Field Artillery

Many a grown man has been moved to poetry by the beginning of a new baseball season, but, as equipment managers pull monogrammed bats from a winter's slumber and millionaire athletes trade in mink coats and diamonds for hats and gloves, more than a few fans might ask: "When exactly was baseball's off-season?" From the burgeoning steroid scandal that threatens to derail the game, to the historic Alex Rodriguez trade, the sport has managed to stay above the fold all winter long, challenging those who contend it's been trumped by football as the new national pastime.

Long before the Diamondbacks won Arizona's first professional sports championship, the Valley had established its big league credentials as the spring training home of several major league franchises. Today 12 teams call Arizona their springtime home, and, with camps well under way, several intriguing questions surface right here in the desert. Can the re-acquisition of Greg Maddux finally put the Cubs over the top? Will Barry Bonds still be Barry Bonds, now that his personal trainer has been indicted for steroid distribution? Will the Texas Rangers be worse without A-Rod and, if so, will anyone be able to tell?

Full-fledged answers may have to wait, but, come the weekend, it's "game on" as 2004 Cactus League action commences at stadiums throughout the Valley and Tucson. If the first day of official play -- which features a Barry Bonds/Sammy Sosa match-up at Mesa's HoHoKam Park -- is any indication, the star power should pack quite a jolt.

"You can't beat Arizona in March," says Peter Osborne as he watches the Giants run drills at their Scottsdale practice field. A retiree and Bay Area resident making his fourth Cactus League pilgrimage, Osborne is looking forward to seeing the constellation of new stars spending spring in the Valley.

"Vladimir Guerrero's over in Tempe with the Angels now, and [Alfonso] Soriano's in town with the Rangers," Osborne says. "Those two just might be the best young players in the game. Now Maddux is back with the Cubs, and even the D-Backs juiced up with [Richie] Sexson and [Roberto] Alomar. You can bet I plan on seeing them all."

The fact that doing so is actually a reachable goal may be the Cactus League's finest selling point. The terms "accessibility" and "affordability" can be used in the same sentence, and if the action ever gets too slow, or lineups become overrun with spring call-ups, you can leave before game's end, secure in the knowledge that you didn't have to take out a second mortgage to attend. When it comes to sporting events in the 21st century, that, in and of itself, is no small feat.

"The bottom line is that it's cheap, it's easy, and it's baseball," Osborne says. "What's not to love?"

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Craig Wallach