By Brian Brownfield-
While basketball and hockey are preparing for the playoffs just over a month away, baseball is prepping for the beginning of its six month season. The best way to do so is through one common theme, practice. In a nutshell, this is what Spring Training for baseball is–a way for players to sharpen their skills in advance of the grueling season that lies ahead. Players begin to arrive in Arizona or Florida in late February and games begin the first week of March. After a full month of games, the teams pack up and head back to their respective cities. While it may only be “practice,” Major League Baseball’s Spring Training has become a spectacle of its own. It gives fans a chance to get up close to players, personally interact with them, and see some of the future up and coming stars. My entire life I have heard stories from friends and family about how exciting it is to make the trip to Arizona or Florida to get the true Spring Training experience. This Spring Break was the first time my family and I went, and let me tell you, it lives up to the hype.
I will first explain a question that our friends not familiar with baseball may be asking: why do teams only play in Arizona and Florida? Those locations were chosen as the sites for Spring Training because the weather is usually perfect this time of year for baseball. Take the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants, who play home games here in the Bay Area, but travel to Arizona for Spring Training. It has been raining off and on for most of the winter, and this inclement weather is not suitable for baseball. In Arizona, the weather is usually in the high-70s and low-80s with nothing but sunshine. The same can be said for Florida, a convenient location for most East Coast teams. That tends to be the way teams chose their Spring Training destinations; West Coast teams go to Arizona, East Coast teams go to Florida.
As an avid Oakland Athletics fan, it has been a dream of mine to make the trek to Arizona to see my favorite team. My family finally decided this was the year to do so, and off we went for four days. We were fortunate enough to have family to stay with in Chandler, about half an hour away from where the Athletics host their Spring Training games in Mesa. I brought my entire Athletics wardrobe, a lot of sunscreen, and a hearty desire to watch baseball until my heart was content. And I did just that.
One recommendation for those who have not been to Spring Training before is to try and see as many different stadiums and teams as possible. Granted, my family is full of Athletics fans so we didn’t mind following one team, but part of the joy of Spring Training is seeing many different teams in a close proximity. Most of the 15 teams that play in Arizona are located within half an hour of each other, which makes seeing several teams play a possibility. During my family’s stay, we saw the Rangers, White Sox, and Dodgers play the Athletics, and the Giants and Reds play a night game. If you are a fan of baseball in general and not one specific team, it would behoove you to travel to as many stadiums as possible, because that is something one simply cannot do during the season.
Another benefit to traveling to several different stadiums over the course of a Spring Training trip is getting to experience the unique cuisine that each stadium has to offer. The hosting team tries to bring in the local flavors from their area to the stadium, meaning fans can taste the different corners of the nation all in a few cities. One of the stadiums my family went to is Camelback Ranch, where the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers play their home Spring Training games. The day we went, the White Sox were hosting the Athletics, so of course there was a ton of Chicago-style food. There was authentic Chicago pizza, Chicago dogs, and my personal favorite, BBQ macaroni and cheese. It is homemade macaroni and cheese, with BBQ pulled pork placed on top. One local touch for us Bay Area residents was Ike’s Sandwiches, which were featured at Hohokam Park where the Athletics host their Spring Training home games. The featured sandwich inside the stadium is the “Mark McGuire,” named after the former Oakland Athletics and St. Louis Cardinals slugger. The delectable sandwich was piled high with turkey, bacon, and Swiss cheese.
If amazing food inside the stadium is not a selling point, maybe the local shops and restaurants are. Downtown Scottsdale features a high number of shops and restaurants in one location, all of them within walking distance. Located a few blocks away from Scottsdale Stadium, home of the Giants, one can find just about anything in the many family owned shops. Some of the features are a myriad of western stores that have authentic pottery, clothing, and Native American heritage items. The food there is pretty darn good as well. My family made reservations at Don and Charlie’s, a local steakhouse with delicious food on the menu such as prime rib and award-winning ribs. It also features one of the largest collections of sports memorabilia in the West which makes the environment feel almost like walking into a museum. The first thing you see when you walk in is a few cases of over 750 autographed baseballs! Photographs are hanging all over with signed pictures, magazine covers, jerseys, bats, helmets, etc. The best part about the restaurant is that it does not focus solely on baseball; its memorabilia collections covers any sport you can think of. You name it, and odds are this restaurant not only has it, but also has it signed. For a sports fan, it is a sanctuary.
Another amazing aspect about attending Spring Training games is the ability to get autographs from just about any player or coach. Showing up early, and staying late often presents fans with the best opportunity to ask a player to sign an item or two. Knowing this, I couldn’t resist taking one of my favorite Oakland Athletics possessions: an Athletics bowling pin clock. Now to most people this may seem like an odd item to own. However, I am a big bowler, so when I received this clock as a gift, I couldn’t be happier. I figured I could snag a few autographs on it to make me cherish it even more. Over the course of my time in Arizona, I was able to get 22 autographs on it. Some of my personal favorites are outfielder Coco Crisp, closer Sean Doolittle, former-second baseman Mark Ellis, and manager Bob Melvin. The players are extremely benevolent and willing to interact with fans as much as possible. After all, the atmosphere is much more relaxed then it would be during the season!
In a nutshell, the Spring Training experience is one I would highly recommend for any fan of baseball. Nowhere else in professional sports is there a large amount of teams in one location for as long. Nowhere else in professional sports is there the ability to experience so many different areas of the country in one location. Nowhere else in professional sports can fans see so many future prospects on the field playing with seasoned professionals. When you add it all up, there is no vacation like it. You have to get to Spring Training!