No joke: Spring training has changed my life. What started as a one-off fluke of a trip that my dad and I took down to Scottsdale to check out some late-spring Giants tuneups has turned into an annual pilgrimage that marks the shedding of winter and the renewal of America's pastime for a new season.
As a Giants fan, I can't recommend Scottsdale Spring Training highly enough. Whether you head down with your dad, your kids, your siblings, or your friends, you're guaranteed to have a good time and collect your fair share of great memories.
For this visitor's guide, I've attempted to provide some history and background, along with a broad overview of what to expect at Scottsdale Spring Training, as well as some of my recommendations and favorite spots from my six years of spring trips.
I hope people find this helpful, and those of you who have already been can feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments below.
While the New York (baseball) Giants first did a West Coast spring training all the way back in 1907, when they went to Los Angeles, it took them until 1947 to join the Cleveland Indians in moving their spring training headquarters permanently to Arizona to establish the Cactus League.
After spending their first 36 Arizonan springs in Phoenix proper—save for one spring the Giants spent back in Florida after reluctantly agreeing to swap spots with the Yankees—San Francisco moved to the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale in 1984, and a match made in spring training heaven was made.
Scottsdale Stadium is the place that BaseballPilgrimages.com calls "the best place to watch a baseball game at in the Cactus League." Nestled in the Phoenix municipal area that features nine unique spring training facilities in a 50-mile radius, Scottsdale Stadium truly is the gem of the Cactus League ballparks.
Just a few blocks from hokey-yet-charming Old Town Scottsdale, the stadium was first erected in 1955 but has gone through several renovations on its way to the current version that the Giants now call home.
In 1991, the Scottsdale Stadium was completely rebuilt from an older facility into a state-of-the-art spring training ballpark featuring red brick, a sloping grass outfield seating area, and other great details.
The look and feel of the park will be familiar to fans who've been to some of the newer regular season stadiums like AT&T Park in San Francisco and Camden Yards in Baltimore. No surprise, HOK Sport, the firm that designed Scottsdale Stadium, is most well known for designing Camden Yards.
Scottsdale occupies much of the northeast quadrant of the sprawling Phoenix municipal area, and is about a 20-minute drive from Phoenix Airport. While much of the area, including the stadium and touristy Old Town, can be accessed by foot if you stay in the city center, it is advisable to rent a car if you want to venture out of Scottsdale to some of the other stadiums in Phoenix.
The New York Times once described Scottsdale as "a desert version of Miami's South Beach," and that certainly rings true to some of the city. But Scottsdale has a lot to offer, from R&R to shopping to great food and drink, and, of course, nightlife.
Most importantly, Scottsdale's Coronado High School was the location for San Dimas High in the all-time classic move "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure." "San Dimas High School Football rules!"
Spring training is often the first chance Giants fans get a glimpse of young players who will eventually work their way up to the big club. For fans like me, spring training is a great way to get a look at up-and-coming players and try to envision what they will look like in a big league uniform. Going to Scottsdale was how I first got to know players like last year's NL Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum, as well as Matt Cain, Fred Lewis, and Brian Wilson.
This year, Buster Posey gets to take in his first MLB camp after signing a huge rookie deal out of the amateur draft last summer. Giants fans everywhere will be eager to hear how he does, but those of us lucky enough to be in Scottsdale will get to see how he does firsthand. Hope springs eternal in Spring Training, and for Giants fans right now that's a good thing.
Probably the easiest way to get an autograph is to show up on hour or two early for a game and hang out near the dugout before and after batting practice. The players are usually very accessible and will spend a good amount of time standing near the fence signing balls and mitts for fans and just generally chatting it up.
Omar Vizquel was always great about this, so it's too bad he'll be gone this year. Zito—say what you will about the guy—has also been good and very gracious with the fans when it comes to signing autographs. Hopefully some of the younger guys will carry on the tradition this year. I'm sure Lincecum will be in high demand from spring autograph seekers.
The Giants also hold a fan's banquet at the Hotel Valley Ho pretty much every weekend during ST, and there are always a few players on hand who will sign autographs near the end of the evening. It varies...one year we got Bengie Molina and Zito, another it was Mark Sweeney and Steve Kline.
Another great place to spot players outside of the park is Don and Charlie's Restaurant in Scottsdale. The place is an old time steak joint that has literally every inch of wall and ceiling covered in baseball memorabilia stretching back decades, most of it autographed. Players, coaches, and team execs frequently eat there—last year I spotted Peter Magowan, Larry Baer, and Brian Sabean among the diners. If you're courageous enough, you can ask for an autograph, or you can just enjoy the complementary liver and onions appetizer followed by a juicy steak while you try to spot ballplayers in the dining room.
As I wrote last year (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/14384-the-best-things-about-spring-training/show_full), Island Noodles at Scottsdale Stadium is one of the most satisfying meals you can put down at a spring training game. That's some good grub! You'll definitely want to slather your noodles with hot sauce, and make sure to keep a beer or six handy to wash them down.
After the game, Scottsdale has plenty of great restaurants to offer with plenty of charm. Try to stay away from the numerous chain restaurants that have taken over all of the Phoenix metro area. Instead, opt for the Salty Senorita for some postgame nachos and margaritas, the aforementioned Don and Charlie's for a delicious T-bone steak with a side of creamed spinach and twice-baked potatoes, or any number of the local eateries that line the streets of Old Town.
For the truly adventurous, there's a great BBQ place in Phoenix that's a bit of a drive, but worth the trip. It's called Honey Bear's BBQ (http://www.honeybearsbbq.com/), and the slogan is "You Don't Need Teeth To Eat Our Meat." That about says it all.
There are a lot of great places to stay in Scottsdale that are walking distance to the stadium. There's nothing quite like waking up late after a hot desert night out, having a hotel breakfast, then taking a nice leisurely walk to the ballpark to take in some B.P. My standby for walking-distance accommodations is the Marriott Suites on 3rd and Buckboard, which offers a good combo of value and convenience. The newer Mondrian is also along the trail to the stadium in a nice section of Old Town if you want to go a little classier.
But if you really really want to do spring training the right way, nothing quite beats the Valley Ho. I could go on about the mystique, mystery, and musk of the legendary Valley Ho, but I'd risk repeating what I wrote last year about the Ho in my 2008 spring training roundup. The daring and curious should just go ahead and read the whole post here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/14384-the-best-things-about-spring-training/show_full
In addition to the great baseball action, there's something for pretty much everyone in Scottsdale and the surrounding areas.
The resort crowd can hang by the pool or visit one of the numerous golf courses in the area (WordGolf.com recommends Desert Highlands course).
Shoppers can browse the boutiques and Native American jewelry stores in Old Town.
And the spring break crowd can browse the multitude of bars the seem to just keep springing up with greater frequency as each year goes by (just please, I exhort you to stay away from the Saddle Ranch, the ultimate in over-the-top cheesiness.)
One of my favorite spots to hit up late night is the Kazimierz World Wine Bar, a great spot with an insiders-only feel to it that has great wines and cocktails and often features live jazz. Even the entrance is tough to find, off a dark alley in Old Town, meaning it's a great way to escape the spring training crowds and relax with a nice glass of red after a day at the ballpark. Of course, if you're more of an ale and lager type, there are plenty of sports bars and pubs to choose from as well.
But really, the best thing to do when you're not going to a game in Scottsdale is to try to make it to one of the eight other spring training stadiums in the Phoenix municipal area. Each stadium has its own character, and with 12 teams calling the area home (plus another two down in Tuscon), there are always multiple games happening on any given day, making a spring training double header a very real possibility.