Throughout March, thousands of Bay Area residents will descend on Arizona to watch the San Francisco Giants, Oakland A’s and 13 other Major League teams prepare for the 2023 season at Spring Training.
For most, this means a weekend at a luxury hotel, a fancy dinner in Old Town Scottsdale, one or two baseball games, and perhaps a round of golf at one of the Phoenix metro area’s hundreds of courses.
That’s not how I do it, though.
I treat the Cactus League like some treat Disneyland. No, I don’t have a separate pair of Mickey ears picked out for each day, but I have each day’s schedule planned out to maximize my baseball experience. It’s not just about seeing your favorite team. Half of professional baseball is stationed within the Phoenix metro area throughout late February and most of March, so there’s no need to spend the entire trip at one team’s camp.
Considering that Covid and last year’s lockout have impacted Spring Training for each of the last three years, this is the first time since 2019 that fans can truly max out their Cactus League adventures. This year comes with an added bonus, too—the World Baseball Classic. While the tournament does mean some of the game’s biggest stars won’t be in camp with their MLB teams the entire time, five of the national teams, including the United States, Canada and Mexico, will be playing at Chase Field, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ regular season home in Downtown Phoenix, adding yet another option for fans looking to overload on baseball as winter turns to spring.
The Cactus League’s biggest strength is proximity. When the Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies moved their camps from Tucson to Scottsdale in 2011, it meant that all 15 Cactus League teams were stationed in the Greater Phoenix area. Even with rush hour traffic at its absolute worst, no two parks are more than a 90-minute drive apart, and most take 30 to 45 minutes at most. The same can’t be said for the Grapefruit League in Florida, where some teams are separated by a four-hour drive.
As someone who loves racing all over the Valley of the Sun to catch as many Cactus League games as possible, it blows my mind that there are fans who only go to one ballpark during their trip. Yes, Scottsdale Stadium, the Giants’ spring home, is in a prime location adjacent to dozens of bars and restaurants, but some of the other parks are gems that can measure up against big league stadiums.
The DBacks and Rockies both play at the opulent Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, located five miles north of Old Town Scottsdale next to Talking Stick Resort and Casino. The Chicago Cubs treat the large population of Midwestern transplants to Arizona with an authentic Wrigley Field experience at their Spring Training home, Sloan Park, which sits on the border between Tempe and Mesa just off Loop 202. Fans looking to enjoy a Chicago experience without the harsh weather can enjoy Chicago-style hot dogs, deep dish pizza and Old Style beer.
Fans looking for the best bang for their buck should turn to the west side of the valley. The Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Guardians both play at Goodyear Ballpark. It’s a lengthy trip for most of their fanbases, so tickets usually aren’t in high demand, plus the park offers some excellent concessions. This year’s new gem is the Taquito Dog.
The Peoria Sports Complex, which hosts the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners on the northwest side of the valley, has seen a swell in attendance corresponding with both teams’ rise in popularity, but it’s still typically one of the more affordable parks. Giants and A’s fans will have much more access to players than they would at home games, with fewer fans traversing the freeways to reach Peoria, and the pop-up stands on the lawn beyond the outfield fence typically feature some of the best food of any stadium.
Speaking of access to players, that’s one of the things that truly sets Spring Training apart. Just as the fans enjoy a less competitive atmosphere, players are typically more laid-back as well. Autographs and photos are easy for fans to come by, especially when their team is on the road, meaning fewer fans to compete with. Fans looking to meet Brandon Crawford or Ramon Laureano should circle any trips the Giants or A’s make to the western parks as a prime opportunity, though it should be noted that teams don’t always send all of their stars to away games. The Los Angeles Angels are especially notorious for this—good luck finding Mike Trout or Shohei Ohtani at any game outside of Tempe Diablo Stadium.
It’s not just about the stars, though. When the regulars are subbed out midway through the game, some of the more casual fans will head for the exits, even with shorter games thanks to MLB’s new pitch clock. That’s when enterprising individuals, such as myself, slowly progress from the cheap lawn seats to the premium areas around home plate and the dugouts. The ushers are never bothered by people moving to better seats in the later innings once most of the crowd has taken off. Most of them are friendly retirees who just want to strike up a conversation.
For more close access to future big leaguers, check out the minor league fields in the morning. Those fields also provide a chance to watch games for free without fighting the crowds. Teams open minor league camp in mid-March, meaning the back fields are full of activity. Giants minor leaguers play at the new SF Giants Papago Park Complex, located at the site that the A’s vacated when they took over Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. While the A’s big leaguers play at Hohokam, the farm teams set up shop at Fitch Park, less than a mile south.
Unless you’re able to take a full week off to experience the best that Arizona has to offer, it’s hard to truly see everything in the Cactus League. But there’s no better opportunity to see more baseball in a short window. Today, fans can choose between eight games starting at 1 p.m. local time, then head to Surprise for a 6:05 p.m. showdown between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Kansas City Royals. Night games are the best way to double up and catch two games in a day, and as the weather gets warmer later in March, there are plenty of opportunities to do so.
My version of Spring Training isn’t the comfortable poolside weekend that many have in mind. It consists of staying at a cheap hotel near one of the parks or by the freeway, and five-star meals are replaced by every type of hot dog imaginable. Spending entire days at baseball fields is exhausting, and it requires a lot of Dutch Bros. Coffee to keep up. But Arizona is a baseball goldmine throughout the spring, and it’s meant to be enjoyed to the fullest.
Ethan Kassel can be reached at [email protected]