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Cactus League blossoms with new ballparks and teams

Take a park-by-park tour of what Arizona has to offer spring training fans.

March 07, 2010|By Charlie Vascellaro | Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • When the Peoria Sports Complex opened in 1994, Peoria, Ariz., was barely a blip on the map, and it initiated the league's movement into the West Valley.
When the Peoria Sports Complex opened in 1994, Peoria, Ariz., was barely… (Charlie Vascellaro )

Reporting from Phoenix — If you think change is the only constant, spring training in Arizona will fit nicely with your belief system.

From its humble beginnings as a two-team hideaway in 1947, Arizona has enjoyed growth spurts that have made it competitive with Florida's Citrus League, to the delight of Southern California fans who are much closer to their teams.

The Cincinnati Reds jumped ship to Arizona this year, bringing to 15 the number of teams in each league. Their new home is the Goodyear Ballpark, a $108-million facility it shares with the Cleveland Indians, who made the move last spring.

I found much to like at this park, but I was especially enchanted with the "Ziz," a crazy piece of modern sculpture named for a giant water bird of Hebrew mythology. You'll find the "Ziz" at the main entrance. It looks like an elongated baseball crossed with a ship's sail and a seagull. At a height of 60 feet, 6 inches (the distance between the major league pitcher's mound and home plate), it seems like something out of this world.

The other newish tenants in this part of Arizona are the Dodgers and the White Sox. The Dodgers ditched Florida and the Sox abandoned Tucson to take up residence at Camelback Ranch Stadium, a $100-million facility in Glendale where they trained last spring. It seems, by turns, spacious and scenic. It is a long walk from the parking lot to the entrance, and once you're inside, you have another long walk around the lake and grounds to get to the ballpark. But it just may be the most scenic stroll in any of the league's parks. Trails lined with thousands of trees begin at each of the two parking lots bordering the complex and wind through the practice fields where fans mingle among the players. The lower seating bowl feels as big as the field level section in most big-league ballparks.

These ballparks have stolen the crown from Surprise Stadium, which opened in 2003 in Surprise, Ariz., about 13 miles from Camelback Ranch. The Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers settled into the $48.3-million complex, becoming the 11th and 12th teams to join the league.

The fan-friendly Maryvale Baseball Park, which opened in 1998 in the neighborhood of the same name, is where the Brewers practice and play. It's easy to get autographs here. Teams home and away leave near the right field corner.

When the Peoria Sports Complex opened in 1994, Peoria, Ariz., was barely a blip on the map, and it initiated the league's movement into the West Valley. It's 11 miles from Camelback Ranch and is home to the San Diego Padres, the Dodgers' fierce rivals, and the could-be-fearsome Seattle Mariners.

The Angels, meanwhile, are about 30 miles east at Tempe Diablo Stadium, built in 1968 and home to the Angels since '92. It has majestic views of the Tempe Buttes, but its backdrop is the drone of traffic buzzing by on Interstate 10 just beyond the outfield wall. I get a little nostalgic whenever I'm in Tempe, home of Arizona State University, my alma mater. There's always plenty to do in the bustling college neighborhood, but my favorite thing to do after a game is visit the bar at the Marriott Buttes (200 Westcourt Way) for a cold drink and a plate of nachos while waiting out rush hour traffic.

Spring home of the Oakland Athletics since 1984, Phoenix Municipal Stadium is the granddaddy of Cactus League parks. It opened in 1966 and is a repository of memories, having been the home of the San Francisco Giants AAA minor league squad for almost 30 years before Arizona was granted its major-league franchise in 1998. Locals call it, affectionately of course, "Muni" or "Old Muni."

Four miles away in Old Town, an old wooden bandbox of a ballpark once stood where there's now a classically designed red-brick ballpark that's the home of the San Francisco Giants. Scottsdale Stadium old (1956) and new (remodeled in 1992) has served as spring home to five major-league teams. I am a partner on a pair of season tickets right on top the Giants dugout, which provides, for my money, one of the best up-close views of the action anywhere in the league. The post-game parties extend for miles in every direction, but my favorite local watering hole is Karsen's Bar & Grille (7246 E. 1st St.), about three blocks away.

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