From March 1 through the 7th, I was in baseball heaven. My wife and I boarded an early morning bleary-eyed flight from our home in Maryland and headed west, away from the cold, the snow, and the dreariness of winter. When we emerged from the plane, we found ourselves in the Sonoran desert of Phoenix, Arizona, ready to soak up some sunshine and see the 2017 Cleveland Indians begin their defense of their American League Pennant. It was an incredible week, and here are a few highlights and take-aways from my time with the Tribe this spring.
First off, if you’ve never been to Goodyear, the Spring Training home of the Tribe, you absolutely have to go. Cactus League baseball doesn’t count in the final standings of October, but there is absolutely no better way to see and interact with the players up close. From getting autographs to snapping selfies with players, or simply watching morning fielding drills, spring training is impossible to top for baseball fans.
If you do go, make sure you go to the practice fields to see the Tribe take batting practice in the morning. The fan access area near Fields 1 and 2 is the best place for getting access to the players, though the access to Fields 3, 4, 5, and 6 is great too. The back fields are the best place to see the minor leaguers in action, as well as the occasional simulated game involving rehabbing stars such as Michael Brantley.
My wife and I went to the main practice fields on several mornings during our trip, and got to meet or get autographs from Terry Francona, Tyler Naquin, Francisco Lindor, Edwin Encarnacion, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, Roberto Perez, Andrew Miller, and a whole host of others. Every player we interacted with was extremely polite, friendly, and really engaged with the fans. When asked if he had another Inside the Park walk-off planned for 2017, Tyler Naquin laughed and quipped, “I sure hope not, let’s do it the easy way!” When Edwin stopped by to sign an autograph for us, we asked him if he brought his parrot with him to Arizona, and he responded with a hearty laugh.
If you can’t get to the practice fields to meet the players, get to a game at Goodyear Ballpark early. When the players walk in to the dugout (they enter the field from a gate in the Right Field wall) most of them stop by and say hello to fans and sign autographs along the first baseline.
Obviously, the big advantage to going to Arizona this time of year is the baseball experience, but it is also a great time to see some of the beauty that the Phoenix area has to offer. Phoenix itself is one of the biggest cities in the United States, but it is ringed with mountains and state and local parks with plenty of awesome places for hiking and sight-seeing. We spent time at the nearby Estrella Mountain Park (about ten minutes from Goodyear Ballpark), as well as White Tank Mountain Park (about twenty minutes away), and the Lost Dutchman State Park (about an hour east of Goodyear, best if you are going to see the Tribe play on the other side of the city). There is also the Phoenix Zoo, which is near the airport, which we can highly recommend!
While seeing the Tribe play at Goodyear Ballpark is a must, seeing them play on the road is great too! All the Cactus league teams play within 45 minutes of each other, making any road game accessible. During our visit in 2016, we saw them play the Rangers in Surprise, AZ. This year, we saw road games against the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, the Athletics at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, and the Giants in Scottsdale. Each one of these ballparks had its own charm, its own nuances, and each had the culture and feel of their respective teams.
Camelback Ranch is the spring home of the Dodgers and White Sox, and there are numerous paths going through the complex, winding around practice fields, hitting cages, and a scenic water feature in center as well. While Camelback Ranch is new, having opened in 2009, Hohokam Stadium and Scottsdale Stadium have a bit of charm being among the older ballparks in the Cactus League. Hohokam used to play host to the Cubs, but now houses the Oakland A’s training facilities. The lawn seating in the outfield is spacious, almost resembling a party atmosphere on the day we were there, which was also what we found at Scottsdale Stadium, the home of the Giants. Scottsdale Stadium is in the heart of Scottsdale, with plenty of restaurants and shops nearby. The main drawback for Scottsdale is there isn’t much parking, so plan on getting there early.
Having spent a full week following the Tribe in the Arizona sun, I can say my hopes for 2017 are even higher than before we left for our trip. Not only was it a thrill to meet some of the big name stars, but spring training offers a great chance to see the up and coming future of the franchise. We had plenty of chances to see Bradley Zimmer, Yandy Diaz, Greg Allen, Francisco Mejia, and others, and I really am impressed with the talent that is on the way for the club.
Zimmer perhaps impressed me the most. His large frame doesn’t detract at all from his speed, and his revamped swing leads to plenty of power. He has been putting up great numbers this spring, though his limited stay in Columbus last year makes it a near certainty that he won’t open the season on the big league roster. Yandy Diaz is as impressive as advertised as well, and though he did look a bit shaky playing the outfield in some of the games, his approach at the plate is so strong that he really should be making an appearance in Cleveland this season. His role this season will depend a lot on the shoulders of Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis. Francisco Mejia isn’t quite ready for the majors, still needing some time in Akron and Columbus to work on handling a pitching staff. Despite Mejia’s small size, though, his arm is strong and his swing is quick, smooth, and compact.
Sure, it was great to see Edwin Encarnacion donning his Tribe uniform, and it was a thrill to see Francisco Lindor rip a few doubles into the left-center gap, but the real thrill for me was seeing that some of our top prospect talent seems to be even better than advertised.
Overall, our trip to Goodyear was absolutely incredible once again, and to anyone considering a trip out to see the Tribe in Spring Training action, I can’t highly recommend it enough! It is the perfect way to get past those lingering Game 7 blues (so long as you stay away from the Cubs and Sloan Park) and it reminds you that the future, much like that Arizona sunshine, is quite bright for the Tribe.