It’s getting close now. The Brewers players have all reported to Maryvale and spring training games start on Wednesday.
If you are a baseball fan and you’ve never made the trip to Arizona in the spring, put it on your short list of things to do. It’s an incredible experience that I can’t recommend enough. I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to go each of the past four years and it’s an absolute blast.
If you’re heading to Maryvale for the first time this spring, here are a few tips from a Milwaukee fan’s perspective that you might find handy.
1. Check Out the Prospects – The back fields in Arizona are a terrific place to check out many of the game’s future stars before they hit it big. While the big league games are going on inside the stadium, you can see many of baseball’s top prospects playing in minor league games on the back fields. With crowds so small that you can count the attendance between pitches, it’s a great opportunity to get an up close look at the future. Plus there’s always the chance that some of the major league players will make their way over to get in some extra at bats or innings on the mound.
2. Catch BP – On days when the Brewers have a road game, fans are allowed the unique experience of heading inside the stadium at Maryvale Baseball Park to watch the major league club work out. While these workouts generally don’t consist of much more than stretching and batting practice, it’s still a chance to get inside the stadium and watch players like Carlos Gomez, Jonathan Lucroy and Ryan Braun from the front row. While many Cactus League teams share a facility with another club, rotating home and road games, the Brewers have their own facility, making an occasion like this possible for fans. Considering the fact that the gates at Miller Park don’t often open until after the Brewers have wrapped up BP during the regular season, this is a great opportunity to watch the Brewers swing for the fences. (And who knows, you might even get the rare treat of watching Gomez take infield practice.)
3. Beware of the Sun – If you’re coming from Wisconsin and like me, the only time you’ve spent outdoors this winter has been walking from the house to the car and the car to the office, then the Arizona sun is a welcome sight. But don’t let it sneak up on you. It can get warm in a hurry and there’s no better way to ruin your trip than to pick up a bad sunburn or a case of heat exhaustion early in your visit. Shade is tough to find in many places, especially Maryvale, though some of the newer Cactus League venues have done a good job of adding more shade for fans. With that in mind, make sure you remember your sunscreen and drink lots of water. Most stadiums will allow you to bring in an unopened bottle of water, so be sure and add that to your checklist as you get ready to head out to the park.
4. Avoid Maryvale – While Maryvale Baseball Park is clean, safe and friendly; the same can’t always be said for the surrounding area. There’s a reason all of the spring training games played in Maryvale are day games. Unless you’re looking for a pawn shop or a swap meet, you probably won’t want to spend much time in Maryvale unless you’re watching the Brewers.
5. See Other Parks – The great thing about the Cactus League is that you can check out 15 different baseball teams and none is more than a 45 minute drive from each other. If your sole purpose of going to spring training is to watch the Brewers, you won’t have much problem following them on the road. The Chicago Cubs new facility is beautiful, as is Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, home of the Arizona DiamondBacks and Colorado Rockies. Two of my personal favorite facilities are in Surprise, where the Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers share a complex, and Camelback Ranch in Glendale, home to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. Camelback is an especially nice place if you’re planning to make a day of things. You can watch the Dodgers and White Sox work out in the morning, pack a cooler and enjoy a nice lunch along the water in a park-like setting, then take in either a major league or minor league game in the afternoon without ever having to leave the complex.
6. Autograph Tips – When I was a kid, I loved collecting autographs from my favorite baseball players. I would have been in heaven at spring training. While the autograph dealers kind of turned me off from the hobby, spring training is a great place to land signatures if that’s your thing. You should have a pretty easy time catching minor league players as they are walking to and from the fields in the morning for practice and again in the afternoon before and after their games. Major league players are fairly accessible as well as they walk from the locker room to the dugout before and after games. During morning workouts many Brewers players will stop and take the time to sign a few autographs after their round of BP as well. You’ll still have to deal with some of the pushy dealers who for some reason need nine baseball cards signed by the same player, but just remember to be polite and respectful and most players will be happy to sign for fans.
7. Photography Tips – Now we get in to my wheelhouse. Spring training is fantastic for taking photos at both the major and minor league levels. Shooting as a fan inside most of the major league parks is easier simply because of the size of the parks. There also aren’t many restrictions in terms of the gear that you can bring in. While I wouldn’t advise trying to enter a stadium as a fan with a 400mm 2.8 on a monopod, I’ve never had an issue taking a 70-200 or any of the smaller kit lenses in. The one stadium I did have a hard time shooting in from the stands was at Goodyear Ballpark where the Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians play. The protective net that normally covers the home plate area extends the entire length of the dugout down the first and third base lines. For someone who stays pretty focused on the action on the field, it’s an annoyance. But I understand the safety reasons behind it and crowds are usually sparse enough that you can move up higher in the stands to get a better angle to shoot from if need be. The biggest obstacle you’ll face at most minor league games in the spring is shooting through chain link fence. You’ll have to either have a zoom that gets you close enough to negate the effects of the fence, or you’ll have to back off and shoot wider and then crop in post-processing. My favorite park to shoot at is Camelback Ranch for just this reason. The fences down the line are shorter, so you’re able to get clean shots of the action on the field without dealing with the chain link. Surprise has also recently added some elevated seating at some of their fields which gives you the opportunity to shoot from a little higher up allowing for some cleaner backgrounds.
8. Places to Stay – As I mentioned earlier, you’re perfectly safe attending a game at Maryvale Baseball Park, but when choosing a spot to spend the rest of your time, you may want to do some homework on the neighborhood you’re staying in. I learned this the hard way two years ago when I had my car window smashed in while it sat in the hotel parking lot overnight. If you’re looking to limit your driving, there are a Hampton Inn and Holiday Inn in Peoria that sit right across the parking lot from the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners facilities. Surprise also has a Holiday Inn that is located right next door to the Royals complex. We also found a hidden little gem in Glendale last year at the Thunderbird Executive Inn and Conference Center. It’s located on the campus of the Thunderbird School of Global Management, but don’t let that scare you. This isn’t your typical college campus. The rooms are nice and the staff is the friendliest bunch of folks you will ever meet. The facility is well lit at night with a security staff that patrols the grounds and there is also a nice pub and dining hall which are located away from the rooms but well within walking distance. The best advice I can give when looking for a place to stay is to do your research. Places like hotels.com are full of reviews and should give you a pretty good picture of the area you’ll be in.
9. Places to Eat – If you’re looking for anything fancy, I’m probably not the right person to be asking. My dining tastes are probably most similar to that of Ron Swanson (“I’m gonna eat 12 eggs and part of a dead animal. Dealer’s choice.”) Arizona has no shortage of restaurants however and you’ll find all of the popular chains (Cheesecake Factory, Applebee’s, TGI Friday’s, etc.). The same goes for fast food (No trip is complete for me without multiple trips to In-N-Out and Del Taco). But if you’re looking for a place that’s unique to Arizona and screams spring training, make sure to check out Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale. The food is delicious and the memorabilia inside rivals that of a museum. Another personal favorite of mine is Santisi Brothers Pizzeria and Sports Grill in Peoria. Especially if you’re there during the NCAA Tournament. The restaurant/bar is covered wall-to-wall in televisions and they make some of the best pizza and chicken wings around.
10. Other Things to do in Arizona – If you’re looking for other things to do while in Arizona, you should have no problem finding entertainment. The Grand Canyon is only a few hours away for those interested in sightseeing. You can also hike up Camelback Mountain and see some pretty incredible views if you’re looking to limit your travel and stay close to Phoenix. If you want to see some animals, the Phoenix Zoo is another great option, as is the Out of Africa Wildlife Park in Camp Verde. And if you want to keep it in the sports world there are always Phoenix Suns and Arizona State Sun Devils basketball games to check out as well as ASU baseball, or you can enjoy a tour of University of Phoenix Stadium, home to the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals.
I know my ideas of dining, lodging and entertainment may be different than yours, but I hope you’ll find some of this information helpful as you plan your trip to Arizona. Thanks for reading and enjoy spring training!