In Ari­zona heat, a high chill fac­tor for spring Cac­tus League base­ball

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY REID WIL­SON

I’m walk­ing down a long, paved side­walk in early March, with a prac­tice base­ball field on my left and a grove of welltrimmed trees on my right. I’m wor­ry­ing about the snow that fell as I left Wash­ing­ton the night be­fore, wor­ry­ing about work and bills and the has­sles of every­day life, wor­ry­ing about the sun­screen I left at home.

A hun­dred yards from the sta­dium, I hear what has be­come an annual rit­ual: A cheer ris­ing from the stands, the cheer of a happy and hope­ful crowd that has trav­eled to Phoenix to watch their base­ball team pre­pare for the sea­son ahead.

In that mo­ment, I stop, I breathe deep, I smile to my­self. Weight lifts off my shoul­ders.

The play­ers call it spring train­ing. I call it the end of win­ter, the end of a long, cold sea­son of be­ing locked in­doors and the be­gin­ning of a new time of year, marked by the re­turn of base­ball and my annual pil­grim­age west. For this week­end, I will care only about our na­tional pas­time, and the joy it brings those of us lucky enough to be wor­ried about sun­screen in March.

To­day, my team, the Seat­tle Mariners, is play­ing the Mil­wau­kee Brew­ers at Mary­vale Base­ball Park, on the west side of the Val­ley of the Sun. It is 90 de­grees — a dry heat, the lo­cals in­sist, and it truly is a bear­able and happy heat. My par­ents have flown down to meet me; we sit a few rows up the first base line to watch the game, in which the ris­ing star Tai­juan Walker, since traded to the Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs, pitches a few mean­ing­less in­nings be­hind a team of mi­nor lea­guers in Ma­jor League jer­seys. We feel, like we will for the next sev­eral days, as if we’re sit­ting on top of the game, close enough to over­hear the con­ver­sa­tions be­tween the play­ers and the umpires.

Over the fol­low­ing long week­end, I will visit three more sta­di­ums in all quad­rants of the Phoenix area. Each of the 10 sta­di­ums scat­tered from Mesa to Glen­dale, Scotts­dale to Sur­prise, is unique, built over the last 20 years as Ari­zona’s Cac­tus League has evolved from quiet rit­ual to re­li­able tra­di­tion. While dif­fer­ent in their own ways, each sta­dium of­fers the same feel­ings of prox­im­ity and in­ti­macy; en­ter­pris­ing young fans have far bet­ter odds of scor­ing an au­to­graph along the out­field wall, more sea­soned fans a far bet­ter chance that their shouts of en­cour­age­ment will be heard than in any Ma­jor League park.

Most im­por­tant, ev­ery sta­dium of­fers cheap tick­ets. While tick­ets to Kauff­man Sta­dium in Kansas City can be quite a bit more ex­pen­sive, ad­mis­sion to a Roy­als game in Sur­prise, in the north­west cor­ner of the Val­ley, can be had for $19; tick­ets to the beau­ti­ful out­field lawn, where chil­dren spend the game play­ing catch and fam­i­lies spread pic­nic

blankets, cost $8.

Try ticket re­sale web­sites such as StubHub or VividSeats, es­pe­cially dur­ing week­day games, and those prices can fall more. A few years back, as I wooed his daugh­ter, my now-fa­ther-in-law was im­pressed that I scored seats to a White Sox home game, be­hind home plate, for just $5 each.

Prox­im­ity is the big­gest sell­ing point to Cac­tus League fans: spring train­ing brings 15 teams to 10 sta­di­ums around the Val­ley of the Sun, all within driv­ing times of 45 min­utes or less. It is not un­com­mon for the hard­core fan to spend an af­ter­noon in the sun, at a game that starts at 1 p.m., and an evening in the cool desert air at an­other game that be­gins at 7 p.m.; a few years back, in what I con­sid­ered the pin­na­cle of my base­ball fan­dom, I hit eight games in five days, ac­com­pa­nied by any and ev­ery friend I had ever made in Ari­zona.

The va­ri­ety of the sta­di­ums them­selves makes for an eclec­tic ex­pe­ri­ence. Each ball­park has its nods to hometown fans: At Mary­vale Base­ball Park, at 20 years old the sec­ond-old­est of the sta­di­ums around Phoenix and home of the Brew­ers, we ate bratwurst. In Sur­prise, where the Roy­als share a sta­dium that rises out of the mid­dle of the desert with the Texas Rangers, we ate bar­be­cue and pork ten­der­loin.

At the glis­ten­ing Salt River Fields, which opened in 2011 for the hometown Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs and the Colorado Rock­ies, I had a deca­dent Sono­ran hot dog, wrapped in ba­con, drenched in chili and dressed with aioli that de­fied my best nap­kin-aided ef­forts at pro­tect­ing my shorts al­most im­me­di­ately. (“So,” my wife sum­ma­rized, af­ter I told her the in­gre­di­ents, “it’s a ba­con dog with may­on­naise?” She was not wrong.)

Spring train­ing in Ari­zona of­fers the best of base­ball for both the ob­ses­sive and the ca­sual fan; as life has in­truded, I in­creas­ingly find my­self shift­ing from the for­mer cat­e­gory to the lat­ter, and the ex­pe­ri­ence of a trip to Phoenix never di­min­ishes. At Mary­vale, a fel­low Mariners fan in front of me kept de­tailed notes about each player’s time on the field. At Sur­prise, where my par­ents and I watched the Mariners beat the Rangers, I chuck­led to my­self when young guys with jersey numbers in the 80s — play­ers un­likely to come any­where close to the Ma­jor Leagues this year or next — trot­ted out to re­place oth­ers in the mid­dle of a game. The Mariners hadn’t even both­ered to sew their names on the back of their jer­seys, and sev­eral went un­ac­knowl­edged by the pub­lic ad­dress an­nouncer, per­haps be­cause their names had not been in­cluded on the team’s of­fi­cial ros­ter.

The in­for­mal­ity is not un­usual. In fact, the en­tire spring train­ing ex­pe­ri­ence has a de­light­fully ca­sual feel about it, as if even the an­nounc­ers are work­ing out the win­ter kinks and ev­ery­one knows that noth­ing is to be taken too se­ri­ously. At Sur­prise, some­one for­got to turn off the Lady Gaga song play­ing over the loud­speaker while the live vo­cal­ist belted out “The Star-Span­gled Ban­ner”; at Tempe Di­ablo Sta­dium, just south of Ari­zona State University’s cam­pus, where I watched Los An­ge­les An­gels slug­ger Mike Trout launch a mas­sive home run be­fore head­ing to the air­port to catch my flight home, si­lence echoed around the park for a solid 45 sec­onds be­fore the recorded ver­sion of the na­tional an­them strug­gled to life. At Salt River, a Padres pitcher ran warmup sprints along the out­field track in the mid­dle of an in­ning.

Phoenix, too, has a ca­sual feel. Over years of vis­it­ing my fa­therin-law there, even dur­ing Christ­mas, I can­not re­mem­ber the last time I wore any­thing other than shorts.

The val­ley it­self, which has grown ex­plo­sively in re­cent years thanks to an in­flux of snow­birds from Chicago to Seat­tle (ev­ery third li­cense plate, it seems, is from Illi­nois or Wash­ing­ton), is be­com­ing per­pet­u­ally more re­fined while main­tain­ing its laid­back ap­peal.

That is not to say, by any means, that the val­ley has no charm be­yond spring train­ing. Af­ter a hard day of eat­ing salt­laden ball­park fare while watch­ing oth­ers ex­ert them­selves in the hot sun, fans have lim­it­less din­ner op­tions ahead of them. Phoenix, the land of strip malls, of­fers ev­ery pos­si­ble chain — I will con­fess to a predilec­tion for Red Robin, the cheapo burger chain founded in my home town of Seat­tle, where the ba­sic Tav­ern Dou­ble burger with bot­tom­less steak fries has added inches to my mid­sec­tion.

Phoenix is quickly de­vel­op­ing its own foodie cul­ture, hap­pily in­de­pen­dent of chain think­ing. Fans who head to Sur­prise to see the Rangers or the Roy­als should stop on their way back at one of two Rio Mi­rage Cafes, hall­mark Mex­i­can restau­rants where my fa­ji­tas were de­layed be­cause the chef was still making that night’s flour tor­tillas. (Given the im­pec­ca­ble qual­ity of the fi­nal prod­uct, I would have gladly waited an­other hour; my wife picked the cor­rect lo­ca­tion, the host­ess told us, be­cause theirs had the mari­achi band that night.)

Near the Peo­ria com­plex, which the Mariners and San Diego Padres share, a hole-in-the­wall sushi joint called Fresh Wasabi de­liv­ers what its name prom­ises, along with about two dozen spe­cialty rolls, in­clud­ing the shrimp-and-tuna Booty Booty roll and the Sweet Thang roll, filled with salmon, cream cheese and crab.

Af­ter a day at Salt River Fields, drive north on the 101 for just a few ex­its un­til you reach Hay­den Road and the Lo­cal Bistro; my par­ents caught up with an old friend, newly re­tired to the Phoenix area, over a delectably eclec­tic menu that in­cluded a pre­assem­bled Swiss-style fon­due, per­fectly cooked salmon, mus­sels my mother raved about and piz­zas af­ter which we all pined. The wine, rang­ing from Ore­gon pinot noir to a Span­ish white I had never be­fore en­coun­tered, set the rem­i­nisc­ing into over­drive. Even the strip malls are not with­out their charm: Tutti Santi by Nina, a fa­vorite of lo­cals who love Ital­ian food, served as a per­fect venue for a be­lated birth­day din­ner for a rel­a­tive; the pasta three ways de­liv­ered a ravi­oli in tomato sauce, spinach gnoc­chi and a wal­nut sauce over tortellini that the carb-lover in me can­not for­get.

Pre­vi­ous vis­its have high­lighted other ex­cep­tional restau­rants, in ev­ery part of the val­ley. My fa­ther-in-law and I made a mess of our­selves at Honey Bear’s BBQ, in down­town Phoenix, thanks to fall-off-the-bone ribs and sauce-laden pulled pork. Dur­ing that same visit, a source and I spent an end­less lunch at Richard­son’s, north of down­town and fa­mous for its stuffed chile rel­lenos.

Glen­dale, west of Phoenix, is re­plete with au­then­tic Mex­i­can joints in which fam­i­lies who have run restau­rants for longer than Ari­zona has been a state con­tinue to serve tor­tilla chips that haven’t been out of the deep fryer for more than a few min­utes. Gua­camole made ta­ble-side is the rule, not the ex­cep­tion.

On this week­end, af­ter three full days with my par­ents, I have one more task to com­plete: While my fa­ther-in-law de­liv­ers my par­ents to the air­port, I want to get a few more hours in the sun. So I meet my friend Seth at Tempe Di­ablo Sta­dium to try to squeeze in a few more in­nings be­fore I have to re­turn to re­al­ity.

I am not dis­ap­pointed: Be­cause it does not count, spring train­ing is for ex­per­i­ment­ing, and that means the ex­cite­ment of stolen bases. In the reg­u­lar sea­son, the rise of Saber­met­rics and other cold analy­ses of base­ball statis­tics means few play­ers risk the long-shot op­tion of swip­ing sec­ond.

In spring train­ing, such lar­ceny is a com­mon fea­ture, and in my fi­nal few mo­ments in the sun I wit­ness a half-dozen acts of brazen base-steal­ing. Half a dozen foul balls come close enough that we leap out of our seats, threat­en­ing the safety of Seth’s pret­zel and my Cracker Jacks, a thrill that only hap­pens in the rich seats in the Ma­jor League parks.

Af­ter six in­nings, I have to get to the air­port. Seth and I walk to his car, the oc­ca­sional cheer of An­gels and White Sox fans cas­cad­ing over us like a re­minder that the warm blan­ket of a Phoenix March will fol­low me back to Wash­ing­ton. As I sit on the plane, wait­ing to taxi from the gate and head back home, I am calm, com­forted by the unar­guable fact that spring is here. When I land in Wash­ing­ton later that night, the snow is gone. Wil­son is a writer based in the Dis­trict. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @Pol­i­tic­sReid.

JOHN SLEEZER/KANSAS CITY STAR VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

JAE C. HONG/ASSOCIATED PRESS

JEFF CHIU/ASSOCIATED PRESS

FROM TOP: Dur­ing the 2016 Cac­tus League spring train­ing sea­son, Kansas City Roy­als play­ers and coaches stand dur­ing the na­tional an­them in Sur­prise, Ariz.; In Scotts­dale, Ari­zona Di­a­mond­backs mas­cot D. Bax­ter the Bob­cat does some pregame stretches with Colorado Rock­ies out­fielder Charlie Black­mon and fans — with a high chance of suc­cess — wait for au­to­graphs.

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