March 16, 2006

Guest Column: Doing Arizona Right

My uncle and I have taken a trip to Arizona for baseball five times -- four times for spring training and once for the Arizona Fall League. Each trip was among the greatest times of my life. This year my uncle took the same trip with my little cousin, who is now old enough to truly appreciate the experience. What follows is my uncle's guide to spring training in Arizona.

Doing Arizona Right
By Jon Gallop

March Madness is generally synonymous with NCAA basketball, but this madness in March describes a smaller, whiter, harder ball. True nirvana occurs every March in Arizona. The Cactus League trip is one of the great thrills for any real baseball fan. Although the Tucson area has three teams -- Rockies, Diamondbacks, White Sox -- it's the Phoenix area that's the Mecca.

With nine teams playing every day there are enough games to keep even the most extreme fanatic happy. The Giants in Scottsdale, the Cubs in Mesa, the A's in Phoenix (virtually in Tempe), the Angels in Tempe, the Brewers in Maryvale, the Padres and Mariners share a park in Peoria, and the Rangers and Royals share a park in Surprise. The setup beats the heck out of Florida, because the teams are all within a 30-mile radius.

A trip to Arizona means a game every day at 1:05 p.m., with an occasional night game. Throw in the Arizona State Sun Devils every other weekend and you have an all-you-can-watch baseball buffet. Watch major leaguers in the cozy confines of an 8,000-seat park, which means there are no bad seats and players can hear every word from hecklers.

If you like talking to players and getting autographs, go early -- gates open at 11 a.m. By the way, a 10-year-old kid with a glove will be far more successful in garnering player signatures then a 40-year-old, pot-bellied, crack showing, inebriated, over-the-hill loser.

Of course, planning to see baseball is only a small part of the must-do trip. Read on to make the perfect trip ... well, more perfect.

First and foremost, rent a convertible. Only an idiot would drive to a ballpark in Arizona during spring training with sun shining at 75 degrees in some hard-top grandpa-mobile. Your goal is to never put the top up. This may require utilizing the car's heater at night, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

Meal planning is also essential. While ballpark food may get you by and that first concession hot dog will taste great, let's be honest: We don't eat to live, we live to eat. In addition to great baseball, this area offers some great food.

One of the best places -- and Aaron's personal favorite -- is Greasy Tony's. Incredible Philly cheese steak sandwiches, it's open until three a.m., and it's located right on the ASU campus (east of Scottsdale Road and across from the Improv). As they proudly state: "No charge for the extra grease." Throw in some New York-style pizza and you're set for lunch, dinner or late night. The ambiance is akin to an open, festering sore, but the food is great. Eat it outside on their dirty tables or take it to go with napkins they stole from another restaurant.

(An old, extremely blurry picture of Aaron at Greasy Tony's.)

For a little classier option, try Don & Charlie's for ribs and baseball memorabilia. This place has autographs from everyone who was ever anyone. Bats, pictures, balls, programs, and any other thing that can contain ink make this a paradise for the fan. Plus, you're bound to run into a player or five eating inside. Aaron once stood next to Willie Mays for a good five minutes before realizing it, so make sure you take the time to browse -- for memorabilia and people.

If you don't drool over the incredible array of signatures you will drool over the ribs, which are the best in the world. Get the double-baked potato and the house dressing on a salad. The inside is quite nice especially compared to Greasy Tony's, but I make sure all my meals are eaten outside, so "to go, please." Don & Charlie's is located on Camelback Road, just two blocks east of Scottsdale Road.

Mexican food is a must in Arizona. Go to Julio's, Too, located one block west of Don & Charlie's. Eat on the outdoor tables (are you noticing a trend here?), order the shredded beef or spicy shredded beef burro enchilada-style with rice and go to heaven. If you want a beautiful setting under the stars and fancier food, try El Chorros on 55th and Lincoln in Paradise Valley.

No baseball game at night? It's okay, go to a drive-in movie. The Scottsdale 6 drive-in on McKellips Road has first-run movies starting at 7:30 p.m. in March. Take a pillow from your hotel room and watch a bug-free, alfresco double feature for $5.75 in your convertible (or even on your convertible).

If you insist on being active, go climb a mountain (Indianhead on 32nd and Lincoln or Camelback) or find a golf course (Fiddlesticks miniature golf for those who like windmills on holes instead of 520-yard dog legs). For real baseball fun, bring your glove, a bat, and 100 tennis balls. Then find a field and play one-on-one fast pitch. I could go through the details of the rules, but you can be commissioner of your own two-person league.

Jump in a pool, have a beer, bring your glove, and enjoy real March Madness. Spring Training in Arizona beats the hell out of spring training in Florida.

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