(Originally posted on Squeezebunt.com in 1999.)
Fourteen Cactus League games in 13 days. I haven't seen so much baseball in such a short period of time since I was a newspaper sports editor in the early 80's covering the Black Hills Titans of the Jayhawk League, a college summer league. The average fan probably wonders what's so hard about playing baseball every day, but on this trip I started dragging after day 10, and I wasn't even playing. My admiration for Cal Ripken has soared.
The best part of the trip was seeing so many top players within a brief time. Where else but the Cactus League can you see Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa hit homers in different stadiums on the same day?
The hitters seem to be ready after two weeks of spring training, so this month of exhibition games must be more important to the pitchers. Based on what I saw during those first two weeks, the pitchers need all the preparation they can get. The few "name" pitchers (Todd Stottlemyre, Steve Trachsel) got bounced around pretty good. Here are my awards, based solely on what I saw during the two weeks.
MVP: Sammy Sosa. Electric presence, hit three home runs in three games.
Cy Young: Anyone who pitched more than one inning without giving up a bomb.
Gold Glove: Seattle's John Mabry ran down a long fly in the outfield.
Most Disappointing: Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mo Vaughn. In five Mariner games I can only recall one Junior single. I saw the Angels twice, with Mo going 0-0 with a sac fly in the first game and sitting out the second, apparently due to the one day of cool, wet weather we had during the two weeks.
Men Want to be Him, Women Want to Marry Him: Female Cub fans seem particularly fond of veteran first baseman Mark Grace.
Worst Experience: Having my rental car break down in Tucson.
Best Ball Park Atmosphere: Mesa's HoHoKam Park, always full of enthusiastic Cub fans.
Best Facility: Tucson Electric, followed closely by Peoria. In addition to having excellent stadiums, these facilities offer good access and parking.
Most Cosmopolitan Surroundings: Scottsdale, without a doubt.
Best Lawn: Scottsdale. The only berm with trees, so at least a few spectators can stake out a spot in the shade. It's also the most expensive lawn, $6 vs. as little as $3 elsewhere. If you prefer a frat party to shade, Peoria's $4 lawn might be your choice.
Most Scenic Surroundings: Phoenix Municipal Stadium, on the edge of Papago Park.
Most Like a Shopping Mall (not that that's a bad thing): Peoria.
Overrated: "The only Jumbotron scoreboard in the Cactus League" at HoHoKam Park is used mainly to play commercials. By comparison, the scoreboard at Hi Corbett Field is simple but they take the effort to tell you the batter is 1-for-2 on the day.
Bargain: With $4 bleacher seats and free parking, Hi Corbett Field.
Top Distraction: During lulls in the action at Tucson Electric you can watch A-10 attack planes buzzing around nearby Davis-Monthan AFB. (Also receiving votes, the visit of the Hooter Girls to Peoria.)
Best Food: Preliminary findings indicate Peoria has the best selection. Further research is required.
Clubs and Ballparks
Cubs, HoHoKam Park, Mesa: Sosa is the big attraction, and Grace also has a big following. It's like little Chicago with everyone sitting around reading the Tribune. Groans echoed through the stadium when the extent of Kerry Woods' injury became apparent. HoHoKam Park is the biggest (12,000) spring training stadium, and they need the capacity. Tickets, traffic and parking could be problems if you don't plan ahead.
Giants, Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale: Decent team led by Bonds, but maybe just short of being a contender. Planning may help you avoid avoid ticket and parking headaches. Downtown Scottsdale has free parking, but the catch is you might have to walk a distance or catch a shuttle bus to the stadium. One day I parked in a very large unpaved lot a couple blocks north of the stadium, but that might not be available next year. (Update: There's now a building on that lot.)
Athletics, Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Phoenix: 1998 Rookie of the Year Ben Grieve looks like the real deal. Eric Chavez is being promoted as the top candidate for that award in 1999. I didn't see Chavez do anything spectacular in four games, but he seemed to fit in as a major league player. The A's have plenty of hitters but not much pitching. The stadium is old but in good repair. The press box is about the size of a closet, but what does the typical fan care about that? Tickets, traffic and parking should not be a problem for most games.
Angels, Tempe Diablo Stadium, Tempe: Opponents, save your left-handed pitching for the Angels. Of the likely first four hitters, Jim Edmonds, Darin Erstad, Mo Vaughn and Tim Salmon, only Salmon bats right-handed. With a good pitching staff, the Angels are a solid playoff contender. The stadium is comfortable enough, and tickets, traffic and parking should not be a problem for most games.
Brewers, Maryvale Baseball Park, Phoenix: I guess Jeromy Burnitz is the star of this team. Maybe with a new stadium going up back in Milwaukee, the team is on its way up. But that's not expected this year. Maryvale is a fine new stadium, and tickets should be attainable for most games. The problem I had was traffic after the game. The parking lots empty onto a busy street, and it took quite a while to get out of the lot.
Padres and Mariners, Peoria Stadium, Peoria: The Padres are defending National League champs, but they lost quite a bit in the off-season. Tony Gwynn is still there. The Mariners have two stars in Griffey and Alex Rodriguez, with Jay Buhner coming back from injury. But at times last year their bullpen was the worst anyone has ever seen. Jose Mesa might help. With games almost every day, it is possible to see lots of top players without leaving Peoria. There are plenty of concessions behind the stands which gives the stadium a carnival-like atmosphere. The facility is fairly new and the infrastructure provides good traffic flow and adequate parking, but for best seat selection you might want to arrange tickets in advance.
Rockies, Hi Corbett Field, Tucson: The Rocks now have managerial genius Jim Leyland. With Vinny Castilla, Larry Walker and Dante Bichette taking care of the offense, Leyland has to figure out how to get enough pitching. Hi Corbett Field is the most historic of the Cactus League stadiums, but all the seating is new. Next time I go there, I will bypass the more expensive seats and get cheap bleacher tickets. The view is at least as good, maybe better. Best of all, there is free, on-site parking. One odd thing is the field is laid out opposite of most other fields, so in the afternoon the sun is behind the center fielder. As a result, only a few seats are ever in shade, but the fielders should never lose the ball in the sun.
White Sox and Diamondbacks, Tucson Electric Park, Tucson: Frank Thomas looked good the day I saw him and I predict he will improve on a lethargic 1998. But the rest of the White Sox team is young. I wasn't lucky enough to catch a Randy Johnson start, but the second-year Diamondbacks might be able to compete for the division. The two-year-old Tucson Electric Park which the two teams share is great, with ample parking. Tickets probably aren't a problem for most games.