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Indians Indians Archive Springing For Baseball Insanity
Written by Jeff Rich

Jeff Rich

Diablo Stadium: Indians at AngelsSo, people think we’re silly, that we get too excited over this stuff.  I can say, with a relative level of certainty, that those people are right; attending Cactus League games with the level of anticipation and enthusiasm that we do is just borderline insane.  I don’t know if it’s because it fills a void between the Super Bowl and Opening Day, or it’s just the joy of being outdoors before the Arizona Hibernation Season (summer) begins, but I get myself out to these practice games whenever possible.  I don't even mind springing for the tickets, and believe me, it tends to add up.

This past Saturday provided an added bonus with the beginning of games under the lights here in Cactus League play, and with the night game being at the new state-of-the-art Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, I was able to check the final Arizona Spring Training ballpark off of my checklist.  I’ve seen them all now, and as I suspected it would be, the Rockies and Diamondbacks shared winter home is head and shoulders above the rest the state has to offer baseball fans in the desert.

If you’ll allow me to keep the horse in front of the cart here, I need to backup to explain how this weekend came to be anticipated as “Baseball Insanity”.  You see, we like to load up on these weekend games, to see different teams in different venues, and we are limited to Saturdays and Sundays for the most part.  I don’t see catching a ball game on consecutive days as anything out of the ordinary, watching meaningless baseball somehow edges out really significant college basketball for me.  There’s something to be said for being outside, whether the sun is shining or not.

As much as the whole institution of Spring Training is a big deal to us, we don’t do much in the way of planning.  I despise buying tickets online; especially considering how much I appreciate paying $3-$5 in “convenience” fees for tickets with a face value under ten bucks.  It’s not a small percentage that you can ignore, so I end up at the box office paying face value.  Call it cheap; call it savvy, I just call it more money for beer and unhealthy deliciousness at the old ball game.  However, I don’t always find myself in the right parts of town to buy on location in advance, so I do sometimes find myself dealing with cyber mark-ups, as was the case with this weekend’s attempt to see three games in 24 hours.  We called it “Baseball Insanity”.

The sun sets on the Rockies practice fieldThe original plan was Old Town Scottsdale for the Giants and Brewers on Saturday afternoon, then a few miles north to the Diamondbacks complex across the freeway from Talking Stick Hotel and Casino to see them host the Mariners under the lights.  I already had tickets in hand to see the Indians and Angels in Tempe on Sunday.  However, budget restrictions and common sense caused the best laid plans of mice and men to go awry, which begs the question, how much would you pay to see a Brewers split squad play an exhibition game with the San Francisco Giants on a sitting-room-only lawn?

If you said anything less than $32, you would have been like me, looking for something else to do on Saturday.  Granted, this is Scottsdale, a self-proclaimed exclusive area of town, where you can expect your footwear to be inspected before entering some establishments, only for the privilege of paying $9-$15 for a drink.  So, after a decade of living here, sticker shock shouldn’t be an issue in this high brow community, but not everyone is willing to seek an alternative, but I am, and I did.  For a quarter of the price, I found the other half of the Brewers split squad to be hosting the Cubs at the Maryvale Baseball Park, a haven a baseball fields in the heart of one of Phoenix’s “less desirable” areas.

Truth be told, getting there is half the battle with this place.  It sits about 3 miles north of I-10 and 3 miles west of I-17 near the intersection of 51st Avenue and West Indian School Road, an area that is always congested even 10,000 baseball fans swarming the area.  For Yours Truly, the ten mile commute from my abode to my parking spot on game day ran about seventy minutes, or forty longer than it should have, for those of you obsessed with common sense.  However, once you get inside the ballpark, the terrors of the difficult commute are all in the past.  There’s nothing sexy about it, but this is a great place to watch a game, provided you don’t need high def video scoreboard and a sushi bar to enjoy sports.

Maryvale Baseball ParkTheir lawn seating, which is a Spring Training staple for me, is just excellent.  It wraps from foul territory just beyond the infield dirt at first base, around the outfield to the same spot on the third base side, and offers spots with sun and shade.  There are good vantage points and piss poor vantage points, and I find the latter to be a wonderful area for disinterested mothers with small hyper children.  Everything about the park is accessible; the concession stands, the restrooms, the walkways.  Even the box office on Thursday, a game day, was easy to get in and out of, thanks to the friendly staff.  I wouldn’t expect anything less that represents Wisconsin, the home state of the team this ballpark hosts.

On the field, it was Cubs and Brewers, which is a rivalry of the superiority/inferiority complex sort.  Despite multiple playoff appearances and a state of the art facility in Milwaukee, the Brewers fans definitely suffer the little brother syndrome on some level, even if big brother is commonly known as a “Lovable Loser”.  The polarizing Ryan Dempster, a modern day Buddy Hackett to Cubs fans that’s seen as a guy who tries to hard by everyone else, seemed to fuel the fire by throwing at long-time Cubbie (now Brewer) Aramis Ramirez’s head.  It got some ooh’s, ah’s, and hey’s from the very split crowd of Cub and Brewer fans, but the WGN broadcast on the DVR revealed what I would consider an honest case of the ball slipping out of Dempster’s hand, but a hell of a coincidence all the same.  To be fair to those Cheese Heads, and I trust they’re mostly Packer (and Badger) fans at heart, I wouldn’t think to kindly of my ballpark being called “Wrigley North”.  It’s funny, because I know people in the Brewers organization that refer to the digs at Clark and Addison as “Miller Park South”, it just doesn’t have a good ring to it.

Miller and Milwuakee just go togetherSpeaking of Miller, there’s a definite presence of that brand in Maryvale, just as I’m sure there is at the House That Bud Built in Milwaukee.  Throughout the concourse, you can’t walk ten feet without being reminded of two things; the Brewers 2011 Division Championship and Miller Lite.  There is also a Leinenkugel’s beer stand, which I think is a nice added touch, even though their product is now available throughout most bars and grocers in Arizona these days.  As a side note, the Goodyear Ballpark can stand to embrace the state of Ohio a little more, though the Indians haven’t seen the postseason since leaving Winter Haven.  That’s just, like, my opinion, man.

Leaving before the game went final, I couldn’t tell you the final score, or even speculate on who won the game.  Allow me to stress that fact, the results of these games are un-important.  There’s no winning or losing culture established here, it’s just a chance for these professionals to get their legs back underneath them, and if it creates a tourism opportunity for Arizona and Florida, that’s just gravy.  The Diamondbacks went 11-24 in games that didn’t count last March, and still made a surprising run to the National League playoffs in October.

I can’t lie, I was excited to see the defending National League West Champs up close almost as much as I was excited to see the year-old Salt River Fields that I didn’t get to in 2011.  From all I heard, I fully expected this place to trump the Dodgers/White Sox Camelback Ranch facility in Glendale, the previous leader in the clubhouse.  Even with the bar set high, this place exceeded expectations.  It’s big, state-of-the-art, fan friendly, and services both teams accordingly with dedicated team shops behind the fair poles and a shared team shop behind the center field wall.  It gets bonus points for not being a burden on tax payers due to the convenience of its location on Tribal land; that big casino across the Loop-101 took care of all issues financial.  Though I liked the pure baseball, Wisconsin-ish feel to the earlier game, I enjoyed this experience as well, even though the contrast between the two was like day and night.

Salt River Fields at nightWith the primetime spotlight shining bright, it appeared the Diamondbacks manager Kirk Gibson would be sending his Opening Day lineup out there for the big crowd.  I wish I could gage whether Eric Wedge was doing the same, but as I’ve stated on this site before, identifying every day players for the Mariners is no easy task.  It’s conceivable that there are guys with Offensive Linemen numbers that will be on Seattle’s Opening Day roster, the no name on back of jersey doesn’t necessarily mean a guy isn’t part of the team’s 2012 plans.  So, you had Ian Kennedy, a questionable choice for the Opening Day starting bid a year ago, who has certainly emerged as the Ace of this young pitching staff after a Cy Young worthy campaign.

After that, the lineup included a lot of the regulars, Mega Star Justin Upton in right field, Chris Young in center, and the best catcher you don’t immediately think about, Miguel Montero.  Then, you notice Paul Goldschmidt isn’t at 1st base, Aaron Hill isn’t at 2nd, and even though you heard his name in the batting order, Gerardo Parra’s laser of an arm isn’t in left field.  He would be the designated hitter, while the former Twin Jason Kubel patrolled left field.  Believe me, it was just a small reminder that it’s March, not April, and nothing personal against the John McDonald and Willie Bloomquists of the world.  Nobody was hitting these no-name Seattle pitchers on Saturday night.

So, good for Eric Wedge, there’s future in the Pacific Northwest.  Teamed with solid battery-mate Jesus Montero, who will be known as “Not Michael Pineda” by many until he establishes himself as bona fide with the Seattle fans, the arsenal of young pitching hopefuls includes Erasmo Ramirez, Danny Hultzen, and Taijuan Walker who kept Arizona’s grab bag lineup scoreless through six innings.  Montero drove in three runs and the young first baseman Mike Carp had a 3 for 4 night; both are hovering around a .400 clip this spring.  However, the 7-1 Mariners win was completely upstaged by the stadium itself.  We were still in Scottsdale, and the game we didn’t go to for a $32 spot on the lawn was fresh on my mind.  This particular lawn offered three times the space that you get for Giants home games down the road, where I had to cram my rear end against a concrete wall to see Cliff Lee get shelled with the Indians on a Friday afternoon in 2009.

These tickets were $8 a piece ($10 if you figure in the web convenience fee I paid), and this Saturday night game is what would be considered a “premium” game in other Cactus League parks, which tells me that they don’t do variable pricing here, even though it is still technically Scottsdale still.  In fact, concessions were right about what you’d expect to pay, a $5 tray of nachos with a mountain of jalapeños was a low enough price tag that I was able to pay with what little cash I carry these days, even though I fully expected to break out the plastic and not the lone $5 bill in my wallet.  Sticker shock only hits you in the team shop here, and it’s quite obviously the licensing markup that you’ll see on official apparel at Target or JC Penney.

Two games in a day, no big deal.  As a youngster in Cleveland, my pops and I would regularly see the twi-night twin bills at Municipal Stadium, but the drive across town for the night game takes a lot of you.  Of course, it takes a third game, a sunny Sunday matinee between the Indians and Angels in Tempe to equal “Baseball Insanity”. 

Our view at DiabloTempe used to be our first choice in ballparks, and the lawn at Diablo Stadium was probably among our favorite place in the entire world, but times have changed.  From a new perspective, some might call it wisdom, the lawn there sucks.  It starts in left center field, goes around the left field fair pole, and ends in font of the visitor’s bullpen a few feet from the left field wall.  It isn’t a big area, and that might explain why we would typically arrive 90 minutes before the first pitch.  I was asked not to be burdened with that when purchasing tickets, so I sprung for the more expensive grown-folks seating, up front and along the left field line.

The Angels schedule at their box office didn’t reveal that the Indians would be bringing a split squad, and it’s possible that I wasn’t paying attention or didn’t care at the time, but this lineup had a JV feel to it.  No problem, Cleveland’s “B-Team” against Torii Hunter, Albert Pujols, Vernon Wells, and other Left Coast Big Money guys; they got this.  They didn’t have it, but the sight of pitchers doing laps on the warning track with the ball in play and the mix of guys with names on their jersey versus the nameless minor leaguers walking between the 3rd base dugout and bullpen was enough to remind that these games do not count.

Despite, the nice Travis Hafner poke over the 420 sign on the centerfield wall, and atmosphere of nice people around us in the $18 seats (still not bad), the numbers on the scoreboard did not make for a pleasant day for an Indians fan.  I decided to leave when it was 9-2 in favor of the Los Angeles Angels of Tempe, but in the time it took me to walk down the third base line to the main exit behind home plate, Vernon Wells hit a home run with a bunch of guys on base, and it was 13-2 when I walked out.  Media outlets would report a 17-2 final, but I only learned that after finding out what the other split squad did to Kansas City in Surprise, Arizona.  The “real” Indians won 6-1, which had me thinking that we should have finished “Baseball Insanity” with Surprise instead of El Diablo, but our choice was Tempe.  The biggest surprise about Surprise (Royals/Rangers) is that they'd actually put Major League Baseball out there, there is only one way in and out of that place, but that's a story for another time.

Soon, we were out of the sun and the weekend was over.  We had nothing to show for our weekend of insanity, but some sunburn, empty sunflower seed bags, and some cheap ticket stubs.  Everyone is still 0-0 in the real standings.

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