Spring Training Trip

I’m not one of those baseball fans who is determined to make it to all 30 major league ballparks before I die, although that would be cool. But recently I have been able to visit a lot of new cities and ballparks, thanks to Missy Franklin and Aften Anderson.

Our lovely ladies have permitted Chad and I to sneak away one weekend a year for the past few years, where we are able to nerd out on baseball, beer and poker. Most guys go camping, hunting, fishing or golfing; this is our version.

Two years ago we went to Minneapolis, which was a blast. Here is a pic of Target Field.

Last year we went to Denver. Even though both of us had been to games there before, it was a unique opportunity because the third member of our once-inseparable high school nerd trio, Kevin Ash, lived in Boulder at the time so we were able to team up with him.

For this year we decided to do something a little different and go to Arizona for Spring Training. Our favorite teams, the Cubs and Rockies, both train in Arizona and have two of the nicest spring facilities in Major League Baseball. And I’d heard the poker at Talking Stick Casino was good. So off we went.

This marked the third year in a row we got amazing weather for our baseball trip. We arrived Thursday evening, ate dinner at a cool Mexican place in old downtown Scottsdale, and played some poker. I won a decent sized pot with king high but other than that we both broke even.

Friday was an epic day. It’s going to be hard top that one for Best Day of 2019. We were still kind of in Central Time Zone mode so we woke up early and headed to Mesa, where the Cubs play. We got there at 10 a.m., which is when OU’s basketball team was playing in the NCAA Tournament. There’s a nice sports bar right across the street from the stadium that serves breakfast and had the game on TV. Somehow, OU played its best game of the year and won easily, so that was fun to watch.

Then it was on to the stadium, which was much nicer than I expected it to be. The Cubs played the Rangers at 1 p.m.

Any time I go to a new stadium, I like to take a lap around the entire park right away. We did that, and just as we settled into our seats before the game started we heard an announcement: “Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins is signing autographs for charity today. Come meet him now!”

I actually wasn’t paying any mind to the PA announcer but luckily Chad heard it so we made our way to where he was. For only $30 we got an autographed baseball and a picture with Fergie. This was especially cool for Chad because some 30 years ago Jenkins was coaching at an Oklahoma City 89ers baseball camp and he taught Chad how to bunt. Jenkins was super nice and was happy to learn we were fellow Okies.

Hall of Fame Cubs pitcher Ferguson Jenkins

The game itself was great too. My favorite Cub, Ben Zobrist, hit a home run, as did Javier Baez. Jose Quintana pitched six great innings and the Cubs won in a rout.

After the game we went to a burger and beer joint appropriately named Cheeseburgers and Cold Beer. There I ordered a ribeye sandwich described on the menu as “ribeye with melted cheese and carmelized onions.” It was indeed all of those items, ON TOP OF A WHOLE HAMBURGER. I was so disgusted that I discarded the whole meal.

Just kidding, I ate it all.

Then it was on to our second baseball game of the day, Padres vs. Rockies at the Spring Training home shared by the Rockies and Diamondbacks. Another great ballpark with the feel of a great minor league stadium, similar to the one we have in downtown Oklahoma City. The weather was still amazing and we had great seats behind home plate.

We had great seats for Padres vs Rockies

This game featured one of the more impressive plays I’ve ever seen in person. The Padres have one of baseball’s top prospects in shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and he lived up to the hype in this game. I knew he was supposed to be a great hitter and fielder but I didn’t know he was also fast with great baserunning instincts.

We saw him score from first base on a single with no errors. He was stealing on the play and had such a great jump that he would have coasted into second standing up. But the batter hit a line drive up the middle, and Tatis read it and turned the corner to third without slowing down. Most runners would have coasted into third but Tatis was thinking about scoring the whole play and he never slowed down, despite the third base coach giving him the stop sign. The centerfielder threw the ball into second base, not considering the possibility that Tatis would try to score. The second baseman hesitated for just a fraction of a second before throwing home. The throw beat Tatis to the plate but he slid underneath the tag.

The game was a blowout and the Rockies had benched all of their top players so we left after eight innings, which was one inning too soon as it turned out. As a Rockies fan, Chad was excited to see Colorado’s stars as well as infield prospect Garrett Hampson. Hampson had played the whole game but hadn’t done anything special. In a twist unique to Spring Training, the Rockies moved him from 7th in the batting order to the leadoff spot after removing All-Star outfielder Charlie Blackmon from the game. (You can’t do that in a real game). The Rockies ended up rallying for five runs in the bottom of the ninth, capped by a walk-off home run from their new leadoff hitter Garrett Hampson to win the game. Alas, we didn’t see that.

(We also noticed that teams were liberal with the DH rules in these games. Normally, games played in National League parks have no DH. But in the Cubs-Rangers game the Rangers used a DH while the Cubs didn’t. And in the Padres-Rockies game the Padres used a DH while the Rockies didn’t, even though both are NL teams.)

After the game, we headed back to our airbnb in Tempe. Chad had downloaded a bunch of old video games onto his computer, so we partied like it was 1995 and fired up the classics.

Late night booze, snacks and 1990s video games

Our favorite game back then was Hardball 5 (with Al Michaels announcing), so we played a game of that featuring the 1961 Yankees against the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. Then we played some WCW/NWO pro wrestling, followed by a 1990 World Series rematch between the Reds and A’s on RBI 3. It was a good ending to a long but fun day.

On Saturday we drove back into Phoenix and did a tour of Chase Field, where the Arizona Diamondbacks play. Neither of us had been to a game there. Probably the most interesting item in the stadium was a bar hanging from the ceiling just before you enter the dugout. Supposedly, it was installed for Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson, who would use it to stretch out his back in between innings.

The famous pool at Chase Field, home of the Arizona Diamondbacks. You can also see the new fake turf the team has installed for this season. It looks pretty sharp.
Home dugout at Chase Field

After the game we walked over to the renowned Pizzeria Bianco, which was excellent. We decided to split up for the evening, as I wanted to play more poker and Chad wanted to see another baseball game. The Rockies were hosting the Cubs at the same park we had been to the night before, so Chad went back there and saw Colorado whip the Cubs. The only people luckier than the Rockies that night were the poker players at Talking Stick, who obviously didn’t know they were playing with a living legend of the game. They beat my a$$ pretty good.

The benefit of this is that it enabled me to find the cigar lounge at the casino, which was amazing. Because the weather is so nice there, it was mostly open air. Nothing like the smell of pure air mixed with 200 cigars to go with the sound of a good solo guitarist.

Great pizza at Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix

On our last day in town we were able to meet up with Jason Ramos, one of my good friends from my Lawton days. Ironically, Ramos had joined Chad and I exactly 10 years ago when we drove to Oklahoma City to watch Bryce Harper play for Westmoore High School’s summer team. I got to interview Harper that day, and the story was one of the last things I wrote for the Constitution as a full-time employee.

It was another great day for baseball and we went to the Spring Training complex shared by the Dodgers and White Sox. The White Sox were playing Cleveland, and while we didn’t get to see Bryce Harper we did get to watch another of the game’s top prospects in White Sox outfielder Eloy Jimenez. We also saw Cleveland’s All-Star infielder Jose Ramirez foul a ball off his leg that may keep him out of the lineup for awhile.

Final game of the trip, Cleveland vs White Sox at Camelback

This stadium wasn’t quite as nice as the other two we visited but the weather was once again ideal. It was a great way to cap another great trip. Again, I can’t thank Missy and Aften enough for letting us get out and do these trips. It really is both fun and therapeutic. I tried to get Missy a souvenir but TSA confiscated it at the airport. It was a small jar of strawberry watermelon jam made at this brunch spot we visited in Tempe. It looked really good.

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