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Diamonds in the Desert : Arizona's Cactus League Is Where Baseball Fans Catch Spring Training Fever

March 15, 1992|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

PHOENIX — Good news, everybody. Bill Robinson is managing in Shreveport this year.

I know this because I've been five days with the Cactus League in Phoenix and environs, inspecting diamonds of dirt and grass, gazing upon wide skies and distant hills, listening to desert birdcalls and baseball chatter about the famous and the half-forgotten.

On a Thursday morning, I sat in the gorgeous new $7-million Scottsdale Stadium and watched Willie Mays, 60 years old and squeezed into a San Francisco Giants uniform once again, casually snap his mitt to make a catch behind his back.

On Friday at more crowded, less lovely (but nonetheless beloved) HoHoKam Park in Mesa, I sampled a $2 slice of ballpark pizza as Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, recent signatory to a $31-million contract, yawned and stretched before his turn at bat.

On Saturday, I stood under a burst of spring showers in Phoenix Municipal Stadium, home away from home of the Oakland Athletics, as a rainbow rose beyond the center field fence.

For more than 40 years, baseball players and baseball fans have been gathering here for the annual rite of spring training, and they'll be at it this year until April 2.

"My favorite part of the whole thing is the workouts," said Mike Haugen, a 47-year-old baseball pilgrim from Bremerton, Wash., who stood in a damp stadium hallway that day, waiting to collect autographs for his grandson. "Every year, I know I'll be down here."

The players pass uncluttered hours under the sun, fighting for jobs and feigning nonchalance. The fans watch and loll, talking of matters such as Robinson, a player, coach and manager for two decades, and Shreveport, La., home of a Giants minor league team since 1980. The retired old-timers share bleacher space with depressurizing middle-agers and young families, whose children scramble after home run balls and cling to the dugout tops, pleading for autographs.

"Thanks, man," said Brandon Hannaman, 13, of Tempe, to Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. after such a transaction one afternoon at Diablo Stadium in Tempe. "God, he's a stud," the boy added, inspecting the scribble.

The most serious fans treat this ritual accordingly: They make reservations three months in advance, perch behind home plate and earnestly question coaches, using first names. The less serious arrive on a few days' notice and watch what games and workouts they can. There's plenty of atmosphere to go around, and even though latecomers are sometimes left with costly, cruddy or inconvenient hotel rooms, they seem satisfied.

"I don't even know what I'm paying for my room. I was reading the sports page the other day, and I just said to myself, 'What the hell,' " said Mel Teulon, watching batting practice on the first day of exhibition games. He had driven 1,800 miles from Swift Current, Saskatchewan, picking up two speeding tickets on the way, and he may have been the most cheerful man in the Tempe ballpark.

This year the Chicago Cubs, San Francisco Giants, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners, San Diego Padres, Cleveland Indians and California Angels have training camps in Arizona, most of them in or adjacent to Phoenix. (The rest of the major league teams play in Florida's Grapefruit League.)

Within about 45 minutes' drive, one can find home games of the Cubs--who for years have been the hottest ticket in town--the Giants, the Brewers, the Athletics and the Mariners. Consequently, a committed fan can spend a lot of time driving around Phoenix, admiring its red earth, regretting its scores of strip malls and seeking out its ballparks.

Still, this is not paradise with batting gloves. When the Giants and Cleveland Indians started coming to Arizona in 1948, it was a chance for athletes to train in Spartan conditions, warm weather and relative isolation. These days, ticket sales are transacted months in advance, owners and civic officials dicker yearly over team relocations, a retail autograph market burgeons, and scalpers get as much as $50 for a Cubs ticket. The whole thing, some old-timers say, is on the verge of being ruined by big money.

"Because of the sheer volume of people who are coming out now, we're having to adopt some of the policies you see in big-league parks," acknowledged David Salow, spring training coordinator for the A's. "I've heard some stories about when the Red Sox trained out here in the 1950s, and you could walk right out on the field and talk to Ted Williams. We don't let folks walk on the field."

But no enterprise that offers a free peak at Willie Mays in uniform (employed in an unofficial capacity as an instructor during the spring) is quite ruined yet. Baseball in Arizona merely operates these days on a more complicated equation, equal parts innocence, indolence and commerce.

The news about Bill Robinson and Shreveport, La., came to me in the grandstand of Scottsdale Stadium. My informant was Dubb Ford, 72 years old, usually a resident of Hornersville, Mo., and a fine example of a serious fan.

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