Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Spring Training in Arizona, Part II: Ballpark Rankings

(For Part I, Spring Training Travel Tips, click here)

Camelback Ranch, Glendale
There are really no bad spring training ballparks. Because you are on vacation at spring training. It's really that simple.

No matter where you go, one thing that doesn't change from place to place: all spring training complexes are essentially big, spread-out major league stadiums. At a regular stadium there are a couple of hidden batting cages and a couple of out-in-the-open bullpen mounds. On the same field, a group of players take infield or outfield practice while another group takes batting practice. They rotate. There is a clubhouse for guys to visit the trainer or soak in a hot or cold tub or eat or watch teevee or lounge around.

Well, the exact same thing happens at spring training, except there are close to four times as many players going through the drills. Camp opens with at least 60 potential major leaguers- the 40-man active roster and about 20 non-roster invitees hoping to make that opening day 25-man roster, plus all your minor leaguers coming up through the system. Single-A, Double-A, Triple-A... 25 guys per team times four teams equals 100 guys, and those are just the ones that get the job. Figure 125 players in the beginning. That means you need more space to accommodate everybody. As a result, it's a big complex with everything spread out. There are a bunch of fields so everyone cane do their own thing and there's no danger of somebody not paying attention getting whacked by a stray ball (okay, there's less of one, because it still happens). And there are a bunch of batting cages and pitching cages so nobody in the group has to wait to take their turn. Ten guys take BP at the same time, ten guys pitch at the same time. Rinse and repeat for six weeks. The result is a major league 25-man roster and a full minor league squad.

The question is how teams set up these complexes. The newer ones are set up like desert resorts, spread out with water features and statues and cacti and perennials and the like. The older ones are more utilitarian. 

Naturally, some complexes are better than others. 10 years of spring training brings makes my Arizona rankings list look like this:

1. Camelback Ranch, Glendale (Dodgers and White Sox)


Opened in 2009, Camelback Ranch was the first of the new breed of spring training complexes. The name "Ranch" implies this. The Dodgers were going to move their spring training HQ west from Florida regardless. The White Sox were training in Tucson, some two hours south of the Phoenix area and therefore increasingly isolated from the rest of the teams. The resulting complex set aside any lingering doubts either team may have had about moving.

While the two teams share the ranch, none of the players have to cross each other's paths on a regular basis. The Dodgers clubhouse and fields are based on the left field area, the White Sox get the right field area. Walking paths open to the public mean that fans can wander through and watch nearly everything. There are no secrets here, it's a simple game- you throw the ball, you hit the ball, you catch the ball.

Everything they do at Camelback is, simply, phenomenal. After charging for parking the first year they realized that was dumb, because there are plenty of other ways to get our dollars at the park. "Free parking" is a small, but significant gesture. Most of the other clubs haven't figured this out.

If you don't have a rooting interest, go to a White Sox game and not a Dodgers game. My group and I went to the Very 1st Game Played in 2009 (the Dodgers were the home team and the White Sox the visitors) and it was jammed full as you would expect, but mostly by Dodger fans so thrilled that the team was now within driving distance from L.A.

The next day, we went to the "White Sox home opener" (even though they had played the day before as the "visitors") and, in the days before Stubhub, walked right up to the box office and bought 4th-row seats. There were maybe 1,500 people in the park as opposed to 11k+ the day before.

It's been like that since. Dodger games are much busier than White Sox games. Either way, it's my favorite park in Arizona.

You already know where this place is- ever watched an Arizona Cardinals home football game or the Fiesta Bowl or the Phoenix Coyotes play hockey? Those stadiums are right next to a big mall next to a freeway which is about a miles and a half from Camelback Ranch, on the same road. The only issue is that it's nowhere close to downtown Phoenix or Scottsdale, where most of the hotels and restaurants are. But there are several hotels near the mall and in Glendale. 

2. Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale (Giants)

In the interest of disclosure, I am a Giants fan and I do like coming here, but most of my group hates it. In fact, a few times they bought me my own ticket and loaned me a car and said "go by yourself" and I did and had amazing times, which really might be the best way to enjoy this park.

The original park was built in 1955 for the Baltimore Orioles, and although there was a near-complete overhaul in the early 1990's it still has a classic ballpark feel, probably a big inspiration for AT&T Park.

The biggest issue is I've paid $40 for standing room only spring training games- remember, we're talking about practice- and I consistently get regular season game tickets in San Francisco for $6 on the Hub of Stubness.

While there's very little reserved stadium parking, the nearby hospital opens its spacious parking garage to be run by local community groups- so they charge but it at least it isn't a total cash grab by them- and anybody with enough space to park a few cars will open it up for a price.

The only other issue is that because it's a short flight from the Bay Area, the place is usually pretty full of Giants fans, or people who want to impress people that they're at a Giants game in Arizona. I've seen plenty of people go to the game and never actually watch a pitch because they're too busy schmoozing, which is a real Bay Area-techie-look-how-much-richer-and-therefore-better-I-am-than-you-because-I-paid-so-much-to-be-here-and-now-I-don't-even-care thing to do. I do my best to avoid those people, because it makes my visit so much better. 

3. Hohokam Stadium, Mesa (A's)

The unfortunate distinction about Hohokam is that it is the only spring training stadium that is better than its team's major league home. Hohokam is everything that the Oakland Al Davis Memorial Mausoleum isn't. I wish somehow helicopters could lift up Hohokam and fly it to Oakland, where it would be dropped on a lower-level bowl to more than double capacity from 12,000 to 35,000 or so and the A's would have one of the best damn ballparks in the bigs.

My second wish is that whomever's designing the A's new park will just take the Hohokam blueprint and add a lower lever bowl to increase capacity to 35,000 and then they will actually have one of the best damn ballparks in the bigs (kind of like what I figure the Giants did with Scottsdale Stadium/AT&T Park).

I almost don't recommend A's fans go to spring training because they will just be depressed that Hohokam is so much better. Actually, they should all go because then they'll just get mad.

A's fans, look away!!!

If you're wondering why the A's have such a nice park, the answer is- they didn't build it. They left Phoenix Municipal Stadium, the second-oldest Phoenix spring training park still standing (built in 1958 for the Giants) for Hohokam when the Cubs got their new park built. The A's gave it a new coat of paint or two (every time I go I look for blue walls they were too lazy to go over- haven't found any yet but I guarantee you they're there-) and called it good.

And it's still better than the Coliseum.  

4. Tempe-Diablo Stadium, Tempe (Angels)

 I swear to you this place is just about next to the airport, so an out-of-town Angels fan could be in-and-out on a day trip before anyone knew they were gone. Built in 1969 for the Seattle Pilots, it's got a very Spanish explorer/Mexican feel- they've done it up mission-style- and there's a damn big rock behind center field with a hotel and restaurant next to it.

Even though I've been going to spring training for a decade and we pass this place all the time, my group had never been there until last year. Every time we passed it we wondered why we never stopped. Finally, we got there, and as soon as we parked we all said "Why did it take so long for us to get here?" Even though it is next to the interstate (and when I say "next to the interstate," I mean the parking lot ends because it runs into the wall of the interstate) and the airport, it is nicely done.





5. Sloan Park, Mesa (Cubs)

Wrigley Field West
It would be higher on the list if it wasn't jammed full every damn game. When the Cubs said they were looking to move from Hohokam, the city of Mesa practically fell over trying to make sure the North Siders didn't leave. That's because there were cities in Florida ready to do everything but fill in the Gulf of Mexico to attract the cash cows known as affluent Cubs fans. Because Mesa has been the Cubs spring home for the most part since 1952, they preferred to stay and Sloan Park is the result. Good place if you can get in.

They always have a great selection of food trucks beyond the right field berm and plenty of Wrigley-Field like things to make Cubs fans feel at home- there's a replica of the marquee and you can put your name up there and get a picture, but the line is always super long- but again, the biggest problem here is getting a ticket. Cubs fans are rabid. (More details in Part I.)   

6. Goodyear Stadium, Goodyear (Reds and Indians)

The furthest east-based clubs, curiously, play at the furthest west complex in the Phoenix area (slightly beyond Surprise but easier to get to). There's an odd sculpture out front called "The Ziz" which makes virtually no sense but is certainly memorable and stands 60'6" high- the exact distance from home plate to the pitcher's mound.

In case you weren't sure it was the desert, lots of palms
Because in the movie "Major League" the Indians train at Hi Corbett Field (in Tucson) most people probably figure that is their spring training home, but it hasn't been for almost 30 years. Cleveland actually went back to Florida in the 90's and early 2000's, before agreeing to do the "Ohio double" with the Reds in Goodyear. (I just made up that phrase but it sounds good.) And yes, the city of Goodyear was founded by the Goodyear rubber people as a company town to grow cotton for tires.

Though it's a wide open area they charge for parking, which feels like a scam. As the westernmost complex, if you are a Reds or Indians fan make sure your accommodations are nearby (I go over this a lot more in Part I). 

 




7. Salt River Fields, Scottsdale (D'Backs and Rockies)

My buddy always sings the name of this park like it's "Strawberry Fields Forever."

The best thing about this place is the trivia: it's the only spring training facility shared by two teams in the same division (NL West). Otherwise, it's just the compact version of Camelback Ranch. Seems like the exact same design, just pushed together. And that's a problem. Whereas CBR is open and airy, I always feel like I'm in a pinball machine at Salt River. We once spent 90 minutes trying to get out of the parking lot. It's a spring training stadium that maxes out at 11k- how could it take more than half an hour to get out?

This is also the only ballpark where I've seen an entire section evacuated because of a bee swarm.

No, I was not kidding about the bee swarm


8. Surprise Stadium, Surprise (Royals and Rangers)

Goodyear is the westernmost spring training complex, but it's pretty close to the freeway so it feels fairly simple to access. Surprise Stadium, on the other hand, might have that name because it's a surprise anything is out here. (I was amazed to find the city of Surprise has 125,000 residents.) It's really not that bad, it's just not even close to the freeway, which makes it seem like it's even further away from everything. Surprise is one of the few places my group goes that we never explore the surrounding area. I'm sure it's fine, it just feels like if we linger we will never get back to where we once belonged.

In praise of Surprise, it does have one of the better right-field bars, and an upper deck (rare in itself) with open seating, basically barstools around a counter that overlooks the field- I'm always worried I'm going to knock my beer over the side.

Surprise! It's an upper deck!

Like I recommend in part one, if you're a Royals or Rangers fan, please find accommodations near here and not in Scottsdale or anywhere on the east side of the Phoenix area, because you will regret the drive every time you get in the car to come or go from the ballpark.

Our big celebrity sighting here was my buddy going out to smoke a cigar near the end of a night game and spotted Nolan Ryan doing the exact same thing! My buddy gave him a nod but didn't engage in conversation as he is a White Sox fan and didn't want to tempt Nolan to re-create the famous Robin Ventura incident.








9. Peoria Sports Complex, Peoria (Mariners and Padres)

Peoria is so far away it feels like you are closer to Las Vegas than you are to Phoenix. Honestly, one time we thought it would be cheaper to fly to Vegas and drive to Phoenix than flying directly to Phoenix (our discovery: it isn't). When we got to Peoria and passed the stadium we thought, oh good, we're here! And then I'm pretty sure another hour and a half passed before we got to Phoenix and where we were staying.

The Mariners and Padres are just kind of average, middling franchises who can't make the playoffs no matter how hard they try, and they have the perfect Spring Training facility for that. We haven't been out here in years. Surprise and Peoria are really the same places and the only reason Surprise is higher on my list is that we'll consider going to Surprise if it's a good reason- we rarely consider Peoria (and never actually go). Since the last time we've been the complex has gotten redone and is allegedly much improved, but unless that improvement included moving it closer to where I am most of the time in Arizona, it's not going to help.

10. Maryvale Ballpark, Maryvale (Brewers)

Maryvale, 2009
Look, somebody has to be last. The photo you see here was taken from my only trip to the Maryvale ballpark- in 2009. When my group decides on where to go for spring training games, nearly every park is up for consideration. We go to Sloan Park even though it's ridiculously crowded, we go way the hell out to Surprise, we even consider Peoria if we really, really have to (but never actually go).

We don't consider Maryvale.

This is not because it's bad, it's just... so... ordinary. Despite being built in 1998, it also has very little parking. You park in the neighborhood and nobody really cares how long you stay (again, it's been ten years since I've been there).

Update: As this review was going to press (I know, it's the internet- it just feels fun to pull the editorial "this was important enough to include" implication) the Brewers just announced a big upgrade to the Maryvale complex. So even they know it's past time for some serious work on the place.

 

So there you have it. 10 ballparks, 15 teams, and one man's opinion. The truth is, whether you are at Camelback Ranch or in Maryvale, you will have a good time at spring training if you are a baseball fan. You will find fun nooks and crannies, you will pick up good souvenirs, you will eat, drink, and be merry.

There are really no bad spring training ballparks. Because you are on vacation at spring training. It's really that simple.

 
photos by author. map courtesy CamelbackRanchBaseball.com

This. You need to experience this. Somewhere. (This is in Scottsdale.)

(For Part I, Spring Training Travel Tips, click here)