As the Arizona sun cascades down your face and star struck children huddle against the dugout fence, a familiar “pop” echoes throughout the infield. It’s the sound that fills Phoenix suburbs and Florida coasts every March, signifying a clean slate and unwavering hope for even the most menial of teams. It’s what turn vacations into traditions, and traditions into memories that transcend photos.
Bask in that baseball snapping into a fielding glove for the first time because the long winter is over and spring has finally sprung.
For over a century, spring training has given eager fans a first glimpse into their favorite major league ball club a month before regular season play begins. It’s more than just watching ballplayers stretch out, chatter, and play a few innings in between. Every Cactus and Grapefruit League game holds the elements that molded baseball into our national pastime and each year visitors find a new reason for making this annual trek into a family event.
Anyone living east of Utah is ready for a break from bitterly cold conditions caused by the polar vortex. They need cool breezes and sun-soaked afternoons.
Tampa, Fla., home to the New York Yankees’ Steinbrenner Field and a half hour drive from three other ballparks, expects an average March temperature of 70 degrees. Likewise, Phoenix is preparing for 75 degree weather all month long with scattered showers at a minimum. Most of the country won’t see these conditions until we are well into May, and even then, humidity in the Midwest and Northeast make going outside unbearable. For this one month fans can sprawl across the outfield grass and take in a ballgame without Mother Nature’s interference.
Given Florida’s tropical weather and Arizona’s spontaneous climate, there is always a chance for a rainout, but they are few and far between. Two years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers hosted the Los Angeles Angels at their Phoenix, Ariz. Camelback Ranch complex where the forecast called for rainy condition. Halfway through the fifth inning, ice pellets showered down causing attendees to run for shelter and officials to call the game. The conditions weren’t ideal for a game, but they left fans with a story to tell.
Short Distance to Stadiums
If you think Steinbrenner Field’s location is convenient, picture driving to every Cactus League ballpark in a single day. Forty miles separate Surprise Stadium and Cubs Park, a trip that includes passing six of ten spring training camps along the way.
Not only does this make for a quick drive, but it makes finding a hotel that much easier. The primary objective of any spring training vacation is in finding a safe, accommodating place to stay while being as close to your team as possible. The fact that split squad games exist, where half the club plays at home while the other half play away, means that scouting your team doesn’t have to get in the way of family activities.
Most teams and stadium-area hotels offer spring training packages that, while pricey, make planning the rest of your stay a breeze. After all, spring training isn’t just about baseball. Red Sox Nation takes over Fort Myers’ historic downtown area because of its shops, bars, and restaurants, along with its proximity to Jetblue Park at Fenway South. Similarly, Scottsdale, Ariz. is a hub for twenty-something’s and retirees alike. Golf resorts, spas, and countless hiking trails surround the city’s two parks, Scottsdale Stadium and Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.
Remember when Rick Vaughn first pulled up to that decrepit, fossil of a facility the Cleveland Indians used in Major League? That was the prototypical spring training complex up until the mid-90s. Over time, cities relying on income generated from out-of-state visitors have built personalized stadiums with sprinkles of the team’s hometown traits scattered throughout.
Jetblue Park’s Green Monster-esque left field wall is an homage to baseball’s oldest active ballpark, as are the adjacent bullpens in right field. At the Chicago Cubs’ new Mesa, Ariz. complex, a brick wall stands behind home plate and light standards built a la Wrigley Field resemble the Windy City’s friendly confines. Dubbed Tigertown, Joker Marchant Stadium brings the Motor City to Lakeland. Fla. Streets are named after Detroit Tigers greats Al Kaline and Willie Horton and plaques dedicated to Kaline hang on the first base concourse.
Newer stadiums aim to give fans an experience that surpasses simply watching a game. At Camelback Ranch, Dodgers and Chicago White Sox practice fields are separated by pebble trails and a scenic lake that cuts across the grassland and visitors looking for the perfect photo op can wait atop a narrow bridge White Sox players walk under when heading to their morning stretches.
And then there is the food. The Milwaukee Brewers’ Maryvale Baseball Park serves Klement’s Bratwurst, a Miller Park staple. A Philadelphia Phillies game wouldn’t be complete without a signature cheesesteak to munch on and Bright House Field makes sure that they are available through the park.
Watching Players in an Intimate Setting
Spring training is the place where adults can act on their youthful admiration for players.
Beginning with team invitees that litter practice fields at sunrise, fans becomes part of daily pitching and batting practice sessions. The beauty here is that there aren’t security guards or barriers to restrict one from chatting with the players or even asking for an autograph.
The key to meeting players is timing. Granted, players won’t sign during their workouts but many are welcoming after completing their morning exercises. And when a team is on the road, fans will be surprised to find that many players not making the trip practice to a limited audience. Ballparks like the Angels’ Tempe Diablo Stadium stay open when the team is away and don’t restrict visitors from taking a seat when big-name players get a few grounders in, as Mark Trumbo and Josh Hamilton did on multiple occasions last year.
Therein lays the beauty of spring training. Fans, in essence, become part of the team. They travel with the team, stand within an earshot of their favorite players, and watch them in a way only coaches and trainers can. It is an experience unmatched by any other sport and continues to gives fans reasons for making Florida and Arizona their spring break destinations.