The wife was out of the picture. Not to sound Stone Age, but the news that the woman of the house wouldn’t be able to join me and the boys for a school-break getaway opened up vacation options that our family had never considered. Gabriel, 16, Charlie, 12, and I could hit steak houses without having to worry about whether they’d also have salmon on the menu. We could drive three states out of our way before stopping to ask for directions. Better yet, we could be the boys of spring.
For baseball fans, the mid-February start of spring training is practically a national holiday. Who needs groundhogs and robins to tell you that winter is almost over when you’ve got “Pitchers and Catchers”—the day the first players report to camp?Throughout March, the 30 MLB teams play exhibition games that draw nearly 2 million fans to intimate fields in Florida, home to the Grapefruit League, and Arizona, the Cactus League turf. Getting in on the action had been a boyhood fantasy of mine, and now—with no encouragement from me (I swear!)—it was at the top of my own sons’ wish lists. But by the time we started trying to plan a trip, the month was well under way. Could we still make all the arrangements and stick to a ballpark travel budget of $2,000?
Our first impulse was to head to Florida and follow the New York Mets, the boys’ hometown team of choice. But we quickly discovered that three airfares to Florida and three hotel nights anywhere near the Mets camp in Port St. Lucie would push costs north of our allowance even before we bought our first hot dog. So we began investigating the more distant, yet surprisingly more affordable, Cactus League scene.
Unlike in Florida—where training camps run down the Atlantic Coast, up the Gulf Coast, and 160 miles across a non-swampy inland stretch— in Arizona, seven of the nine ballparks are conveniently close to one another, in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Gabriel, our resident travel agent, scored a $149-a-night reservation at a La Quinta Inn near the airport that met all my criteria: complimentary breakfast, free Wi-Fi, swimming pool. As for tickets, which generally run from $5 to $25, a quick Internet search showed that several games, some involving the Cubs (lovable losers), some the Giants (not-so-lovable Barry Bonds), had already sold out. We could have gone through a broker or even sought out a scalper near a stadium—the practice is legal in Arizona—but an absence of allegiances liberated us. Rather than follow any one team, we would sample ballparks, players, and nachos grandes. Flying out of New York on a chilly Saturday morning, we had our starting lineup: four days, five ballparks, seven teams. Let’s go...umm...Padres!
We drove straight from Phoenix’s Sky Harbor airport to the northwest suburb of Surprise, the current frontier of the city’s retirement community. The combination of condo complexes and roadside cacti seemed an unlikely setting for what awaited: the baseball version of total immersion. The grass was achingly green, the sky blazingly blue, the ball a white that any dental hygienist might envy. The ballpark has a minor league–size capacity of 10,500, affording close-enough-to-see-the-players-spit seating, plus a free carousel for kids and a beer pavilion for parents. A concourse that encircles the field allowed for a scenic stroll to our seats; later in the game we could stretch our legs without missing a pitch. The chances of catching—or at least chasing—a foul ball are much greater than in a cavernous major league stadium, as Gabriel learned when he and another fan elbowed each other for the same long drive. (Gabriel also picked up a valuable lesson: Don’t leave your glove in the car.) And then came the announcement over the loudspeaker: “Now batting, Sammy Sosa.”
Every season has its soap operas, and this year one of them was the comeback attempt of the former Cubs slugger whose home-run production and physique in recent years had shrunk to the same extent that the steroids scandal had expanded. Now he was batting for the Texas Rangers, with the bases loaded and his career on the line. We weren’t exactly witnesses to history; he grounded to short. But we could have been, and that was bonus enough for our first game.