There are always boxes to tick on your bucket list if you are a sports fan.
Experiencing games at Lambeau Field, Fenway Park, Madison Square Garden – everyone has that “dream trip” that they’re always working on.
For me, Spring Training in Arizona was always on that list.
It’s a little known “Moj Fact,” but I’m a baseball junkie.
Growing up, the Montreal Expos were my team. To this day I can recall not only the big names like Dawson, Carter, Rogers and Staub but the names on the other end of the spectrum. Bombo Rivera, Pepe Frias, Pete Mackanin, Woody Fryman and every Expos’ fan favorite - John Boccabella - all these names still rattle around in my brain.
It was something about the romance of baseball – and the stats - that drew me to it.
When the opportunity presented itself to go to Spring Training in Arizona a few years back, I jumped on it.
I’ve been going back ever since.
The big advantage the Cactus League has over its Florida counterpart – The Grapefruit League – is that all the teams are located in the metropolitan Phoenix area.
If you are a Jays fan and you want to watch your other favorite team in the Cardinals, you are looking at a three-and-half-hour drive from the Jays complex in Dunedin to the Cards complex in Jupiter.
The longest drive you will have in the Phoenix area is if you are staying in Surprise – home of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals – and want to catch an Oakland A’s game in Mesa. In that instance, you are looking at an hour – every other trip is less than that.
With 15 teams situated in 10 complexes, you have plenty of options.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to all of them and I have had a positive experience at each and every one.
If you are into experiencing what almost seems like a major league environment, check out a Chicago Cubs game in Mesa. Their fans always travel well and almost every game at Sloan Park is a sell-out with over 15,000 in attendance. If the Cubs are playing at another complex, that game will usually be a sell-out as well.
Another tough ticket for obvious reasons is a San Francisco Giants game at Scottsdale Stadium. Again, a great experience and vibe but get there early as parking can be a nightmare.
Salt River Fields- home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies – is a also popular complex and has all the bells and whistles of a modern stadium.
Peoria plays host to the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres and has become a hot ticket as well with the resurgence of both organizations.
As nice as these venues are, they are not my favorites.
Spring training continues to evolve as big business for Major League Baseball, thus losing some if its innocence and charm from years gone by.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still experience something a little more relaxing.
I enjoy the games in Camelback Ranch, Surprise and Goodyear because they are just a little more chill.
The only drawback with Camelback Ranch in Glendale – home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox – is that there is very little shade in that stadium.
Surprise and Goodyear’s biggest drawbacks are that they are on the west side of the valley and are an hour drive if you are staying in Scottsdale.
Goodyear Ballpark – home of the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Guardians – has a beautiful backdrop with palm trees located over the outfield walls while Surprise Stadium has a nice old school feel to it.
As for tickets, you can go high-end and buy seats behind the plate pushing $100 or you can pay $20 and lay down on the outfield berm.
Watching games in a stadium is fun but there is some ‘added value’ that most fans do not know about.
Almost all these complexes not only play host to the ‘big league club’ but all the other players and teams in the organization. As a result, almost every facility has multiple diamonds. In fact, the Peoria Sports Complex plays host to ten practice fields for Padres and Mariners minor leaguers.
These are known as the ‘back fields’ and they are open to the public for free. If you wandered around the Mariners facility in 2020, you could have watched Julio Rodriguez playing a game on one of them. You also could stumble upon a star who is getting some extra work in a ‘B’ game.
These are just like the ballparks your kid would play at – you can park yourself in the 50-seat bleachers behind home plate or you can find a spot resting on the chain link fence in the outfield.
There are no announcers, programs, or concessions – just a bunch of kids playing baseball with maybe some family, friends, or evaluators in attendance. Most of these games are attended by some other players in the organization who have some time to kill. It is basically you and maybe ten other people – it’s watching baseball in its purest form.
The beauty of the Cactus League experience is that you have the ability to customize it to suit your needs.
You can go high end and sit behind the plate at a Cubs game in Mesa or you can sit on the berm in front of the palm trees in Goodyear or you can walk the back fields at a complex - it’s all up to you.
Whatever you chose, I guarantee that you will enjoy it.
Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media. And check out his weekly podcast every Monday at Today in B.C. or your local Black Press Media website.