Springtime means warm weather, blue skies and escape from cold grey winter and most of all…baseball. There’s no better way to rejuvenate after a rainy winter than heading to the Arizona desert for some sunshine, relaxed fun and Spring Training.
Today, Arizona’s capital city of Phoenix and neighboring cities and towns host “Cactus League” Spring Training with fully half (15) of Major League Baseball teams training in the desert. The various stadiums can be found in Phoenix proper, Tempe, Scottsdale, Mesa, Glendale, Surprise and Peoria. The ballparks are all unique; some are spiffy and new, some quaint and laid back and others are recently refurbished. Fans from many cities come down to root for their home teams, bask in the sun, party, eat and drink. Plus visitors enjoy many other non-baseball attractions too. Unlike the “Grapefruit League” in Florida, “Cactus League” ballparks are all within a moderate drive of one another. Renting a car is the best option for getting around but some people rely on Uber or taxis, or walking and biking.
Our San Francisco Giants play in downtown Scottsdale Stadium, and fans staying nearby can walk to the stadium from vibrant Old Town Scottsdale. In my opinion, the best ballpark in Arizona is Sloan Park in Mesa, the home of the Chicago Cubs. Opened in 2014, legions of Chicago fans come down every year to seriously root for their beloved Cubs. The baseball vibe is terrific and the park recently set a Spring Training record with 15,443 fans at a game. Visitor Brent Hart from Champaign, IL said, “Honestly, I’d rather catch a game here than Wrigley.” Another fan, Terri Patrick from Hampton, VA told me, “I don’t want to go home. The weather’s so good!” Sloan Park serves Chicago-style hot dogs, deep dish pizza and cherished Old Style beer.
What to expect
Spring Training baseball is a very different experience than going to regular season game. For Giants fans, the comparison is immediate—it’s wonderfully warm or even hot in Scottsdale, unlike most games at AT&T Park. The atmosphere is decidedly relaxed and can become a real party scene at times. Spring Training games are where visitors can see today’s stars, like Buster Posey, Zack Greinke, Anthony Rizzo, Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw get their work in, while also watching young, highly valued prospects, older, non-roster invitees or others desperately trying to make an impression. For instance, I can say I saw Balbino Fuenmayor, known as “The Great Balbino,” a young player who looks like a refrigerator, play first base for the Royals. Clubs must start four or five “regulars” who are then replaced by younger players as the game moves along. Though each team tries to win, the final score isn’t that important and there can be ties after nine innings. “This makes me feel like a little kid again, except with an adult beverage,” laughed Bocker of Chandler, Arizona. These stadiums are much smaller than Major League parks, so fans can get very close to the action. All stadiums include lawn areas where visitors bring blankets and lounge in the sunshine. Rates have crept up in recent years, yet Spring Training ticket prices are still considerably less the Major League games. Inexpensive senior and kids’ tickets are usually available. One notable exception is for some Giants games in Scottsdale—which can get a bit pricey. One tip is to see the Giants play “on the road,” in lesser attended parks such as Goodyear or Maryvale. Food and beer prices aren’t cheap, but it doesn’t stop fans from forming long lines to grab a beer and a dog. One local beer to seek out is Hop Knot, from Tempe’s Four Peaks brewery.
Going to Arizona in the spring is about more than baseball. The desert comes alive every March and so do the people, reveling in the mild temperature before the sizzling summertime heat. Numerous attractions all over the valley keep people stimulated, including outdoor activities, museums, and of course, fine places to eat and drink. Golfing is huge and courses are widely available. Hot air balloon rides are popular and offer a delightful glimpse of the topography from above via the balloon’s gentle ascent. Try it: www.HotAirExpeditions.com
A different kind of desert experience can be found on a Pink Adventure Tour. Rugged custom-built Jeep Wranglers go out into exclusive areas of the desert to explore the flora and fauna. Out on the dusty trail you can get up close and personal with the magnificent saguaro cacti that only live in the Sonoran Desert. Guides also provide information about the diverse desert eco-system and Arizona’s Yavapai Nation history and culture. These Jeeps really bump along and climb up and down steep hills and ravines. It’s a fun and educational for everyone.
Hiking, biking or walking, by yourself or by guided tour, are great ways to enjoy the local landscape, but bring plenty of water. Whether out in the desert or cruising through one of the towns, most areas are pretty flat so renting a street bike is an easy ride.
Check out downtown Phoenix, as it’s experiencing a rebirth. An example is the Roosevelt Row neighborhood; a funky arts district full of coffee shops, the Phoenix Public Market, a famers market, murals, galleries, bars & tap rooms, and artisinal shops. This area reminds me of the San Diego’s Gaslamp District about 15 years ago.
Two Phoenix area museums of note are world class. MIM, the Musical Instruments Museum, in Mesa highlights music, musicians and musical instruments from around the world. A fabulous museum for kids in particular, who have an opportunity to play all sorts of exotic instruments. Another not-to-miss museum is the year-old Western Spirit: Scottsdale Museum of the American West. This fascinating museum provides visitors with Western history, artifacts, paintings, sculptures and photographs from the 19 states of the American West. Housed in a new, LEED-certified building, this Scottsdale museum is not only about history, it links the “Old West” with the “New West.”
Some Places to Eat
There are plenty of excellent spots to dine in and around Phoenix, both casual and more elegant. Chef/Owner Chris Bianco presents unmistakably superb pizzas at Pizzeria Bianco. Kitchen West in Scottsdale Resort McCormick Ranch cooks up their interpretation of “American Western” fare, with ingredients coming from Alaska to Arizona and all areas in between. I loved the massive, double cut pork chop. Virtu Honest Craft is Michelin starred, yet down to earth. Try their delightful grilled octopus. The new Artizen in The Camby Hotel has created a swanky and upscale dining experience. Roaring Fork has awesome ribeye steaks, Postino Annex, a thriving brunch location with can’t-miss beer specials, and last but not least, Snooze, in Gilbert, with its Jetsonsesqe décor is a serious place for breakfast. Go for the pancake flight of fancy.
Two famed sports bars, Don & Charlies and the Pink Pony are the big baseball hangouts, complete with extensive memorabilia. The Bees Knees in The Camby is intriguing and Film Bar is an unusual combo of bar and art house film joint. Culinary Dropout has an extensive beer list and don’t miss MercBar, a truly sophisticated nightclub in downtown Phoenix.
There’s been a recent uptick in breweries and tap rooms in the Phoenix area along with a new, up-and-coming Arizona wine scene. Two Brothers Tap House in Scottsdale is a tasty stop. Brothers Jim and Jason Ebel originally started with old dairy equipment and now craft a variety of beers. My fave was the Revelry Imperial Red.
The Beer Research Institue, Arizona Wilderness Brewery, Four Peaks Brewing Company, The Shop and Huss Brewery are other fine places to sample locally produced beers and ales. Arizona Brew Tours offers guided Hop’ on tours of local breweries and pubs. Lots of fun and you can leave the driving to them.
Pavle Milic runs FnB – a small restaurant, tasting room and an All Arizona wine shop. He is incredbily knowledgable about AZ Wines. The charming LDV Vineyards Wine Tasting Room in Scottsdale is a place to taste local wines with one of the owners.
Places to Stay
Phoenix gives travelers many outstanding hotels, inns, B&B’s and motel choices. Enclosed are some I recommend, such as the recently renovated Scottsdale Resort at McCormick Ranch, The Camby Hotel (the former Ritz-Carlton), The Hotel Palomar, W Scottsdale and the legendary Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The city of Phoenix literally grew up around this gorgeous property.
Arizona is clearly a draw and in the springtime it’s such a relaxing way to enjoy the desert. “This place is mecca, it’s the holy grail, “said Lanni Dickson of Sacramento. It was his third trip to Spring Training and he vowed to return again and again. It’s still not too late to hit the desert for some Cactus League baseball.