Phoenix Rock Gym

Rock climbing is a perishable skill. Thankfully, each time we find ourselves in too pathetic a state, we have the Phoenix Rock Gym to help with the necessary repairs. The two bouldering areas, including an upstairs room with sharply overhanging walls, are perfect for muscle-building and fingertip-hardening. Once we get back in shape, we usually can then find a partner who'll be willing to belay us on the 30-foot faces of the gym's main walls. Despite its friendly ambiance, the Valley's oldest rock gym has a hard side — we've ripped skin there, tweaked a limb on the lead wall, and worked our forearms until our hands could barely close. But it's all good. For inspiration, we look to the teens and tweens of Team Thrashers, the competitive climbing outfit that trains at the PRG under the tutelage of coach Jeremy Cox. Nothing motivates us to work out harder than watching a kid do 30 pull-ups without breaking a sweat.

The Cages

There are plenty of spots around the Valley that can fulfill the urge to hit a few baseballs. There are only a few places where you can feed your inner big-leaguer at an indoor facility and face curveballs, 85 mph fastballs, a delivery that simulates a human arm angle, or get instruction from former pros. You can get even more serious with a membership, allotting yourself time every day to perfect your swing. From Little League-age on up, The Cages is where players go to hit. Or you can keep hacking at the crap that comes out of the antique pitching machines that litter the outdoor batting cages around the Valley. There are a couple of extra alleys inside The Cages, so pitchers are welcome too.

Goodyear Ballpark

Old Hohokam Stadium, Phoenix Municipal Stadium, and Scottsdale Stadium stand as the last of the original Cactus League stadiums. The spring homes to 15 of the major leagues' teams have turned into sprawling multi-field complexes for a couple of teams to share. Character and warmth of the intimate training fields have been stripped so that fans can sit in pristine, generic stadiums at ticket prices nearing those sold during those teams' regular season. Yet one intimate fan experience still beckons, in the West Valley.

The Goodyear Ballpark, built in 2009, hosts the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds for their preseason practice and home games and has two very cool and unique features. The first and best is a mini-diamond, located beyond the right field foul line, for kids and families to play on during games. This space epitomizes a spring game experience, allowing kids and parents to watch the big leaguers for a few innings and then go and enjoy the beautiful game in their own way, right next to where the pros are doing it. The second is a large sculpture in front of the stadium called The Ziz by Donald Lipski. It looks like a giant baseball that has gone through some shape-shift warp. It's one of the few artistic touches at any spring training facility across the Valley. Bonus: There are some quality knothole views of the field from the fence behind the left field wall.

For most professional wrestlers, few things are as thrilling as hearing the roar of the crowd as they compete in the ring. In rasslin' parlance, it's called a "pop," and it can be addictive. Especially the massive rush of performing for tens of thousands of fans at televised extravaganzas as a superstar for World Wrestling Entertainment (a.k.a. the big leagues). Cheers from adoring WWE crowds can be so heady that many of the federation's ex-superstars attempt to recapture these glory days in front of much smaller crowds at various independent promotions across the country, if only to hear their names getting screamed once again. Here in the Valley, that means working events put on by the (ironically named) locally fed Future Stars of Wrestling, which frequently features a few erstwhile WWE competitors. Racy performers from the ultra-suggestive "Attitude Era" of the '90s, like "Badd Ass" Billy Gunn and Sean Morley (once known as porn-actor-turned-wrestler Val Venis) have previously faced off against FSW's roster of up-and-coming grapplers like Tyson Tyler and Willie Mack during biweekly Adrenaline Rush events at the Celebrity Theatre and other Valley venues. Other onetime WWE employees, including Johnny "The Bull" Stromboli and the villainous Iranian-born Shawn Daivari, also compete. Plus, they even get some television time once again via FSW's weekly television show, which airs Saturday nights at 11 p.m. on Channel 13. It's nowhere as spectacular as WrestleMania, but at least they're still getting cheered.

We gotta go with the Gorilla. We're not expecting much else to be good about the Phoenix Suns this year, but the Gorilla will remain a crowd-pleaser with his death-defying leaps, his goofy antics, and his public appearances around the world on behalf of various worthy causes. According to the Suns' website, he attended Fur-man University and Hairy Truman High School in Mon-key West, Florida, and has been a pro for 27 years (which translates to 59 gorilla years).

Despite the corny credentials, he's a force to be reckoned with in the mascot world around here. A gymnast of King Kong talent, the man inside the ape suit literally jumps off trampolines through rings of fire to slam-dunk basketballs, and has broken nearly every bone in whatever body occupies his furry skin. An irate Miami Heat fan once punched him in the snout, not appreciating his monkeyshines. The Gorilla's identity? Reportedly, it's a middle-aged balding dad named Bob Woolf, but who knows who's really inside that furry skin, says the coy Suns organization. In early September, the Suns announced they were seeking a new apeman to fill the suit and the $40,000-a-year job. Well — Woolf in gorilla's clothing or whoever it is or will be in 2012-13 — he's got no competition in the world of Valley mascots. Sheesh, the Arizona Cardinals' Big Red scares the crap out of us with that gigantic pointed beak and gleam in his eye, the Phoenix Coyotes' Howler never has done anything funny or death-defying, and we're pretty sure everybody agrees that the Diamondbacks' Baxter is kinda pathetic. We mean, why do we have a bobcat as the team's mascot? Oh, yeah, Chase Field used to be called Bank One Ballpark. D-backs, it's not anymore! Hasn't been for a looong time! Time to retire the idiotic Baxter and move on to a cute, cuddly rattlesnake man.

Being a fan of the Arizona Diamondbacks the past few seasons is akin to being on a roller coaster. In 2009 and 2010, the team found itself dwelling in the dank depths of the National League West standings. Then, the absolutely unthinkable happened last year, when skipper Kirk Gibson took Arizona from worst to first, leading them all the way to an unlikely playoff run. This year, however, they have struggled off and on. While fair-weather types have stayed away from Chase Field, Cindy McBride hasn't abandoned her "Boys in Sedona Red." In fact, the 66-year-old Tempe dental assistant has never missed a home game in more than a decade, be it a good season or bad. She's arguably the team's most diehard fan and definitely its most colorful supporter. Starting in 2002, McBribe began bringing homemade flags to every single contest at the Chase (as well as the occasional road game), which she waves energetically from her seat in the nosebleeds of the upper deck. Created in her spare time, each one utilizes the team's colors and is designed with unique patterns for specific players. Due to her tendency to shuffle about in the stands and fly flags when the D-backs are behind, announcers originally dubbed her "Dancing Granny" or "Rally Sally." These days, McBride is known as just "The Flag Lady" and has been waving her pennants extra-hard, if only to encourage the Diamondbacks to rally toward another NL playoff spot.

A couple of years ago, the folks at Channel 3 pulled a major boner by running an erroneous headline on their website stating that legendary longtime Phoenix Suns radio announcer Al McCoy was hanging up his microphone and retiring. Much to the relief of Planet Orange fans everywhere (ourselves included), it thankfully turned out to be completely false. Because, honestly, we can't imagine Phoenix taking to the court without McCoy's distinctive voice describing all the action from buzzer to buzzer. Having called Suns games for more than four decades, the former Iowa farm boy is as much a part of the team as anyone on the current roster. His signature catchphrases (like "Shazam!" after the Suns make a three-pointer or "Heartbreak Hotel" after a missed shot) are the stuff of legend, as are the humorous nicknames given to players (such as Steve Nash's becoming the "Nash Rambler.") McCoy's set to turn 80 next year, but he hasn't shown any inkling of quitting. Here's hoping the Suns finally get their shizzle together to win an NBA championship before he retires. We're sure Al's as eager to call that moment as we are to hear it.

Before Dave Tippett hit town, we thought ice hockey had two halves and four quarters, just like basketball and football. The Phoenix Coyotes head coach has brought hockey intelligence to this desert metropolis. Like they say, winning puts fannies in the seats, and it made us learn not only that there are three periods in a hockey game, but also that hockey is a fast-paced, thrill-a-minute sport that makes even the National Basketball Association pale by comparison.

Sure, the Coyotes had star forward Shane Doan and phenomenal goalie Mike Smith, but without Tippett, the Coyotes never would have pulled off their incredible 2011-12 season, in which they lost in the Western Conference finals to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Los Angeles Kings in five games. Before that even happened, with Tippett pulling the strings, the Yotes won their first-ever Pacific Division title with a 42-27-13 record. They went on to smash the heralded Chicago Blackhawks in six games for the franchise's first playoff series win in 25 years (they were the Winnipeg Jets before moving to the Valley in 1996). After that, they prevailed over the Nashville Predators in five games, giving them the most playoff wins in their NHL history.

And though Tippett never laced up a pair of skates, he was the chess master who made it happen. Let's pray now that the Yotes' financial problems can be solved and Tippett and the Yotes can remain here for good. We need a good team in Sand Land — our mental health demands it.

Georganne Moline may have been the happiest fifth-place finisher in the history of the Summer Olympics. And why shouldn't the Thunderbird High School and University of Arizona hurdler have been beaming? In the finals of the 400-meter hurdles in the London Olympics, she finished in a personal-best time of 52.92 seconds. There wasn't much separating her from the gold medal winner of the event, Russia's Natalya Antyukh — whose time was 52.70 — except age: Antyukh is 31 and Moline is 22.

The daughter of an elementary school teacher and single mom whose co-workers took up a collection to help pay for Moline's trip to London, Georganne is seven years younger than U.S. silver medal winner Lashinda Demus and the youngest competitor among all the hurdlers in the event's Olympic finals. Her finish in London was preceded by a ligament tear during her junior year at U of A that kept her out of the indoor college season — so it's impossible to say how good she might have been if that hadn't held her back. A Wildcat senior, Demus told TV cameras after the race, "I'm just getting started." She thanked the other "girls" in her event for teaching her so much. Following her run, experts called her the future of her sport.

We never thought we'd name a hockey player best athlete in the Valley. Most sports fans around here barely knew the Phoenix Coyotes existed until their incredible run in the NHL's Western Conference playoffs last season. They lost to the Los Angeles Kings in the conference finals, but Shane Doan was a force to be reckoned with through the team's stellar season, in which they went 42-27-13. A 17-year veteran with the Winnipeg Jets-turned-Coyotes, the Yotes captain scored 50 points (22 goals and 28 assists) and his first NHL hat-trick (three goals in a game) during the season. In the playoffs, he scored nine points to lead the Coyotes to their first-ever playoff victories against Chicago and Nashville. Playing for Team Canada internationally, Doan has won two gold medals in world championships and was a member of Canada's Olympic team.

An Alberta native, Doan lives in Phoenix now. But he has entered into free agency, and there are rumors that, because of turmoil over ownership of the Glendale-based franchise, he may move on. Whether he stays or goes, he was by far our best — and winningest — athlete this year.

Best Of Phoenix®

Best Of