BEST PLACE TO SEE A SPRING TRAINING GAME 2007 | Phoenix Municipal Stadium | Arts & Entertainment | Phoenix
The Cactus League has taken an ominous turn in the past decade, what with all of those new bells-and-whistles ball yards sprouting like synthetic weeds in the West Valley. Despite an $8 million partial makeover in 2005, the 1965-vintage Phoenix Muni remains old-school Cactus League, and a trip to the venerable 8,500-seater is about the game, not the place.

This is not to say that there are no creature comforts. The winter home of the Oakland Athletics has everything a true baseball nut requires: warm sun, cold beer, a perfectly groomed field, and cozy environs with not a bad seat in the house. If you like the real thing, go Muni.

Until December 29, 2006 — and the stupefying football game that put it on the map — the Insight was second-tier all the way. It started life as the Copper Bowl in Tucson in 1989, enduring a decade of lame, forgettable matches that even Old Pueblans couldn't give a hang about. In 2000, the game moved to Phoenix's Chase Field. A baseball stadium. Mortifying.

Finally, with the Fiesta Bowl's departure to Glendale's new University of Phoenix Stadium in early '07, the Insight got a real home of its own. And, man, did it make the most of it. In its first year at Sun Devil, the Insight hosted the Texas Tech Red Raiders and Minnesota Golden Gophers in what looked to be a just-okay matchup. Uh, nuh uh. The Gophers led 38-7 in the third quarter when the boys from West Texas kicked it into overdrive and cranked out the biggest comeback in NCAA Division-I postseason history with a 44-41 win.

As delightful as the game was, we old-schoolers took even more satisfaction knowing that the Fiesta's now ensconced in Bill Bidwill's $200 zillion pinball machine and the Insight's in an honest-to-gosh open-air college-football stadium, with all the tradition and rah-rah (and ready access to Mill Avenue's bars) that entails.

What can we say about Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, except that he's the greatest?

Here's a guy who runs about 40 miles a night on the basketball court as he enters his mid-30s, all the while shucking and jiving with the ball, passing to this teammate and that. Making the art of basketball assists look like child's play. Never has anybody who looked so un-athletic been so, well, athletic! Experts say boxers are the greatest athletes, but the way Steve Nash handles the basketball, the way he cuts through defenders is truly phenomenal.

The Suns didn't win the championship last year, but it wasn't because of Nash. He did everything in his power to push his team ahead, even getting pushed gang-style by the Spurs' Robert Horry into the scorer's table in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. That turned out to be the cheap shot heard around the world. Two Suns, Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw, were suspended for the next game — which would have been a momentum contest under normal circumstances — and the Suns ended up losing the series. See, Stat and Three-D made a move toward the melee, which warrants an automatic one-game suspension under NBA rules. But we digress. Little Stevie jumped up from the floor after Horry's cowardly push and tried to go after the 6-foot-11 thug.

Thing is, Nash's so athletic that we'd like to see him in the boxing ring someday, and we're pretty sure that if the referee hadn't gotten in the way, and Stoudemire and Diaw hadn't made their advances, our hero would've leapt into the air and landed one on Big Shot Rob's sneering kisser. With his foot! Did we mention that Nash's even better at soccer than hoops?

Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi is a marvel to watch. She's every bit as great an athlete as Steve Nash, and she's only in her fourth season in the WNBA.

Too bad the women's game isn't more universally popular. Maybe it's that two-tone ball. Or the fact that only a few of the players can dunk? In any case, it's a shame because Taurasi is the proverbial poet in high-tops, a much more mesmerizing player than men's star Nash. A few years ago, she was dubbed the greatest collegiate basketball player (male or female) of all time after leading the University of Connecticut women's team to three straight NCAA championships from 2002-04. And we'd say she's the best athlete in the women's game today. At almost 6 feet, Taurasi was the number one draft pick of the Phoenix Mercury in 2004, after being the youngest player on the women's Team USA in the 2004 Olympics that won the gold medal. In her second year with the Mercury, she was named a starter on the WNBA all-star team. She has since made three all-star appearances. In 2007, she led the Mercury to the franchise's first WNBA championship. The first player in history to break the 800-point mark in a single season (860) in 2006, she is one of a handful of players in her league who can take over a game.

And when she doesn't, she can get pissed. She got a two-game suspension this season for, um, disrespecting the refs in a loss to the Bill Laimbeer-coached Detroit Shock.

But her feistiness is a major reason we love her. She's not a superstar in her game because of skill and conditioning alone — it's the 'tude that puts her over the top.

Who else?! He's the man who's transformed pro basketball from a low-post slog-fest to a run-and-gun showcase. He's the reason the NBA's fun to watch nowadays and becoming the most popular sport in the world (except for football, um, we mean soccer). We've always wondered how a sport that's not even the most popular in its own country (real American football is), can be the second-most-watched in the world, but Mike D'Antoni's why!

The biggest star ever in the Italian league as a player and a coach, D'Antoni has brought European athleticism to our shores in the form of the modern-day Phoenix Suns. The Suns will run all but one or two teams in the league (which took their inspiration from the Suns) out of any gym, and that makes them damn exciting to watch. While the San Antonio Spurs continue to win championships, they're just plain dull with their predictable game of tossing the ball inside to Tim Duncan. They've never captured the imagination of basketball lovers.

Now, D'Antoni would've already won his/our NBA title if not for incredibly bad luck. Superstar Amaré Stoudemire was out for all but two games of the 2005-06 season with knee problems, and we all remember that cheap shot to Steve Nash that wound up being the end of last season's championship run. If Stoudemire and Boris Diaw hadn't been kicked out of the next game, there's no doubt in our mind that the Larry O'Brien Trophy would be residing here in The PHX. So say what you will about the lack of defense on D'Antoni's teams, Mike's going to take the Suns all the way next season. His defensive philosophy of not contesting every damn shot — so that momentum stays at a peak — will finally prevail.

Though Brett Wallace lists his favorite movie as The Natural, his unorthodox swing at a baseball is anything but. For starters, he kicks his front foot in the air as a pitch comes in, as he keeps his back foot anchored to the ground instead of in the normal pivot. It all adds up to something that would not be described as beautiful. Then there's his body, all 250 pounds or so of it, with legs as big and solid as the trunk of a saguaro.

But this native of Sonoma, California, is our choice for this award because he basically hits the bejesus out of the ball, again and again. He's also surprisingly agile for such a large man and — we really like this — he seems to be having a genuinely great time out on the diamond. Wallace was instrumental in the Sun Devils' 49-15 record last season and the accolades came his way in bundles. Among other honors, Wallace was the Pac-10 Player of the Year, and won a spot on the U.S. National Team that played at the Pan American Games in Brazil last summer.

Not bad for a guy from a little high school in Wine Country. Safe to say that this 21-year-old has made a memorable impact on everyone who's watched him play ball here for the past two years, especially those on opposing teams.

ASU's softball program had been wobbling under the sports radar for a generation before Clint Myers took over as head coach last year and immediately led his team to the College World Series. Myers was blessed right out of the chute with Katie Burkhart, a statuesque left-handed pitcher with a potent riseball and a nasty changeup, who was entering her sophomore year as a Sun Devil. Those who never have seen a fast-pitch game should understand this: It's all about the pitching. Diamondback great Randy Johnson's best year isn't even in the same, um, ballpark as what Burkhart accomplished in the past two seasons — 65 wins, 833 strikeouts and enough personal honors to fill a trophy case. Though she's an intense competitor on the field, the broadcasting major from San Luis Obispo, California's teammates love her for her great sense of humor and gregarious personality. Her coach loves that, too. But he loves her riseball even more. Before she's through at ASU after next season, Burkhart surely will break every pitching record at the school. And she may even get a few more wins over archrival University of Arizona, which we're guessing would mean more to her than any personal trophy she might ever earn.
Arizona State University's storied baseball program has had three great coaches: Bobby Winkles, Jim Brock, and Pat Murphy. But Murphy may wind up being the best.

If Murphy coaches until he's 65 (he's 48 now) and continues to win games at the same pace, he will break the all-time NCAA record for baseball victories. Just this year, he was named to his second Pac-10 Coach of the Year honor, after helming the Sun Devils to the conference championship and their best season since 2000. The irascible coach, known for his tough dugout demeanor and ball-busting sense of humor, was hired by ASU from Notre Dame 13 seasons ago, and has carried on the tradition of Winkles and Brock to keep our hometown U a national baseball power.

This winning atmosphere is more than we can say for the other men's coaches on the Tempe campus over the past several years. (Women's basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne, with a 203-134 record, rivals Murphy in coaching excellence.) The ASU team has gone to the College World Series 20 times, including this year, when Murphy's team was eliminated by UC-Irvine. Murphy's a tough coach, but it's hard to find a player who goes through his program who doesn't respect and love him — once it's all over.

For the longest time, Mountain View was known as a football school. But those days are gone. Not that the Toros pigskin program has bitten the dust (they finished second in the state last season), but the accomplishments of Ernst's recent basketball squads have led pundits to properly pull out the D word — as in dynasty.

Last season, Mountain View became the first large school to win three state titles in a row since the defunct Phoenix Union won four from 1958 to 1961. The title marked Ernst's seventh as a head coach, including one with Chandler High back in 1976, when he was still in his 20s. Not yet 60, the lanky, professorial Ernst looks as if he's not going anywhere for years to come, a frightening notion for his opponents. His teams usually reflect his own personality — rarely flashy, but fundamentally sound and doggedly determined to win, especially against more athletic opponents. Now getting close to 700 wins, which makes him one of the winningest basketball coaches in Arizona history, Gary Ernst does it the right way, demanding a lot from his teenagers on and off the court, and getting it.

So the mother of his child claims he's not a great dad? So he had the bad taste to date Paris Hilton after he got dumped girlfriend, Brynn Cameron (a University of Southern California women's basketball star), pregnant? So he has a cameo in one in a long line of dumbass Adam Sandler movies? So he was clocked speeding four times on the 101 loop (who hasn't been)? Matt Leinart's just what we've needed around here, a bona fide celebrity jock, the kind of guy whom The Bachelor (or, more likely, Age of Love) would kill to get. He's got the gleaming chompers and stubble to prove it!

But what's going to make the 6-foot-5 Leinart really famous is what he'll do on the football field this year. Even under ridiculous Coach Denny Green, Leinart had a good (now, we didn't say great) first year in the NFL. He set a rookie record for passing (405 yards) in the Minnesota Vikings game. Then (oops!) he went a dismal 13-for-32 passing against the worst team in football, the Oakland Raiders. Overall, he threw for 2,547 yards and 11 touchdowns and finished with a 4-7 record.

But we're telling you — the best is yet to come. The Heisman Trophy winner and quarterback of a national championship team was an NFL rookie last year! Leinart is set to take the league by storm — his first game this season notwithstanding. He vows he's gotten his Hollywood-itis under control and is focused on playing football for the hometown boys. The other Cardinals love the guy, which is saying something for a second-year player. He's got charisma, but it's more than that. The hardened pros around him, including veteran running back Edgerrin James, realize he's come to play, and that — based on his extremely solid performance last year — will only get better under a good coach and behind an improved offensive line.

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