Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Spring training is finally over in Arizona. Save your money for next year!

Spring Training in Arizona used to be baseball’s best-kept secret.  It was like going to an Easter egg hunt and only half the kids in class usually showed up. Woo hoo!
While the majority of major league teams and their winter-weary fans flocked to Florida surrounded by the seductive lure of sandy ocean and gulf beaches on both sides, fewer teams and fans would journey into the Arizona desert where the prospect of spring training baseball at one time was a four-lettered proposition extending from Mesa to Yuma. In the landscape of baseball, that lies somewhere between Timbuktu and the End of the World.
The net result, however, was this: Small crowds casually following big leaguer players in a relaxing atmosphere in a tucked away destination far less appealing and expensive than South Beach et al. For autograph-and-thrill seeking baseball fans Arizona was Utopia. More eggs for all.
Not anymore, eggheads. Arizona is the new Florida. What it lacks in beaches, it more than makes up for in modern convenience and cache. The ballparks are newer and closer together and they are flanked by chain hotels and boutique restaurants. The minor league feel has been replaced by major league prices. I can pay less to park next to AT&T Park nowadays than the Cubs’ new Sloan Stadium.
Spring training once upon a time was a ritual. Now it has gone retail. Those two words – spring training – automatically double the cost of a T-shirt, which can purchased in customized spring training souvenir shops across the greater Phoenix area that have sprouted faster than Circle Ks. I walked into one such store, a vacant building the size of a Costco converted into a money-making machine with baseball merchandise.
Whatever happened to the good old days?
The Pink Pony in Old Town Scottsdale, once an after-hours hangout frequented by players, managers, coaches and executives and the essence of spring training, is now closed. Don and Charlie’s Restaurant -- the hottest and hippest and hardest place to RSVP to dine in its hey day– is now more a museum than a meeting place for baseball’s best and elite. And Scottsdale Stadium, once an intimate ballpark made of wood, is aging brick and mortar and outdated compared to the multitude of sparkling baseball multiplexes that now have multiple tenants. Spring training has turned into time shares.
When I covered spring training in the 80s and 90s in Arizona, a Giants’ or A’s road trip usually meant having to drive 100 miles to Tucson to play the Cleveland Indians or a whirlwind two-city roadie of 600 miles round trip to play the Padres in Yuma then the Angels in Palm Springs then go back to Phoenix. You actually saw and passed real cactus in the Cactus League.  Now all you see are traffic lights.
There currently are 15 major league spring training teams housed in 10 ballparks in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area within a 15-mile radius of Scottsdale Stadium and they are not cheap. Ticket prices range from $8 (to sit on grass) to $42 (to sit in an actual seat) and that’s only if you are smart and buy them in advance. If you have to have to buy them on StubHub or some other ticket marketing website, expect to pay and an arm, a leg and the wall on the border. Now that they are finally World Series champions, the average price for a Cubs spring training game in Arizona this year was $106.30.
For a meaningless game that doesn’t count in the standings?! This is not fake news.
I was lucky and paid $17 apiece for front row seats on the leftfield line near the third base dugout and saw the best team in Arizona – the Puerto Rican World Baseball Classic team. The next time I returned to Scottsdale Stadium, I paid $180 for four metal bleacher seats in the next-to-last row of the rightfield corner. I was closer to Osborne Road than Hunter Pence.
Sadly, spring training in Arizona is no longer an original. It used to be a special up-close-and-personal experience to go there to watch exhibition baseball and one felt like he or she had hit the lottery to be so lucky to have such access to a ballpark to get near a big league ballplayer. You have to actually win the lottery to do that now. You have to pay big league money for that privilege and then it might be a split squad game, meaning you will need a roster to recognize half of the players and even a roster costs money.
My how things have changed. I read the other day that Phoenix is now No. 6 on Forbes’ list of the top travel destinations. Phoenix?!
Well, go for it. Fly there for spring training and see for yourself. If you want to go see batting practice, much less a game, beware of the price you might pay and the realization that comes with this spring training fantasy trip. You could be shut out just like The Pink Pony.


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