Bring on the heat!
Welcome to Dodgers spring training 2009. Please discard any lingering lamentations about tradition and Florida. Arizona awaits, with a shiny new $100-million stadium complex, beckoning fans to forget the economy for a few days and take refuge in the primal pleasures of baseball.
Think heat, not humidity; saguaro cactuses in lieu of swaying palms; fajitas instead of fried fish. Think Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the new spring home of the Dodgers.
Unlike the expensive schlep to Vero Beach, Fla., the new park in Glendale is an affordable and easy mini-vacation. Flights to Phoenix in March start at a little more than $100; the six-hour car trip is even cheaper. Hotel rooms within three miles of the new stadium start at $149 a night. Tickets cost $8 to $10 for grass seating, and you can get an excellent seat close to home plate for $24.
Camelback Ranch, in an innovative park-like setting, puts the Dodgers at ground zero of the spring training boom in the western suburbs of Phoenix. By the end of next year, 11 major league teams will be playing in six stadiums within seven miles of one another. That means Dodgers fans can catch home and away games with a minimum of drive time.
All this taps into what lures us to Arizona every March: the sweet, unhurried pleasure that is baseball in the spring. The game unfolds seemingly within reach, players you know are replaced by younger guys you’ve never heard of and you can settle back in your seat under a bright sun with a cold beverage.
Providing a fitting landscape for this canvas, the Dodgers will play 17 spring games at their new home, including match-ups with traditional rivals the Giants and Padres.
This weekend, Dodgers players were to start reporting to the 141-acre complex in Glendale, the fourth-largest city in Arizona, and when they do, they’ll find more than fancy new digs. The weight room, for instance, is more than twice the size of the one in Dodger Stadium. The Dodgers share the facility -- leased from the city of Glendale -- with the Chicago White Sox. In fact, most of the spring training sites in Arizona are built as two-team facilities. With more than one home team, stadiums can have games every day of the season and the host city that underwrites the park can welcome the wallets of two fan bases.
At Camelback, the teams have separate offices and clubhouses that overlook the stadium’s main field. Each team has 6 1/2 practice fields that fan out from the central hubs. The Dodgers’ offices and fields are on the left-field side, the White Sox’s on the right.
This setup makes it easy for fans to wander around before a game and study the nuances of activity on nearby fields without having to walk miles. (In nearby Goodyear, at the new Indians complex -- the Cincinnati Reds will join them next year -- many of the practice fields are an inconvenient third of a mile from the stadium those teams will share.)
Contributing to the atmosphere, the Dodgers and the White Sox sides of the complex are divided by a waterway, with two large ponds connected by a spillway that runs about 1,300 feet. The winding walkways on both sides of the channel eventually will become separate Hall of Fame walks honoring each team’s players and personalities from the past.
Baseball isn’t the only sport on site: The lower of the two ponds is stocked with carp and soon will have a mix of bluegill, bass and catfish, so fishing is encouraged. (Because the water cycles from and to the Glendale Water Treatment plant, city officials are encouraging catch and release.)
Another unique feature: Instead of entering through the stadium’s front gates, most fans will walk from the parking lots to a central rotunda entrance behind center field, next to the upper pond, a large plaza with ticket offices, food concessionaires and a bandstand. It’s adjacent to the largest practice fields of both teams.
This space creates a centralized gathering point in the middle of the complex. Think park-like setting instead of a setting next to a parking lot.
The look is also a change from the Dodgers’ Vero Beach home. Instead of blue and white, the design is team-neutral and rooted in the natural landscape. It’s all about rock, metal and stone in desert browns, tans and reds.
This is all well and good, but it’s not a unique look in this part of the country, and the two-story Dodgers and White Sox offices that back up to and overlook left and right fields do feel a bit like a Scottsdale business park.
A design talking point is the gabion walls -- corrosion-resistant wire cages filled with stone -- throughout the grounds. Visitors seeing these installations may miss the nuance and wonder why the rocks inside chicken wire aren’t finished.
Still, the vibe inside the park captures what is good about stadium-building in the post-Camden Yards era. For example, the concourses are wider than those at Dodger Stadium -- a relief for fans who’ve spent decades milling around like penned cattle.
The setting radiates openness, space and air. And that’s pretty much what Arizona at its best is all about.
With a capacity of 13,000, the Camelback Ranch stadium is the largest spring training park in Arizona. There are 10,000 seats and 3,000 more spots on the lawn (called berm seating).
At 20 and 22 inches wide, the seats are clearly designed for modern-age derrieres, unlike coach seats on an airplane that average 17. For nine innings you’ll be seated in first class, not coach.
Legroom is good compared with the cramped quarters of Dodger Stadium, but it varies by location. Sections closer to the plate and nearer the field are smaller, with fewer rows and only eight to 12 seats per row. Fans can extend their legs and need pull them back only a couple of inches to let people pass.
Off the field and down the lines, as sections expand to as many as 24 seats per row, there’s less room to stretch.
Four places you want to sit
* Sections 14 to 16, right behind the plate. But these seats, closest to the field, are also the most expensive: $90 to $100 a seat.
* The best combination of location, price and roominess: sections 108 and 109 on the first-base side and 119 and 120 on the third-base side. Close to the plate, seats cost $24 to $28. (The higher ticket price in all cases is for five so-called premier games.) These sections have just eight seats per row, providing easy access to concessions and bathrooms behind them. But avoid the first two rows, for reasons explained below.
* If it’s breezy and you lust after a home run ball, head for the grassy left-field berm, as close to the fence and the corner of the Dodgers’ bullpen as you can get. The wind blows west to east and will push balls that way.
* If you are a sun lover, anywhere will do, but if you prefer shade, bring a cap and plenty of sunblock. With 1:05 p.m. starts, about the only shade in the stands will be in the upper rows of sections 110 to 113 on the first-base side and even then, only during late innings of a slow-moving game.
Four places you don’t want to sit
* Avoid what appear to be premium seats in the first two rows of sections 106 to 124. A walkway looping the field in front of these seats is only about 3 feet below you, so unless ushers police the access, a distracting tide of humanity will cut off your view of the field. Rows C and above in these sections don’t have this problem.
* If you have even a trace of claustrophobia, steer clear of seats in the middle of any of the rows in sections 103 on the first-base side and 127 on the third-base side. These are the largest sections in the park, with as many as 24 seats per row; there’s minimal legroom, and getting in and out of the aisles will be a pain.
* The sections farthest down the lines from the plate -- 29 on the third-base side, 1 on the first-base side -- are deceptively enticing because they bump into fair territory. But the trade-off, especially in the front rows of these sections, is a bad angle on home plate.
* Unless you are related to or hoping to date one of the relief pitchers, the bullpen patio areas in distant right and left fields don’t feel worth $30 to $36 to be that far from the action.
One of the pleasures of spring training is the proximity to players and the chance to score an autograph.
The secret, autograph hunters know, is to go to the public workouts this month before the games start and players are more accessible. The proceedings in these couple of weeks have a more relaxed feeling, and players walking to and from practices are usually more open to chatting and signing.
Other upsides: Players tend to be on the field for a longer day, comparatively few fans are competing for the same signature and, of course, it doesn’t cost anything. The downside is you don’t get to see a game.
Unlike many other spring training sites, all of the Dodgers major league practice fields at Camelback are bunched near one another and near the clubhouse. You need not trudge from far-flung field to farther-flung field to scout out players. Fans can access the complex as early as 9 a.m. and watch as coaches take players through the fundamentals of hitting, fielding, base-running and pitching.
Once the teams start playing games, access falls off a bit, and the crowds swell as start time approaches. If you’re going to a 1:05 p.m. game, arrive by midmorning and see who’s walking between the practice fields early on. Autographs are tougher after a game, because the star players start leaving midgame and the rest clear out quickly once the game ends.
Wondering why you don’t see as many name players on the practice fields before a game? They tend to work out inside the main stadium, generally before ticket holders are allowed in at 11:30 a.m.
But in the half-hour or so before the game starts, the Dodgers will enter the field from their clubhouse -- off-limits to the public -- through a tunnel in left field. To get to the third-base dugout, they will walk alongside the sloping, grassy berm where fans can sit, then past field-level seats in sections 29 through 25. This area, with a 2-foot metal railing to lean over, is the closest you’ll come to the players and ideal for scoring a signature.
You can bring something to eat into the practice grounds and picnic on the grassy areas near the plaza, on one of the benches along the waterway or on the four rows of amphitheater seating at the main practice field. If you don’t bring your own food, you’ll find refreshment carts leading into the rotunda area.
Across Camelback Road is a CVS store, the only service business within walking distance of the stadium, where you can pick up sandwiches, chips, water, soft drinks and beer, as well as sunblock and sunglasses.
Remember, though, fans can’t carry food and drink into the stadium.
Stadium concession stands sell straightforward ballpark fare: hot dogs, beer, soft drinks, ice cream and snacks. The Dodgers are negotiating with vendors for such items as Mexican food and margaritas.
Parking and how to get there
The Dodgers have gotten the parking right . . . in Glendale, anyway. The complex has plenty of parking, with 7,500 spaces in two lots. General admission parking costs $5.
Auto access to the stadium area is a work in progress, with only one direct artery from a freeway to the stadium.
The good news is that this winter the street leading into the complex, Camelback Road off Arizona’s 101 Freeway, was widened. The bad news is that it was widened to only two lanes each way, and the worse news is that this is the only way to reach the park from most area hotel rooms.
The result: This 1.1-mile road into and out of the stadium will be, on most game days, a crawl.
If you’re driving from Southern California on Interstate 10 and going straight to the park, here are two other options:
* Exit the 10 at Dysart Road and take it north 3.2 miles to Camelback. At this juncture, Camelback is uncrowded: Turn right and travel 2.7 miles, then turn left into the main parking lot at 111th street.
* There’s a second route directly into the parking lot from I-10. Go one exit past Dysart to the Avondale/115th Avenue exit and drive north about three miles. The street will turn into North Garden Lakes Parkway, which you’ll follow to the right as it meanders north for 1.7 miles. Turn left onto 111th Street and drive north three miles to the intersection with Camelback Road. There you’ll cross into the stadium parking lot.
* If you take the 10 to the 101 loop north and head toward the stadium, you might consider exiting before Camelback Road. Get off on West Indian School Road, turn left and head more than a mile on this two-lane road lined with services. Turn right on 107th Street and travel north to the intersection with Camelback Road at the complex and turn left to get into the stadium lots. This route is about 2.5 miles on surface streets; expect to travel quickly for most of the way before you hit traffic leading to the intersection with Camelback Road.
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If you go
TO DRIVE OR FLY
With gas at about $2 a gallon right now, the six-hour drive will be easiest on your wallet. Southwest, United and US Airways offer nonstop 90-minute flights from LAX to Phoenix starting at $138, round trip. If you fly, be sure to add in the cost of a rental car.
WHERE TO STAY
Dodgers fans will be best off near the new stadium, Camelback Ranch in Glendale, Ariz. Some options:
Comfort Suites, 9824 W. Camelback Road, Glendale; (623) 271-9005, www.comfortsuites.com. Closest to the stadium (1.4 miles), this year-old hotel is the most convenient option. The hotel also has a free shuttle that will take fans to and from the stadium. Rates in March start at $179, but most of the remaining available rooms are upgraded suites and will cost about $239 and up.
Renaissance Glendale Hotel & Spa, 9495 W. Coyotes Blvd., Glendale; (623) 937-3700, www.renaissanceglendale.com. This upscale hotel, 3.2 miles from the stadium, is near the open-air Westgate City Center, which has 15 bars and restaurants, a 20-screen movie theater and a handful of shops. But it has limited availability in March, with rates from $149 to $349.
Hampton Inn & Suites Glendale- Westgate, 6630 N. 95th Ave., Glendale; (623) 271-7771, hamptoninn.hilton.com. The Hampton Inn is a five-minute walk to the Westgate City Center and a little more than 3 miles from the stadium. The Hampton is about half-booked for March. Rooms run from $179 to $209.
Wigwam Golf Resort & Spa, 300 Wigwam Blvd., Litchfield Park; (623) 935-3811, www.wigwamresort.com. This sprawling low-rise property, with most rooms in casitas, has three pools, three golf courses and a new spa. Wigwam, about 5 miles from the stadium, has good availability in March, with rates from $259.
Glendale Gaslight Inn, 5747 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale; (623) 934-9119, www.glendalegaslightinn.com. A comfortable B&B; 8.2 miles from the stadium, in Glendale’s historic district. Each of the 10 rooms is themed. The ones we checked were nicely decorated and spacious. Rates run from $145 to $179, and there is availability in March.
Others: Nearby is a cluster of mid-priced Glendale hotels a few miles from the stadium. All show decent availability for March. Holiday Inn Express, from $179, (877) 863-4780, www.hiexpress.com; Staybridge Suites, $189, (888) 299-2208, www.ichotelsgroup.com; SpringHill Suites, $209, (623) 772-9200, www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/phxgl; Residence Inn by Marriott/ Glendale, $209, (623) 979-2074, www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/phxrp.
WHERE TO EAT
The Westgate City Center has such options as Saddle Ranch Chop House, Johnny Rockets and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. For those looking for something more inspired, we found these spots within a 15-minute drive of Camelback Ranch:
Arrowhead Grill: The economy is not doing this upscale steakhouse any favors, but here’s hoping it pulls through. Its offerings include a lovely 13-ounce filet. Also memorable: the house specialty, a 10-ounce Delmonico seared with a rub of pepper, paprika, salt, soy, Worcestershire, horseradish and onion powder. We liked the grilled artichoke starter and the twice- baked-potato side dish. Dinners about $40 per person; 8280 W. Union Hills Drive, Glendale; (623) 566-2224, www.arrowheadgrill.com; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Haus Murphy’s: This place reportedly sells more German beer than anywhere else in Arizona. The little outdoor bier garten is a perfect spot after a day game to drain a light Spaten or bock straight from the tap. On the food front, there is a full range of German staples: schnitzels, sauerbraten, sausages, etc. But let’s focus on another underappreciated S food: sauerkraut. Here, it’s not a side dish, but a revelation -- impossibly light and sweet -- wunderbar! Dinners from about $10; 5739 W. Glendale Ave., Glendale; (623) 939-2480, www.hausmurphys.com; 4 to 8 p.m. Mondays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 8 p.m. Sundays.
-- Sherry Stern and Christopher Smith