Unlike some cities, Phoenix has never had trouble putting competitive teams on the field. The Suns and the Coyotes have been playoff perennials, and in 1998, even the Cardinals broke a decadelong spell of futility in the desert with a 9-7 record.

But, competitive as these franchises are, they don't tend to rise to the occasion in the postseason. You'd have to go back to the glory days of Charles Barkley to find the last time either the Suns or Coyotes were more than TV spectators once the second round of playoff action commenced.

Last year, in their maiden trip to the playoffs, the Arizona Diamondbacks were similarly shown the door in the first round. But, that disappointment aside, this team has shattered baseball precedent by stepping to the top echelon of the majors before casual fans even knew what their uniforms looked like. The very thought of a major-league baseball franchise winning 100 games and capturing a divisional title in its second season is startling enough to make Abner Doubleday and Connie Mack do head-first slides in their graves, but that's exactly what this team accomplished.

Whether it's Randy Johnson mowing down opposing hitters or reborn journeymen like Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley cranking the ball over the swimming pool, this is a team that's as entertaining as it is efficient. A mild second-half swoon this season can't obscure the fact that this is still the best sports ticket in town.

Readers' Choice: Arizona Diamondbacks

He doesn't have feathers or wear loud primary colors. He doesn't do an asinine stadium jig that would mortify even the lowest forms of wildlife most mascots emulate.

He's Fang, the longhaired, jeans and tee-shirted mascot for the Arizona Rattlers, although no one actually calls him that to his face. Nah, he's the team's "enforcer," there to ensure that both sides of the stadium raise the "noise meter" up a respectable seven or eight notches.

Not that he even needs them, since he barrels through pyrotechnics on his thundering motorcycle. Once Fang gives his seal of approval, he's off again, which lets us know he really ain't such a trouble boy. Basically, Fang is what the Fonz would've turned out to be if he'd stopped hanging around those goody-goody Cunninghams and given those Steppenwolf albums a chance.

Best Gaffes in a Movie Shot in Phoenix During the Past Year

"What Planet Are You From?"

During an early scene in the laugh-challenged Garry Shandling/Annette Bening comedy, one character explains that while he lives in Phoenix, he also has a weekend getaway retreat "up in Scottsdale."

Not long after local audiences were still savoring that geographical howler, Shandling visits a Phoenix strip club. When he asks whether it's the only one in town, someone explains that there are several other similar establishments scattered throughout the city.

Having trouble finding inspiration with Barney blaring in the den? Sick of Kool-Aid-sticky computer keys? Junior been using your journal as a coloring book?

Hear, hear! Writers Voice can help.

The YMCA brain child that has brought fiction, poetry and memoir workshops to the Valley for almost a decade also offers a writing class designed for moms, taught by moms.

Over the years, the workshop has been held at different locations with different instructors and different curricula, but always the same goal: to provide a nurturing environment for writers who happen to be mothers and a forum for discussing and writing about issues surrounding motherhood.

And you don't have to be a published author to take part; mothers of all levels of experience are invited. A favorite feature of the weekly sessions: child care.

This year, Writers Voice director Julie Hampton is working to make Mothers Write a regular gig, and by early 2001 she expects to have the workshop available at four locations in the Valley.

Write on!

The closest thing to a one-stop shop of underground downtown culture is this bare-bones space carved out of an old brick building on Roosevelt. It's strictly an after-dark joint. The lights typically don't go on until 7 p.m. But once they do, the offerings are just as likely to include exhibitions by painters, sculptors and performance artists as they are performances by dancers, poets, jazz players and punk rockers. The featured artists are largely up-and-comers -- the bands are some of the primo ones on the indie music circuit. And the swarm of culture-driven people who fill the dark streets around the arthouse helps to strengthen the human beat of the old heart of the city.
Other than Native American and maybe Mexican art, Phoenix is not exactly a hotbed of ethnic art and artifact shopping. Unless, that is, you scope out the shelves of ASU Art Museum Store, where, for more than 20 years, volunteer manager LaReal Eyring has been bringing the best of the outside world to the Valley.

In years past, the store's included exquisite tribal jewelry from India and Afghanistan, as well as fine folk ceramics from Mexico, Morocco and Japan. And we were recently bowled over by large tapestries made from old Pakistani beaded embroideries that you probably won't see anywhere else in town.

Since the inventory constantly changes, it's best to pop in at least once a week or you might miss the latest ethnic treasure Eyring's managed to round up with a relentlessly unerring eye. All this and your purchases are completely tax-free, too, since the store is a nonprofit enterprise.

More of an art incubator than an art barn, gallery owner Kraig Foote's seven-year-old art space gives talented young artists a commercial outlet that few would otherwise have. Most of the painters, sculptors, potters, woodworkers and glass blowers who show here still store their supplies in lockers and cabinets at local colleges, universities and high schools. But their works are often the artistic equal to those found in neighboring galleries along Scottsdale's art walk. Best of all, Foote's success hasn't lured him away from his original plan. Prices are still low, from $100 to $2,000. And fresh faces and art are always emerging from the gallery's pool of young talent.
Tired of cruising the local bars, cornered by heavily tattooed guys with missing front teeth asking, "Hey baby, what's your sign?" Fed up with meeting chicks with fake body parts?

Invest $15 ($10 if you're a museum member) and buy your way into Phoenix Art Museum's After Hours (okay, so it is sponsored by New Times), a singles soiree open to all comers -- but generally attended by a more refined crowd than those mentioned above -- held the third Thursday of each month at the museum. Billed as "a monthly experience of unique art, unusual music, outrageous dance, cool poetry, performance art, food, drink and more," After Hours provides an artful reprieve from the vapid, soulless, meat-market dating experience many of us have come to know and hate.

Nowhere else (in Phoenix) can you see a drag queen cosmetically transform before your very eyes or see artists caricature guests à la Gidget Goes Hawaiian -- all the while trolling for Mr./Ms. Right.

Get the picture?

Whether you're just getting your feet wet, training for the Ironman Triathlon or an aging veteran of chlorine-soaked, predawn practices as a kid, Sun Devil Masters offers a challenging program with three workouts a day in a world-class, 50-meter outdoor pool. Former Olympians and NCAA champions too numerous to name roam the decks as coaches or ply the crystal-clear water during challenging workouts sure to pop your pulse over 150 beats per minute. Under the direction of former ASU men's coach and Master's National Champion Ron Johnson, swimmers are pushed by an ever-changing yet constantly demanding workout regimen. Knock down two miles in the pool before dinner, and eat all you want.

The season never stops, but is highlighted twice a year by Master's National Championships where swimmers "shave down" to get the ultimate peak performance. The competition is friendly, but intense. Swimmers, take your mark . . .

Admittedly, they may seem woefully out of place in the middle of a Southwestern desert, but the well-manicured, classical Chinese gardens here are the next best thing to being in Beijing. Go past the upturned eaves of the COFCO complex's authentic glazed tile roofs (cleverly fashioned to impale any evil spirits that may dare to enter its portals) and wander along meandering paths lined with weeping willows and bamboo.

A serene water lily pond, artfully punctuated with rushes, papyrus and carved stone sculpture, provides a cool locus for the gardens' Tang dynasty replicas of intimate pagodas and pavilions. Designed for serious star gazing, moon meditating and vista viewing, this is the ideal haunt in which to cool your bound heels when your copy of Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor finally wears out.

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