Happily enough, not even dread progress has been able to ruin spring training in Arizona. It’s true that those rickety old ballparks in sleepy desert villages have now been supplanted by space-age "training complexes" in booming municipalities. And it’s also true that where once spring baseball fans could stroll confidently up to a ticket booth at game time with every expectation of scoring a decent seat, they must now make their game plans well in advance. Crowds of 10,000-plus are more nearly the norm these days than the exception. Indeed, spring training has become so popular in Arizona that its impact on the state’s economy amounts to a cool $200 million annually. Yes, this once-pastoral exercise is now, indubitably, big business.
But it’s still great fun. The new ballparks that have sprung up like cacti across the desert in the last decade may lack the antique charm of their predecessors, but they’ve at least been built in the classic mold and with all the amenities of modern stadia. Many even include grassy knolls beyond the outfield fences for the convenience of sunbathers. And they’re still small enough and close enough to the playing field to provide an intimacy unknowable in a big league setting.
Languishing in the stands at a spring training game is an experience unlike any encountered during the regular season. There is the matter of convenience: All you require—refreshments, restrooms, available exits—is near at hand. In some Arizona ballparks it will seem as if every spectator has a personal vendor, so numerous are the purveyors of such dietary staples as hot dogs and beer. Then there is the absence of tension: You are at a spring training game solely to relax; caring who wins or loses in the spring is definitely de trop. And, finally, nostalgia: The ballparks may be new, but thanks to architectural wizardry and the builders’ gift of historical perspective, they look old.
The wholesale construction of luxurious preseason quarters for major league teams actually started in Florida in the mid-1980s. The ensuing efforts there by civic boosters to lure Arizona-based teams east obliged the desert towns to play catch-up. For a time, the very existence of the so-called Cactus League seemed threatened by these southland hucksters. In the ensuing competition, Cleveland moved from Tucson, where the Indians had trained for 45 years, to Winter Haven, Fla., in 1993. But the Chicago White Sox abandoned Sarasota for Tucson five years later, and Arizona also landed the expansion Colorado Rockies and home state Diamondbacks. So now, with three teams (the Rockies, White Sox, and Diamondbacks) in Tucson and seven (the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, and Anaheim Angels) in the Phoenix area, the Cactus League is flourishing as never before.
Despite the fierce competition of the past 10 years, Arizona’s spring training is as unlike Florida’s as sand is unlike swamp. Roger Angell, whose baseball peregrinations on behalf of The New Yorker magazine take him to both states every spring, has written that the atmosphere in Arizona is "slower, sweeter and somehow better fixed in memory." And I cannot help but recall the arrival in Scottsdale each spring of longtime National League President Chub Feeney. Doffing staid business attire for iridescent sport shirt and slacks, Chub would burst forth from his poolside hotel room and announce to the assembled sun worshippers, "Oh, but it’s great to be back again in the bee-yoo-tee-fool Valley of the Sun." And it still is.
In fact, I’d say that everything about Arizona’s spring training is better than Florida’s. The weather is, of course, drier and infinitely less enervating. The daily high temperature in Phoenix averages a salubrious 74.5 degrees during March. Rain is rare in the desert, but a constant bother in Florida. Arizona’s 10 teams are clustered in just two metropolitan areas—Phoenix and Tucson—while Florida’s 20 are scattered pell-mell over the steamy peninsula. Particularly energetic fans in metropolitan Phoenix could watch at least parts of four ball games in four different parks on the same day if they were so inclined, the Giants (Scottsdale), the A’s (Phoenix), the Angels (Tempe), and the Cubs (Mesa) being that close together.
And with its teams sprawled all over the landscape, Florida sorely lacks such centralized baseball hangouts as the Pink Pony and Don and Charlie’s, Scottsdale steak houses where fans, writers, managers, and executives of different teams and even an occasional ballplayer gather to chew over the day’s events. Don and Charlie’s is a tough ticket in the spring, so it’s wise to make reservations in advance. It’s a spacious place, but it’s generally packed to the gunnels at night. Among the teeming hordes, you’re likely to find any number of baseball figures, like Giants’ manager Dusty Baker. On rare occasions, even a ballplayer or two might be in the mix.
The Pony, as its habitués call it, may not be the pantheon it once was when Hall of Famers the likes of Dizzy Dean, Ty Cobb, and Ted Williams seemed to be in residence at every table, but it yet remains an oasis where baseball talk thrives as it has for half a century. The Pony dates from the very first days of Arizona spring training. And so does its octogenarian proprietor, the affable Charlie Briley. You may see him, a stately figure in shirt and tie, down at the crook of the bar, a bottle of Budweiser at the ready.
Actually, Charlie has been somewhat under the weather lately, but his effervescent wife, Gwen, is a constant presence. She’ll be the pretty lady who greets you at the door. The Pony is truly a baseball shrine. Uniform shirts of heroes on the order of Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Ernie Banks depend from the walls, and autographed bats and balls are everywhere. Behind the long and crowded bar hang caricatures of some of the game’s legends, assorted local characters, and even a few friendly journalists. Ask Kenny, the Pony’s bartender, for one of his incomparable margaritas.
The man most responsible for bringing baseball to Arizona is, appropriately enough, the game’s greatest innovator, Bill Veeck. Then the principal owner of the Cleveland Indians, Veeck bought a ranch near Tucson after World War II. His immediate problem with the property was finding more time to spend there, at least in the winter and spring. And so it was that he hit upon the idea of transporting his team to Arizona for preseason workouts. But he couldn’t leave his players isolated there without proper competition, so he suggested to his pal, Horace Stoneham, then owner of the New York Giants, that he too make the spring move west. The Giants were a logical choice since they and the Indians had enjoyed a spring training barnstorming rivalry that dated to 1934.
So in 1947, Stoneham and Veeck agreed to divide the Arizona territory north and south, the Giants to Phoenix, the Indians to Tucson. Soon, other big league clubs, envious of desert serenity and the mild weather, hit the Arizona trail.
Charlie Briley opened his Pink Pony in 1949, and, largely because it was just about the only joint in town back then, it became Arizona baseball’s watering hole. Scottsdale, now the acknowledged hub of Arizona spring training, was then merely a cow town; today, it is a bustling city of nearly 180,000. Its streets are alive with shops of every description, art galleries, theaters, lavish hotels with pools, and chic restaurants so cosmopolitan they make the venerable Pony look like a place where one might expect to see the Brothers Earp knocking back a load of red-eye. Phoenix, itself a small city of 100,000 back then, now boasts a population of 1.2 million, and Tucson, 117 miles to the south, is approaching 500,000.
So there’s nothing desolate about Arizona anymore. It’s just that it all seems to shrink to a cozier dimension in the spring. So much sentimental claptrap has been written about baseball and spring being synonymous with rebirth and renewal as to cause the discerning reader to gag in revulsion. But the fact remains that for those heading to the Southwest from nastier climes, spring training does lighten the heart. The games themselves are devoid of pennant race tensions and the players, possibly because they’re so near, seem somehow more human—no mean feat in this era of the plutocratic athlete.
A sportswriter friend of mine grew so fond of those weeks in Arizona that he sighed wistfully at the end of March, "It’s a pity they have to ruin the baseball season by playing it."
There is, in fact, the sense at the end of spring training that a holiday has passed by. Charlie Briley, who came to Arizona from Kentucky in 1936, sees it that way. "Spring training is kind of like Christmas for me," he says. "I may feel like crying when it’s over, but I know there’ll always be another one."
And so there will. Don’t miss it.
Photos by Steve Dunn/Allsport, Mickey Pfleger/Photo 20-20 and Brian Bahr/Allsport
This article was first published in January 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Use the AAA map Arizona/New Mexicoand the AAA Arizona/New Mexico TourBook. The Greater Phoenix Convention & Visitors Bureau can be reached at (877) 225-5749. The Metropolitan Tucson C&VB can be reached at (800) 638-8350.
Lodging During spring training, a hotel or motel room may prove tougher to find than a Giants-Cubs ticket. The Arizona Office of Tourism has a helpful online travel services directory, or you can call the tourism office at (602) 230-7733.
Schedules/Tickets The Cactus League season runs March 2–30. It’s best to reserve tickets by calling the ball clubs at their spring sites.
Anaheim Angels Tempe Diablo Stadium, 2200 W. Alameda Dr., Tempe. Tickets: $3–$11,* (888) 994-2567. Arizona Diamondbacks Tucson Electric Park, Kino Sports Complex, 2500 E. Ajo Way, Tucson. Tickets: $3–$14, (520) 434-1111. Chicago Cubs HoHoKam Park, 1235 N. Center St., Mesa. Tickets: $5–$13, (602) 964-4467. Chicago White Sox Tucson Electric Park, Kino Sports Complex, 2500 E. Ajo Way, Tucson. Tickets: $3–$14, (888) 683-3900 or (520) 434-1111. Colorado Rockies Hi Corbett Field, Randolph Park, 3400 E. Camino Campestre, Tucson. Tickets: $2–$12, (520) 327-9467. Milwaukee Brewers Maryvale Baseball Park, 3600 N. 51st Ave., Phoenix. Tickets: $4–$11, (623) 245-5500. Oakland A’s Phoenix Municipal Stadium, 5999 E. Van Buren, Phoenix. Tickets: $5–$12, (602) 392-0217. San Diego Padres Peoria Stadium, Peoria Sports Complex, 16101 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria. Tickets: $4–$18,* (623) 878-4337 or (800) 409-1511. San Francisco Giants Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 E. Osborn Rd., Scottsdale. Tickets: $6–$16,* (602) 990-7972. Seattle Mariners Peoria Stadium, Peoria Sports Complex, 16101 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria. Tickets: $4–$18, (602) 878-4337.
*1999 ticket prices