Spring Training: Why Arizona Beats Florida
March 11, 2014
Wall Street Journal
We Try to See Eight Games in Arizona in the Time It Takes to Return From One in Florida
PHOENIX--For decades, baseball's traditional spring-training home was Florida. But from the window seat of a descending plane, it is hard to miss the many baseball diamonds that now dot the Valley of the Sun.
Fifteen teams--half of Major League Baseball--hold their spring training in the Cactus League, all within a 25-mile radius of downtown Phoenix. As recently as 2008, only nine teams were here. But since then, three teams have moved north from Tucson and another three have migrated from Florida. The shift has made greater Phoenix the epicenter of baseball in March, leaving Florida teams increasingly isolated.
To measure the difference in convenience, The Wall Street Journal conducted an experiment: How many Cactus League games could one writer catch a glimpse of in the time it took another simply to drive between two random Grapefruit League sites?
There were eight games scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in Arizona on Saturday, and I set out to see all of them. At the same time, colleague Stu Woo left the New York Mets' game against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Fla., and drove to the Mets' complex in Port St. Lucie, mimicking the 128-mile trek the Mets would make twice that day.
The only rule: I had to witness one half-inning, from the first batter until the third out, before I could leave for the next game.
Game 1, 1:09 p.m.: Salt River Fields (shared home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies)—The Rockies' Brett Anderson fires a first-pitch ball to Oakland Athletics leadoff man Coco Crisp. And with that, Woo leaves the Mets-Tigers game and heads for his car.
Salt River Fields may be the most idyllic spot in spring training. The McDowell Mountains make for a picturesque backdrop, but I'm not here to admire the view. I need Anderson to make quick work of Oakland. And though he gives up an RBI triple to Nate Freiman, the A's are swinging uncharacteristically early in the count. At 1:18, I head for the parking lot.
Game 2, 1:33 p.m.: Scottsdale Stadium (San Francisco Giants)—The Giants trail the Seattle Mariners, 4-0, in the bottom of the second, but nobody minds much. It's 74 degrees, with nary a cloud in the sky. In the crowded standing area overlooking center field, fans clad in Giants gear appear to have two overriding concerns: making sure they take a sufficient number of selfies, and doing so without spilling their craft beers.
Somewhat less pressing on their minds is the fate of outfielder Roger Kieschnick, who fouls out to end the inning. After five minutes, I'm back in my rented Camry. This pace bodes well.
Game 3, 1:58 p.m.: Tempe Diablo Stadium (Los Angeles Angels)—A nearby highway sign attempts to lure drivers to a "Tattoo Expo + Beer Fest," but despite such imposing competition, the Angels have drawn over 9,500 fans for their game against a Diamondbacks split squad.
After seeing Albert Pujols ground out to end the third, I get held up in the top of the fourth by Angels starter Garrett Richards, who is in the midst of being pelted for five runs. Richards is killing me.
But in Florida, Woo has obstacles of his own. On State Road 60, which cuts across the rural center of the state, he pulls over and emails: "Road work has narrowed the lanes, forcing drivers to drive even slower than the already elderly friendly 50-mph speed limit in some places."
At 2:19, he adds, "I've passed four more cow pastures, but despite the outrageous bovine-to-human ratio, there is still the occasional traffic light."
Game 4, 2:34 p.m.: Maryvale Baseball Park (Milwaukee Brewers)—Just up the road from an apartment complex advertising a "$49 move-in special," this ballpark has some vacancies of its own. The stands are only sparsely filled in the bottom of the fourth, with Milwaukee leading the Kansas City Royals, 5-3. One popular spot is the grassy berm beyond the outfield wall, which is filled with picnic blankets and strollers.
During a lull in play, a toddler tries to scale a tree. The only person more bored is Woo, still in transit in Florida.
"The endless swampland has turned into…yet more swampland," he writes. "The cow pastures have been replaced by what I think are orange-tree orchards. I did find a lonely strawberry stand, where I picked up two pints for $5."
Game 5, 3:10 p.m.: Camelback Ranch (Chicago White Sox/Los Angeles Dodgers)—I arrive in the bottom of the eighth with the White Sox tied with the other half of the Diamondbacks, 4-4. But I'm running out of time. Woo has just passed a boiled-peanut stand in Yeehaw Junction (population: 240), just before he'll turn south on Florida's Turnpike, where he'll pick up speed.
Game 6, 3:36 p.m.: Peoria Sports Complex (San Diego Padres/Seattle Mariners)—The Cleveland Indians lead the Padres, 4-3, in the bottom of the ninth, but the Padres aren't going quietly. Ryan Jackson ties it on a sacrifice fly, and when the inning ends, the umpires ask both managers if they care to continue. The stadium announcer says, "The teams will play one more inning of baseball," but I'm not staying for it.
Inspired by the Padres' comeback, I set off for Surprise Stadium, where the Dodgers lead the Texas Rangers, 3-2, in the eighth. There is hope for a seventh game.
4:06 p.m.: The dream dies
As I pass a "City of Surprise" sign on North Bullard Avenue, Woo calls from the parking lot at Tradition Field, the Mets' spring home. In the 2 hours and 57 minutes it took him to get there from the Mets-Tigers game, I saw parts of six games. My GPS says I should have made a seventh, but a cavalcade of elderly drivers slowed me to a crawl.
As it turns out, there are still some similarities between Florida and Arizona.
—Stu Woo contributed to this article.
Write to Brian Costa at firstname.lastname@example.org