I just got back from a four-day jaunt to Scottsdale for some Spring Training action, my fourth year in a row doing this trip (and sixth time overall). While I'd hoped to post daily updates of the action, the combination of a poor Ethernet connection at my hotel and a little too much bakin' in the hot Arizona sun made that less than convenient.
So, instead, I'll be making two wrap-up posts. My other article will focus on the three Giants' games I saw and the possibility of a not-so-depressing season ahead.
This piece, on the other hand, is all about what makes Cactus League Spring Training the best not-so-well-kept secret in baseball.
When I first started going to Scottsdale, there was an intimate feeling to the proceedings, even though the crowds still showed up.
Stadiums weren't empty, but you could definitely have your pick of seats and the post-game bars had room for everyone.
Every game I went to this year was a sell-out. With eight stadiums in a 20-mile radius, each holding about 8,000 to 12,000 people, that's pretty impressive. You could say, then, that the cat is out of the bag.
Still, even with bigger crowds and longer lines, Spring Training in Arizona is one of the best sports-related vacations one could take.
With the risk of further letting the secret out, here are, in no particular order, some of the best things about the Cactus League experience:
1. Island Noodles at Scottsdale Stadium
Scottsdale Stadium is, in this biased fan's view, the gem of the Cactus League ballparks.
There are a few I still haven't been to so I can't declare a hands-down winner, but it'd be hard to top Scottsdale's combination of location (just off the main drag of Scottsdale Boulevard, the haven for Spring Training vacationers), gameday experience, and amenities.
Plus, there's the concessions—and Island Noodles are where it's at.
At the risk of sounding like a yuppie San Franciscan who eats sushi and sips cabernet at the stadium, there's nothing better than sitting in 80 degree weather in March, watching a ballgame, and noshing on some stir-fried Soba noodles with veggies and some chili sauce, and then washing it all down with a $6.50 Bud Light.
Ah, baseball—the true American pastime.
2. Random chants for fringe players on the bubble
It seems that, every year, the crowd really gets behind one minor-leaguer who is fighting to crack the Major League roster. Last year, fans supported Daniel Ortmeier, as every time he came to bat, one section would yell "ORT!" followed by the other half yelling "MEIER!" It was pretty random, but hilarious, and, well, I guess you had to be there...
This year, the player who really drew the attention of Giants fans was flashy speedster Eugenio Velez, who should be a lock to make the team after tearing up the Cactus League with 13 stolen bases and some clutch hitting.
After watching Velez lead the team to a big win over Milwaukee on Saturday in Scottsdale, I traveled out to Surprise to see the Giants take on the Rangers.
Every time Velez stepped up to the plate, a large group of San Francisco fans in the crowd started chanting: "YOU!" "HENIO!" "YOU!" "HENIO!" "YOU!"
Again, I guess you had to be there...
3. Don and Charlie's
If Spring Training had a St. Peter's Basilica, Don and Charlie's Restaurant would be it.
The place is a true museum of baseball, the walls and ceiling completely covered with signed balls, bats, jerseys, photos, and magazine covers.
It seems to be packed pretty much every night in March, and you can often spot some recognizable faces in the dining room (the night I was there it was Giants' owner Peter Magowan).
Oh, and the food ain't too bad either.
Juicy steaks, great BBQ, and monstrous portions make this the perfect place to refuel after a day of sweating in the sun.
And extra props to D&C's for kicking it old school with the complementary chopped liver and onions appetizer.
4. The Valley Ho
The 'Ho, as the locals call it, is truly a sight to behold. As Scottsdale has become an overdeveloped mishmash of cheesy chain restaurants and bars, the Hotel Valley Ho stands out as a throwback to an era when what we call cheesy today was cool, hip, and—dare I say—groovy, baby, yeah!
A combination of Boogie Nights and the Flintstones, the Zuzu Bar at Valley Ho is probably the best place in Scottsdale to grab a cocktail and enjoy the hot Arizona nights, while avoiding the frat-boy crowd that tends to dominate the main strip.
If you ever make it out to Spring Training, make sure not so leave without having a nightcap at the 'Ho.
5. Seeing your team play...before it matters
In spring, every team is still tied for first place, and there's always room for optimism. It's the perfect time to enjoy baseball in it's purest form, without the hype and drama of the regular season and at a slightly lower price point.
And, if your time, like mine, is expected to lose no fewer than 100 games in the regular season, you can put all that in the back of your mind and just enjoy the game without thinking about records, stats, or how many years the "rebuilding" project will stretch out for.
It truly is the last bastion of "Wait 'til next year," when next year has yet to arrive and the memories of the previous season have all but died. You can just be a fan and enjoy the game for the simple things—a strikeout pitch, the crack of the bat, a slick infield play, a line drive to the gap.
Sure, it may sound corny, but maybe that's just cause you haven't had the chance to experience it for yourself.