From Tempe to Goodyear, Scottsdale to Mesa, baseball has returned to the Valley of the Sun, the now undisputed capital of spring training. The greater Phoenix area plays host to as many teams as the entire rival Grapefruit League in Florida — all within a 90-minute drive from each other.
Here are nine things to look for this season in Cactus League baseball:
1. Albertmania in Tempe: The Angels took a quantum leap in the offseason, signing slugger Albert Pujols and pitcher C.J. Wilson, to instantly make them top contenders in the American League. Check out early games to see if Kendrys Morales' broken ankle has healed, Vernon Wells has rediscovered his swing and the Angels can figure out who will be their closer. This could be the prelude to an amazing season. There's a new trolley to take fans from Tempe to the ballpark. The Buttes, just up the hill from the stadium, remains one of the best hotels for fans to enjoy the off hours.
2. Japanese surprise in Surprise. The other half of the baseball arms (and bats) race between the Angels and Texas Rangers will be on display in the town of Surprise, home to the Rangers. The Rangers made it to the World Series for the second consecutive year, only to fall short again. They lost Wilson to the Angels, but have reloaded with Yu Darvish, the hard throwing Iranian-Japanese hurler who came over from the wonderfully named Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters of Japan's Pacific League. The Rangers also still have Mike Napoli to rub in the Angels' noses — the former Anaheim catcher enjoyed his finest season last year, batting .320 with 30 home runs, the final four coming in the last two games of the season against the Angels.
3. Dodgers divorce in Glendale: The Far West of Phoenix was the promised land for a number of teams that accepted invitations from boomtown communities building state-of-the-art training facilities, and which are now dealing with the fourth year of a popped real estate bubble. Camelback Ranch lured the Dodgers west from their historic home at Vero Beach, Fla., severing the last tie to the Brooklyn Dodgers past. The Dodgers have called Camelback home since 2009, and it's an impressive facility, as sleek and western as Vero was funky, old-school East. The Dodgers are struggling through a nasty divorce with owner Frank McCourt, who suffered through his own nasty divorce with wife Jamie. Despite stars like outfielder Matt Kemp and pitcher Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers feel like they are in a holding pattern. But that makes tickets easier to come by. For me, the most interesting story of spring is on the other side of Camelback, the facility shared with the Chicago White Sox. Will monster slugger Adam Dunn, the big bust of 2011, recapture his spring for the Southsiders?
4. Baseball playground in Scottsdale: My vote for the best spot in spring training goes to the "second city" of the area, with its sweet stadium that hosts the San Francisco Giants. The new Saguaro Hotel, named after the big-armed cactus in the area, is among the hotels within walking distance of the stadium. The famous Pink Pony restaurant has been resurrected, its walls filled with baseball bats, old photos and pennants. Don & Charlie's is also a must-stop for fans. Kids will love the Sugar Bowl, an ice cream parlor serving up blasts of cold sweetness since 1958.
5. "Playball" past in Papago Park: Smack up against the hills where Tempe meets Phoenix, the Arizona Historical Society's exhibit on Cactus League history is the best "off day" attraction for baseball fans. From the park, it's a short drive to the Oakland A's training facility in the retro-jet age Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Or you can take a break and check out the succulents and other dry climate flora at the Desert Botanical Garden nearby.
6. Wait till the year after next year in Mesa: The White Sox's crosstown rivals, the Cubs, are opening another spring training with lots of turnover (including new club President Theo Epstein, imported from Boston). The Wrigleyville West project going up in Mesa is slated to open in time for the 2014 Cactus League season. Be it Midwest or Far West, the Cubs always seem to be waiting for a future "next year." Fans will have two more years to see the Northsiders play at HoHoKam Park.
7. Brew Crew blues in Maryvale: A sweet little stadium in an offbeat part of the valley, it's home to the Milwaukee Brewers. The team hits spring training without slugger Prince Fielder, who signed with Detroit as a free agent. Though National League MVP Ryan Braun was officially cleared by arbitrators of charges that he used performance-enhancing substances, the Commissioner's Office criticism of the ruling has the spring starting in a funk for the Brewers. One of the few remaining big hitters, Corey Hart, is slated for knee surgery and will miss all of spring and likely Opening Day. Still, it's a great park and with Fielder gone, tickets at the 7,000 seat bandbox will be much easier to get.
8. A luxurious "Stick." The valley lured the final two pieces of the puzzle to the Cactus League last year when the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies departed Tucson for the $100 million Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. All those millions show, from the inlaid inspirational words in the sidewalk to the pitching practice area that can be seen from the parking lot. It's part of the reservation of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indians, who operate a huge casino on the other side of the freeway.
9. Astros kissing Kissimmee goodbye? The Cactus League exhibit at Papago Park chronicles how teams constantly move spring training sites. It's all highly speculative right now, but the next team moving west might be the Houston Astros. The Oakland A's are in talks with Mesa about moving into HoHoKam Park when the Cubs move out in 2014. If the A's move, that would leave Phoenix Municipal Stadium without a tenant. Built in 1964, Phoenix Municipal Stadium is the oldest in the Cactus League. The Phoenix facility might be a lure for the Astros, who move from the National League Central to the American League West in 2013. The Astros play in Osceola County Stadium, in Kissimmee, Fla., not far from Walt Disney World. It's the smallest spring training stadium in Florida.
The Astros have signed a lease that runs through 2016, and the Grapefruit League will work hard to avoid another defection to Arizona. But the Astros have a new owner and, soon, a new league. The lease? That's what buyouts are for — maybe with some help from Major League Baseball as a thank you for making the switch in leagues. It would be a return to Arizona for the Astros, who — as the then-Houston Colt .45s — held spring training at Apache Junction in 1962 and 1963.
IF YOU GO:
Around the horn
http://www.cactusleague.com is the official website of the Cactus League has links to all the schedules, and maps on how to get to ballparks.
http://www.pllayball.com is The Arizona Historical Society's Cactus League Experience exhibitions, including some online only items.
http://www.springtrainingonline.com is a site I like for overviews of spring training in the Cactus and Grapefruit leagues.
http://www.ballparkdigest.com is a great resource if you want to know more about the parks where the teams play.
Read all about it:
"Cactus League: Spring Training" by Susie Stecker (Images of America, $21.99), is a new book with old images of past spring trainings. Very nostalgic for longtime fans.