While venturing to Arizona for spring break two weeks ago, I constantly wrestled with the idea that Spring Training is too commercialized. I continued pondering this as I visited five Spring Training ballparks, all with glimmering practice facilities, impeccable sightlines, and masterfully landscaped scenery. Seeing these parks in person, it makes you wonder if the relationship between teams and their fans takes a backseat to the “Spring Training experience,” what with the grounds looking more like a Scotts Miracle-Gro commercial than a baseball diamond.
The Reds may not have the most eye-catching of spring ballparks, but it certainly serves its purpose. Fans are greeted by a large baseball sculpture surrounded by tall palm trees as they enter the main gate from the parking lot, serving not only as welcome to the Arizona dessert to the pining-for-warmth East Coasters and Midwesterners, but also as evidence that it’s baseball time again. Yes, it’s undeniable—Spring Training has become yet another money-making venture for clubs, but all that is thrown out the second you get your first glimpse of that meticulously manicured field. This is the second year in a row I have made the trip to Arizona for spring ball, and just as there are constants in baseball and in life, the formula in Goodyear doesn’t change—you can always count on gorgeous weather, burgers piled with meaty chili, and the guy driving his Mister Softee ice cream truck. Why yes, of course I’ll have some sprinkles.
Regardless of the pomp and circumstance surrounding it, Spring Training is still baseball in its purest form, and the views and experiences are unmatched. Coaches hitting ground balls and pop flys. Jay Bruce taking cuts in the batting cage. Want an up-close view of a live bullpen session? Visit the outfield lawn and soak in the loud twack of Reds prospect Tucker Barnhart’s catcher’s mitt via a Michael Lorenzen pitch. Dodge errant foul balls off the bat of Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto. Move around the park, taking in a few innings from both the first base and third base lines. Crowds are usually sparse, so the ushers don’t mind. Let your thoughts drift as your eyes get lost in the picturesque mountains beyond the centerfield wall, as beautiful as a flawlessly turned double play. Line up at George Foster’s tent and drop the $10 for an autographed coffee mug. If you’re lucky, he might even recite the Overhead Door Company commercial for you. Or better yet, take off early for a day hike in the Superstition Mountains just outside Phoenix, or a drive to Sedona. That’s the beauty of Spring Training—it’s carefree. It’s hopeful. It’s about basking in the moment and the warm sun, using one hand to shield your eyes while the other clutches a $10 autographed mug.