned to the Phoenix “Valley of the Sun” area in mid-March, just in time to catch the final two weeks of the annual spring training season. I was able to see 15 games, visit every Cactus League park and see 13 of the 15 Major League Baseball teams that train here annually. The following are a few of my notes and observations.
• The Chicago Cubs opened a brand-new Cactus League facility, Cubs Park, on West Rio Salado (Salt River) Parkway in Mesa. This facility is a very big improvement over the modest facilities at HoHoKam Park, where the team had played for years. The good news is that much of the stands are shaded from the sometimes very warm Arizona March sunshine, and the Cubs, as expected, drew a Cactus League record number of fans to their March contests. The bad news is that the legroom is pretty tight, even in the expensive seats. And, unfortunately, (or fortunately, should you be a Cardinals or Brewers fan), the Cubs players themselves gave every indication of being as pathetic as usual on the diamond. I think it’s going to a long summer on the North Side of Chi-town.
• The winner and still champion of the best spring training park and complex in the area (if not in all of Major League Baseball) is Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, which is the Scottsdale springtime home of both the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies. Opened in 2011 by the Maricopa Indians and unquestionably financed at least in part by their nearby casino resort, the tribe spared no expense, and it shows. For four years now, with games virtually daily due to the facility hosting two teams, attendance for the month of March has exceeded 300,000.
• The Oakland A’s played their last spring season in the aging but lovable Phoenix Municipal Stadium (fondly referred to as “Phoenix Muni” locally). In an area baseball ‘switcheroo,’ the A’s will be moving next year to the Cubs old Mesa home, HoHoKam Park, which I understand is going through a major renovation. At the same time, the Arizona State University Sun Devils baseball team will be moving its games to Phoenix Muni, since its own, historic Packard Stadium on the campus in Tempe apparently occupies land that is now too valuable for baseball, and ostensibly will be the site of a new university building or two. Ah, progress!
• Prices for spring training games in general have risen dramatically from the days where you could get a good seat for a just few bucks at the ticket window. But those of you who know me personally are aware that I pride myself on being exceptionally thrifty when it comes to spending money on keeping myself entertained. So by that standard, Cactus League 2014 was a resounding success. Since I require only a single ticket and never purchase that ticket at the box office, I’ve become quite proficient at pre-game sidewalk negotiation for single seats that would otherwise go unoccupied. As a result, I got a lot of excellent seats close to the action this spring, and indeed, only had to sit beyond first or third base three times out of 15.
• Three cheers for the Peoria Sports Complex, which always seems to schedule the most night games of any facility in the Cactus League, making for delightful Arizona evenings during March. I attended three of them this time around, and could have made a fourth, had I not been tuckered out from a Mariners/Cubs afternoon game, across the valley in Mesa. Peoria is the spring training home both for the Seattle Mariners and the San Diego Padres.
• Speaking of my Mariners (I’ve been a fan since 1988), they always impress in the Cactus League, then almost immediately fall apart once the real season begins. FYI, only the M’s and the Washington Nationals have never been to a World Series. At least the Nats would seem to have a chance this year.
Ballet at the Ballpark
Albert Pujols takes a swing