As any fan who has visited baseball's preseason camps in Florida and Arizona will tell you, spring training offers seam-heads an experience unlike any other in the baseball universe.
The ballparks are about one-sixth the size of their regular-season counterparts and a whole lot cozier.
The players are more relaxed and approachable. And we fans are just happy to be sitting in the sun watching a ballgame when it's 12 degrees and snowing back home.
There's so much to love about the springtime version of the game, from the Cactus League's amazing mountain views and the Grapefruit League's old-time ballparks to the seating lawns beyond the outfield fences where fans spread out on beach blankets and the unique bars and restaurants near the parks where fans assemble.
My favorite aspect of spring training, though, is the up close and personal access to the game that it offers fans.
And that brings me to item No. 1 on my list of 10 reasons why I hope there's a plane ticket to Florida or Arizona in my Christmas stocking every year.
1. The Fan-Friendly Atmosphere
Many of the spring parks, especially the ones in Arizona, sit on sprawling practice complexes where the resident team's big leaguers and minor leaguers can be observed working out all day long. When the games aren't in progress, and even when they are, these are great places for fans to soak up some sun and mingle with players.
During a visit to the Cactus League home of the Milwaukee Brewers, I took a stroll around the Maryvale baseball complex hoping to bump into Bud Selig or Bernie Brewer. On one field, a coach hit grounders to infielders. On another, outfielders worked on hitting cutoff men. On another, players worked on sliding drills. On another, players took batting practice.
If there were any security guards patrolling the grounds, they were well disguised as pasty cheeseheads wearing shorts, T-shirts and lots of sunscreen. Fitting right in amidst this brat-loving crowd, I found a spot along a chain-link fence and watched a group of minor leaguers take BP.
After a minute, a 12-year-old boy standing not far from me started tentatively inching his way through an open gate just past third base to retrieve a wayward ball that had trickled onto the warning track. Several of us other fans quietly encouraged him. After scooping up the ball, the kid held it up for his father to see, then turned and took a few hurried steps back toward the gate. Just then, one of the players on the field sent a loud whistle his way. It was the player who stood behind second base collecting the balls that outfielders shagged and tossed his way. He waved his arms and held up his glove. He made a big target and stretched out like a first baseman.
The kid took a few crow hops and unleashed a mighty throw that must have bounced about 37 times before it finally rolled into the player's glove. The youngster was beaming, though, and we all gave him a round of applause. Such is the simple beauty of spring training, where a professional player can ask a fan for a baseball, rather than the other way around, and the fan is happy to throw one the player's way.
2. The Pink Pony
Over the years, a subculture of unique sports bars has evolved in many of the neighborhoods around the spring parks. Each March, these are popular hangouts for fans, scouts, team executives and even some of the less-recognizable players. Before and after games, these are places to get the latest scoops on which prospects are making the biggest spring splashes, on which veterans look like they might have eaten a few too many doughnuts over the winter and on any trade rumors that may be percolating.
The most historic of these establishments is Scottsdale's Pink Pony Steakhouse, which began as a favorite haunt of Dizzy Dean when he was working as a national broadcaster in the 1950s. Aside from ol' Diz, the list of iconoclasts who have bellied up to the Pony's bar includes names like Cobb, DiMaggio, Foxx, Hornsby, Mays, Williams and Uecker. Talk about some lively dinner conversation: on one night, five Hall of Famers — Ernie Banks, Lou Boudreau, Bob Lemon, Mickey Mantle and Eddie Mathews — all sat at the same table.
Today, even when there aren't any Hall of Famers present, visitors feel the presence of baseball greatness, as they look up at the cartoon likenesses of famous players above the bar that were drawn by former Walt Disney animator Don Barclay and Pony owner Gwen Briley.
3: The View at Phoenix Municipal Stadium
Every one of the Cactus League's nine stadiums offers some sort of mountainous or rocky outfield view. For flatlanders like me, the experience of watching a game in this setting is at once special and surreal.
" At Scottsdale Stadium, fans enjoy the peaks of nearby Camelback Mountain beyond the third-base side.
" At Tempe Diablo Stadium, a rocky butte just beyond the left-field foul pole towers over the field, flying an American flag on its summit.
" At Tucson Electric Park, the Santa Catalina Mountains span the entire outfield horizon.
But my favorite view of all is the one beyond the outfield fence at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Here the red rocks of Papago Park loom dramatically above the field. The oldest of these iron-rich sedimentary formations date back 15 million years. That's right, they're even older than Don Zimmer.
One formation is particularly distinctive due to a circular hole in its center that has earned it the nickname "Hole in the Rock." The HoHoKam Indians, who once inhabited the Phoenix valley, used the rays of sunlight that filters through the hole to mark the changes in season. Today, just as the game of baseball is enhanced by the stunning water views in big league cities like San Francisco and Pittsburgh, these red rocks, in their own way, create an utterly pleasing backdrop for a game.
4: The View at Al Lang Field (aka Progress Energy Field)
Speaking of breathtaking views, the Grapefruit League can boast one of its own thanks to St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field. The spring home of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays is named after the founder of the Grapefruit League, Al Lang, who brought baseball to Florida back in 1914, when he lured the St. Louis Browns to St. Pete to train.
From the seats on the first-base side, fans can see sailboats bobbing on the blue-green waters just beyond the third-base foul territory. Foul balls must clear only a grove of palm trees and a narrow street to splash down into the ocean.
5: Baseball Boulevard
St. Petersburg also offers fans the chance to learn about Florida's history as a spring hardball hotbed. Baseball Boulevard is a self-guided tour that covers 10 city blocks between Al Lang Field and Tropicana Field. Yeah, traveling south for spring training takes on a whole new meaning for Devil Rays players. Anyway, for visiting fans the path offers home-plate-shaped historic markers for every year from 1914 to the present.
" These markers recall glorious moments in St. Petersburg baseball history, like when the Yankees and Cardinals met in the 1942 World Series after sharing the same spring ballpark.
" And sad moments, like when Lou Gehrig collapsed during a 1939 exhibition game, foreshadowing the end of his streak of consecutive games played.
" And zany moments, like when a trainer parboiled Joe DiMaggio's ankle during a spring treatment, causing the Yankee Clipper to miss the first month of the 1936 season.
" And even crazier moments, like when fans turned out at the local ball yard in the spring of 1940 to watch grown men play baseball while riding donkeys.
6: Monument Park
Fans of the Pinstripes will be glad to hear that the Yankee Empire is alive and well — and as self-congratulatory as ever — in George Steinbrenner's home city of Tampa. On most days, The Boss has lunch at Malio's, a popular restaurant owned by one of Lou Piniella's boyhood friends, and then heads to Legends Field. The March home of the Yankees is the largest and most elegant spring park in Florida. It features white filigree that mimics the decorative arches that span the outfield at Yankee Stadium and giant windscreens that spell out Y-A-N-K-E-E-S.
But most impressive of all is the miniature version of Monument Park just outside the entrance gates. Here, fans find pinstriped plaques for each of the 16 players whose numbers have been retired by the Yankees. Beneath the numbers are quotations from the honored players, summaries of their accomplishments and words of praise.
Babe Ruth's reads, "From 1920-1934. Single-handedly lifted baseball to new heights with his unlimited talent and unbridled love for the game. His enormous contributions to baseball and the Yankees made him the most celebrated athlete who ever lived."
7: The Tiki Seats in Clearwater
The outfield seating berm is a longtime Cactus League staple that has caught on in Florida in recent years as the Grapefruit League has opened new parks and remodeled others. Doing the berm one better, when Clearwater opened Bright House Networks Field in 2004, it unveiled an outfield tiki bar that makes for one of the most unique seating locations in all of baseball.
The 50-foot-long, thatch-roofed bar begins at the left-field foul pole and traces the top of the outfield fence toward left-center. In front of the bar atop the outfield fence, 60 barstools face the field in five tiered rows. These seats are comparable to the Green Monster seats at Fenway Park, only the wall in Clearwater is a wee bit lower than the one in Boston.
During March, Phillies fans can claim these first-come, first-serve stools two hours before game time, when the ballpark opens; later arrivals still can enjoy this festive outfield scene by plopping down on the nearby berm and taking in live music before and after games.
8: The Tradition Field Berm
Another favorite berm of mine is the one at Tradition Field in Port St. Lucie, where the Mets make their camp each spring. This smaller-than-usual-seating lawn is situated in right-field home run territory and provides fans with plenty of shade thanks to the small palm trees that grow on its bank. Where else can you recline against a palm tree while eating authentic New York City knish and watching a ballgame?
9: The Small-Time Atmosphere at Holman Stadium
In the late 1940s, baseball visionary Branch Rickey sought to create a safe haven for emerging African-American stars like Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella, who, at the time, were unable to train with their Dodgers teammates throughout much of Florida.
So Rickey brokered a deal with Vero Beach to rent a decommissioned naval air base in the town and hastily chiseled ball fields into an abandoned airstrip and converted old military barracks into dormitories for the players. In the ensuing decades, Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley transformed this initially spartan camp into a resort for his players and their families.
Today, the centerpiece of Dodgertown, historic Homan Stadium, is one of the most delightful little ballparks in the spring game. It is surrounded not by walls, but by a hill that traces its perimeter. Behind home plate and along the baselines, stadium chairs are laid right into the slope. Many fans sit in the shade of live oak trees that grow between the seats, while the players sit on uncovered benches in the sun.
For years there wasn't even an outfield fence at Holman, but today there is a low chain-link number a lot like the kind found at your local Little League field. It doesn't get any more "small time" than this in Major League Baseball. And for fans looking to reconnect with a game that has grown increasingly corporate and commercial in recent years, that's just fine.
10: A Red Sox vs. Yankees Game at City of Palms Park
Finally, because it boasts the most impressive expanse of outfield palms in the spring game and because Larry Lucchino would revoke my Red Sox Nation membership card if I didn't mention it, I must give some props to City of Palms Park in Fort Myers.
But seriously, more than just showcasing some nice trees, the spring home of the Sox offers a high-intensity atmosphere that is more like the type at a regular season big-league game. And while I'm thankful the crowds at most spring parks are a lot more laid back than in Fort Myers, it's nice to enjoy a prelude of the 19 regular-season clashes to come between these two great rivals.
Whether it's worth shelling out the $500 per ticket that scalpers have been known to get for Red Sox/Yankees exhibition games in Fort Myers … well, I'll leave that up to you.
Josh Pahigian's books include Spring Training Handbook,The Ultimate Baseball Road-Trip and The Ultimate Minor League Baseball Road-Trip.