It happens every spring. We'll all be sitting out by the pool at the Sunburst Resort Hotel in Scottsdale, Ariz., rehashing the ball game some of us saw some part of that afternoon, when suddenly there will come forth from a room at poolside the iridescent figure of Charles S. (Chub) Feeney. Chub will have arrived in town sometime earlier that afternoon, probably from somewhere colder, and will have shed conventional business attire for his technicolor spring training wardrobe.
We all know what will come next. Scarcely acknowledging our languid presence, Chub will stretch white arms from chartreuse polo shirt, look up into the bright blue skies and bellow operatically to no one in particular, "Oh, but it is grand to be here in the bee-yootiful Valley of the Sun." This accomplished, he will then join the chaise longue cocktail banter as the sky turns crimson in the west.
Feeney, who is now president of the San Diego Padres after having retired from 17 years as president of the National League, is dead right about the Valley of the Sun. It is beautiful and it is grand to be there soaking up some rays in the dry climate and watching and talking a little baseball. In fact, there's nothing quite like spring training in Arizona. It's an entirely different experience from spring training in Florida—"slower, sweeter and somehow better fixed in memory," as Roger Angell once wrote in The New Yorker.
Feeney recognized these virtues when he first came to the Southwest for spring training in 1947 as a young executive with the New York Giants, then owned by his uncle, Horace Stoneham. As New York fans would learn a decade later, Stoneham was a man of westward leanings. It was Bill Veeck, then running the Cleveland Indians, who first discussed with Stoneham the possibility of moving to Arizona. Veeck had bought a ranch near Tucson after World War II, and he knew he could spend a lot more time at it if he could get his team to train somewhere nearby in the spring. And why not? The spring weather is generally better and certainly drier in Arizona than in Florida, where the Indians had been training. A team could get a lot accomplished on one of those cloudless 80° days. So Veeck and Stoneham decided to try out the new territory in the spring of 1947.
February 15, 1988
The spring training rivalry between the Indians and the Giants dated back to 1934. Originally, the two teams would leave Florida in late March and barnstorm their way north. Veeck proposed that the teams now work their way east from Arizona. Stoneham ended up liking what he saw out there. (Liked it so much, in fact, that, at age 85, he now lives there year-round.) He would take the north (Phoenix) and Veeck would have the south (Tucson). It was a geographical split similar to one Stoneham would agree to with Walter O'Malley of the Dodgers in California in 1957.
The Indians and the Giants pioneered spring training in the desert. And it was pretty much desert in those days. Tucson was a small town, and Phoenix hadn't a tenth of the nearly one million citizens it has today. But the two teams weren't out there all by themselves, exactly. Any number of minor league teams trained in the vicinity, and the Pirates, White Sox and Cubs were all working out in those days in Southern California, which wasn't all that far away.
The transplanted Indians and Giants seemed to prosper right away in that arid clime. The Giants set a National League home run record in '47, and the Indians won the World Series the next year. In 1951, the Giants and the Yankees traded spring homes for just the one year and ended up meeting in the World Series, the Phoenix-trained Yankees beating the St. Petersburg-trained Giants. Then in the '54 Series, the Giants, back in Arizona, by now for good, swept the Indians.
Other teams were drawn to the desert. The Cubs, who had trained since 1921 (excepting the war years) on Catalina Island off the Southern California coast, moved to Mesa in 1952; the Orioles went to Yuma in 1954 and then from 1956 through 1958 to Scottsdale; and the Red Sox came out for a seven-year stay in Scottsdale in 1959.
There are eight teams in the Cactus League now. The Indians are still in Tucson, playing as they have from the start on wonderful little Hi Corbett Field. The Giants are now in Scottsdale, the Cubs in Mesa, the Athletics in Phoenix, the Seattle Mariners in Tempe and the Milwaukee Brewers in Chandler. The Angels spend the first four weeks of spring training in Mesa, the last two weeks in Palm Springs. And though the Padres are based some 180 miles away in Yuma, they put in at least one two-week stretch in Scottsdale.
Here's the beauty of it: The Phoenix, Tempe, Mesa and Scottsdale ballparks are all within a half hour's drive of one another. In the event all four had a game scheduled at home for the same day, a particularly diligent fan might catch at least an inning or two of each game. I know I have been to parts of at least three games on the same day on one or two frenetic occasions.
The ballparks are, for the most part, miniature masterworks of baseball architecture, relics from the classical period of the game. Scottsdale Stadium is no more of a "stadium," in the current sense of the term, than the Old North Church is a cathedral. It seats just 4,721, and its green wooden stands are so close to the field you can hear the players chew their sunflower seeds. Tempe Diablo Stadium, with its Spanish arches, looks like some place the Magnificent Seven might have been called on to defend. Phoenix Stadium, the A's home, is hard by Papago Park and has a view of Camelback Mountain over the leftfield fence. The Cubs' HoHoKam Park gets its name from an extinct Indian tribe and is a funky architectural jumble that keeps growing like Topsy—current seating capacity is just over 8,000, up from some 4,000 at its opening—and the team still can't keep up with the demand for tickets. The Cubs started setting spring training attendance records three years ago, and the limit is not yet in sight. Last year they drew 106,313 for the 15 HoHoKam games. And this is a park where beer is not sold in the stands.
The general chumminess that prevails in springtime Arizona extends from the ballparks to the restaurants at night. The players themselves don't get out as much as they used to, probably because they now make enough money to put themselves and their families up in condos of baronial splendor. If they should desire company of an evening, they simply entertain in their own quarters. The older players still get around some, though. Don Sutton, when he was with the A's and the Angels, was a regular at the Pink Pony, the legendary little Scottsdale steak house that is properly known as the best baseball hangout in the land (FOCUS, March 17, 1986). The Pony's staples are juicy sirloins and hot-stove chatter. When a big league talker of the caliber of A's executive Bill Rigney is receiving visitors in a front-row booth, an attentive fan will find himself in anecdote heaven: "Well, my roomie back in '47 was Big John Mize. That was the year he hit 51 out of the park. We called him the Big Cat. Now, say we're playing the Chicagos. Every morning the Cat would get out of bed, light up a cigar and lean out the hotel window to see which way the wind was blowing. If his cigar smoke blew the right way, he'd say, 'Roomie, I'm gonna hit a pair today.' If it was blowing wrong, he'd just get back into bed and pull the covers over his head. Then there was the time...."
The Pony is the hangout, but right in Scottsdale there are enough good restaurants within walking distance of the ballpark that there's no danger a body will starve.
And then there is the weather. Oh, it will rain occasionally down there in March, and when it does, the temperature most often drops abruptly, which always comes as a shock to the system. The streets also flood; the Phoenix area in particular is demonstrably incapable of absorbing even the mildest of downpours. If it rains for an hour, they call out the Red Cross. But the good days, and there are many of them, defy comparison. In the summer, Arizona makes the Sahara seem like a spa, but in the spring, temperatures rarely climb much above 80°. There are exceptions, of course. In my first prolonged spring there, in 1972, there was a week or so of 90° days. But it's dry heat, as they say, and even the hot spells don't leave you looking as if you had just been fished out of the river.
The weather does require some adjustment by the players, however. The dry air offers so little resistance that batted balls can carry extraordinary distances. To protect against these airborne homers, most of the power alleys in the Arizona ballparks are 400 feet or more from home plate—420 at Tempe Diablo—and the centerfield fences, most of them topped off by 30-foot-high backdrops, can go 430. Batting practice, when proud sluggers take aim at those remote reaches, is show time. When he was a rookie in 1986, Jose Canseco put on such a show before A's games that fans started arriving several hours early to be sure to catch his act. Canseco rarely disappointed, clobbering ooh-inspiring shots into the sagebrush and the freeways beyond the distant fences. It was obvious that, like any good entertainer, he was rejoicing in his own prowess; so much so, in fact, that Athletics hitting coach Bob Watson had to take him to task during the season for wasting so many of his good swings before the game. That stuff was good theater in the spring, Watson told the rookie, but the championship season was no time for the buck-and-wing. For all of the showboating, Canseco still won the Rookie of the Year award.
The mostly cloudless or "high" skies pose yet another problem for the players in that fly balls, even pop-ups, can simply disappear overhead, where there are no dark clouds to frame the ball. "I just lost it" may be a lame excuse elsewhere, but in Arizona it is a perfectly acceptable alibi. The pursuit of the invisible ball is often, for fans at least, the source of high comedy, a scene out of Topper. Outfielders renowned for their sure fielding touch may be seen standing with faces turned helplessly upward, gloved hand waving to fend off the unseen, eyes blindly searching the stratosphere as the ball descends untouched only a few feet away. Even Willie Mays had days there when he looked like Lucy van Pelt.
Despite that climatic handicap, there is almost no night baseball in Arizona spring training. And that makes glad the hearts of those baseball purists who reject lights, domes, phony turf and all the other purported advances that have afflicted the game in the past few decades. It's also fine with the sunbathers who flock to the little parks as if they were so many resorts on the Riviera. On one of those brilliant spring days, the Phoenix ballpark, in particular, can look like a sanctuary for recumbent nudists. Arizona has its share of geezers, that's certain, but there are also enough college youths on the premises to give the place that beach-blanket look. The age mix is apparent in all the parks, where old-timers who recall the Gashouse Gang mingle with bronzed young gods and goddesses who consider the Giants' Will Clark a decrepit veteran.
A notable exception to the prevailing demographics was Sun City Stadium, where, from 1973 through 1985, the Brewers played their spring games. Sun City is a retirement community, and the ballpark there was built to accommodate the residents, most of whom puttered over to it from their nearby villas in electric golf carts. Spectators were protected from potentially lethal foul balls by a high fence that spanned the stands from foul pole to foul pole. This was probably an unneccessary precaution; many of the fans preferred watching the games from their carts parked on the runway back of the stands. The Brewers moved to Compadre Stadium in Chandler for spring training in 1986, and since then their games have sorely lacked that special geriatric ambience.
Possibly because the teams that train in Arizona play in such happy proximity, a fan there feels a sense of community impossible to duplicate in other places. For a month or more, we are all buddies there, no matter which of the teams commands our devotion. And in the evening we can sit around over a few beers, comparing notes: "Hey, did you see the stop that kid Weiss made today?"
When the season starts I find myself pulling for the teams that trained in Arizona. True, there hasn't been a World Series winner from there since the A's won their third straight in '74, but these teams have come close a few times and have had their share of division champions and pennant winners in both leagues. Don't forget '82, when the Angels and the Brewers played off for the American League pennant, or '84, when the Cubs and Padres fought for the National League title. And, hey, watch out for those young Giants and the renovated A's this year. Could an all-Arizona, all-Bay Area World Series be in the works?
I don't know about you, but I'll be down by the pool come March just waiting for old Chub, in all of his sartorial splendor, to step outside into that sun and declare his love for the Valley. I guess it's no secret by now—I share his passion. It is bee-youtiful.