By Michael YEGHIAYAN
When the final out of the World Series is recorded each October, some sports fans can take solace in an NFL season that is beginning to heat up. Others may turn to their favorite team’s newest NBA campaign or shift their attention to the NHL.
To the true baseball fan, however, these distractions offer little reprieve over the long winter months as the bats stay silent and gloves collect dust. For these diehards, the winter feels a little bit longer and opening day could not come soon enough.
The answer for the baseball starved lies approximately 350 miles to the east in the middle of the Arizona desert where 15 major league teams prepare for the upcoming season in one of the 10 spring training stadiums scattered across the Phoenix metropolitan area.
A weekend of spring training baseball is the perfect way for fans of the sport to get a closer look of their favorite teams and players. Half of all major league teams participate in Cactus League play and, unlike Florida’s Grapefruit League, all of the stadiums are a short drive away from the city’s downtown area.
Fans will also find a spring training trip to be a relative bargain. Hotels in Phoenix are decidedly affordable and ticket prices for individual games generally start at around $10.
The joy of a spring training trip, however, is not about the low cost or the convenience of the drive. More than at any other point on the Major League schedule, fans have the opportunity to experience baseball in its purest form. They will watch veterans refining their swings, pitchers tinkering with their delivery, and prospects vying for a coveted spot on a major league roster.
While once only for baseball’s most dedicated fans, spring training baseball has seen a sharp increase in popularity in recent years. According to a 2012 study by the Cactus League, Arizona’s spring training baseball organization, the preseason games contribute $632 million to the state’s economy.
A number of teams have been taking advantage of the growing interest in preseason baseball and the Cactus League boasts a number of modern facilities that offer a fantastic fan experience. Three years ago, the Los Angeles Dodgers moved from Vero Beach, Fla. to Camelback Ranch, a beautiful new spring training facility in Glendale, AZ.
The Chicago Cubs also debuted a new stadium this offseason designed as a replica of the historic Wrigley Field. While the new Cubs Park does not feature the iconic ivy or centerfield scoreboard of the original field, fans can still find a cold can of Old Style beer among the available concessions.
The increase in popularity will also require fans to plan farther in advance than was necessary in previous years. Several games, particularly the daily evening matchups, were sold out. Scores of fans accustomed to buying tickets at the gate were sent home or were left to the mercy of ticket scalpers who lined the streets that approach the stadiums.
It has been said by the baseball faithful that the five most beautiful words in the English language are “pitchers and catchers report today.” While Budweiser circulates a petition to make opening day a national holiday, a pure baseball experience awaits fans weeks before the first official pitch is thrown.