Spring training is underway, and the games already begin next week. As I did last year, I wanted to share a guide to the Indians spring training experience. Whether you’re heading west to the desert, or you hope to keep track of the Tribe from couch, hopefully this will have all of the information that you need.
Following From a Distance:
The Indians’ first spring training game is Wednesday, February 26 against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear. It will be broadcast on WTAM 1100 and on MLB.com. There are seven games scheduled to be broadcast on Sports Time Ohio, two more than they televised last spring. If you happened to purchase the MLB.com TV package, you may get lucky and see some additional games. A few teams broadcast more games (I think the Dodgers are broadcasting all of their spring games) so you may be able to catch the Indians if their opponent happens to have that particular game on television. Most games will have at least an audio broadcast on MLB.com, while nine games will be broadcast on WTAM, three on WMMS 100.7, and three on 99X (99.1). For a full list of the broadcast schedule, visit this link. Arizona is two hours behind us until we turn the clocks ahead; meaning that all games until Sunday, March 9 will take place at 3:05 p.m. EST. After the time change, most games will move to 4:05 p.m. EST, with a couple of scattered 10:05 p.m. EST night games. Remember that many of the big names only play during the first couple of innings, then you’ll see a collection of minor leaguers and spring training invitees.
If You’re Going:
2014 will mark my seventh straight year of Cactus League baseball; it is the Indians’ sixth season in Arizona. I’ve been to games in Goodyear more times than I can count, and I’ve managed to visit all of the Cactus League parks (excluding the Cubs’ new park, which opens this spring) so I feel like I have a pretty good handle on the Cactus League experience. Since I also attend the Nine Journal of Baseball Spring Training Conference while in Arizona, I always stay at the conference hotel in Tempe, on the east side of Phoenix. So unfortunately I don’t have much information to give on hotels in the Goodyear area, since I’ve never stayed there. Goodyear is your pretty average suburb, but it’s pretty far to the west of Phoenix and you’re starting to get to the very outskirts of populated areas. It’s definitely not the most exciting place I’ve ever been, but the stadium is easy to get in and out of, and there are restaurants and stores nearby. You’re far enough outside of Phoenix that you don’t have to worry too much about traffic (unless you venture east, particularly during rush hour).
If you stay outside of Goodyear, like me, Goodyear is relatively easy to reach. You just head west of downtown on I-10 until you get to the Estrella Parkway exit (there are several you can take, but this always seems to be the easiest). You turn left off the exit ramp and the stadium will be on your left a mile or so down the road, you can park at the back side of the stadium, outside of the outfield gate. Couldn’t be easier. I went to Winter Haven four different times, and it seemed like Rt. 540 always backed up going to and from the ballpark. I sat in traffic numerous times, sometimes for an extensive amount of time. That never happens in Goodyear – however – if you do stay in another park of the Phoenix area, the games typically end just as rush hour is taking off. You may end up stuck in the Phoenix traffic on your way back from the game and it can range from bad to awful.
Speaking of Winter Haven – the one thing I miss about the Indians’ days in the Grapefruit League was the fact that all of the minor league fields were right outside of the stadium. You could go early and take a leisurely walk around the rest of the complex before going in to watch the game. At Goodyear, the rest of the complex is almost a mile down the road (the Reds’ complex is also about a mile away). It’s not a huge inconvenience, but I miss the days of everything being right there.
Once you’re at the park in Goodyear, where should you sit? Where should you go for autographs? I really haven’t sat anywhere that I consider a bad seat, and I’ve sat on the grass outfield berm and in seats all over the park. One thing that’s better than Winter Haven is that the seats are actual seats; in Florida a lot of them were boiling hot metal bleachers. There is less shade in Goodyear, and you have to be really careful when sitting down the first base or third base lines. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ended up with a Phantom of the Opera-esque burn on just one side of my face because of the way the sun shines, and because I apparently don’t know how to properly apply sun block.
I’ve never bothered buying tickets ahead of time, since it’s a 10,000 seat park that usually has between 2,000 and 6,000 people in attendance. If there are teams like the Dodgers and Giants visiting though, ticket sales seem to go up. I also saw a sizable amount of Rangers fans during Yu Darvish’s first season. I have noticed that there seem to be more and more visiting Ohioans each year that I’ve been there. Players often sign autographs by their dugout prior to the game – the Indians are in the first base dugout if they’re the home team. I’m sure you can get some down the street at the team complex as well, but I’ve become somewhat burned out on getting autographs and usually don’t bother. They often have a couple of players signing at a table when you enter at the home plate entrance, but it usually seems to be limited on a first come, first served basis. They hand out a set number of tickets, and once those are gone, no more autographs.
Don’t hesitate to ask the staff at the ballpark questions – I’ve always found them to be extremely friendly and helpful. In fact, last year I noticed that all of the staff workers were wearing little metal lapel pins that boasted the park’s five-year anniversary. I collect lapel pins, so I happened to ask someone in the team shop if those were for sale. They weren’t for sale, but we got to chatting and I told the man about my pin collection. Before I walked away, he stopped me and said “here,” taking off his lapel pin and handing it to me. It seriously made my trip, and the pin has a place of honor in my collection.
What’s the weather like? How about “not Cleveland.” At this point, 35 degrees is starting to sound warm to me, so really anything Arizona has to offer at this point will be good to me. For the most part, the temperatures seem to hover in the mid-to-upper 70s, although I’ve seen extremes. Last year, for example, I saw both ends of the spectrum – when I first arrived it was rainy and cold. I had on jeans, a sweatshirt, and a coat and still felt chilly. The first game I went to, a matchup between the Indians and Royals, was actually rained out in the second or third inning. By the end of my trip there were record high temperatures – highs around 98 or 99 degrees. I was thankful that I brought a diverse collection of clothing with me.
Important travel tip – If you fly into Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport, and plan to rent a car, you have to go to the off-site rental car facility. You wait outside of the baggage claim, and a little shuttle takes you a few miles to the place where you’ll pick up your car. Someone recently told me that if you select anywhere except for “airport” when booking your rental, you’ll save a lot of money. I thought to myself, “The rental car shuttle is free…will the savings be worth it after I pay a cab to go to a different site?” I decided to check – I saved about $180 for the week. So toy around with the rental car pickup locations until you find a good deal.
Other Cactus League Parks:
One of the things I really like about the Cactus League is the proximity of all of the other parks. In the Grapefruit League, there were a handful of teams within a reasonable driving distance and a number of them several hours away. So if you’d like to follow the Indians around the greater Phoenix area, here are the other parks and some of my thoughts on them:
Camelback Ranch – Glendale – AZ – Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers: The name may sound like some kind of strip club, but believe it or not, this is a ballpark. It opened at the same time as Goodyear, as the White Sox moved north from their old spring home in Tucson, Arizona, and the Dodgers moved west from their legendary Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida. I visited for the first time last spring and really, really liked it. The yellow seats are reminiscent of Dodger Stadium, but the stone work around the park is definitely unique to the Glendale facility. It was aesthetically pleasing, spacious, and had plenty of shade. I was surprised that such a nice place was practically empty the day I went to see the Indians vs. the Dodgers (with their new player, Yasiel Puig in the lineup). An Arizona native told me that many of the parks on the west side of Phoenix don’t draw the fans that you see at the east side parks. I never had to pay for parking either, which was a big surprise for parking in an official stadium lot, a very short walk from the front door.
Cubs Park – Mesa AZ – Chicago Cubs: This park is brand new in 2014, because the Cubs apparently felt that their former park, Hohokam Stadium, was too old. It was built in 1997. Since the Cubs are one of the biggest draws in the Cactus League, all it took were a few vague threats about moving to Florida, and voila! a new park for the Cubs. I hope to visit it this spring; I’ve heard it’s designed to be reminiscent of Wrigley Field. Hohokam had a bit of a Wrigley feel to it too; its only downfalls, in my opinion, were the huge crowds and iffy parking situation. It remains the only spring training park outside of which I’ve seen scalpers and vendors. The Oakland Athletics plan to move into Hohokam in 2015, after some renovations.
Maryvale Stadium – Phoenix, AZ – Milwaukee Brewers: When I told people I wanted to go over to Maryvale to see the Indians, there was often silence, followed by “well, be careful.” Followed by, “well, you’re going during the day…it should be fine.” Despite the somewhat vague and dire warnings, I didn’t see anything wrong with the immediate area, except for the weird fact that there were a lot of cinder block walls. Every neighborhood must feel like some kind of prison with all of those block walls surrounding the perimeter. Supposedly the Brewers stay over by Tempe and drive across Phoenix to Maryvale for games, because even they don’t want to stay in Maryvale (it’s one of the closer, west side suburbs). Maryvale Stadium was nice enough, but the seats were a faded blue, as if they hadn’t been maintained or cared for properly. It was nothing special, but it definitely wasn’t the nightmare that I thought it would be when talking to others about it. Parking and getting in and out of the lot seemed simple enough. I’ve heard the Brewers would like to leave and get a new home, but since they’re not the Cubs, maybe nobody cares.
Peoria Sports Complex – Phoenix, AZ – San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners: Because every team now needs a new stadium constantly, this has become one of the older parks in the Cactus League – the Padres and Mariners began training there in 1994. This facility is kind of far out there, and there wasn’t really a direct highway leading to it. It wasn’t anything spectacular, but at least it was easy to get in and out of it. I don’t really have anything bad or good to say about this place, it’s just kind of there.
Phoenix Municipal Stadium – Phoenix, AZ – Oakland Athletics (Arizona State University baseball to move in for 2015): For now, this is the oldest park in the Cactus League. Its first spring training game was played in 1964, when it was home to the San Francisco Giants. The light poles from the Giants’ old park in New York, the Polo Grounds. The lights were moved there after the Polo Grounds’ demolition, and they are still at Phoenix Municipal today. Even though this park is older, and the Athletics are ready to abandon it for the Cubs’ old digs, it has a certain charm. I’ve attended a number of games there (it’s close to where I stay) and have a real soft spot for this place. I’m unlikely to go there after the Athletics move and I’ll really miss it.
Salt River Fields at Talking Stick – Scottsdale, AZ – Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies: Until Cubs Park opens this spring, this was the Cactus League’s newest facility; it opened in 2011. It still is the best, in my opinion, and is definitely worth a trip if you find yourself in Arizona this spring. First of all, it’s incredibly beautiful. It was built on a Native American reservation, and has all of the practice fields just outside of the main stadium (what I loved about Winter Haven). It has incredible food choices – frozen cheesecake on a stick, chocolate covered fruit on a stick, and big gulps of sangria are three of my favorites. My one warning about this park is that games often sell out, even though it has a 10,000 seat capacity. If you want to go, it’s probably a good idea to buy your tickets in advance.
Scottsdale Stadium – Scottsdale, AZ – San Francisco Giants: After I first went to a game at Scottsdale Stadium in 2010, I vowed never to return as long as I lived. It was a nice enough park, but nothing spectacular (and yes, I know it won best stadium in 2012). For a park that was just “nice enough,” it wasn’t worth the hassle to me to deal with the crowds and the parking situation. The crowds were bad and this was before the Giants’ first World Series win – I imagine it only got worse from there. Plus, even though I love the Scottsdale area, it’s a tourist locale. So you have people there for the game, and for the shops and the restaurants; which means that parking is scarce and it’s at a premium. People try and sell spots in their driveways, and everywhere is extremely expensive – we were about an hour and a half early and still ended up paying $10 to park. Even that was more than I’ve ever paid for parking at a Cactus League game, and we were lucky; we knew folks that ended up forking over $20 to park. I went back last year for a night game though, and while the park was still a crowded mess, the parking situation was a bit improved. So I guess if you’re intent on seeing this place, pick a night or weekend game where parking may not be as much of a disaster. One bonus is that it seems like there are a number of veterans that hang out at this park signing autographs for charity. For $20 (for ball and autograph) I’ve gotten balls signed by Lee Smith, Rollie Fingers, and Vida Blue to name a few of them. (Lee Smith is an awesome and friendly guy, by the way).
Surprise Stadium – Surprise, AZ – Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers: This is probably the “furthest out” stadium in the Cactus League, well north and west of Phoenix. Unfortunately my only trip there was a rain-out in the second or third inning last spring. It did give me a lot of time to walk around and explore though, and I found this to be a really nice park. It had a merry go round, and was really pretty. I didn’t have to pay for parking when I was there, and I was able to park fairly close (although I’m sure the threat of rain scared people away). Even though it’s a haul to get there, it’s worth seeing if you have the opportunity.
Tempe Diablo Stadium – Tempe, AZ – Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: This is a nice little park, in walking distance from where I stay. I haven’t been there for a few years, but I’ve heard that the Angels have really elevated the prices post-Albert Pujols signing. It has a good selection of food and drinks, and has nice open concourses that are easy to navigate even when it’s crowded. It’s near the highway, but I’m not sure what the parking situation is like (I always walk there). There are a number of rickshaws that wait outside after games hoping to deliver fans to their intended destination, so it provides a unique transportation option. Since we stay near this park, we often end up with a lot of Angels fans wondering around the hotel. Last year, one particularly loud and drunk fan randomly joined our table in the hotel bar one evening. He wouldn’t stop talking about Dale Murphy, and seemed to worship the ground he walked upon. I heard that all week, he was just randomly going up to people and talking about his love for Dale Murphy. Murphy never spent a day in his life with the Angels, but that apparently didn’t matter to this guy.
Even if you’re not making the trek to Arizona, it’s good to know that baseball will be back in some form. I know that everyone always says “it’s only spring training” and that the games don’t count. There’s still something special about watching baseball for the first time after a long, cold winter. I can’t wait.