Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Rookie At Spring Training

I have a number of friends who make annual pilgrimages to Arizona for Spring Training baseball. It’s something I’ve talked about doing for years but due to being busy at work, personal commitments and often excess procrastination I just never got around to making the arrangements. Before I knew it, Spring Training would be over and the Regular Baseball season had begun. This years Christmas present from my darling wife was a week-long trip to Arizona for Spring Training.  No more excuses, time to order a beer from your seat and PLAY BALL!

So, I thought I’d do a little piece on my trip from the perspective of the neophyte and share my experiences and hopefully inform others who, like myself, might be embarking on their first trip.

My desire was to see a good number of Giants games both home and away and where possible, mix in a few of the other clubs facilities to get a look at them as well.

This is a key element, IMO to an enjoyable trip. If you are just going for a couple of days and just to see your team play, pick a span where they are at home and stay nearby. Just know that some of the parks are not particularly conducive to this. A few are in areas without nearby lodging and others are in areas where you really might not wish to spend time other than to see the games. If you are going to see the Giants, you are in luck. The Giants park is right next to “Old Town” Scottsdale. There are plenty of hotels within easy walking distance and there is plenty to do before and after the game. The area is safe, clean with lots of bars and places to eat. Otherwise, you may wish to rent a car and stay near the things you want to do before and after games (dinning, drinking, golf etc) then drive to the ballparks.

I saw seven games at five different parks in seven days. Phoenix Municipal (Oakland A’s), Scottsdale Stadium (Giants), Hohokam Park (Cubs), Salt River Fields (Rockies & Diamondbacks) and Maryvale (Brewers). I’ll talk about them in order as follows and share some photos and such.

Phoenix Municipal Stadium

This was the first game of the trip. I saw the Giants vs A’s. The stadium sits adjacent to Papago Park and a couple of nice looking golf courses (Papago & Rolling Hills) and it really is a gorgeous area. I’d recommend getting there early and strolling around Papago park. There are some really nice walking paths through the landscape and some beautiful rock formations. The ball park though…..a bit spartan. It’s an old facility, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing as many others are as well, but it’s not particularly well kept…..a bit like the A’s home field. The scoreboard is not well positioned and honestly, many minor league parks have better ones.

The concessions are limited and not particularly good and the beer selections are lame if your tastes go much beyond Bud, Bud-Light, Coors Light and PBR. The closest thing they have to a quality beer is “Shock-Top”….the Guy Fieri of beers. All marketing, no taste. I happened to poke my nose into one of their dugout stores and they were selling roughly 70% A’s gear and easily 30% Giants gear and a few items representing other teams. Rather amusing…. Also like the A’s home facility, the field itself is in great shape and is really eye-pleasing. The A’s will be moving to the soon to be vacated Hohokam Park in Mesa and will turn over Phoenix Municipal to ASU.

Scottsdale Stadium

The home of the Giants isn’t among the newest of parks like Salt River, but it sure is nice. Everywhere you look you see intentional queues making aesthetic reference to the home field at AT&T. The tin roofs on the buildings, brickwork and other elements make you feel as if you are in a “Honey I shrunk the ballpark” version of home. The main difference is the ASU sport drinking facility otherwise known as the outfield grass and….sunshine. Warm, glorious, shorts & t-shirts compatible sunshine. The concessions are plentiful and much of what is available at home is available in Scottsdale. You can get your Garlic Fries fix, but you are going to have to wait until the regular season for a Cha-Cha or Chowder bowl and do you really want to eat crab at a ballpark that is ~750 miles from where the crab was last alive? Me either. The beer selections include the usual “yellow water” ballpark offerings but you can get better beer here including Sierra Nevada, Anchor Steam and a few others that have slipped my mind though nothing especially esoteric was on offer…no “Pliny The Elder”, but I didn’t expect to find it. Of the parks I visited, Scottsdale had the most expensive beer and other concessions.

L-R Yours truly, My Beautiful Wife, My Brother at Scottsdale Stadium
The scoreboard could use an upgrade. I don’t expect “Diamond Vision” but I would like a pitch count and speed gun reading.

The legendary "Jerome The Lemonade Man" at Scottsdale Stadium
Shade is a bit limited unless you are in the upper seats between 1st & 3rd. There are trees on the outfield grass, but stake out your spot strategically. What’s in shade at first pitch is likely to be in full sun within a few innings. Most folks don’t stay for an entire game so you should be able to “trade up” to a spot in the shade or even a seat in the shade during the later innings. A note about the scene on the grass berm….on the weekends it is quite popular with ASU students. There is quite a bit of entertainment value in that but just know that if you are going with young kids you are likely to be surrounded by VERY drunk 20-somethings.

Overall, the Giants facility isn’t new but it looks great, feels familiar and its IMO just the right size for its purpose.

Hohokam Park

Chicago Dog & Old Style - Legit
Tied with “Talking Stick” & “SURPRISE!” as the most fun ballpark names to say, the home of the Cubs is among the oldest of the parks in the Valley of the Sun. It’s located in a residential area of Mesa and I don’t think there is much nearby in the way of lodging or places to eat, at least not along the two paths I drove to & from the park (I may have missed something though). It’s old, but the Cubs have done a great job keeping it up. I heard a few folks complain about the parking setup. It didn’t bother me. They have a large grass field right next to the park that was well attended. There is only one way in/out though and that perhaps might be “the problem” but I was there on a weekday and it was pretty easy…YMMV.

The park is mostly staffed by members of the “Mesa Hohokams” which is a charitable organization and one of the friendliest groups of people you are likely to meet. Everyone it seemed was happy to see you, happy to answer a question, happy to help, happy to ensure your visit was as good as can be….sorta the opposite of the staff at the Oakland Coliseum.

Great Seats Are Not Hard To Get At Hohokam
Like most of the parks there are local vendors serving some of the same stuff in “outside the main concourse” stands such as fried noodles (odd) offerings from local BBQ joints or taco stands and such but the concessions at Hohokam have a distinctly Chicagoan tilt. The usual “yellow water" beers are augmented by the Chicago staple Old Style and some really great offerings from Goose Island Brewery. As much as I like high end beers, and the Goose Island stuff WAS good, I couldn’t resist the combo of a Chicago Dog and an “Old Style”. A more legit ballpark meal is pretty tough to find.

The park is old, the aluminum (with a back) seats do get a bit uncomfortable especially since they don’t cant toward the mound and they get HOT in the sun as shade is VERY limited. But it’s a really nice joint. Alas, the Cubs time at this facility is ticking down. They are building a new park, also in Mesa but it will be located near the intersection of Hwy’s 101 & 202 so it should be much easier to get to. It will encompass the Cubs Spring Training and Rookie League facilities (much like the Giants format) and by all accounts is supposed to be very nice and due to open for 2014.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick

Big name, BIGGER joint. Most of the other fields can’t be seen from two blocks away. You can see Talking Stick from two MILES away. It’s HUUUUUGE, which is magnified by the fact that it sits in a massive open field and a fan of 17 peripheral ball fields. The complex is home to the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training and Rookie League complexes and it is GORGEOUS!

It features modern architecture with its massive crossing cantilevered shade overhangs, modern materials featuring lots of steel and glass, and modern amenities with a big fancy scoreboard, tons of integrated concessions stands and a concourse with a full view of the field. If not for the lighting (very modern as well and integrated into the sun shade edges), you’d think you were looking at a new Silicon Valley Corporate Headquarters campus and not a spring training ballpark. The footprint of the stadium is large enough for a full size MLB ballpark but there is only seating for 11k. The overwhelming majority of the seats are comfortable plastic folding seats appropriately canted toward the mound.  This place is nicer than many MLB parks.

To the West of the park is a residential area, to the South a mall, to the North a business park and to the East, on the opposite side of Hwy-101 is the Talking Stick Golf Resort & Casino. One could stay at the Talking Stick Resort and make the trek on foot to the park. It’s a little over 1.5 miles each way, not bad on all but the hottest days and you’d have golf, and the resort pool at your disposal….but not a lot else within walking distance other than the mall.

The food options at the park were plentiful with some unique offerings and easy to access from your seat without spending too much time walking to/from. The beer selections though….a little spotty. They have good beers including a number of craft breweries representing both Colorado and Phoenix but….those offerings are not widely distributed. Most of the concession stands sell “yellow water” but only a few offer the good stuff. A bit of a miss. The gal sitting next to me was sipping a white sangria that looked like it’d be refreshing, but go down waaaaay too quickly on a hot day. I did notice that their prices were at or around $1 less for nearly every item compared to the Giants facility.

Maryvale Ball Park

Maryvale is the Spring Training and Rookie League home to the Brewers. It’s located waaaay out in Glendale at the corner of W. Indian School Rd. and N. 51st Ave which is the next intersection north of Meth & Hooker. It’s not a particularly nice part of town. I’m sure there are good, hard-working folks in the area but I actually did see drugs being sold and hookers plying their “wares” along 51st on my way to the park. There is a Wal*Mart across the street….and not a lot else. 

That said, the park itself is pretty great. It was built in ’98 but it has an almost 50’s era vibe to the architecture. Its small, only seating 7k, so much so that you can hear the voices of individual fans heckling in their distinctive Wisconsin patois. The shade overhang is minimalist so if you want shade try to sit between 1st and home in the upper portion of the seats for a day game. The field is sunken and you can see it from most of the concourse as you stroll around which doesn’t take long because, as mentioned, the place is tiny.

Though small and in a rougher part of town, the facility is very well kept, clean and staffed by absurdly nice, friendly folks.

It’s the Brewers park…they’re from Milwaukee ( Algonquin for “The Good Land” ) so if you are expecting mostly “yellow water” beers you’ll be right, but….they also have a good selection of Wisconsin craft beers including Leinenkugel. I had their “Canoe Paddler” Kolsch and “Classic Amber”. Both missing the heavy hops that West Coast Ale fans dig, but these are German style beers and they are quite good.

Also to be expected is meat in tubular form. The park offers all the Klement’s Sausages you’d find at the Brew Crew’s home yard and they are pretty darned great. Like Salt River Fields at Talking Stick the prices for concessions at Maryvale are at or around $1 less per beer or dog than at Scottsdale.

So that’s a quick overview of the parks I visited on my trip. There’s a few I didn’t make it to that I’ll have to make up for next year…an excuse for another blog post. I’ll close with a suggested sample itinerary for a day at the Giants park in Scottsdale and then a few random photos that I’ll caption if I can recall the circumstances.

10:00am – Arrive Old Town Scottsdale and make your way to the Rusty Spur
10:05am – Gaze upon your first of the mornings pre-game Bloody Mary’s (they’re excellent)
10:10am – Order your second pre-game Bloody Mary (I told you they were good)
11:00am – Order breakfast and your third Bloody Mary (ok, 4th) off their excellent Mexican food menu
11:30am – Bloody Mary (optional)
12:00 – Begin making your way to the ballpark….pace and course dependant on how many Bloody Mary’s you’ve had.
12:05pm – Arrive at Scottsdale Stadium
12:30pm – Arrive at Scottsdale Stadium if you had that 5th Bloody Mary
1:00pm – Ballgame begins, commence consumption of beer, hot-dogs, garlic-fries (I actually don’t dig ‘em that much) and peanuts
1:45pm – Begin taking bets on which ASU co-eds will face plant in the grass first
2:00pm – Accept the bet from the ASU co-ed that you will actually be the first to face plant in the grass
2:50pm – Win or lose aforementioned bets.
3:30pm – Make your way to the Pink Pony post-game festivities
6:30pm – Make your way to the Salty Senorita or Frashers for dinner and more post-game festivities
10:00pm – Return to your hotel on foot, via pedi-cab or wheelbarrow because there is no way you are driving at this point. Then send a drunk-text to your Physician to schedule your liver transplant upon your return home. 

Madison Bumgarner Pre-Game Warm-up at Phoenix Muni
1/2 of the Axis of Awkard, Mr. Hunter Pence
It's 85deg out and dude is going with the Coldplay look
Johnny Monnell & Kinsuke Tanaka gunned down this Cleveland Indian
Just a few of the guys competeing for one open spot in the Giants bullpen
Jimmy Rollins & Brandon Phillips of Team USA vs Rockies
This "fine young man" spent 15min ripping the vendors and calling them "stupid loser job a-holes" because they cut his drunk a$$ off. Classy kid.

This little dude spent 4 innings wearing out Alfonso Soriano trying to get a ball. He eventually got a foul that rolled up the 3b line.
Blissfully Unaware of Free-Agency and Trades.

Lost the face-plant bet about 2 innings later.
Indians at Brewers....just before the Sausage Race
Ryan Braun .....[ insert PED joke here ]

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