Play Ball! It’s major league spring training time in the Phoenix area, with (count ‘em) 15 Cactus League teams slugging away at one another.
Sue and I have been making the spring trek for the past few years, and on a recent night we wolfed down hot dogs and watched the Dodgers take on the arch-rival San Francisco Giants. And how those Gintz fans howled as their Bay Boys whipped the guys from Chavez Ravine, 5-3.
From the screams and high-fives you’d think it was September and a playoff berth was at stake. Ever since the Dodgers moved from their longtime training grounds at Vero Beach, Florida, to the 141-acre Camelback Ranch complex in Glendale, L.A. fans have been jumping into cars for the desert jaunt.
About 13,500 fans filled the park, which, with a center field fence 410 feet away, is larger than many major league stadiums, a Dodger official told me. One reason for the size: At 1,100 feet or so above sea level, the ball carries farther. No point in giving rookies false confidence with cheap homers, I guess.
Camelback Ranch is big and beautiful. You can sprawl out on the grassy knoll, see the action, and let the kids romp. You can also watch the game while standing in line for the bathroom, something not ordinarily possible at Dodger Stadium, which by the way is showing its age compared with magnificent new stadiums out here. In the eighth inning of the Dodgers-Giants game, a guy was heard to yell out from the end of the bathroom line: “Anyone up there want to change places? I’m about to pee in my pants.” Guys up front promptly cleared a path for his urinal sprint.
I didn’t see ex-manager Tommy Lasorda this trip but did notice Fernando Valenzuela, of Fernandomania days, now a Dodgers’ broadcaster, quietly eating dinner across the room.
Not only is the spring weather better in Arizona compared with rainy Florida, but it’s easy for teams to compete because there are so many nearby clubs, an official said. Traveling to another Florida town to play a team often involved a lot of time and sometimes an overnight stay, he said.
With new stadiums popping up all over the Valley of the Sun, Cactus League spring training has ballooned into a $250 million economic boost for the area, reportedly drawing 1.7 million fans.
So what do you do between games? Well, in case you picture this as Geezerville, one big retirement home, be advised that this is a party town that won’t quit. New to me was chef Richard Sandoval’s tequila tasting bar at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess, where I sipped mescal for the first time since my Mexico days, and nibbled pork carnitas sliders, freshly made guacamole, and mahi-mahi tacos.
Downtown Phoenix is turning into a hot spot, with places like The Arrogant Butcher, a trendy yet informal comfort-food-meets-urban-grill, near Chase Field baseball park where the Diamondbacks play. The young crowd lunches and TGIFs here. The turkey sloppy joe with grilled poblano was a tasty mouthful, paired with a huge chopped salmon salad. 2 East Jefferson. You can rent the pools at Chase Field for $3,000 a game. The All-Star game will be played there July 12.
Another hot spot is the Culinary Dropout, one of restaurateur Sam Fox’s hip eateries, in the Scottsdale Waterfront, along the gentrified canal. The $20-and-under menu featured dishes like pork belly Cubano, grilled cheese sliders, chilled oysters, and ricotta gnocchi. Drinks run to the exotic: Velvet Death (gin), Brazilianaire (cachaca), and Smashed Irishman (Tullamore Dew whiskey). 7135 East Camelback Road.
The Pink Pony Steakhouse has been a baseball lovers’ hangout since 1949, jammed with memorabilia and a short walk through Scottsdale’s Old Town from Scottsdale Stadium, where one night we watched the Giants take on the Diamondbacks. The Pink Pony’s a lively joint and fortunately reopened in February after being closed for a while. 3381 North Scottsdale Road.
Sue and I had to leave the game early to head back to the 15-story Talking Stick (yep, that’s the name of the new resort on Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community land). Attraction, you might have guessed: gambling (and smoking). The main floor was jammed with folks gaming away their dough. I was there to meet my sister Joyce and nieces Lynn and Nancy Black, all non-gaming, non-smoking locals, up in the sleek Orange Sky lounge and dining room, with a night view of the sparkling lights of the valley.
Talking Stick refers to the “calendar stick” once maintained by tribal leaders to mark special events such as a flood or eclipse.
Sue and I spent a night at the 80-year-old rejuvenated Wigwam, founded when Goodyear tire execs came out from the East to inspect fields that supplied cotton for tire-making. It’s a comfy place on 440 acres west of Phoenix. Local sports executive Jerry Colangelo bought the Wigwam a couple of years ago and launched a $7 million renovation. At night, it’s pleasant to sit out around one of the fire rings and chat.
In summer, as the temperature rises, resort rates plummet. And there’s no place I’d rather be than the Hyatt Regency in Scottsdale, a virtual water park, with one pool after another. Even a sandy beach. I settled for a hot rocks massage at the spa. The heat penetrates your body and warms your bones.
Then I dropped in at the classic Arizona Biltmore, which opened in 1929, just in time for the Depression. The peevish Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in the design. (A visit to Wright’s Taliesin West winter home and school in eastern Scottsdale is a must. It’s open to tours.) Sue and I dived into a plate of olive oil-crisped grouper right out of Mexican waters at Rocky Point, along with an organic celery Caesar salad at Frank & Albert’s informal restaurant.
Some locals maintain that the region’s most creative dishes are at the Westin Kierland Resort, where chef de cuisine Roberto Madrid has put together a knockout menu of Nuevo Latino dishes in a gorgeous room, Deseo. Vivid paintings by resident artist Nelson Garcia-Miranda grace the walls. The Cuban-born painter was washing dishes there, but when hotel folks spotted his work, he became an honored star. Top dishes for us: lobster ceviche, “millionaire” tacos, and fiery shrimp chicharron, with pickled jalapenos.
You won’t find the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale down on the flatland. It’s up in the hills, where at night you can sip a mojito on the patio and gaze down at the distant lights of town. A beautiful array of flames (safely) warmed our dinner table. Surprising to some, Arizona makes excellent wine and we sampled some Arizona Stronghold while trying the shrimp, herb gnocchi, and chanterelle mushroom dish; sea bass with lobster mac and cheese; and caramelized ricotta cheesecake.
We were blown away by the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, featuring 12,000 instruments from around the world, in weird and wonderful shapes and sounds. Virtually every country in the world is represented. As you stroll from one exhibit to another, your earphones pick up music being made by musicians in the videos. www.themim.org. If you only have time to do one thing, go here. “The best museum you ever heard,” someone cracked.
We always make time for the outstanding Desert Botanical Gardens, nestled among the red buttes of Papago Park and host to one of the world’s best collections of cactus, succulents, and other desert plants. There are 139 rare, threatened, and endangered plant species there.
And don’t miss the world-famous Heard Museum in downtown Phoenix, where 250,000 visitors a year go to ponder the culture of Native Americans of the Southwest.