A Road Trip to the Cactus League

(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

Like many American sons, my dad took me to a lot of baseball games. One humid night in Zebulon, North Carolina we saw Michael Jordan patrol the outfield for the Birmingham Barons during the legend’s brief and ill-advised stint in Double A ball. Later, we’d take a family road trip to see Albert Belle launch cork-assisted moonshots in downtown Cleveland. Oddly, my father also took me to far too many Durham Bulls games before explaining that Bull Durham was a thing.

Yet the first baseball game that meant something to me—something approximating that cliché of a father taking his son to a ballgame to instill a shared passion for the American pastime—didn’t happen until I was 22, at a series of essentially meaningless spring training exhibition games in south Florida.

ST1
(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

It was early March 2008, and the Mets were just five months removed from the first of two back-to-back, late-season collapses. I’d recently moved to New York and the Mets were the existential security blanket that kept me sane in my unfamiliar home. After a dozen trips to Shea Stadium, and hundreds of hours spent with Gary, Keith, and Ron, I was a diehard. This gave my dad, who grew up in the Jersey suburbs, the chance to rekindle his own neglected passion for New York’s junior baseball squad.

Those pre-Maddoff scandal Mets, flush with cash and a new stadium under construction, filled us with hope. I still can’t forgive Tom Glavine for 2007, but that spring we still had José Reyes’s speed, David Wright’s arm, and the bats of Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado to encourage us. The kicker was the arrival of 2-time AL Cy Young winner Johan Santana, the ace that New York had just made a trade with Minneapolis to acquire.

Deluded, as many Mets fans are, I believed our team was ready to seize the pennant that slipped away in 2006. To celebrate, my dad and I flew to Fort Lauderdale, rented a car and drove an hour and a half north on Federal Highway to a little strip mall of a town called Port St. Lucie. For three long days I escaped New York’s winter and watched my favorite team play spring baseball. We cracked beers at 11AM, watched batting practice and tried to pick out which prospects merited a closer look. We had everything to look forward to and nothing to feel bad about. It was perfect.

For the next five years we would make the same ritualistic, three-day journey to the Grapefruit League—eventually with my brother in tow—to watch the Mets win, lose, or draw, and for three days pretend it was already summer and that everything was okay. Then my dad broke his hip, my brother joined the Peace Corps, I moved to Los Angeles, and the tradition ended as sharply as it began.

***

Spring training isn’t for everyone. Wins and losses don’t count toward the standings, and the small sample sizes limit how much you can infer about any player’s performance. And yes, you can even tie a baseball game in spring. We’re talking ‘bout practice, goddamit.

Coinciding with the end of our family tradition, and the Mets unwillingness to spend any fucking money on talented players, my passion for the game waned to the level of only checking the box scores each morning. That’s when I realized how important spring training was—not just for players to get in shape—but for fans to forgive last season’s failures.

I figured if spring training could get me through five seasons of bad Mets baseball, it should also be the perfect way to reignite my obsession with the game. In order to do that, and because the Grapefruit League is too expensive a plane trip for me, I decided to drive into the desert and see as many Cactus League games as possible. Surely that would do the trick.

The road trip would require a buddy. Someone to do dad-like stuff like drive when I didn’t want to, fetch beers, and most importantly split the motel and gas bills. Not just anyone would do though. I needed a fan who could get excited about watching fifteen hours of baseball scrimmages. So I called Sam, my neighbor in LA who’s been a friend to me since our childhood days in Ohio, and promised that we’d see a Dodgers game to sweeten the deal.

Spring Training 2
(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

If Florida is one never-ending strip-mall of palm trees, oranges and humidity, Phoenix is 517 square miles of strip malls engulfed by the dry heat of an unforgiving desert sun, pocked by red rock mountains and the unmistakable, postcard-worthy saguaro cacti. Unlike the Grapefruit League, Cactus baseball packs all of its MLB affiliates within the city limits and suburbs of one major destination—Phoenix—which allows fans to choose from eight different games each day, and sometimes two.

A cursory glance at the opening week’s schedule revealed some obvious draws (Kris Bryant! Mike Trout!). Throw in the Giants, who are due for another even-year World Series victory, the aforementioned Dodgers, and two teams from our home state (Cleveland, Cincinnati) and we had an itinerary.

We opted for Sam’s Corolla despite the fact that it was manufactured sometime between the cassette deck’s demise and the advent of the auxiliary input, then set out at 5:00AM discussing what a world might look like with a President Trump as we cruised east into the desert. Baseball was about to get back in my damn life.

***

Goodyear, Arizona is a baseball oasis on the far outskirts of Phoenix. It’s the shared home of Ohio’s two major league clubs and little else. Back in the Ohio Valley steel town where Sam and I grew up, most people root for the Pirates, but some are Indians fans too. No one roots for the Reds. My lingering fondness for Cleveland was forged in those few games that I saw with my dad back in the mid-90s, so it seemed as good a place as any to start our trip. If the game got boring, I could happily pretend I was watching Kenny Lofton run down fly balls.

The facilities’ architecture is typically southwest modern—all red brick, rust, and gunmetal gray. On the first Wednesday of March, and only the second day of Cactus League ball, the crowd is forgivably sparse—the stands behind home plate are full and the rest contain just a smattering of fans. I’m not yet bothered by the sun’s unflinching presence.

For the first three innings, the Cleveland dugout is as quiet as the mid-week crowd and I’m reminded what it means for a professional athlete to go to work. It’s the opening week of play and the clubhouses are full of non-roster invitees, minor leaguers, free agent signings and returning veterans. I can’t help but picture the spring training scene from Major League:

“If you get a red tag in your locker, that means the skipper wants to see you. Because you died and went down to the minors.”

Standing in the photo bay, I hear one of the Indians ask his teammates if they’re gonna have to buy a fastball today, but eventually three runs are scored in the fourth and the mood around Goodyear lifts. From the official MLB baseball authenticator, I learn that the solitary ball boy had been pulled from his seat in the crowd just before the start of the game because management didn’t have anyone else on hand to scoop up foul balls. Later an umpire walks toward Indians first-base coach and team legend, Sandy Alomar Jr., to ask “How’s my favorite catcher?”

Every seat at Spring Training is the equivalent of a hundred dollar ticket in most major league ballparks. Our twenty-dollar seats are three rows behind the first baseman. This level of access and proximity to the game is usually reserved for the wealthy, or the committed fans of crappy teams with cheap StubHub seats. Hearing an umpire make the matter-of-fact call at first base, “Yep, that’s out,” amuses me, and the reserved atmosphere feels more like sandlot baseball than the Broadway production that so many regular season games tend to be.

At the end of the day there are half as many errors as hard hit balls. Beers are had, skin is burned, and nine innings pass easily. Reds centerfield Tyler Holt walks to his at-bat in the bottom of the ninth to John Cena’s theme “The Time is Now,” and shortly thereafter the game ends, tied at four. Practice.

***

Baseball fans aren’t stupid. They know when their team has a shot and they know when they don’t, as was proven by every Milwaukee Brewers fan I met during their game against the Giants in Scottsdale. For them, baseball is their holy ritual and “Gonna be a tough year” their mantra for 2016. Godbless ‘em.

Almost nine-thousand pack the park to see former commissioner Bud Selig toss the first pitch and get roundly booed for his efforts. Then we bear witness to the shellacking of Jake Peavy (six runs on nine hits in 1 and 2/3 innings) and one measly at-bat from Buster Posey. Meanwhile, I quietly cheer on Eric Young Jr., a Brewers non-roster invitee and former Met, and admire the magnificent red rock mountain behind the third-base stands.

In the ninth, three mallards waddle into the outfield and no one makes an effort to retrieve them. A grounder slips through the trio for a hit. In a game that seemed destined to end in another tie, karma awards a one-run win to the Brewers’ agreeable fans. May it not be their last.

ST3
(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

The next afternoon I am surrounded by a joyous throng of Chicagoans at Sloan Park, the $100 million home of the Cubs. Don’t let the flush valve sponsorship fool you, this place is the Toto Washlet S350e of spring training stadia. Opened in 2014, and bankrolled by the taxpayers of Mesa, AZ, Sloan Park holds up to 15,000 fans per game, which is the largest of any pre-season ballpark in either league.

They probably should have made it seat 20,000 because this first game of the pre-season, against the Angels, is packed to capacity with no trace of self-effacing or stoic Midwestern conservatism. Considering the Cubs’ incredible run in 2015, which saw them reach their first NLCS since Bartman, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. I’m certain by this point in the trip that the sun had baked a fair portion of my cognitive capacities, and the relative sleepiness of the two preceding games left my senses vulnerable to the majestic.

Sloan Park is majestic. I love the fact that the Cubs cloak themselves in their own nostalgia. There’s a mural on the side of the park that features every, single iteration of the cartoon Cubbie bear. The outfield berm recreates the effect of Wrigley Field’s bleachers, and the Budweiser Porch mimics the Wrigley Rooftops. If the Mets hadn’t taken me in, I’m sure I would have found my way to the lovable losers of Chicago’s North Side. Like me, their fans are large people, and when I’m amongst them I feel the urge to move there and become one with them.

Based on this facility alone, the Cubs should win the next three World Series. There’s no reason a team with this elaborate and fantastic a home for their practice games shouldn’t end their 108-year title drought. Good god. My dad and I were never treated to this level of luxury in the other league.

During batting practice, the Cubs wear Japanese headbands and slug meatballs to the sounds of Black Sabbath and The Stooges. I’m reminded again of what it must be like for a baseball player to go to work, this time with more than a twinge of jealousy. If this is your typical casual Friday, then Joe Maddon seems like a swell guy to work for.

Once I finally get inside Sloan Park, the first thing I do is embark on a quest for Chicago’s famous Old Style beer. Budweiser is the official park sponsor, and we’ve got seats on their rooftop, but I’ve heard that there’s at least one stand that offers the local favorite. I pass up the food trucks and pester every beer peddler for info on Old Style until I find it in a self-serve market in the outfield, next to where the old timers are signing and selling autographs. It’s not remarkable, but it tastes right, like ivy and Harry Caray.

Shortly thereafter, Addison Russell crushes a home run into the berm and the Cubs cruise to victory which caps off a great day at little Wrigley.

Spring Training 3
(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

***

Then there’s competitive baseball. Sam and I hightail it out of Mesa, sit in traffic on the AZ-101 North freeway for an hour, and catch the night game at the Peoria Sports Complex. The Padres, who split the facility with the Mariners, are hosting the World Series winners.

This is the closest we’ve come to a minor league experience yet, which is what I had expected from all spring training games. Goodyear and Sloan were surprisingly modern, and Scottsdale Stadium, plunked right in the middle of the city’s lively downtown, was a treat. Peoria, tucked into the northwest corner of the city, is an isolated suburbia. I will later enjoy some ACC basketball over a beer at an Outback Steakhouse, which is the non-baseball highlight of my time spent there.

Built in 1994, the Peoria Sports Complex’s amenities are suitably professional, but the seats are tight and it’s surprisingly hard to get a good beer, which is ironic considering San Diego’s excellent beer culture. Shared stadiums limit clubs’ chances to showcase their local traditions and personalities so they end up feeling rather anodyne. The result here, like most minor league ballparks, is a stadium that succeeds at being MLB in miniature. Also, it’s dog night and you can’t get any more minor league than that.

The game itself lives up to the professional atmosphere. Royals fans have packed the third-base stands, but they do not outnumber the home crowd. Raul Mondesi Jr, who made his major league debut in last season’s playoff-run, gets a few innings at second base and performs capably. His lineage confirms a potential that anyone can see, not just the scouts.

The Royals stars have an impact early. Lorenzo Cain gets on base and scores on a Kendrys Morales double in the third. Their pitching holds them to the one-run lead until the seventh, and the Padres put two more on the board in the eighth and hold on for the win.

Maybe it was playing under the lights, or maybe the come-from-behind victory, or the cramped crowd that kept me in my seat, but this game felt like it had meaning, even in March. I realize then that I’m chasing the high of October baseball, but I’m satisfied by this approximation. Three days and four games in and I’m stoked for Opening Day.

***

Still, there’s one game left to watch, between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks in Camelback Ranch, a sprawling two-team industrial baseball complex whose closest neighbor is the monstrosity they call The University of Phoenix Stadium.

Spring Training 5
(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

I had hoped we might see Zack Grienke, LA’s turncoat and the current staff ace for Arizona, but he pitched on Friday. Kenta Maeda makes his first appearance for the Dodgers (and first professional club start outside of Japan), pitches two scoreless and exits into left field to a partial standing ovation. This seems momentous and is certainly one of the highlights of the week, one I’m sure I’ll remember during some start of his in August or September.

Dave Roberts may or may not manage the Dodgers well this season, but I can guarantee Tommy Lasorda will be around somewhere. The hall of famer exits the field in the fifth, in full uniform, to a standing ovation.

Camelback’s desert modern façade perfectly matches the Diamondbacks away uniforms, which is funny because it’s the Dodgers who share the park with the White Sox. The pleasantly designed stadium (rocks! cacti!) feels impersonal, but of the one’s we’ve visited it is by far the most catered to an MLB experience—if you’re into that kind of thing. Sadly, there are no cup holders and I vigorously guard my beer from the feet of a ceaseless parade of Little Leaguers.

Spring Training 6
(Photo by Justin Hargett/Eephus)

My dad and I never got to see the Dodgers play in Vero Beach, their spring home for fifty-five years in Florida, but I can imagine why this complex is a substantial upgrade. It’s enormous, easy on the eyes, and much closer to home. But by the fourth inning, I’m kind of bored.

Perhaps it’s because we’re entering hour thirteen of baseball practice, or the fact that I still harbor ill-thoughts toward Chase Utley for breaking Ruben Tejada’s leg in the NLDS. Either way, at this point Sam and I have seen hundreds of baseball players, many of whom have only numbers on the backs of their jerseys to identify them. The early spring lineups have thousands of potential combinations, and these aren’t the Mets, so keeping track is getting tiresome.

For one last afternoon, I do what I came to the desert to do. I kick back with a Modelo in hand, and enjoy a few more innings of the sun-induced sauna that the Cactus League provides. There will be no ties today. Rob Segedin, a career minor leaguer currently in the Dodgers system, enters the game to pinch hit in the 6th and homers to extend their lead for good. I pretend that its already summer, that everything is okay, and I’m finally refreshed enough to obsess over another long season of baseball. When I get home I’ll call my dad and tell him how great Arizona can be.

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Justin Hargett is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Eephus, and the host of The Big Game podcast.