Spring Training in Arizona: Squeeze Plays, Deep Drives & Clutch Hits

Jan 8, 2019

For even the casual baseball fan, "pitchers and catchers report" are magic words: proof of survival through another winter—and the start of spring training, that glorious time when fans ditch the hot stove league for cold beers at the ballpark.

If you're thinking about joining that pilgrimage (and why wouldn’t you?), Arizona is the place to be: 15 teams (that is, half of Major League Baseball) camp out for spring training within an hour's drive of Phoenix, so on any given day, you're choosing from as many as 10 games.

But even diehard fans need a break from the ballpark after getting their big-league fix. And that's where this story comes in. Read on for 10 ways to take an extended seventh-inning stretch, whether you want to explore the state's best restaurants, most accessible mountains or even the namesake canyon (where, by the way, 2019 marks a major milestone and cause for celebration).

Squeeze Plays: Before or After the Ballgame

1. Take a sunrise hike

Arizona's golden hour is best seen from a high vantage point. Head to Lost Dutchman State Park to watch the early-morning light gild the rock formations, cacti and spring blooms. The trail-laced park is 25 miles east of Mesa, so even if you get a good hike in (consider the Siphon Draw Trail with the steep but worthwhile extension up the Flatiron), you'll be back well before the evening games' first pitch.

2. Go where the wild things are

And we don't mean Charlie Sheen's iconic Ricky Vaughn (though spring training for the Cleveland Indians is still in AZ—at Goodyear Ballpark, to be exact). The Phoenix Zoo is home to 3,000 or so inhabitants, the majority of whom are most active in the morning, though "active" is a relative term in the case of Fernando, the resident two-toed celebrity sloth. Almost as famous: the Arabian oryxes, not to be missed either. 

If the kids want to visit a zoo, safari park and aquarium, visit the Wildlife World Zoo for a tripleheader, where the star players include black tip reef sharks, white albino alligators and the fastest animal on earth: cheetahs.

3. Take some swings of your own

Golf Digest and Golf Magazine have both declared Phoenix one of the best golf towns in the U.S. And beyond the city limits, the state has more than 400 courses to choose from, many with hallucinatory desert and mountain backdrops.

Early risers can score morning tee times for 18 holes ahead of an afternoon first pitch. But if you have morning plans at the ballpark, save on greens fees in the afternoon: Many courses offer discounted twilight rates.

If you don't have time for a round, check out Topgolf—a sports bar with more than 100 climate-controlled hitting bays, a rooftop terrace, and hundreds of TVs that let you catch the spring training games between swings.

4. Swap out hot dogs for tacos, barbecue and pizza

Once you've had your fill of ballpark staples—a seasonal rite of passage—you'll want to upgrade. Fast. The Arizona desert has blossomed into a foodie paradise, with James Beard (and other) awards piling up faster than home runs on a windy day. 

Innumerable food journos, who flock here as excitedly as sports writers, have declared Pizzeria Bianco to be in a league of its own, and you won't disagree once you've tried Chris Bianco’s charred, puffy, wood-fired pies. Also check out Roland’s Cafe Market Bar, a regional cuisine newcomer that Bianco co-created with Nadia Holguin and Armando Hernandez, owners of the beloved Tacos Chiwas (add that one to your list, too).

And if you're scanning this year's Top 100 Places to Eat on Yelp, you won't have to look far—the No. 2 slot—before you hit a Phoenix institution: Little Miss BBQ. If you're pre-gaming here, arrive before opening time and factor in the possibility of long but worthwhile lines.

Post-game, pair prime rib with plenty of sports memorabilia at one of Bob Uecker's favorite steakhouses: Don & Charlie's

5. Trade a day at the stadium for a day at the spa

With so many 4- and 5-star resorts in the Phoenix and Scottsdale area, you could visit a spa a day during your trip and not even scratch the surface. For a truly local experience, look for treatments that incorporate the likes of desert sage, aloe and prickly pear.

At the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess' Well & Being Spa, for example, check out the Purification Ritual, during which you'll be slathered with an aloe and prickly pear mask, among other improbably decadent-feeling substances. And the treatment names alone at the Scottsdale Camelback Resort's Running Water Spa induce early-onset bliss: Think Desert Deep Massage, Havasupai Body Wrap and Saguaro Blossom Manicure. 

6. Make some music at one of the nation's top museums

The Musical Instrument Museum is the No. 1-rated activity in Phoenix on TripAdvisor. Home to several thousand instruments—plus memorabilia that belonged to everyone from John Lennon to Taylor Swift—the place is as immersive as a museum experience gets. And who knows: While your family's jamming in the international instrument-filled Experience Gallery, a star may be born. Burmese harp, anyone?

You're Out (of Phoenix): Road Trips

7. Cross the Grand Canyon off your bucket list (while one of you celebrates the big 1-0-0)

2019 marks 100 years since the Grand Canyon became a national park, and you'll want to celebrate the centennial in person. Look for special events throughout spring training season, in addition to the park's regularly scheduled insane beauty. If you happen to be in the neighborhood on February 26th—the park's actual birthday—don't miss the big party at the Canyon, with musical groups, copious birthday cake and cultural presentations by 11 local tribes.

Of course, getting there takes a bit of a driving, but those 225 miles (give or take) go by fast with so much to check out along the way—not least, the beloved vineyards and tasting rooms of Verde Valley wine country. Just make sure to spring for your designated driver's next (several) ballpark tickets.

Also be sure to stop again about 25 miles before you hit Sedona and check out the ancient cliff dwellings of Montezuma Castle National Monument. Built in the 1100s by the Sinagua people, this gravity-defying perch is no longer accessible to visitors, but a trail will lead you to a good lookout spot (or look-up spot, as the case may be).

For more substantial leg-stretching, stop again in surreal Sedona and hike the trail-laced, oft-'grammed red rocks. Then, if you're feeling extra ambitious on your final approach to the Grand Canyon, you may even be able to squeeze in a little spring skiing at Arizona Snowbowl, just outside Flagstaff.

8. Have a house party—on a lake

If you can spare a couple of nights away from the baseball action, head to the state's northern or western border, where scenic bodies of water—and fun rental houseboats, among other watercraft—await. On Lake Powell, the vast Colorado River reservoir that straddles Arizona and Utah, don't miss the world's largest natural bridge: Rainbow Bridge. And on Lake Havasu, which borders California, check out England's most iconic gift to the Desert Southwest: London Bridge.

9. Visit the Old Pueblo 

About 115 southeast of Phoenix, you'll find the mountain-ringed city of Tucson—or the Old Pueblo, in local parlance. Though the nickname's exact origins are a matter of some debate, they nod to both the Spanish colonial past (the most gorgeous vestige of which is the Mission San Xavier del Bac) and much deeper indigenous roots. And it's the latter that recently landed Tucson on UNESCO's World Heritage list for gastronomy—the first city in the US to earn that honor. To try some of the ancient indigenous crops that captured UNESCO's attention, head someplace that's putting tasty modern spins on them, as ever more Tucsonan bakers and chefs are doing, whether at Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, Welcome Diner or Barrio Bread.

Though it's not quite as ancient as the local agricultural scene, the iconic Hotel Congress opened the same year that the Grand Canyon became a national park—so you have another 100th birthday to celebrate while you're here. Do so at any of the hotel's lobby bars, ideally with local beer, wine or craft spirit (there's even a Whiskey del Bac).

But you'll have to go just outside city limits to find some of Tucson's greatest draws, from Saguaro National Park to Sabino Canyon (and if you have even a passing interest in impossibly beautiful oases, do the Seven Falls hike).

Also just outside town sits one of the largest non-government funded aviation and space museums in the world: the Pima Air and Space Museum. For the full experience, tack on a tour of the aircraft boneyard at the nearby Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, home to more than 4,000 aircraft from the likes of NASA and the US armed forces.

10. Wind back the clock to the Wild West

Even the most intense pitchers' duels you'll witness around Phoenix have nothing on what used to go down in the National Historic Landmark town of Tombstone, where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday once roamed the streets. This mining town shot to fame after the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral, reenactments of which still play out daily.

Though any day you visit the original courthouse, saloons and shops along Allen Street will be fun, consider timing your trip to Wild West Days (March 16-17) for street entertainment, a parade and the USO Canteen dance.

Ready to go? Catch even more of Arizona's outfield with trip recommendations, and find deals on hotels, restaurants, spas and activities.

Extra Innings

When you’re planning a spring training trip to Arizona, use these tips so you don't strike out.

  1. Choose your hotel location with your preferred games in mind. The stadiums are sprinkled through the Phoenix/Scottsdale area, so you may choose to pay a couple bucks more to stay within a short drive or walking distance.
  2. Apart from a few night games, day games tend to start at the same time. With 10 stadiums, 15 teams and thousands of fans wanting to get to the game 20 minutes before first pitch, surge pricing from Uber/Lyft is a real thing. Plan accordingly.
  3. Apply sunscreen early and often. In many ballparks, lawn seating combines the sort of attractive pricing and sight-lines that make the outfield jam-packed for weekend games. Don't let your skin suffer the consequences.
  4. If your team is hugely popular, be flexible about where you see them. For example, you may struggle to get a good seat at Mesa’s Sloan Park to see the Cubs on a weekend. But, if they’re playing on another team's turf across town, you may have your pick of seats (and save money).
  5. If you want autographs, get there early....like 2 weeks early (pitchers and catchers report around Valentine’s Day). The beginning of spring training is when players are most approachable. By March, everyone’s down to business.
  6. If you're not able to head out that early, get to the games 2-3 hours early and wait by the foul lines or the players’ entrances. Even if the players’ parking lot is fenced off, stars may still roll down a window for a signature or two. Another trick: Top players usually play only 3-6 innings per game until the final weeks, so you may catch an exiting star or two by hanging outside the stadium during the game.
  7. In terms of baseball quality, there are two seasons to spring training. During the first two weeks of games, lineups will often look more like a laundry list, with players getting in an at-bat or two. During the final few weeks of March, the lineups will start to look much more like regular-season baseball.
  8. Midweek day games will have the best prices and/or availability for tickets. Don't be afraid to buy them now—seriously.
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