While many college students choose to spend their spring break soaking up the sun on the beach or visiting with friends in their hometown, I chose to visit Arizona and spend a week at Spring Training. While my trip was mostly centered around my favorite team, the Oakland Athletics, I took the opportunity to see eleven games in six different stadiums over the course of eight days.
For those who have never enjoyed Cactus League baseball, think of it as a hybrid between a major league and a minor league game. Most stadiums hold ten to fifteen thousand people, and are dressed up in the colors of the home team, but there is a laid-back minor league vibe to the games. While fans will applaud in recognition of a good play, they are also very relaxed and mostly attend games to enjoy the action. It was especially nice to be in stadiums teeming with people who were there for the action rather than just because going to a baseball game was the popular thing to do. I was able to strike up conversations with fans of different teams about their outlook on the coming season and had in-depth discussions on players and strategies.
While one should never put too much stock into Spring Training results, I was very impressed by some of the individual performances throughout the six times I got to see the A’s take the field. Despite sweeping roster changes, the A’s figure to be a very competitive team in 2015. Perhaps the best of the new acquisitions has been pitcher Kendall Graveman, who boasts excellent command and induces weak groundouts from opposing hitters. Also impressive were Ben Zobrist, who can play nearly every position on the field, and Josh Phegley, a catcher with a powerful bat and a strong arm. On March 21, Phegley gunned down Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton, who is widely considered to be the top baserunner in the entire sport.
The relaxed atmosphere doesn’t just fill the stands, it can be seen on the field as well. Players are extremely happy to sign autographs and pose for photographs with fans throughout warmups. The smaller parks allow for fans to get extremely close to their favorite players. On Friday, March 20, I was able to see Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw warm up from just a few feet away as hundreds of fans crowded into the bullpen area at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. While a big-league park keeps fans distanced from the bullpen, Spring Training allows them to see the action as if they were looking through a magnifying glass. Every time Kershaw threw his signature curve in his warmups, the crowd let out a collective gasp.
Once games get underway, players are still very accessible. The bullpens are located next to the grassy berms, which allow fans to watch pitchers warm up throughout the day. When most of the major leaguers are removed for the minor leaguers around the sixth or seventh inning, fans are once again able to get photos and autographs as the players head out of the stadium.
The best part of Spring Training in Arizona is the proximity of all the ballparks. None of the stadiums are much more than an hour away from each other – a stark contrast from spring training in Florida, where teams are spread all across the state. Cactus League fans often have the opportunity to enjoy multiple games in a day, something I did on three separate occasions. If you ask ten different people what needs to be done to have a great Spring Training experience, you’ll get ten different answers. Everyone has their favorite places to eat and favorite night life spots on Mill Avenue in Tempe or in Old Town Scottsdale. I personally stayed with a friend at Arizona State, so we mainly ate at the fast food establishments around campus. A personal favorite of mine was Whataburger, a Texas-based chain that has spread throughout the South but has yet to reach California.
The one consensus opinion that Cactus League fans can come to is that Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, located in Scottsdale, is the crown jewel of Spring Training. The shared spring home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies is a masterpiece of a ballpark with magnificent seating and excellent food. I also thoroughly enjoyed Sloan Park in Mesa, the home of the Chicago Cubs. It encapsulates the feel of Wrigley Field, complete with Chicago hot dogs, an emphatic rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and the singing of “Go Cubs Go” after a win by the home team.
Overall, Spring Training is a wonderful experience for any baseball fan. It’s an opportunity to check out your team as well as a few others, stretch out in the sun and enjoy a relaxed atmosphere that sets the stage for the long season.