Join Arizona’s month long baseball party (sometimes called spring training) to get an early start on the Bay Area’s most eagerly anticipated season in years.
Tim Lincecum at Scottsdale Stadium.
©2010 S.F. Giants
It happens every year: an annual migration on the scale of Monarch butterflies or the American River’s salmon run. During the month of March, baseball fans take over the state of Arizona to catch a sneak preview of what the season will hold. Whether you can’t wait for the Giants to begin their championship defense or want the first peek at the young and promising A’s, the Cactus League’s spring training is the place to be. Plus, March in Arizona offers some of the best weather around, and after you’ve experienced the combination of mid-80s temperatures and a relief pitcher of margaritas, you won’t care if you ever come back from this baseball getaway.
From left to right: Denny collins, Dos Gringos Scottsdale, Courtesy of the Scottsdale CVB
McDowell Mountains, Shrimp tacos at Dos Gringos, Concert at the Desert Botanical Garden
The Cactus League
Spring training Arizona style
» Fifteen Major League teams have stadiums in Arizona that hold as many as 10,000 fans. Each team—from a list that includes the A’s and Giants, and their rivals, the Angels and Dodgers, as well as the American League champion Texas Rangers and the perennial underdog Chicago Cubs—calls the Cactus League home, and plays about 30 heated games over the month of March.
Besides the fan fervor, the main draw of spring training is the chance to watch world-class baseball on an intimate scale. The stadiums are smaller and more low key than the typical Major League ballpark, with seats closer to the action. You can smell the freshly mowed grass and hear the bat crack on that home run hit. You also have a much higher chance of scoring a great picture, an autograph, or a souvenir ball from the likes of two-time Sports Illustrated cover boy Tim Lincecum.
The Returning Champs: San Francisco Giants
The orange and black are back
» The year was 2007, and a skinny kid with a funny windup took spring training by a storm. Four seasons, two Cy Young Awards, and a championship later, Tim Lincecum is one of the game’s biggest stars. This spring, the rookie to watch is Brandon Belt, a 22-year-old first baseman who swings a big bat.
All eyes will also be on Pablo Sandoval’s waistline. The crowd-pleasing “Kung Fu Panda” is once again on an off-season diet and workout regimen. The Giants have made it known that, despite his loyal fan base and awesome nickname, if Sandoval doesn’t drop some weight, his days in San Francisco could be numbered.
The biggest question about the Giants this year is, Can they win again? The team’s 34 games scheduled in Arizona—17 of which will be held at Scottsdale Stadium, their spring training home since 1982—will give fans a hint at that answer. Highlights include five consecutive home games March 17 through March 21 as well as a face-off with their California rivals, the Dodgers, March 12 and 18, and a rematch against a former foe from last year’s fall classic, the Texas Rangers, on March 7.
Giants players enter just to the right of the stadium’s main gates, and a few dozen autograph hounds (look for the guys sporting fake black beards and panda hats) stake out this corridor. Most spring training games start at 1:05 p.m., but players will begin checking in between
8 and 9 a.m. Sharpie-wielding superfans arrive even earlier. sfgiants.com.
The Contenders: Oakland A’s
The Bay Area underdogs
» Much intrigue surrounds the A’s this season. Although there’s been talk of the team moving to San Jose, one of the first orders of business by newly elected Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was to fast-track an environmental impact report for a possible new stadium in Oakland.
Moneyball, based on Berkeley author Michael Lewis’ best-seller about General Manager Billy Beane’s team-building philosophy, stars Brad Pitt and hits theaters in September. With all this off-field action, it’s easy to forget that the A’s will be fielding a pretty exciting team this year.
Dallas Braden’s perfect game on Mother’s Day of last year drew a lot of attention to a young and talented pitching lineup. In fact, the A’s were the only team in the American League to hold opponents under four runs a game last year. Too bad one can’t say the same for the A’s offense in the same year; only three teams scored fewer runs than Oakland.
Easy fix, right? Score more. That’s the plan for Oakland, and the team has a chance with batting power from Hideki Matsui, David DeJesus, and Josh Willingham. Matsui draws large numbers of the Japanese press, which should make for an interesting spring training sideshow, though fans really want to know if “Godzilla” can still hit the way he did in New York.
If a team of talented young pitchers working on its offense sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. Many sources, including ESPN’s Jayson Stark, have raised the question of whether the A’s can follow last year’s successful Giants blueprint. “The Giants sure don’t have to look far to find their mirror image, just across the Bay Bridge,” Stark wrote in a column.
See how the Bay Area teams match up this year on March 5 at the green-and-gold-covered Phoenix Municipal Stadium, an intimate park with great sightlines. Keep your eye on the A’s young slugger Chris Carter. oaklandathletics.com.
Courtesy of the Greater Phoenix CVB, Travis LoDolce, Courtesy of the Greater Phoenix CVB
The third baseline at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Pitching practice at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Autographs with the A’s.
Beyond Peanuts And Cracker Jacks • Food for big-league appetites
» While both stadiums pack a number of concessions, you don’t want to miss out on the dining options in Scottsdale and Phoenix.
Your first order of business in Scottsdale should be a pregame meal at the Breakfast Club. If you’re expecting an ’80s movie–themed restaurant, you’ll be out of luck. But if you’re looking for one of the state’s top breakfasts, you’ll leave satisfied. Prepare for a bit of a wait, but you’ll be glad you hung around once you’re served a giant plate of huevos rancheros or an enormous omelet. If spicy is more your style, order the jalapeño biscuit or chipotle hollandaise—both of which will wake you up more than anything the restaurant’s coffee bar can whip up. Sports culture permeates the Breakfast Club. Your server could be a former baseball wife, or you might share a counter with an agent, lifelong fan, or Phoenix Suns cheerleader. thebreakfastclub.us.
In Phoenix, the popular tavern the Roosevelt serves up microbrews and pretzels and hot dogs that are unlawfully good. Owner Matt Pool has been known to go to great lengths for his dogs, which pack a surprisingly savory flavor complemented by celery salt and tangy mustard. Pool purchases his meat from Chez Panisse alum Sue Moore, who runs a gourmet hot dog stand in Los Angeles. rooseveltrow.org.
You can grab a slice at downtown Phoenix’s Pizzeria Bianco. Always in the running for the state’s best pizza, Bianco serves up a near-perfect wood-fired pies: The thin crust is crispy without losing texture, and the toppings are all sourced locally. The Margherita is a good place to start, as the zesty basil and creamy mozzarella pop with flavor, and are balanced with a sauce that would get an approving nod from Martin Scorsese. You won’t find more than six styles on the menu at once, but you can order confidently, knowing that each is an überfresh piece of heaven. pizzeriabianco.com.
Downtown Scottsdale is the place to be come dinnertime. Although longtime spring training favorite the Pink Pony has shut its doors, it didn’t take long for The Capital Grille to become the steak house of choice among fans and players alike. Don & Charlie’s is another Arizona institution where teams, staff, players, and fans all flock for finger-licking good ribs. thecapitalgrille.com, donandcharlies.com.
Extra Innings • Nightlife that will keep you playing
» The night scene in Scottsdale is bursting with postgame festivities. If the dry air has your throat parched, make a beeline to Salty Señorita or Dos Gringos, two of Scottsdale’s more popular Mexican restaurants and margarita destinations. The Salty Señorita, one of the closest watering holes to Scottsdale Stadium, is also very popular with Giants fans. saltysenorita.com, dosgringosaz.com.
The Kazimierz (KazBar to locals), a Prohibition-style wine bar, is a classy stop to whet your palate. Just how devoted is it to turning back the clock to the Roaring 20s? You’ll have to slip into a side alley and enter through the back door to sample the 2,000-plus wines. Handlebar-J is the area’s popular Western bar. Would a trip to the desert be complete without line dancing? kazbar.net, handlebarj.com.
If your spring training foray coincides with the first Friday of the month, you have no excuse to miss Phoenix’s First Fridays gallery walk, one of the nation’s largest art walks, held in Roosevelt Row. The event regularly attracts crowds of 15,000, who sip on wine as they draw inspiration from local artists. Roosevelt Row has seen a rebirth in the past few years, becoming an urban haven for artists and foodies, with a slew of upscale galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. Cindy Dach’s Made Art Boutique, a great introduction to the vibrant neighborhood, sells mounds of local crafts. You’ll see artists of all ages putting their spin on desert culture, with painted pottery, handmade stationery, and all manner of interior decoration. rooseveltrow.org, madephx.com.
Time Out • Take a break from the fan fervor
» Had enough baseball? Hike the rocky trail to the top of Camelback Mountain, between Scottsdale and Phoenix, whose iconic hump offers expansive views of the red-hewn region. Even high among the saguaro cacti and desert mistletoe, you might not be able to escape baseball. I overheard two Michiganites decide to attend an Angels game rather than check out the Grand Canyon. phoenix.gov/recreation/rec/parks/preserves.
You don’t need to climb a mountain to immerse yourself in desert fauna. Just head to the 145-acre Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, and take the Desert Discovery Loop Trail to explore cacti, succulents, agave, and yucca plants from around the world. While you’re there, check out the recycled art installation Steel Jam Session to see unique junkyard-items-turned-sculptures. dbg.org.
After a long day in the sun, it’s time to check into the spa at the Arizona Biltmore for a sports massage or the Dream Catcher Aromatherapy treatment, which uses Native American–inspired essential oils and heated stones to help you catch some relaxation after a long weekend of catching baseball. arizonabiltmore.com/spa.
Home base • Round the bases home to one of these iconic Arizona hotels
Hotel Valley Ho
Perfect for: Lovers of nightlife.
Details: Just blocks from downtown Scottsdale, this boutique hotel and spa has the kind of hip, midcentury charm that would attract Don Draper. Hall of Famers like Ted Williams once stayed at this former Motor Lodge. Now, rooms are more modern, with spotlighted bathtubs a few feet from the beds and bold primary colors splashed on the walls. hotelvalleyho.com.
Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale at Troon North
Perfect for: The outdoor enthusiast.
Details: If you didn’t spot a ballplayer at one of Scottsdale’s bars, chances are you’ll catch one playing the links in Troon. Located about 25 minutes from downtown Scottsdale, Troon is home to some of the best greens anywhere. The Four Seasons caters to the golf scene, offering a spa massage tailor-made for the avid golfer. Nature lovers will enjoy the landscaping, which incorporates native plants to fit the resort seamlessly into the surrounding foothills of the Sonoran Desert. fourseasons.com/scottsdale.
Perfect for: Families.
Details: With tennis courts, pools, fountains, and outfield-size lawns, the enormous Biltmore estate is a destination in itself. Daily tours offer an educational history of this Arizona landmark designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. A newly renovated restaurant, with an added outdoor patio, serves up comfort food classics like mac and cheese, fried chicken, and bananas Foster. arizonabiltmore.com.