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Weekend Escape

Umpire of the Sun

It's game time in Arizona. Hot rays, cool drinks and favorite major league baseball players in a minor league setting-how sweet it is.

March 04, 2001|SHERRY STERN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHOENIX — We were in seats just beyond first base, the sun beating on our backs, with Tony Gwynn stretching out just 20 feet away. We stretched out too-reaching for an icy beer-and wallowed in the geniality of the Peoria Sports Complex, the spring home of the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners.

My husband, C.P., and I love baseball, and we love sunshine even more. So a trip to spring training, where workouts began mid-February and games run through April 1, had long tempted us. After all, it's a chance to see major league players in a minor league atmosphere, up close and human. What could be sweeter?

So last year we made the trip. Phoenix offers accommodations for any budget, with plenty of low-cost motels near the six Cactus League parks in and around the city. (Two more parks are a few hours south in Tucson.) We opted for a somewhat upscale site, the Buttes, a Wyndham resort in Tempe, where a masseuse and fancy pool awaited us. The plan was to see my National League team, the Padres, on Friday and my American League team, the Anaheim Angels, on Sunday. That left Saturday for that critical do-nothing time.

We took an early Friday flight from Orange County into Sky Harbor International Airport, rented a car and ate breakfast at a local chain with the irresistible name of the Good Egg. Filled with a pot of coffee and freeway tips from the host, we looked over used bookstores, then headed northwest about 30 minutes to Peoria. There, in the land of retirees, we found the Peoria Sports Complex.

We'd heard that Chicago Cubs games at HoHoKam Park sell out, but that at other Arizona parks, fans can walk up and buy tickets. We did just that. When we arrived, all seats between first and third base were sold, but all I cared about was sitting close to Gwynn, the Padres batting stud who is my all-time favorite player. So we happily paid $24 for two seats down the first-base line. (No surprise that the price has gone up this year to $26 a pair.) Real penny-pinchers can plop down just $4 and spread out on the lush grass in either outfield.

There was a smattering of Giants fans in the stands, but it was essentially a San Diego crowd, and I like San Diego crowds. They like to have fun, they chatter knowledgeably about their team and they make friends with the person in the next seat.

A young woman attempted the national anthem in about half a dozen keys, and then there was the first play of the game: A San Francisco player bunted, and a Padres catcher's throw to first veered sharply into the stands. We needed no more reminders that this was spring training.

Didn't matter. The game was a slugfest, with each team taking turns at the lead. Thanks to Gwynn and a mid-game appearance by my second-favorite Padre, reliever Trevor Hoffman, San Diego outscored the Giants. Clearly, the coming season looked promising, right? (OK, so the Padres finished the season in last place.)

Once the Padres put the game away, we headed southwest to Tempe. At rush hour it took a good 50 minutes, but who cared? At home, commuting may be bad, but when you're on vacation, it's just seeing how the locals live.

We found the Buttes easily. Walking around the edge of the hotel grounds, we couldn't help but hear and see cars whizzing by on Interstate 10. In what seems an attempt to mask the noise, the Buttes has waterfalls throughout the property. They did the trick, making us forget the traffic.

Despite all my careful research, we were stunned to see the Angels' spring training park, Tempe Diablo Stadium, about 50 paces from our wing of the hotel. I was, however, disappointed to find that massages were booked all day Saturday and Sunday morning.

The Buttes complex is attractive, a series of low buildings set in red rock formations.

We found our way to Old Town, several blocks of restaurants and stores popular with the Arizona State University crowd. Old it mostly is not, however. Despite an abundance of hole-in-the-wall college bars, the area has been overtaken by chain restaurants and chain stores. Thankfully a friend had recommended Caffe Boa, a tiny Italian spot on South Mill Street with a patio in back and a few tables out front. It's a real find, a hip spot with no pretensions, just quietly making delicious food. Everything was just right, including my fettuccine with mushrooms and Parmesan and C.P.'s agnolotti topped with a tomato cream sauce. The neighborhood was ideal for after-dinner strolling before the short ride back to the Buttes.

We've spent enough time at resorts to know that the early bird catches the best chaise longue. So I was out by 8:30 the next morning and, sure enough, many prime spots were already taken. But we found a nice shady spot tucked next to a rocky hillside.

A family atmosphere reigned, but with various levels for sunning and a huge pool, the setting was pretty and peaceful.

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