San Francisco Giants fans swarm players for autographs during spring training at Scottsdale Stadium in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Old Town Scottsdale fancies itself an icon of the Old West, its architecture and signage evoking the days of wooden sidewalks and storefront hitching posts. Never mind that today’s sidewalks are concrete and most locals no longer get around by horse. These four pedestrian-friendly blocks are still an echo of a simpler time before greater Scottsdale grew into a 184-square-mile metropolis, almost four times the size of San Francisco.
Old Town is also, of course, a modern mall of art galleries favoring Southwestern and Native American motifs, jewelry stores, cafés, and restaurants that hum with casual luxury. It’s quiet here . . . until March, when baseball comes rolling in.
Nearby Scottsdale Stadium has been the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants since 1984, and for five weeks each year Old Town adopts a decidedly orange-and-black attitude. With 14 other major league teams playing in nine other stadiums around the Phoenix exurbs—all within about 40 miles of each other—a visitor to spring training can easily to schedule plenty of play around the unique attractions of Old Town.
In 1946, Cleveland Indians owner Bill Veeck, tired of Southern racism near the team’s Florida training camp and perhaps eager to be closer to his Arizona ranch, took his team to Tucson. He convinced Horace Stoneham, owner of the New York Giants, to start training his team in Phoenix that year, so his club would have somebody to play. The Chicago Cubs came to Mesa, Ariz., in 1952, and when the Baltimore Orioles showed up in Yuma in 1954, people started calling the four-team circuit the Cactus League.
The exhibit Play Ball—The Cactus League Experience displays a wealth of artifacts and memorabilia at the Arizona Historical Society Museum in Tempe, 4.5 miles south of Old Town. It’s part of the Legacy Trail, which features other Play Ball exhibits at the Arizona Museum for Youth in Mesa (12.5 miles south) and at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport’s Terminal 4 (nine miles south).
The modern Scottsdale Stadium, built in 1992 and renovated in 2005, is, despite its size, one of the coziest arenas in the area, with fan-friendly touches such as the right field pavilion—a series of tiered patios featuring lounge chairs and couches—and a tree-shaded, blanket-ready outfield berm for lounging.
Two other ballparks close to Old Town are Phoenix Municipal Stadium, spring home to the Oakland A’s, and the newest yard in the desert, Salt River Fields, at Talking Stick toward the east side of Scottsdale, where the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies play.
The watering holes
The place to start is Don & Charlie’s on East Camelback Road, just a 20-minute walk (or three-minute drive) north of Old Town. This perpetually packed steak and burger joint boasts what may be the biggest collection of baseball mementos outside of Cooperstown. Nearly every inch of wall enclosing its 12,000 square feet is hung with autographed jerseys, posters, and magazine covers; the signed baseball count alone tops 750. The place boasts 450 seats, but at spring training time reservations are a must.
Back in the heart of Old Town is the Pink Pony, which for more than 50 years fed baseball legends such as “Dizzy” Dean and Billy Martin. In 1986, Sports Illustrated writer Ron Fimrite dubbed it “the most popular hangout for baseball people in the civilized world.” Closed in 2009, the Pony reopened last year with a refurbished interior, a menu upgraded by local culinary legend Reed Groban, and a lot of baseball memorabilia still on its walls.
Not quite everything in Scottsdale has to do with spring baseball. Just up the block from the Pony is the Italian Grotto, more sports bar than baseball museum. The pastas and meat on the menu may look tame—until you taste shockingly well-crafted fare such as the mussels Portifino or the calamari. Come for the baseball atmosphere, stay for the food.
Citizen Public House on East Fifth Avenue, a 10-minute stroll north of Old Town, offers an array of elegant dishes, from porcini-dusted filet mignon to a unique grilled halloumi cheese sandwich. The resilience of the cheese allows it to be seared like a steak rather than melted across the perfectly toasted bun.
For sweets, it’s a short walk back to the Sugar Bowl, just a block from the Pony and the Grotto, for old-fashioned ice cream sodas, malts, and floats. The all-pink soda fountain looks much as it did when it opened in 1958.
Most of these places are within a mile—a 15- to 20-minute walk—of Scottsdale Stadium. You could enjoy several baseball-filled days in Old Town without once breaking out a set of car keys.
Photography courtesy Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau
This story was first published in March 2012. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Request the Arizona & New Mexico TourBook and Phoenix Vicinity map at AAA.com or any AAA branch. To find a place to stay, visit AAA.com/hotels. For more information, contact the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau: (800) 782-1117, scottsdalecvb.com. Area code is 480 except as noted.
AAA Travel offers a AAA Getaway at a lush oasis, Fire Sky Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, where members enjoy 20 percent off the best available rate and a complimentary continental breakfast for two. From $88. To learn more, call (800) 528-7867.
Arizona Historical Society Museum at Papago Park 1300 N. College Ave., Tempe, 929-9499, arizonahistoricalsociety.org/museums/tempe.asp. Cactus League schedule cactusleague.com. Scottsdale Stadium 7408 E. Osborn Rd., 312-2586, scottsdaleaz.gov/stadium.
Citizen Public House 7111 E. Fifth Ave. Ste. E, 398-4208, citizenpublichouse.com. Don & Charlie’s 7501 E. Camelback Rd., 990-0900, donandcharlies.com. Italian Grotto 3915 N. Scottsdale Rd., 994-1489, italiangrotto.com. Pink Pony 3831 N. Scottsdale Rd., 945-6697, pinkponyrestaurant.com. Sugar Bowl 4005 N. Scottsdale Rd., 946-0051, sugarbowlscottsdale.com.