January 14, 2010

A fan's guide to the Cactus League

If you’re a baseball fan and you’ve never been to Spring Training, you owe it to yourself to go. Trust me on this, you’ll have the time of your life and wonder why it took you so long to get there. If you’re an Angels fan and you live in Southern California, you can easily drive to Tempe, Arizona in five or six hours. I’m telling you; it’s worth the trip.

There’s really nothing like Spring Training; especially the Cactus League in Arizona. For about a month, baseball fans from across the country converge on the greater Phoenix area to get their first look at their favorite teams. This year, 15 teams will be a part of the Cactus League.

The Angels, Dodgers, Padres, Giants, A’s, Mariners, Rockies, Rangers, Cubs, White Sox, Indians, Brewers, Royals, Diamondbacks, and Reds (who join the Cactus League for the first time this year) all play in the Cactus League.

The time to plan is now. Many teams have already put their tickets on sale and others will soon follow. A great starting place is on the official Cactus League site. The site has a trip planner, where you can look at schedules for all the teams over the period of days you plan to be in Arizona. The site also has maps for your convenience.

At Spring Training you’ll see all your favorite players; including some of the best prospects within each organization and even some alumni from your team. For the Angels; Bobby Grich, Gary DiSarcina, Jim Abbott, and Tim Salmon are some of the players I’ve seen in the past coaching and helping out.

The stadiums are small and intimate; game tickets are reasonable and there usually isn’t a bad seat in the house. Some stadiums have areas in the outfield where you can put down a blanket and enjoy the game sitting on the grass with your family. It can be pretty warm in the spring and the sun can be intense; so be sure to bring a hat and some sun block. Most of the stadiums don’t have a whole lot of shade; so be prepared.

Lodging is plentiful and you can find a wide range of prices and types of accommodations. There’s just about everything from resorts to a five star hotels to motels or inns. I have to warn you though; this is an important time of the year for the local economy, so be prepared to pay slightly higher prices in most cases. If you don’t mind driving a bit, you can usually find reasonable places to stay.

There are tons of choices for places to eat. You'll find everything from chain restaurants to places unique to the area. A couple of favorites of my wife Cheryl’s and mine are T.C. Eggington in Mesa for breakfast, Matt’s Big Breakfast in Phoenix (be prepared to wait at least an hour), and Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale for steak, ribs, fish and chicken. This place is a must-see for baseball fans; as it has one of the largest collections of sports memorabilia west of the Mississippi. We’re talking wall to wall stuff and the food is great as well. You're also going to need to make reservations well in advance (more than a week).

Other favorites include Honey Bear’s (various locations) for BBQ, Cooper’s Town (a restaurant own by famed rocker Alice Cooper and part owner – Randy Johnson). Word is Cooper himself comes in from time to time to have tuna casserole (made from his mom’s recipe). The servers at the restaurant even wear eye make-up just like Cooper.

Downtown Tempe isn’t far away from Tempe Diablo Stadium and you can find an Uno’s Pizza (just like you’d find in Chicago), ice cream parlors and other assorted restaurants. Tempe is the college town for Arizona State and there are always people out at night walking around the main drag

Now, let’s focus on game days. It’s a good idea to arrive at the park early – even before they open the gates. At Tempe Diablo Stadium, non-starters for the day and most of the pitchers head out to the practice fields a few hours before the game. These fields are somewhat accessible to fans. You can watch players doing drills, stretching, taking batting practice, etc. It’s also a great time to hear some of their conversations. Players are generally loose and can be seen and heard joking around and generally having a good time.

Last year during one of our trips, Mike Scioscia was getting on Mike Napoli for not running the bases hard enough and to the end. He asked the crowd, including Angel prospect Hank Conger’s dad to let him know if Napoli was “dogging it.” There are lots of priceless moments like this, if you’re willing to put in the time and really soak up the experiences.

When the Angel players make their way back to the stadium, they walk behind a barricade back to the stadium. This is an ideal time to get an autograph or a picture.

If you want an autograph, there are some important things to know. First of all, be patient. You never know when or who might sign and there is usually a lot of waiting involved. Players and coaches are more likely to sign when they’re done working out and not as likely when they’re heading out to get their work in. Keep in mind, there’s always a chance that players and/or coaches won’t sign on any given day and if you know that going in, you’re less likely to be disappointed.

Angels who are usually pretty good about stopping for an autograph include Torii Hunter and Jered Weaver, who are two of the best. If you spend enough time at Spring Training (a few days), you should have a fair amount of success getting some signatures. Be prepared. That means having stuff ready to go. Sometimes that even means being mobile. There are times when players and even coaches (especially Mike Scioscia) will ask you to walk with them as they sign an item for you.

If you want a player to sign the “sweet spot” on your baseball, be sure to specify; otherwise, you will probably get a signature some where else on the ball. If you’re trying to get signatures on a “team” ball – be sure to keep track of who’s already signed. Nothing is more embarrassing than asking a player to sign your ball only to have them tell you they already have.

For a baseball, blue ball point pens are the best. Don’t use a sharpie. Sharpies are prone to fade over time and can even bleed into the cover a bit.

An important tip about getting autographs is that you will have more success if you ask a player to “personalize” an item. That way, they know you’re not going to take their signature and try to sell it some where. If you’re like my wife and I and collect for your own personal memories, you’ll enjoy personalized items even more. It’s a good idea to write out how you want an item personalized. Make it easy for the players.

Once the gates open, you can venture into the stadium and try and get some more autographs. It’s always a hit or miss situation. Sometimes players will sign for you when they’re warming up and sometimes they’ll do it as they’re leaving the game. Unlike during the regular season, a lot of the regulars come out after a few innings (the later in the Cactus League season, the later they come out). Sometimes they’ll stop along the first base line to sign (but you’d have to be sitting close by) or as they enter the tunnel that leads to the club house. I have to warn you that it can get really crowded at this time and not the best time to get an autograph.

If you’re really diligent, you can also head out to the parking lot. Some players will stop and sign for you when they’re driving out. Parking is limited in the player’s lot and some of the minor league guys will park out in the general area and walk to their cars. They’re usually pretty good about signing at this time, but you have to be on your game and know who’s who. It’s easy to recognize the major leaguers, not always as easy to recognize guys who have been in the minors. Keep in mind that some players will leave before the game even ends.

Scioscia is usually the last to leave and that can be several hours after the game is over, but has been known to stop and sign for fans.

Getting autographs and photos are a big part of the Spring Training experience, but there are other enjoying aspects of it as well. The people you meet are some of the nicest around. Most of them are big time baseball fans and some travel long distances to get to Arizona.

The people working at the stadium are great too. Many of the workers are retired “snow birds” who have a million stories to share. Everyone is generally in a good mood and optimism is definitely in the air.

Again, if you love baseball – you need to be there.

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