I played Tee-Ball, tried my hand at baseball, and played hours of backyard catch with my dad, though I never fell into baseball superfandom. At least not until my spring break visit to Phoenix coincided with Spring Training. Until I caught the spirit of the good old ball game and felt compelled to score some tickets. Until I heard a wooden bat crack against a leather-bound ball in a crowd of 12,000 fans.
Out of left field, a Field of Dreams-induced passion for baseball burst out of me like a home run during Arizona’s Cactus League Spring Training baseball, a yearly tradition that draws 15 Major League teams—half of the Major League total—from across the United States to one place, for one purpose: To play ball.
During this spring spectacle in and around Phoenix, each team takes on exhibition play to test out rookies and bolster their contract players for regular season action that starts in April. While Spring Training is serious—players are there to sharpen their skills and “mega-fans” roll in from all over the world—I dig the come-as-you-are, all-ages atmosphere, soaked in anticipation and the smell of fresh-baked pretzels.
Viewfinder Tip: Arizona’s Spring Training tradition hit the ballparks in 1947 and takes place every March. This year’s 2014 dates run February 26 to March 29.
The attitude was evident in the stands around me. Walking down the steps to my eighth-row seat behind third base, I overheard a lady gush, “I come for the tight pants.” Upon hearing this honest admission, I raised my glass of beer to her as I was finding my seat, and we nodded in our mutual appreciation of the fit physiques on the field. The family in front of me was there for the love of the game, each child sporting a worn leather glove at the ready for fly balls. The spectators behind me were poker-faced fans who yelled “Sit down! Ball in play!” when my group stood up at the wrong time (a baseball faux pas) to get more beer.
Every March, Spring Training is a party with the regular fixings—beer, pretzels, hot dogs, soda—and multiple games a day at 10 different stadiums. Some locals cut work early for midweek games, keeping their team jerseys and ball caps in the cars for quick-changes in the parking lots. On weekends the diamonds are busting at the seams, prompting many to buy lawn admission tickets and spectate atop a grassy knoll. Gazing at the lawn seats from my stadium perch, I became obsessed with the throngs of sunbathing baseball fans. Nine innings in the midday sun lasts a long time, and out on the knoll I wouldn’t be shy about bringing my own beach blanket, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a beach get-up, and maybe even reading between batters.
It’s also a priority for out-of-town fans from teams like the Chicago White Sox, the Colorado Rockies, and the Seattle Mariners—fans who make the cross-country pilgrimage to boost their team’s morale, take notes on the prospects, and root, root, root for their home team (away from the cold).
If you’re like moi, a fan of baseball and of basking in the sun, participating in the Greater Phoenix area’s 67-year tradition knocks spring break out of the park. Couple this with tickets starting around US$10 and a roster of hip hotels close to the action (such as The Saguaro Scottsdale), and Arizona just pulled a doubleheader.
How do you like to spend your Spring Break?