Pre-season games in most sports are seen as a nuisance. Every August brings gripes about NFL fans having to shell out for meaningless exhibition games in order to get season tickets. October annually sees NBA teams traveling to towns that don't have NBA teams in order to draw interest in games that don't count.
Not so with baseball. Every March, fans of Major League Baseball celebrate that winter might actually be coming to an end, and their favorite team is still officially undefeated. Seeing video clips of your club playing in a sunny place while you're still thawing is a reason for hope on many levels.
Fifteen teams currently call the greater Phoenix area of Arizona home for what's known as the "Cactus League." Salt Lake City-based fans of baseball and/or sunshine are just a two-hour flight or 11-hour drive from leaving Utah's dicey early spring weather and emerging in a place where the average daily high temperatures for March hover in the high 70s.
The teams that make up the Cactus League play in 10 different ballparks that are all within a 45-minute drive from downtown Phoenix. Salt Lakers will find that many of the parks are similar in size and amenities to Smith's Ballpark. If you can make it to Arizona spring training, consider the following popular options.
Los Angeles Angels (Tempe Diablo Stadium): With Salt Lake being home to the Angels AAA team, the Bees, it's only natural to want to see how players who spent time in Utah do in the big leagues. Every spring in Tempe sees several players on the fence between Salt Lake and Anaheim. Tempe Diablo Park also has the charm of being a bit smaller—capacity 9,315—and more intimate than many of the other spring training sites.
The Angels also have the advantage of being in the same town with Arizona State University, and the Mill Avenue area of Tempe definitely has the feel of an upbeat, college town. Since parking is often the biggest challenge of attending a spring training game, take advantage of the free trolley that runs between Mill Avenue and the ballpark (info on TempeTourism.com). Also, if you can't make it down south, your best chance to see early baseball is when the Angels come to Smith's Ballpark to play the Bees on March 22 (SLBees.com).
Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks (Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Scottsdale): Only two of the 30 MLB teams are in the Mountain time zone, and Utahns are supportive of both. The Rockies and D-Backs share a stadium with an outfield berm just like Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake. Forgot your sunscreen? They've even got dispensers in the outfield. Got any money left over after the game? Talking Stick Resort is just down the road and offers a free shuttle for guests to and from the park (TalkingStickResort.com).
Chicago Cubs (Sloan Park, Mesa): Ask the locals and they'll tell you the Cubbies are the biggest tourist draw in the Cactus League. Sloan Park is generally full of fans who get an experience with lots of tie-ins to the Windy City and its iconic Wrigley Field. The fact that Vegas oddsmakers have made Chicago's North-siders the favorites to break a 108-year drought and win the World Series in 2016 means they will only be more popular this spring.
Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox (Camelback Ranch-Glendale): The Dodgers and Chi-Sox share a home located near University of Phoenix Stadium. A popular draw for Dodger games is the "All-You-Can-Eat Bullpen Patio," where $32 on weekdays and $37 on weekends lets you be a true American who dines on unlimited hot dogs, nachos, peanuts and Cracker Jacks. However, be forewarned, beer costs extra.
Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers (Surprise Stadium): Even though Surprise is about a 45-minute drive from downtown Phoenix, the town will no doubt see increased traffic this spring due to having the defending World Series champions on hand.
San Francisco Giants (Scottsdale Stadium): The Giants won it all in 2010, 2012 and 2014. It's another year ending in an even number so you might want to check out this squad. Their stadium is located in the Old Town section of Scottsdale, an eclectic area full of fun shops, bars and restaurants with an Old West feel.
Other teams in the Cactus League include the Oakland Athletics at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, the Milwaukee Brewers at Maryville Park, the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark and the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres at the Peoria Sports Complex. Cactus League games begin Friday, March 4, and some teams will continue to play in Arizona through Saturday, April 2. For more information, check out MLB.com/springtraining/cactusleague. CW
Kathleen Curry and Geoff Griffin host the Travel Brigade Radio Show and Podcast. You can find them at TravelBrigade.com