- The Washington Times - Friday, February 18, 2005

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When springtime rolls around, crowds gather at a beautiful red brick ballpark with green awning in the heart of downtown Scottsdale, giving the city even more energy during its busiest time of year.

Scottsdale Stadium, used by the San Francisco Giants during spring training, is one of 10 such ballparks that form the Southwestern home of Major League Baseball’s Cactus League exhibition season. Built in 1956 as an old wooden band box but since remodeled in a chic nouveau-retro design, the stadium has been the Giants’ spring home since 1984 and the home park to more teams than any other stadium in the league’s 58-year history.

Warm and inviting Arizona cities such as Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe and Tucson offer resort locales year-round, but Cactus League baseball is a big reason why March reigns as king of the vacation season in the Valley of the Sun.

Visitors to Arizona from big-league cities across the nation enjoy the opportunity to watch their hometown favorites prepare for the upcoming season in a climate bordering on paradise. Mountain vistas and desert scenery surround the ballparks. Combined with afternoon sunshine, a cold drink and a frank make spring baseball a feast for the senses.

As a former resident of nearby Fountain Hills now living in Baltimore, I still return for the start of baseball season every spring, keeping up a tradition begun as a teenager more than 25 years ago. Since my first spring-training game in Arizona in 1979, I have seen ballplayers at the beginning and end of their careers. I have seen old ballparks that have been dramatically refurbished or razed and replaced. I have seen teams move from site to site and new expansion teams open up new ballparks.

For the past 10 years, I have been part of a partnership on a pair of season tickets in the second row at Scottsdale Stadium, right behind the Giants’ dugout, where I sit with my good friend Alan for at least one game every spring season.

Last year, we watched Giants slugger Barry Bonds emerge from the dugout and peer from the on-deck circle in our direction, shielding his eyes from the sun as he surveyed the crowd. Apparently not seeing someone he was seeking, he stepped into the batter’s box, quickly turned on the first pitch of his first at-bat of the game and blasted the ball down the right-field line for his first home run of the spring season.

When he came to bat a few innings later, he again scanned the crowd, this time spotting his small daughter, seated directly over my left shoulder, and mouthed words to the effect of “Where were you? You missed it.” He then drove another ball even farther down the right-field line.

After circling the bases, he smiled and waved and blew kisses toward his daughter; from our seats, it looked as if he were directing them at us. It was the kind of up-close and personal view on display more often at spring-training games than during the regular season.

Before and after the game, Alan and I always go to Karsen’s Grill at 7246 E. First Street for cold drinks, hot grub and lively baseball banter just a few blocks away by the bustling Scottsdale Civic Center.

Longtime Arizona baseball fans probably have watched more games at Phoenix Municipal Stadium than at any of the state’s other ballparks. For many years, “Muny” was home to the city’s minor-league affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, a distinction that also was bestowed briefly on Scottsdale Stadium before the arrival of the major-league Arizona Diamondbacks.

Since 1984, Muny has been the spring home of the Oakland A’s. It is a 10-minute drive from Scottsdale Stadium but light years away in design.

The real granddaddy of valley baseball venues since its opening in 1966, Muny is still one of the most out-of-this-world-looking ballparks in the country. While many of the newer ballparks are retro in design (a trend that began with Baltimore’s Camden Yards in 1992), Muny is a Space Age neo-modern structure that has been likened to a flying saucer.

Recent remodeling, including a new press box, has detracted from some of its charming kitsch, but the park remains delightfully unpretentious. I treasure my many memories of spring-training and minor-league games dating to my teenage years, which actually began a few miles to the east in Mesa.

One fine day many years ago, while riding the school bus on my way to a junior high school in Mesa, I heard a familiar sound in the distance: the crack of the bat, and for a fleeting instant, I thought I caught a whiff of freshly cut grass.

It was the original Hohokam Park across the street from its new and improved present location in Mesa. When told this was where the Chicago Cubs played their spring-training exhibition games, I devised a plan for playing hooky from school later in the week. With a few classmates, I ditched school for the second part of a day and watched the Cubs play the Dodgers, who were passing through on their way back to Los Angeles.

Players on both teams signed autographs and posed for pictures, giving me my first feel of the intimacy of spring-training games. Of course, that was a long time ago, when Cactus League parks were more likely to be less than half full on a weekday and before spring training became the $200 million tourism industry it is today.

Last year, the Cubs, who have played in Hohokam Parks old and new since 1977, set a major-league spring-training record, drawing 189,692 fans to 16 games. Because of the capacity crowds and modern amenities, such as a Jumbotron video scoreboard, the new Hohokam Park feels more like a major-league stadium than a spring-training facility.

After the game, the Cellar Pub at Sun Devil Liquors (235 N. Country Club Drive) is a great place to sample a regional draft beer or any of a wide variety of microbrews and imports.

Sun Devil Liquors is named for Arizona State University’s teams, the Sun Devils. Having graduated from the university, I always find a trip to Tempe nostalgic.

A few miles from the campus is Tempe Diablo Stadium, spring home to the Angels ” now the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, a name change being contested in court ” since 1984; it was opened by the one-year-wonder Seattle Pilots in 1969.

The vista for fans at Diablo Stadium by the neighboring Tempe Buttes has always been a feature attraction. Last year, fans also feasted their eyes on newcomer outfielder Vladimir Guerrero, who went on to capture the league’s Most Valuable Player award and lead the Angels to the American League West pennant.

The bleacher seats behind the bullpen in the right-field corner are popular with autograph hounds, as players must walk to and from the clubhouse tunnel before and after the game. In the opposite left-field corner, beyond the home run fence, bikini-clad sunbathers bask in warm Southwestern weather on blankets and towels along a lengthy grassy berm.

A short ride away is Casey Moore’s Oyster House at the corner of Ninth and Ash streets, near the center of town by the busy intersection of historic Mill Avenue and University Drive. This converted old home is a great neighborhood haunt. At least, that’s what the locals say. Feel free to ask the bartender or other members of the staff for a ghost story, and they’ll probably oblige.

We used to love Compadre Stadium in Chandler, where cheese-head snowbirds from Wisconsin would flock and gather in the grassy parking area for beer-and-brat tailgate parties before Milwaukee Brewers games. A few years ago, they moved the party to the Brewers’ new spring-training home in the West Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale.

Although the Maryvale Baseball Park is a bit removed from the other, more centrally conglomerated parks in the valley, traffic moves fast west on Interstate 10 to the 51st Avenue exit, and the reward is perhaps the most fan-friendly park in the league. The open-air concourse behind the sunken seating bowl is shaded by louvered sunscreens stretching down the first- and third-base lines.

The concourse completely circles the stadium, and the grass seating spans the length of the outfield at a comfortable incline for sitting. Plenty of grilled snacks and a variety of beers are available at easily accessible concession stands from which the game remains in full sight.

It used to be a long drive to the Peoria Sports Complex, the shared spring site of the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, but as the West Valley continues to sprawl, the ballpark and surrounding area are becoming more centrally located.

When the Peoria Sports Complex was completed in 1994, the thriving commercial and residential megalopolis that has become the West Valley did not exist. Because two teams call the ballpark home, a game is scheduled just about every day. Like Mesa’s Hohokam, Peoria is large and feels big-league; the concourse has so many concession stands that it reminds me of the Arizona State Fairs I attended as a child.

One of Peoria’s favorite post-game watering holes is the Monastery Too, which offers an indoor-outdoor desert oasis with a view back toward the ballpark just down the left-field line at 8011 W. Paradise Lane.

It was no surprise when two more teams were lured away from their former Florida spring outposts to join the Cactus League in 2003. The sharing of spring-training facilities by two teams began with the Mariners and Padres in Peoria and continued when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox opened Tucson Electric Park together in 1998.

The new Billy Parker Field in the West Valley’s town of Surprise is the shared spring-training facility of the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. Twelve practice fields and a pair of practice infields surround the main stadium, which looks out on the Bradshaw Mountains. The 10,500-seat stadium runs the gamut from affordable grass lawn seating to upper-deck club seating and corporate suites. Other amenities include batting cages for fans of all ages on the concourse.

In contrast to Florida’s Grapefruit League, in which teams and fans often travel hundreds of miles from distant outposts as far away from each other as Fort Lauderdale to Tampa, the Cactus League’s only road trip is from the valley to Tucson.

Tucson Electric Park, home of the Diamondbacks and White Sox, offers a spectacular view of the Santa Catalina mountain range and what appears to be the end of the world. Because two teams share the park, a game is played just about every day of the Cactus League schedule. The wide concourse completely circles the field, and there’s plenty of tasty ballpark fare to enjoy, including Mexican food and barbecue pits.

A few blocks away is the Cactus League’s first ballpark, Hi Corbett Field, which has received a few face-lifts since the Cleveland Indians began holding spring training in Tucson in 1947. It retains an Old World minor-league charm in picturesque surroundings.

Since the inception of the Colorado Rockies team in 1993, Hi Corbett has been the team’s spring home. Baseball movie buffs know the original Hi Corbett was a backdrop for the spring-training scenes in the movie “Major League.”

The Tucson area offers a wide range of fabulous resorts and golf courses. Cactus League road trippers also can take excursions to regional attractions such as the Mission San Xavier del Bac, which is on the way to the Mexican border town of Nogales.

For local Tucson atmosphere and color, the eccentric and bohemian Hotel Congress nearby at 311 E. Congress St. contains a spacious and attractive lobby bar, historic Tap Room lounge and lively Club Congress nightclub. The hotel’s Cup Cafe restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The rooms are affordable and offer a vibrant atmosphere in the heart of Tucson’s historical district.

A nearby popular haunt with the locals, Bob Dobbs Bar and Grill at 2501 E. Sixth St., is a great place to watch NCAA basketball tournament games and get a feel for the pulse of Tucson.

Desert blooms with major leaguers’ sunny fields

Colorado Rockies. Hi Corbett Field, 3400 E. Camino Campestre, Tucson, AZ 85716. Tickets: 520/327-9467 or 800/388-ROCK or visit www.rockies.mlb.com. Area information: Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau, 520/770-2143, 800/638-8350, or visit www.visittucson.org.

Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox. Tucson Electric Park, 2500 E. Ajo Way, Tucson, AZ 85713. Tickets: 866/672-1343 or 520/434-1111 or visit www.diamondbacks.mlb.com or www.whitesox.mlb.com. Area information: Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau, 520/770-2143, 800/638-8350 or visit www.visittucson.org.

Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers. Surprise Stadium-Billy Parker Field, 15960 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise, AZ 85374. Tickets: 623/594-5600 or visit https://kansascity.royals.mlb.com or www.rangers.mlb.com. Area information: Peoria Chamber of Commerce, 623/979-3601 or visit www.surpriseaz.com.

San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. Peoria Sports Complex, 16101 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria, AZ 85382. Tickets: 623/878-4337 or visit www.padres.mlb.com or www.mariners.mlb.com. Area information: Peoria Chamber of Commerce, 623/979-3601 or visit www.peoriachamber.com.

Milwaukee Brewers. Maryvale Baseball Park, 3600 N. 51st Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85031. Tickets: 623/245-5500 or visit www.brewers.mlb.com. Area information: Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, 602/254-6500 or visit www.phoenixcvb.com.

Chicago Cubs. Hohokam Park, 1235 N. Center St. Mesa, AZ 85201. Tickets: 480/964-4467 or Mesa Convention and Visitors Bureau, 480/827-4700 or 800/283-6372; visit www.cubs.mlb.com.

Oakland A’s. Phoenix Municipal Stadium, 5999 E. Van Buren Road, Phoenix, AZ 85008. Tickets: 602/392-0217 or visit www.athletics.mlb.com. Area information: Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau, 602/254-6500 or visit www.phoenixcvb.com.

San Francisco Giants. Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 E. Osborn Road, Scottsdale, AZ 85251. Tickets: 480/312-2586 or visit www.giants.mlb.com. Area information: Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, 480/945-8481 or 800/877-1117 or visit www.experiencescottsdale.com.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Tempe Diablo Stadium, 2200 W. Alameda Drive, Tempe, AZ 85282. Tickets at stadium box office or Ticketmaster outlets, 380/784-4444, or visit www.ticketmaster.com or https://angels.angels.mlb.com. Area information: Tempe Convention and Visitors Bureau, 480/894-8158 or 800/283-6734 or visit www.tempecvb.com.

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