Department

The Boys of Spring

Arizona's Cactus League serves up baseball, beer, sun—and a great way to escape the winter weather for a weekend.

March 2010

When the sun begins to linger in the sky a bit longer and the chill of winter starts to fade, my entire body craves baseball. My feet want flip-flops. My skin pines for sunscreen. I hunger for a hot dog with relish and an ice-cold beer. I want to stretch out over the seat in front of me and reintroduce my bare legs to the sun. But, alas, the first crack of the bat in Denver doesn't usually come along with balmy afternoons. Which is why, instead of waiting for baseball weather to come to us, my husband, our friends, and I decided to spend a weekend touring Arizona's Cactus League.

Our friends, who are widely recognized as experts on having a good time, explained to us that spring training isn't solely about baseball. And they would know—they're Cactus League veterans. Yes, they said, the games are a blast, but there's more to a perfect Cactus League vacation: It's about finding the perfect ratio of baseball games, pool time, and dining out. It became our mission to get the balance right.

Spring training in the Cactus League means picking from 15 different Major League Baseball teams that suit up in 11 stadiums scattered around Arizona. Every year, more than a million fans flock to the region for preseason innings, infusing about $310 million into the local economies. The warm weather, the cold beer, and the hordes of vacationing tourists mix to make an intoxicating (and sometimes just intoxicated) atmosphere, especially in downtown Scottsdale, which was just minutes from where we stayed at the InterContinental Montelucia Resort & Spa.

We planned our entire weekend around three games. The first—and easily most enjoyable—started just a few hours after we roused ourselves from bed on our first day. After hitting the resort's pool, we headed to Scottsdale Stadium to see the San Francisco Giants battle the Cleveland Indians. Scottsdale Stadium, one of the crown jewels of the Cactus League, is nestled into historic downtown. As we walked through the crowds streaming into the stadium, we got our first whiffs of baseball season: hot dogs on the grill, popcorn in the air, and peanut shells on the ground. Then we rounded a corner and got a glimpse of the infield green, and an old John Fogerty song popped into my head: Put me in, coach, I'm ready to play today, look at me, I can be centerfield.

Foregoing the general-admission seats, we opted for a pricier spot in the Charro Lodge, a roped-off, members-only-style, all-inclusive section in right field that had catered food, frosty cold beverages, and colossal baskets of salted peanuts for the taking. The $100 price tag seemed spendy, but the view and the table service were worth every penny.

After each game, the winding streets of historic Scottsdale overflow with postgame partiers. The area, which feels like Denver's Old South Pearl Street multiplied by 20, plays host to boutiques, bars, casual eateries, and upscale restaurants. Still smelling of sunscreen, we wandered into the dark and swanky Kazimierz World Wine Bar for an appetizer and then moseyed to the Mission, a modern Latin-cuisine restaurant with over-the-top guacamole and a killer lineup of tequilas. Although we allowed the bartender to pour us a taste or two (OK, three), we opted to take it easy: After all, there was more baseball tomorrow.

For most games, you can walk right up to the box office and score a seat for $10 to $35. Newer stadiums, intriguing match-ups, and games toward the end of March (when the big-name players get back in the lineups) can sell out. At Tempe Diablo Stadium on day two of our adventure, we were forced to buy four tickets from a scalper for a sold-out Angels-Mariners game. Compared to Scottsdale Stadium, Tempe's yard left a few things to be desired: The concessions were meager, the fans were crude, and many of the seats were bleacher-style instead of individual chairs. But we did get to see Bobby Abreu and Torii Hunter, who were signing autographs, and Gary Matthews Jr., who was playing right field not 50 feet from our seats. Part of the beauty of spring training is that the players—not yet exhausted from a 162-game regular season—are so accessible.

We bailed out after the seventh-inning stretch to take a spin around the city of Tempe's Mill Avenue District and Arizona State University's Palm Walk, the celebrated palm tree-lined corridor on campus. After a bucket of Coronas at Barney's Boathouse, a college bar with an outdoor patio, we decided we were dangerously low on pool time for the day and headed back to the InterContinental Montelucia for a dip.

It might be unfair to say the pool deck was the best part of the resort. After all, the hotel's Moroccan-inspired spa has treatment rooms bigger than my house, and Prado, the property's Andalusian restaurant, boasts a tasty, seasonal menu. The Spanish architecture is stunning, sparkling fountains line the walkways, and the Euro-chic ambience feels fancy without being highfalutin. But, honestly, the pools were the highlight. Resting beneath Camelback Mountain, one of Scottsdale's most iconic landmarks, the adults-only swimming hole offered drink service, cozy lounges, and umbrellas for escaping the hot desert sun.

We started our final day of spring training with coffee and scones from the Montelucia's on-site coffee shop. A morning massage at the spa tempted us, but we resisted the urge for time's sake. With the first pitch of a Rockies versus Athletics game set to fly at 1:05 p.m., we needed to eat breakfast, take one final swim, and check out of the hotel in quick fashion.

One of the final games of spring training, the match-up felt like a regular-season game. Most of the teams' starters were in the lineups, and Phoenix Municipal Stadium's 8,776 seats were full. After a rally in the fourth, the Rox ended up losing the game on a walk-off home run. I figured losing was the least of the team's worries. With only a handful of spring games left, the Rox would soon be leaving the warmth of the desert for the much chillier confines of Coors Field. Or maybe I was just projecting because I knew I'd soon be longing for the warm days of spring training too.

Lindsey B. Koehler is managing editor of 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].