Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spring Training, Take One

My wife and I agreed our past week was the best vacation ever. We'd talked about going to Spring Training since we started "dating", and this year we finally pulled the trigger. The experience was everything we'd hoped for, and more.
Our flights out (Madison-Denver-Phoenix) were ALL on time. I don't need to post about the TSA. The stupid ritual of removing the shoes, etc. etc. is a tired topic. My titanium hip sets off the metal detector every time, so I'm always accorded the pleasure of an individual pat-down and wanding every time I fly. We were cramped in a Canadair CRJ-200 from Madison to Denver, but the flight from Denver to Phoenix was on an Airbus A-320 (yes, the same type of aircraft Captain Sullenberger "landed" on the Hudson River) which was much more comfortable. Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, which the announcements every 90 seconds or so reminded us "it's the FRIENDLIEST airport in the world!!!", was easy to navigate, and we hopped onto the shuttle bus to the rental car facility. In Phoenix, they've just completed a new rental car facility, which is about a mile from the terminals, but is state-of-the-art and check-in took about 5 minutes and we were off and running in a new Chrysler 300 Touring Edition. Nice car.
We headed east down I-10 to the Superstition Freeway (US 60), a gorgeous 12-lane strip of concrete that quickly whisked us to Country Club Road, where we exited and made one turn into the hotel parking lot. It was 83 degrees at 4 PM and we checked in and hit the pool. After some swimming and hot-tubbing, we had dinner at a local steakhouse/rib joint in Mesa and had a nightcap at the hotel bar.
During the course of the next week, we took in ball games at parks all over the Phoenix area, including several at the Cubs' home at HoHoKam Park, where we discovered that the late Harry Caray and every other Cubs fan pronounces it incorrectly, with that flat, broad midwest "A" sound....all the natives pronounce it "ho-ho-com", not "ho-ho-kam". We took in a game at Phoenix Municipal Stadium (Brewers - A's) and the crowning glory was Sunday's game at Camelback Ranch in Glendale. It was the first-ever ball game at the brand-new luxurious facility (White Sox and Dodgers new home)...and the two played the first game there, with the Dodgers as "home" team. Walking from the parking lot to the stadium, we noticed the Hi-Def TV orgination for the game was being done from the Token Creek Productions Hi-Def truck....a touch of home! Once the politicians stopped patting themselves on the back during the pre-game portion, American Idol Jordin Sparks (a local girl, from Glendale) sang the National Anthem and a squadron of F-16's from nearby Luke AFB flew over. Big show. The ball park was ready...my wife Toni's old family friend, Roger Bosshard, the Sox groundkeeper, was in charge of the turf at Camelback Ranch, and since we had Row 1 seats in Section 5, he saw Toni and came over and chatted with her for a bit.
Every person we encountered in the Phoenix/Mesa/Tempe area was friendly. Even the guys hawking the beer and soft drinks in the stands at the ball park thanked you for your purchase and said "thanks for coming and enjoy the game". The hotel staff were falling over themselves to attend to our every need and want. Restaurant staff said "thanks for coming and we hope you're enjoying yourself here". (It's pretty obvious you're not a local when you have pasty white skin, which quickly "browns up" in the hot desert sun.)
At the games, because the stadiums are so much smaller than the big-league MLB parks, you're much closer to the players and the action. The veteran players, who aren't obsessed with making a spot on the roster, joke with the fans and sign tons of autographs for the kids. It's a great experience.
Monday morning we checked out of the hotel, took the rental car back to the new facility at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, and noted that navigation on I-10 was EXTREMELY easy, as the exit for rental cars was clearly marked and the route was simple to follow. We were outta there in a flash, and boarded the shuttle to the airport, and underwent the security check again. Our route back was Phoenix-Chicago-Madison, the flight to Chicago was aboard another Airbus A-320 - which took off just a few minutes late and got us to Chicago only 4 minutes late. The O'Hare experience is....well, enough to make you appreciate your vacation. We came in on one concourse (A) and had to board the next flight in the F concourse...which is about three-quarters of a mile away in a different building. We walked briskly with only 48 minutes between connections, and then arrived at gate F-1-A in time to WAIT for an hour and a half for a delayed flight. We walked down the stairs and onto the tarmac, and they finally herded us onto the small plane (another Canadair CRJ-200) and locked us in the thing for FORTY MINUTES without moving. First we had to wait forever for the de-icing truck to douse the plane, and then we had to wait an eternity for the push-back crew to shove the plane out of the commuter-flight area and onto the taxiway. We were second for takeoff and landed in Madison about 95 minutes behind schedule.
It's tough to go from a week of 85 and sunny to clear and 4 this morning...but, that's the kind of thing that makes a vacation, a vacation. My summation: if you've ever thought about taking in a few spring training games, choose the Cactus League, and head to Arizona rather than Florida. The longest trip between ball parks from the west end of Phoenix (Camelback Ranch) to the east end of the Valley of the Sun (HoHoKam in Mesa) is about 35 minutes, and you'll find friendly people who appreciate your business. The games are fun, the players are friendly, the ball parks are great, and all you have to deal with is the usual negatives associated with air travel.

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