Pretty much all of Arizona’s Valley of the Sun participates.
Every year, millions of baseball fans escape the frigid climates of the north to travel to Arizona for spring training, so Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs truly come alive during March for its Cactus League. Cubs fans can head to Diamond’s Sports Grill — which was owned for years by the broadcasting tandem of Steve Stone and Harry Carey — for a Chicago dog and an Old Style beer before catching the free shuttle to Sloan Park for the afternoon’s game. In Scottsdale, Don and Charlie’s Steakhouse not only offers great grub, but fans can also take in one of the world’s largest collection of baseball memorabilia and autographs.
Spring training season is already pretty casual, but Mesa takes it a step further.
Because the games don’t officially count, the atmosphere on the field and in the stands is just way more relaxed. You’ll see more players — at least those with a guaranteed roster spot — smiling and laughing on the field, and you’re more likely to get autographs and photos as they walk back to their clubhouse.
Better yet, there’s a camaraderie in the stands that doesn’t quite exist in the regular season. During spring training, every team is a potential World Series winner. (Except maybe the Reds and Brewers this season. It’s going to be a brutal summer guys, sorry.) Fans are excited and optimistic about the upcoming season, and you’ll often witness fans of opposing teams sharing a laugh and bragging about the young prospects that’ll make their way north in the coming months and years.
Some Arizona spring training ballparks offer a more casual, but strikingly familiar setting for out-of-town fans. Referred to as Wrigleyville West, the three-year-old Sloan Park borrows numerous architectural details from its historic Chicago cousin, including the famous light poles surrounding the field and their version of the legendary red marquee that had dozens of fans queuing up for a photo.
Arizona is where you’ll see the future stars debut.
The MLB regular season lasts 162 games, so managers want to limit the amount of innings their stars play early in spring training. (“Pennants aren’t won in April,” so the saying goes.) That’s why you can expect to see heralded rookies and other minor leaguers play in most of the games early in the season. Every spring training, a few of those rookies play so well that they force their way onto the regular-season roster. It’s always fun to be able to say, “I saw Mike Trout (or some other young All-Star) play in his first spring training.”
Most of the spring training complexes in Arizona have practice fields just beyond the main ballpark. And at the A’s Hohokam Park, which was just renovated last year, those fields are just beyond the center-field wall. It’s definitely worth it to get to the ballpark a few hours early to watch the players practice and prepare. If you want an autograph or a photo, wait for them to finish their workouts and ask while they’re walking back to the clubhouse.
(Almost) Everything is less expensive in Arizona.
You can expect to pay well over $100 if you want to sit behind home plate at the Mariners’ Safeco Field in Seattle, but that same ticket will only set you back $28 at their spring home in AZ. (Just a warning – as the popularity of spring training has risen, so has the scarcity of tickets for the more popular teams. Be sure to buy your tickets early or run the risk of the game selling out.)
Most of the concessions are equally as cheap — a massive Elysian Immortal IPA draft set me back less than $9. Both the Mariners and Padres call the Peoria Sports Complex home, and the staff there has done a great job of importing food and other concessions from the Seattle and San Diego areas to make visiting fans feel at home. The Queen City Grill at the Cincinnati Reds’ spring home at Goodyear Ballpark sells a variety of spring training favorites for (relatively) cheap, including a tasty $5 Polish sausage.
Unfortunately a few ballparks are still a little on the pricey side for food and beer. A small-ish cup of Four Peaks Pale Ale at the Angels’ Tempe Diablo Stadium set me back $11, but you can’t go to a baseball game and not have an overpriced beer, right?
Arizona’s ballparks are way easier to get to.
About half of all MLB teams train in Florida, but Grapefruit League stadiums are pretty spread out throughout the Sunshine State. It’s not unusual for fans to drive three hours or more just to follow their favorite team around. In contrast, all Cactus League action is centered in the Phoenix metropolitan area. If you based yourself in downtown Phoenix, you wouldn’t have to travel more than 40 minutes to get to any ballpark.
The driving distances affect the teams on the field as well. Established MLB stars are much more reluctant to make a three-hour-plus bus ride, so many of those away games are played by minor leaguers trying to make the big-league team. Shorter drive times mean that you’re more likely to see your favorite players take the field.
Phoenix weather is obviously way better than Chicago weather.
I wore a T-shirt and shorts for nearly every Cactus League game I attended during the first week of March. It’s a fair bet that the folks in Chicago can’t say the same thing. In fact, when the regular-season games start in April, you’ll likely see the Wrigley Field stands packed with parka-clad fans huddling together for warmth, seeking refuge from the bitter Lake Michigan wind chill.
There’s a reason why they hold spring training in Arizona — the weather is close to perfect. The sun is almost always shining, and there’s rarely a threat of rain. If you want perfect baseball weather for spring training, Arizona is where you need to go to get it.
This article was proudly produced in cooperation with Visit Phoenix.