Just when you thought the ride was over indeed, just when the ride should have been over the Arizona Diamondbacks once again provided Valley sports fans with a pleasant surprise: the overachieving, hard-charging "Baby-Backs."

When they should have been losing with a stable of injured veterans, they once again found ways to win, this time with a stable of greenhorn minor leaguers who still look more likely bound for Williamsport than Cooperstown.

If you've noticed, the D-Backs are the only pro franchise in the Valley capable of pleasant surprises. While the Cardinals and Coyotes turn star prospects into jerkwad flameouts with felony records, the Diamondbacks turn no-name minor leaguers into lovable superstars.

Now, if we could just see that sort of personality and performance out of the rest of the Valley's pro teams, we might someday be a legitimate four-sport town.

Until then, it'll just continue to be the D-Backs and the occasional burst of Suns-shine.

Readers' Choice: Arizona Diamondbacks

BEST PLACE TO WATCH PEOPLE TICKLE THE ORGANS

Organ Stop Pizza

Organ Stop Pizza
Who wouldn't love a giant organ, especially when it comes with a pizza? Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa prides itself as home to a massive 5,000-pipe Wurlitzer, the largest Wurlitzer theater organ in the world. Built in 1927 and revamped and put to use again in 1975, the thing, powered by four huge turbine blowers, totally wails; musicians play everything from the Star Wars theme to "Phantom of the Opera." Also, these guys deserve major credit for sticking to song themes. At the end of a patriotic medley, a giant American flag is unfurled behind the organ. Four console-controlled cat marionettes dance along to "Alley Cat." And when the song "Part of Your World" from Disney's The Little Mermaid is played, bubbles descend on the room.

What's in a name? A lot, we learned, during last spring's brouhaha over Squaw Peak. But what do our state leaders do if the offending symbol is actually part of a state building?

Not much, apparently.

There they are -- swastikas -- carved right into the façade of the Arizona State Office Building in downtown Phoenix, home to the state's Department of Agriculture. As it turns out, the swastika -- then called a "whirling log" -- was a design element used in India, Tibet and Turkey long before Adolf Hitler hijacked it as the logo for his National Socialist Party -- and, ultimately, a universal symbol of hatred.

Ancient Native Americans used the "whirling log" in their artwork as well, including Arizona's Pima, Maricopa and Navajo, which is probably why it ended up as part of the Arizona State Office Building, erected in 1930.

But who thinks about whirling logs now? Not the Native Americans, who long ago signed a decree renouncing the use of the swastika on any artwork.

Guess it's harder to get out that sandblaster than it is to blast dissenters on a committee in charge of naming mountains.

The Valley has many dedicated professionals who are very good at dealing with the public and the press. And we should know; the media are their biggest customers and often their biggest headaches. But the Phoenix PD's Randy Force has taken the concept of public information to a new level. Three years ago, Force gave up a long-held post in homicide to become the department's chief mouthpiece. He soon saw the value of working with the media (easier to get the department's message out to the public) rather than fighting with the press (always bad headlines). So for the past two years, Force has taught media relations classes (which he devised) to rookie officers as well as to veteran supervisors. His PowerPoint presentation would make a First Amendment lawyer weep for joy. It starts with a lecture on the constitutional underpinnings of a free press and the importance of a free press to society, works through laws and court decisions on public information (such as access to crime scenes) and wraps up with a run-down of Arizona's public records law, including the fact that even cops' own personnel files are generally open to inspection. All of which is designed to encourage an open flow of information from a department that has often kept itself behind closed doors.

And besides, what a great name for a cop.

We'd sooner eat our playbill than employ that overused phrase "Broadway caliber," but we're struggling to come up with a better description of this teeny troupe's last season. With its letter-perfect production last August of Neil LaBute's humorous morality play The Shape of Things, Nearly Naked set the bar impossibly high. By November, the five-year-old company had surpassed itself with its widely acclaimed take on Peter Shaffer's postmodern sex-and-equine-imagery drama Equus. No other company, not even our biggest-budgeted Equity houses, came anywhere near Nearly Naked's stylish productions and splendid choices, and we're hoping they remain -- to quote Jacqueline Susann, "undraped on the stage" -- for a long time to come.

Japanese Friendship Garden of Phoenix/Ro Ho En
Leave it to the Japanese to create a serene oasis right in the middle of a desert metropolis. Situated at the south end of the Margaret T. Hance Park, this three-and-a-half-acre refuge is the perfect place for busy urbanites to slow down and contemplate simple beauties: a 12-foot waterfall, a rocky stream that flows into a koi-filled pond, a shore of carefully selected rocks from Arizona quarries, and stone lanterns and sculptures. (Landscape architects from Himeji, Japan, Phoenix's sister city, incorporated native desert plants into the traditional design to help the garden withstand the extreme climate.) Even the garden's official name, Ro Ho En, inspires a poetic mindset. Ro stands for "heron," Himeji's symbolic bird, which references the town's spectacular White Heron Castle; Ho is Japanese for our own mythical winged creature; and En means "garden." There's also an on-site traditional teahouse, perfect for viewing the lovingly manicured scenery.

BEST PLACE TO BUY NASCAR MEMORABILIA

Action

This is the place to get decked out in the latest NASCAR and racing gear while picking up precision models of your favorite race car. Billing itself as the full service racing collectibles retail store, Action has more gizmos with corporate logos than Richard Pettys jump suit. Dressed out in its new Tempe digs, Action features a complete line of precision scale-model stock cars, sales of which are restricted to members of the Racing Collectible Club of America. The individually numbered, die-cast stock car models are a hot item in the collectibles world, sometimes fetching big bucks among the faithful. The centerpiece of the store is a stock car driven by Dale Earnhardt in a NASCAR race. The car has cut-away panels over half the body, exposing the inner workings of the machine, including the $80,000 engine that employees fire up from time to time. But thats not the only car on display. A museum is integrated into the retail store, jammed with full-size cars including hot rods, a 57 Chevy, some vintage Mercurys, driver uniforms, shoes, helmets and other memorabilia. Gentlemen (and women), start your engines, and get on down to Action.

Talk about fashion-conscious. Home to a 972-piece Ethnic Dress Collection, the West Valley Art Museum is the best-dressed museum in the Southwest. Comprising costumes, textiles and ethnographic artworks from more than 75 countries, "The Golden Thread" collection got its start in 1985, when Sun City resident Dorothy Knop donated 356 pieces. (All are illustrated in her book Collections and Recollections: A Search for World Legacies of Ethnic Dress, available in the museum store.) Displayed items rotate periodically; currently, the focus falls on Asia, Africa and Latin America.

If fashion isn't your passion, the museum -- which originated as a satellite of the Phoenix Art Museum -- is an arts destination in its own right, with nearly 3,000 works in all manner of media.

Although production of the feisty and subversive e-zine has been slow this year, Ladmo Park Chicano Chronicle's recent return to cyber-activism is well-appreciated. The e-zine's mission since its inception four years ago has been "to research, inform, advocate, promote, protect and expose by peaceful means in the best interest of Arizona's Chicanos." LPCC's targets include anyone from former Arizona Republic columnist Ruben Navarrete to vigilante border militias, and attacks can be brutal. They're designed to be in order to combat the complacency over social issues, political discrimination, and infuriating stereotypes that plague the Chicano community. "I want us to come out of our shells, stand up and say, Wait a minute, that was fucked up!'" says LPCC's anonymous founder. LPCC's feisty communiqués do just that.

Do we come here for the fresh-baked muffins -- the carrot-ginger, corn-Cheddar and banana? No. Though the bakers pull the trays of treats from the oven and let them cool in a heady fog of aroma that makes us drool, we're not their customers. The real guests are dogs, here to snack on those muffins and to grocery shop for Nature's Variety foods, an all-natural line of raw foods (raw frozen bones, freeze-dried meats, dry kibble and dry roasted treats formulated to USDA standards). Yet we're not suffering -- this "Coffee Bar, Juice Bar and Dog Bar" also serves people-style raw juices, smoothies, caffeinated drinks, bagels and desserts. While Spot visits with his quadruped friends around a patio fountain centered by a bright red fire hydrant, we sip on Hair of the Dog, a stress-relieving combo of apple, carrot and ginger. It's quite the place on weekends, when pets and their owners come in from the local dog park, visiting like moms and their babies. We love In the Raw. Our dogs love In the Rawwwwr.

Best Of Phoenix®

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