There's a truth about Arizona, and I don't know if I would call it a secret or not. It actually does get cold here; there's also traffic, pollution, death, and taxes. Come March, we don't think about any of that stuff, at least none of it matters when Spring Training is on the brain. In my household, there's an unwritten standing appointment with some patch of grass on the home run side of the fence that divides the spectators from the warning track. Sometimes we show interest in the events taking place on the field, sometimes we simply join the tourists, snowbirds, and general baseball enthusiasts in a session of "happy to be here".
The season kicked off last Friday at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and I'd love to tell you about the wonderful patch of snow-free grass that received our rear ends for the Cactus League clash between American League West division rivals Seattle and Oakland, but alas, Phoenix Municipal Stadium does not yield any grass seating. For that reason alone, I rank the spring home of the Oakland Athletics dead last among Cactus League Parks, but Friday's game offered a very good selling point; it was the only game being played and Arizona's first instance of 2012 Major League Baseball.
Friday was one of those cold days, and only a full-time Arizona resident could be this crass, so it was realistically not a day worthy of sitting in the grass. When we woke up that morning, the wind was blowing hard and it was looking like a sub-60 degree day. Had it not been the first game, we might have considered skipping this one altogether, but with tickets in hand, we bundled up in blue jeans and sweatshirts to take on the elements. It was somewhat reminiscent of those winter jacket, ice scraper days before an opener down at another Municipal Stadium, the one in Cleveland that hosted its Opening Day in April.
I take that back because it's not even close to any of that. After ten years in the desert, I am pretty sure I've forgotten what a "wintry mix" even looks like.
One advantage to the Oakland facility is that it's within walking distance of the light rail, Phoenix's best attempt at public transportation, which gets bonus points for allowing bikes on board. The light rail has only one line, and it cuts through Central Phoenix, running through the campus of Arizona State before ending in a non-descript part of Mesa. Coming from downtown, the first stop in Tempe put us and our bicycles just a stone's throw from the ballpark, but the wind and slight incline made the journey slightly more arduous than it looked on paper.
Being sentenced to the metal bleachers that only a fine organization, such as the Oakland Athletics, would offer, I decide that my $12 was best spent for seats that even Bob Uecker could appreciate. So, there we were in the front row, and on the aisle, which was a bonus, in time for Graham Godfrey's first pitch to Seattle's non-roster leadoff hitter Munenori Kawasaki. It didn't take long, maybe an inning or two, for me to be reminded of everything that is great about the game of baseball.
We were lucky enough to gets seats far enough away from any obnoxious types, that we didn't notice if there were any, and I just enjoyed my afternoon at the ballpark. By the way, whatever wind and whatever cold air existed before we entered the ballpark had vanished to the point where the decision to wear jeans now seemed foolish. Seated right in front of the visitor's bullpen, we were surrounded by Mariners fans for the most part, but I was fortunate enough to have an older Giants fan, a baseball enthusiast, right next to me. As simple as it sounds, just having an ordinary baseball conversation with a complete stranger makes me excited for the season ahead.
There were families around us, a lot of younger children rooting exuberantly for the away team in this meaningless game. Now, the Mariners are probably going to be a bad team this year, so maybe that's what took me back to screaming for Broderick Perkins, Chris Bando and whatever other also-rans were featured on some random less-than-mediocre mid-80's Indians team. It reminds me of why I like baseball as much as I do; because it is a "root, root, root for the home team" type of game. Of course, those rules don't apply in the neutral sited Cactus League, but I guess I'm getting old enough to appreciate the whole ballgame experience.
For so long, going to the game was only about what was going on with the game, but I now get more out of the experience, which is important for viewing a Spring Training game without a so-called "dog in the fight". So, there was the Giants fan, who listened patiently as I broke down an unsolicited opinion of Eric Wedge, and confirmed that this list of no-names was indeed not Seattle's "B" team. Then he went into Chris Farley security guy in Wayne's World mode when I asked about methods of transportation to the Major League Ballparks in the Bay Area. Let's just say I've got that down, should I ever find myself attending a game up that way.
I couldn't tell you what the local news would highlight in this game, maybe a Michael Saunders 1st inning blast, which came seconds after proudly recognizing Saunders as a familiar name. I couldn't tell you much about the game, and I'm guessing the people who run the scoreboard wouldn't have been able to either. Even after accepting that the graphics would not be state-of-the-art, it was upsetting that graphics couldn't be accurate about who was batting and what postiion they played. I was a tad bummed not to see Yoenis Cespedes, but had a brief moment of anticipation when Manny Ramirez came to bat twice, and the underwhelming mix of cheers, boos, and apathy made me realize how close to irrelevant our one-time hero has become. I later learned the big story of the game was Seattle catching prospect Jose Montero having his bell rung twice by foul tips. Despite having front row seats, I missed the ordeal due to unjustifiable time spent waiting on a rare ballpark novelty called hot dogs.
The Mariners won a meaningless game, but it was just one meaningless game, and there are so many more to enjoy. I looked forward to the better ballparks, and better times should be coming up for the Ghosts of Oakland's Spring Training Future, the rumor putting them in the soon to be vacant Cubs park in Mesa. I had the bar set low from the start, and I was reminded what a disappointment it is in comparison to all of its counterparts. Look, being the only game in town was the biggest plus, they didn't require much more than running water in the way of amenities to be a draw, but there's too much going on to remind you how much better things are elsewhere.
The concessions remain cash only, and not in a nostalgic kind of way, simply a behind the times sort of way. I had cash, and I'm not one to throw a fit when pointed towards an ATM if I do not, but even after being presented with cash, the dysfunctional staff was unable to fufill my complicated order of two hot dogs and two drinks. The game experienced is what it is, but you can't help but know this is probably the crappiest view of Major League Baseball that Arizona has to offer. I believe I have a qualified opinion on crappy scenery for baseball, having played my high school home games at Tremont Park. For those of you that are unfamiliar, our non-fenced Varsity confines was just off camera, west of the softball fields in the beginning of Major League.
On a positive note, you don't take any of that with you out of the ballpark. It goes down as a game in the books, the books that don't matter, and we live to see another fake ballgame. Maybe next time, it will be in the grass.
Saturday was supposed to be a grassy day, but Saturday got put on hold until Sunday. Saturday was starting lineup versus starting lineup, the first chance to see the Indians since losing in Detroit to end 2011, and a game where the Tribe got out to a 4-0 lead against the Reds (before blowing it, of course). What I missed was a 6-6 tie, which means about as much as 12-0 win or loss in the grand scheme of things. Really, it did not matter that I missed Saturday because the same two teams were back at it in the same ballpark on Sunday, although the lineup cards represented what you would guess is the worse half of a split squad. A younger less wise version of me would have pushed my sick self to attend Saturday's meaningless contest, but cooler heads prevailed this time around.
Call it envy or call it unreal expectations, but I have not been the biggest fan of the Goodyear Ballpark, and that's with me having a bias that should favor the Indians and their digs. I see it with a franchise like the Cubs, and a Spring Training fan base that treats every Cactus League pitch with a Game 7 of the World Series approach. There are Cubs fans that retire to Arizona, Mesa specifically, with the Cubs off season in mind, and many more that travel just to see these silly, meaningless games. Most of their "home games" in Mesa are a tough ticket, and chaos follows the Cubs to most of their away games as well. If there's bedlam like that at an Indians Spring Game, it isn't because of an overwhelming amount of Tribe Fever in the desert.
Beyond the phenomenon that is the Cubs brand, the Goodyear Ballpark doesn't offer the "home away from home" feel that Tempe's Diablo Stadium presents to the Angels. The gameday field in Goodyear is about the people of Goodyear; they are under no illusion that they are there to cater to Ohio visitors in town to support the Reds or Indians. I don't know what I expected; East Coast Custard, Slyman's, WMMS, Great Lakes Brewing Company, but I think I expected the joint to be Cleveland West, and it makes no attempt to be anything of that ilk.
It was just a yard for my favorite team to play some practice games at, not some overhyped March Mecca like the ridiculous place the Red Sox had built for them near Fort Myers. Sunday's visitor, the Cincinnati Reds, was just the home team the day before; this was just a place to play baseball. Fortunately for the fans, it's also a place you can watch baseball, and because of low demand, it is a place you can watch baseball on a budget. I guess I didn't realize it before hand, but two seats on the lawn for the Reds and Indians in Goodyear comes to $9, with the buy one for $8, get a second for a buck promotion they run.
With random first-come, first-serve seating for the lawn, sometimes you are just at the mercy of what's available on the grass. In Goodyear, we picked out what spot we were going to target a week before the first game was played there in February 2009, and sit there about 80% of the time. Our spot, right in front of the flag pole on the right center field berm was wide open for us when we arrived about 20 minutes Ubaldo Jimenez's fist pitch on Sunday. For the first time in 2012, I was sitting in my spot on the lawn, just appreciating the moment.
Actually, I skipped a part, the most important part. When we got to our spot, before we set up shop, the players were lined up down the 1st and 3rd baseline with all eyes on the Color Guard at second base. There was a moment of silence for Chardon, my first in a large gathering, which would accompany the many private reflective moments that I was ready to shed tears for the situation. The thing about getting homesick, the meat and potatoes of being away from home like I am, is that you miss out on the moments when you feel you need to be home. A tragedy that hits your community, and everything finds its way into a proper perpective, especially for a sports crazy like myself.
As far as I'm concerned, the addition of Bertman's Mustard, which was curiously absent from concession stands in Year One, is now only the second most Cleveland moment thing about the ballpark. Sure, this tragedy was a national story, but taking that time, as obvious as it was to do so, brought a familiar compassion to the desert. You wouldn't get that with a Boston-esque scale model of Jacobs Field in Arizona.
After that, everything is casual. There's Ubaldo giving up five runs in the time it took to register three outs, truthfully on quite a few soft "him'em where they ain't" swings and careless defense. There's the comedy, or horror, of Christian Guzman channeling his inner Fausto (inner Roberto?) by spiking himself rounding second base; he is such a perfect fit for the #0 on the back of his jersey. There's the brief moment of excitement for Shelly Duncan's 3-run jack to make it 5-3 in the first, before realizing that you're watching a meaningless game on March 4th. There's the dismissal of the need for sun screen for the simple fact that it was February last week, and the inevitable pain brought about by sunburn come the 3rd inning. That 3rd inning offered us Aroldis Champman working on mechanics, and a very likable scoreless inning from Josh Tomlin.
We left the game early, and acceptable practice for those who spectate meaningless games in the sunshine, to avoid potential gridlock with NASCAR traffic. The Reds 7-6 lead was padded by a Dioner Navarro home run of CC Sabathia trade piece Rob Bryson to make the final 8-6. Before loading up on merch I didn't need from the gift shop, I witnessed the royalty walking with the peasants, and wondered why they were dressed for the Arctic on such a nice day. Seriously, the black fleece is too much on a 90 degree day. By the way, it was 90 on Sunday without a cloud in the sky. Those cold days of Arizona that I mention, days that most people don't talk about, we won't be seeing them no more.
Viva la Spring Training, see you at the ballpark.