The Boys of Spring
By David A. Fryxell
If major-league baseball wants to regain its footing in this time of spiraling player salaries, steroids and Congressional hearings, maybe it needs to look our way. Every spring, just a few hours away in Tucson—as in Phoenix and in Florida's "Grapefruit League"—a brand of baseball closer to Field of Dreams than to today's corporatized sport blossoms anew.
In Arizona's spring-training "Cactus League," fans sit close enough to the diamond to hear the crack of bats and the slap of fastballs arriving in catchers' gloves, the hopeful refrain of "I got it! I got it!" and the hopeless cry of "Yerrrr out!" Players sign autographs and pose for photos with beaming kids who seem not to care whether their hero of the moment is a bona fide major leaguer or a "non-roster invitee." The low-key, happily chatting spectators nonetheless know their infield fly rule from their popups; they're there for the game, not for some overhyped extravaganza that only incidentally includes playing ball. And at least some of the players are legging it out, hoping to beat the odds against their heartfelt dreams of getting to The Show. Nobody runs harder or leaps higher for a ball heading over the fence than one of those "non-roster invitees."
This is baseball the way it's supposed to be, the way it used to be—at least in legends, old-timers' memories and black-and-white movies.
Tucson is the spring-training home to three teams—the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies of the National League, plus the Chicago White Sox of the American League. The Rockies play at Hi Corbett Field, a refurbished older park tucked into the green expanse of Randolph Park in the center of town, near the zoo; if you've seen the movie Major League, you've seen it. The Diamondbacks and White Sox share the newer and ritzier Tucson Electric Park, just off I-10 at Ajo Way, towards the airport. The three play each other as well as visiting Cactus League teams who train in and around Phoenix: the Angels (recently rechristened "the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim" in an awkward attempt to gain Southern California market share), Chicago Cubs, Kansas City Royals, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.
Though training begins in February, the first cry of "Play ball!" usually resounds at the beginning of March, and the teams move on to the regular season in early April. This year, the Rockies played their last game at Hi Corbett on March 29, heading home by way of exhibition games in Albuquerque on April 1 and Colorado Springs on April 2. The Diamondbacks wrapped up at Tucson Electric Park on March 30 and the White Sox, playing the crosstown Rockies, on March 31; then Arizona also plays an exhibition game in Albuquerque, April 2. All three teams open the regular season at home on April 4. The minor-league Tucson Sidewinders take over Tucson Electric Park beginning April 7.
Tickets cost a fraction of what they do during the regular season, for seats so close to the field you'd have to marry into the owner's family to be similarly seated at a major-league park. The best seats at Tucson Electric Park cost $15, and you can get in for as little as $4 (the AAA Sidewinders charge just $4-$8). The Rockies' games, which top out at $13 a ticket, can be seen for as little as $2. Other than the risk of baking in the sun, there really are no bad seats in either park—at least not by the "nosebleed section" standards of major-league parks. Some spring-training fans will even tell you that the best seats are the cheapest, particularly if your goal is to catch a foul ball or homer.
The one exception to the small-is-beautiful experience of spring training in Tucson comes at the concession stand. In both ballparks, concession prices are up there in the major-league, regular-season stratosphere. At Hi Corbett, we paid $16 for a lunch of two modest-sized hot dogs, a beer and a bottled water. A 16-ounce plastic bottle of beer from a vendor in either stadium costs $5.25—a price point cleverly calculated to encourage you to tip the vendor whatever change is left, meaning two beers really come to $11 unless you want to look like a skinflint.
Like the teams, the vendors crisscross between the two Tucson ballparks, and they can be as entertaining as the players. "Captain Earthman," a gap-toothed vendor with a handlebar moustache that's gone to seed, wears a hat with a stuffed squirrel protruding from the front and earrings crafted from peanuts in the shell. He keeps up a steady patter while pushing beer and peanuts: "This is NOT the day to stop drinking!" Another favorite vendor, "Scooter," learns the names of fans sitting on the aisles and mixes good-natured teasing with his beer delivery.
Hi Corbett Field, where the Rockies train, looks the most like a ballpark where, say, your American Legion team might play. Built in the 1930s, it was named in 1951 after the long-time president of the Tucson Baseball Commission, who'd been responsible for drawing the Cleveland Indians to town in the spring. The Rockies took over the ballpark in 1993, their first year as a major-league franchise. Their tenure has seen the seating area expanded, new seats and an expansion of the clubhouse and amenities; the ballpark now seats 8,665, though a typical weekend crowd might be 3,500. Parking is free, though limited, outside the ballpark and along the entrance road in Randolph Park, or you can take a free shuttle from El Con Mall on Broadway.
The dugout is no longer right next to the exit, where departing fans sometimes snatched players' hats and fled with their prize, but many seats are still no more than 30 feet away from where the players sit or stand. From seats along the first- or third-base side, it's easy to see why it's called the pitcher's mound—unlike the aerial perspective of most major-league stadium seats, you're almost even with the field, so the pitcher perches at eye-level atop his little hillock of dirt. A roof of sorts extends over sections J and K, behind home plate, but the shade it affords depends on the sun's position; at least it protects against the occasional rainy day, which Tucson can experience in March. When the sun does hit you full force, it can be toasty—even if the air temperature is in the 60s.
The more modern and upscale Tucson Electric Park (named for the utility company, not a mere boast that it has lights) feels like a major-league ballpark shrunken and set into a dip in the desert. You walk in at what's essentially the top of the ballpark, then go down to the seats, with the field deeper still. The other notable feature is the lawn, all along the outfield wall and at the extreme end of the third-base side, where families pitch blankets and watch the game from the grass. (Because there are no actual seats, however, the lawn can be risky when there's a scramble for a ball—the unwary can be trampled by the overeager.) The ballpark itself seats 8,000, with the lawn adding capacity for another 3,000. Again, though, typical crowds are less than 4,000.
There's plenty of parking at "TEP," as locals call the ballpark, but at a price—$3 per car. Although a recent New York Times story on spring training warned, "the locals say you're best off waiting 20 minutes after the game before even bothering to head for the car," we found exiting and entering both a breeze. (The same article also put the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is almost exactly due west of the center of Tucson, 20 minutes south of town—so much for the nation's newspaper of record.)
TEP's state-of-the-art facilities also include a ritzier level of concessions. There's an outpost of the famed El Charro Mexican restaurant, a Tucson institution that seems bent on planting its flag everywhere in town (you've probably eaten at the El Charro at the airport). One stand offers a full bar—not just beer, but wine and even cocktails, too. There's an Oriental-noodle place, and a stand that sells root-beer floats. Other fans spoke longingly of the freshly made doughnuts they'd had the day before, but which are evidently not an everyday offering. We had to make do with a towering bag of "kettle korn," a salty-yet-sweet popcorn we made a surprisingly big dent in.
At TEP, a staff person throws free T-shirts into the stands—once a game on the first-base side and once by third base. It's a nice giveaway, but another opportunity to be trampled if you're not paying attention.
The scoreboards here and at Hi Corbett lack the bells and whistles of their big-city brethren—for the first few innings we kept looking up in vain for instant replays. But TEP has a real live human organist, which is more than some big-league ballparks can say these days.
Though we bought our tickets in advance, online, game-day seats are plentiful and lines are generally short.
We'd expected the quality of play to be lackluster—after all, this is spring training. And, true, the Rockies' play was pretty, well, rocky against the Rangers in the Sunday afternoon game we saw. The Diamondbacks looked even worse against the Rockies—who played like an entirely different, much better team—the next night. But they rallied and looked crisp against the A's the next afternoon. We did get our share of players not even on the roster, along with plenty whose status was evidently so tenuous that their names were written on the back of their jerseys in what looked like duct tape. A hard slide into second could leave them missing letters, or anonymous entirely. We also got to see all the teams' top prospects, though, as well as actual All Stars like the Rockies' Todd Helton.
And it didn't really matter so much who played or even which team won, we discovered. It was just a joy to be watching baseball—so close!—and to experience the nine-inning rhythm unfold across those achingly emerald fields. At Hi Corbett Field there was also a steady airborne traffic of ducks and of military planes from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to watch streak past overhead. We also watched the crowd, of course, which seemed both more neighborly and more knowledgeable than at a typical big-league ballpark. Fewer guys yakked on cell phones, got loudly drunk or tried too hard to impress their girlfriends. Even when the mercury flirted with 80 on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, most males' shirts stayed on.
Sure, there were hecklers and boo-birds, but at least they knew their baseball. At one point, a fan in the right-field bleachers started riding Diamondbacks outfielder Jose Cruz Jr.: "Jose! The Devil Rays didn't even want you! How does that feel?"
You have to think before you holler, though. At this proximity, the players and umpires you're razzing can actually hear you.
You also have to be alert for foul balls, moreso than in major-league parks during the regular season. The balls come whipping back at you frighteningly fast. When balls hit an empty seat at Hi Corbett Field, the impact makes a satisfyingly horrific thunk that causes you to wonder about the sound of ball on skull. The plastic seats in most of TEP mute the thunking.
When not dodging foul balls, we spent a lot of time chatting with the people in the seats around us. In front of us the first day was an older couple from Baltimore; they were Orioles and now also Washington Nationals fans, but mostly just glad to get to a ballgame. He was in town for some sort of nuclear-waste conference—a talker, a bit of a showoff, the sort of guy ordinarily I try to smilingly ignore in hopes he'll move on and bend somebody else's ear. But as the game went on and the couple next to them deflected some of his talk, I kept engaging with him, back and forth, despite myself. When the game turned into a blowout and the crowd dwindled away, by the ninth inning there was our little group—us and the two couples ahead of us, as though we'd been friends all along.
During a chilly night game, my wife chatted with the two women next to her and we developed a huddled camaraderie with the family behind us—two grandparents, their granddaughter and another woman, perhaps her aunt. The grandfather and granddaughter's congenial, joking patter became a sort of play-by-play in the background, a gentle counterpoint to the beer vendors' shtick.
"C'mon," the grandpa urged the Diamondbacks at one point, when the bases were loaded, "pull the trigger when you've got ducks on the pond!"
Later, when we all were starting to feel the cold of the desert night and the Diamondbacks had fallen into a double-digit pit, he mused philosophically, "Ah, well, baseball is still baseball."
Couldn't have said it better myself. We'll see you there next spring.