Best Place to See a Spring Training Game, New School

Camelback Ranch

Camelback Ranch Stadium

Picking your favorite spring training ballpark is like picking your favorite Beatle: Even if you're comfortable with your choice, you have to concede there are certain merits to the options you've passed up. Still, having been to every park in Arizona, we give the nod to Glendale's $100 million Camelback Ranch, home to the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers. As one of the brand-new Cactus League parks, it's got all the amenities of Chase Field in an intimate setting that mirrors the atmosphere in the best old-time ballparks. Parking is a cinch, the ushers aren't as Draconian about seat-sneaking as what you'll find at, say, Peoria Sports Complex, and the Chicago-style hot dogs are cheaper and tastier than the ones the Cubbies sell in Mesa. The architecture is what really sets this park apart, though: The copper-colored oxidized steel shell of the grandstand blends beautifully into the surrounding countryside, the gently sloping lawn unfolds gracefully inside the gate, and the Gabion stone retaining walls add a fresh modern touch. The overall atmosphere is still far from a finished product, and will come as the park is broken in, but it's already our favorite place to watch a game.

Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Sports are cool and all, but we like cheering for our favorite team sans the beer swilling, chicken-wing flatulence, and bro-dude'ing. For something more our non-jock speed, we like to watch the big game at the First Amendment Forum at the Walter Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix. The school shows the majority of the ASU football games (both home and away) as well as some ASU men's basketball clashes and the Super Bowl on a big projection screen. There's no cover and free popcorn is served.

We talked to a great many Phoenix sports fans in the lead-up to the Super Bowl, but only one really sticks out: Clayton Jacobson of Parker, Arizona. Jacobson is a California native, the son of the man who invented the Jet Ski, but has adopted the Cards with a fervor we'd love to see in all local sports fans. Jacobson, who figured prominently in our cover story about Cardinals fans and also got his mug on the front page of the Arizona Republic, has the homemade signs and head-to-toe team gear, sure, but what really impressed us is his attitude. Jacobson absolutely refused to endure the self-defeating attitude of the namby-pamby Cards fans eager to throw in the towel after every setback in the Redbirds' historic season, even threatening hometown fans with physical violence when they expressed doubt in their team during the NFC Championship game. There's definitely no one in town we'd rather watch the game with than Jacobson.

We're Gambo & Ash evacuees. Ironically, we've gravitated to the time slot formerly held by the Valley's No. 1 sports-gab team, who remain at the top by being abrasive, controversial for its own sake, and downright mean to their yahoo callers. (Representative call from last March. Ash to a caller: "You're a moron." Gambo: "Yeah. You should go stick your head in a toilet.") Obviously, some people like that out-yahooing-the-yahoos kind of thing. For us, it's grown stale.

When John Gambadoro and Mark Asher quit XTRA for a big payday at KTAR in late 2006, they left a sucking p.m. vacuum at their longtime radio home that was finally filled early in '09 when the tandem of Dan Bickley and Mike Jurecki moved from morning drive to afternoons to compete directly with G&A.

Bickley's the Energizer Bunny of local sports, holding down afternoon drive 20 hours a week and — for his real job — cranking out crackerjack column after crackerjack column for the Arizona Republic. Bickley's a first-class radio presence — literate, knowledgeable, the ultimate hale-fellow-well-met. Longtime reporter Jurecki is an NFL/Cardinals insider and a straight shooter bar none.

Colin Cowherd is that know-it-all kid on the playground who all the big, stupid kids wanna slug. But while the meatheads grew up to be janitors and solid-waste technicians, Cowherd parlayed his wit and wiles into this big-time gig with "The Mothership" — ESPN Radio.

And don't he know it.

He's the most arrogant SOB on the 'waves (well, not counting Rush Limbaugh) and our pick for most fearless. In addition to calling it like it is in the general sports world, the former baseball play-by-play man and TV sports anchor frequently bites the hand that feeds, sticking it to the powers that be at ESPN.

Mostly, though, Cowherd's show is an oasis for the non-meatheads of the world, particularly those on the West Coast. Though The Mothership keeps him close to the vest in Bristol, Connecticut, the Washington State native purposefully plays to Western markets, especially Southern California and Phoenix. The Herd is the best consistent place to go for national analysis of the Arizona Cardinals and Phoenix Suns.

Not only is IndyCar driver Danica Patrick super-hot — she landed in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue twice — but she's super-fast, too. The Scottsdale resident was named Rookie of the Year for the 2005 Indianapolis 500, finished fourth at the Indy 500 that same year (the highest Indy 500 finish ever for a woman), and she became the first woman to ever win an Indy Car race last year, at the Indy Japan 500. Patrick also finished the 2008 IndyCar Series in sixth place, the highest ranking for an American driver in the series that year. She's even brought her speed-demon ethic to the streets of Scottsdale, where she's received two speeding tickets. You go, girl!

It may seem odd to select the Phoenix College Bears fast-pitch softball squad as the Valley's best team in a year when they didn't win the national championship. After all, the school had won five previous nationals in a row, a remarkable feat by any measure. But, heck, they finished second (to a team from Normal, Illinois) and destroyed the local competition for the 10th straight season. The Bears consistently rank high in academics, which counts for something in our book. For a body of work that grabbed our attention years ago and continues to shine, Phoenix College softball hits a home run in our park.

The former coach of the North Carolina State Wolfpack and 2004 Atlantic Coach Conference Coach of the Year has done the impossible, if not unthinkable, by putting ASU's beleaguered program back on the rails in recent years. Still, some contend he's not even the best skipper on his own campus, citing ASU baseball's Pat Murphy and ASU women's basketball's Charli Turner Thorne. Still others, gazing enviously southward, believe Sendek's star has been somewhat eclipsed by the University of Arizona's coup earlier this year in snagging recruiting whiz kid Sean Miller from mid-major powerhouse Xavier.

Nothing against Murphy, Turner Thorne, or former Sendek acolyte Miller, but in terms of pure coaching ability, Sendek rules the Arizona roost. There's no better whiteboard guru in the country, and his track record with the X's and O's in Tempe — hardly a basketball school — bears that out. Taking over for the hapless Rob Evans in 2006, Sendek led the Devils to the National Invitational Tournament in 2007 and the promised land, the NCAA Tournament, last year.

If Herb can keep a few of those blue-chip recruits from falling into Sean Miller's greedy hands — and ASU athletic director Lisa Love can keep other programs' greedy mitts off Sendek — this guy's got the hardwood chops to transform ASU into a perennial NCAA Sweet 16 entry.

The following adjectives aptly describe the controversial longtime ASU coach: bullheaded, mercurial, self-absorbed. Also: witty, loyal, sensitive. We like our high-profile coaches complicated, and none is more so than Murphy, who won his 1,000th game during this year's College World Series, where his overachieving Sun Devils finished an impressive third. Murph, as he's known to many, has his fans — and detractors. The latter consider him a brutish sort with a temperament more suited to a mean-spirited corrections officer than to a college baseball coach. We're in the fan category, having watched him coach (and watched him mature) during his 15-plus years at the helm of ASU's storied baseball program. He may not be Mr. Lovable come game time, but his players work their butts off for him and constantly produce — or else.

Best Reason to Believe the Cardinals Will Be Better than Last Year

Beanie Wells

All the sports pontificators like to predict that the Arizona Cardinals won't make it to the Super Bowl again next season. They like to say that losing teams in recent Super Bowls have tended to tank, some failing to boast even a winning record the next year.

All true. But, despite that opening-game loss, we believe the Cards will be better. We're not crazy enough to say they will make it to the Super Bowl again, but we think they will go far in the post-season. Look at the team roster. All the key offensive players will be back: Kurt Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, a much-improved offensive line. Who won't be back is Edgerrin James, a great running back in his time who was over the hill by the time he donned Cardinals red and white.

In his place will be Chris "Beanie" Wells, the most punishing runner available in last year's NFL draft of college players. The Ohio State phenom is a 6-foot-1, 235-pound pile driver who ranks fourth (and he left college a year early) on the perennially nationally ranked Buckeyes' all-time rushing list with 3,382 yards. Wells entered last season as the front-runner for the Heisman Trophy but was hampered, missing three games, after he injured his right foot in OSU's season opener. But, by season's end, he still ranked sixth nationally in rushing with almost 120 yards per game.

The Cards already have Tim Hightower, a bulldozer of a back who started much of last season over James, but he's no Beanie Wells. The rookie should add a running dimension that the team hasn't possessed in recent memory. A long-yardage threat, as well as a guy who can bust it in on the goal line, he will compliment what last year was predominantly a passing game. If Wells makes the smooth transition into the pros that everybody predicts he will, opposing teams will be hard-pressed to adjust to the Cards' attack. He's a fearsome addition to an offense that was fourth in the league last year without him.

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