The quest for the perfect spring training experience.
The quest for the perfect spring training experience.
New Times image

Fan on a Mission: 15 Teams, 10 Stadiums, 1 Cactus League Weekend

At 3:37 p.m. on Sunday, February 25, I realize I am running out of time to complete my goal of seeing all 15 Major League Baseball teams play in the PHX’s 10 stadiums during the opening weekend of the Cactus League. As I purchase a lemonade at my ninth stop, Scottsdale Stadium, I check my phone for the score of Kansas City versus Oakland at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. These are the only two teams and the only spring training field I haven’t yet seen. The game is tied 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth. Hohokam is a 17-minute drive, according to Google Maps, and I still have a bit of a walk to my car. Do I have time to get there? I’ll tell you later. Baseball always starts with the first pitch.

I’ve never been quite sure why they call the baseball played here in February and March “spring training,” since spring doesn’t officially arrive until everyone in the Cactus League is ready to leave.

But I am sure that there is nowhere in the world where you can became so sated with baseball as in Arizona this time of year. And I determined that I wasn’t going to miss another classic sports experience.

Let me explain.

For more than three decades, I lived a short drive from the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. This is Mecca if you’re an NFL fan, a shrine to all the game’s greats. Of course, I was going to visit. It was so convenient. But then one year turned into 33 and I still hadn’t been there when I moved to the desert five years ago.

The Cactus League holds an equal, perhaps even more romantic appeal for baseball fans than Canton does for pro football followers. Arizona is where it happens every spring, where hope begins anew that this could be THE year for your team. After all, even the Chicago Cubs, darlings of so many springs, had finally had their day, winning the World Series in 2016 after more than a century of postseason sorrow.

When I moved here in 2013, I was thrilled the first time I watched a baseball game under the warm February sun. Nothing like this in Northeast Ohio. I vowed to attend a game at each of the 10 stadiums and buy a hat to represent each of the 15 teams.

After five years, I had been to two exactly two parks, Goodyear and Peoria, and purchased zero caps.

So this year, I made an executive decision. As editor of Phoenix New Times, I assigned myself to write this cover story about watching all 15 teams play at the 10 stadiums during a single weekend, from Friday, February 23, to Sunday, February 25. And I’d eat something at every park as well as buy a cap for each team.

This was a stroke of managerial genius. I get reimbursed for the mileage and the food. The teams provided media credentials for most of the games. All I had to pay for was the hats.

Florida also has 15 major league teams in its Grapefruit League, but many of their stadiums are hours apart, which means you have to spend a lot of time on the highways with unskilled Florida drivers.

The farthest distance between stadiums here is 47 miles from Surprise Stadium to Hohokam Stadium in Mesa. A few years ago, a Wall Street Journal reporter demonstrated that he could attend six games in the Valley in the same time it took another writer to drive between two fields in Florida.

It’s been well-reported how much the Cactus League means to the Valley economically. Attendance at last year’s games almost topped 2 million for the first time. Fifty-eight percent of the fans come from outside the Valley. Total spending is around $500 million each spring, according to a 2015 study conducted by Tucson FMR-Associates. That’s enough to compensate for the annoying waits for a restaurant table this time of year.

But there’s so much more to the appeal of spring training than just money. For some 45 days every year, Arizona brings the nation together over hot dogs and baseball. That’s the experience I set out to discover.

It took some planning:

• Ten teams share five stadiums and five teams have their own. So I had to figure out how to catch a game involving each of the 15 teams on at least one of the 10 fields.

• As I calculated all the possibilities from the Cactus League schedule, I found only one path to success. Three games on the west side on opening day, three games on the east side on the first Saturday, then a frantic final day with two games on each side of the Valley divide.

• Each day, I was determined to see at least the first pitch at one stadium and the last pitch at another.

• Freelance photographer Blake Benard would accompany me to the Saturday games, but the other two days I’m on my own with only Siri as my guide.

Could I do it? Hang on and enjoy the ride. (Click on stadium links for full info on each ballpark.)

Have you ever ridden the Cactus League Trail, as New Times Editor Stuart Warner did? He started each day from his home in south Phoenix.EXPAND
Have you ever ridden the Cactus League Trail, as New Times Editor Stuart Warner did? He started each day from his home in south Phoenix.
Claire Lawton

DAY ONE, FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 23

First stop: Maryvale Baseball Park, 3600 North 51st Avenue, Phoenix. Opened: 1998. Capacity: 10,000. Home of the Milwaukee Brewers. 2017 average attendance: 5,018.

The drive: Starting from my home at 10:49 a.m. in south Phoenix, I decide to take Baseline Road west to 51st. Interstate 10 would have been quicker … but I later learn from a driver who arrived 30 minutes late for the game that I made the smart choice because a highway accident brought traffic to a standstill. Distance: 13 miles.

11:30 a.m.: The gates open.

Ninety-five minutes before the first pitch, there’s already a long line for the first game of spring training between the Milwaukee Brewers and the visiting Chicago Cubs.

And as turnstiles begin to spin, Kent “Iceman” Meyer is waiting for the early arrivals.

“The Iceman be in the house,” he bellows.

It’s 58 degrees, the sun is hidden behind a rare Arizona cloudy sky, and the wind is picking up steadily. That constitutes a cold winter’s day in Phoenix.

But the Iceman isn’t deterred.

“Who needs cold beer? Who needs peanuts? Who needs shivers? The Iceman’s got ’em all.

And his customers line up.

Meyer says he’s not allowed to talk to the press, but then continues to tell me that he follows the Brewers here from Wisconsin every spring. He’s a fixture at Miller Park in Milwaukee; so popular, he says, that he has his own commercial at the stadium there. (There are references to him on YouTube.)

As he continues to peddle peanuts and Miller Lite, he also lends his voice to assist the young woman at the front gate selling game programs for $5.

“Help Sarah out,” he yells. “Buy a program. Ask her to do a dance. She’s Arizona’s champion dancer.”

“You’re worse than my parents,” an embarrassed Sarah replies.

Noon: Who knew about the sauce?

I made a rookie reporter’s mistake. I didn’t do my homework. Apparently, Maryvale is one of the few stadiums outside of Wisconsin where you can get the state’s famous beer brat red sauce to accompany your bratwurst.

I settle for that yellow stuff you folks refer to as mustard to slather onto my Super Brat and chips ($8.75), then join a couple of long-suffering Cubs fans — it’s been 15 months since they won their last World Series — to enjoy my first baseball meal of the season.

“Not as good as the Vienna dogs at Wrigley Field,” says Hector Suarez, who’s also devouring a Super Brat without the special sauce. “But it’s good.”

Suarez and his buddy, Joe Myron, are on a baseball pilgrimage since retiring a few years ago. They’ve seen games at Fenway Park in Boston and Coors Field in Denver. This is their first spring training.

They are a bit surprised by the weather. “I brought clothes for the heat,” Suarez says. “It’s freezing.”

He was born in Puerto Rico, but moved to Chicago when he was 4. He’s been a Cubs fan ever since he can remember. The 2016 World Series erased a lifetime of suffering for him and so many others.

“I feel bad for all the people whose fathers and grandfathers didn’t live to see it happen,” he says. “I read that so many people wanted to scatter their family members’ ashes at Wrigley Field that the team officials had to put a stop to it.”

12:57 p.m.: Nobody kneels during the National Anthem.

As much as I want to stay around for the Brewers’ traditional sausage race, I leave after Milwaukee’s Brent Suter delivers the first pitch to Chicago’s Ian Happ. I have a schedule to keep.

I exit the ballpark at 1:06 p.m. I find my car in the now-crowded parking lot at 1:22. Note to self: Don’t buy another four-door, gray sedan. But as I am searching desperately for a 2007 Acura, I can’t help but notice that the out-of-state license plates far outnumber those from Arizona. Fans had driven here from Wisconsin, Illinois, Utah, Kansas, Texas, California, Colorado, Minnesota, Oregon, and as far away as Virginia just to see baseball.

Good luck locating your vehicles after the game.

SECOND STOP: Camelback Ranch, 10710 West Camelback Road, Phoenix. Opened: 2009. Capacity: 13,596. Home of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox. 2017 average attendance: Dodgers, 9,217; White Sox, 5,394. The drive: from Maryvale, a quick shot up 51st to Camelback. Distance: 9 miles.

2:15 p.m.: Waiting for credentials.

It takes me 22 minutes to drive from Maryvale and park the car at Camelback Ranch. It takes another 26 minutes to get inside the stadium. I know you won’t feel sorry for me because I got in free, but I had to make the trek from the distant dirt portion of the parking lot beyond the outfield fence at Camelback to the Dodgers office near home plate to pick up media credentials. By the time I arrive, it’s so late that the women who give out the passes are taking a break.

Inside, though, the two teams share the facility, the hue is overwhelmingly Dodger blue, the same discoloration you get at Chase Field whenever L.A. plays there. So I don’t want to stay any longer than it takes to make food and hat purchases.

I eschew the Dodger Dog, because I can’t imagine that anyone in La-La Land makes a good hot dog. Instead, I go for the fish tacos, which are so popular I’m told that they are only sold on Fridays and Saturdays.

Don’t waste your $10.50.

At 3:02, after only searching for my car for about five minutes this time, I am off again.

THIRD STOP: Peoria Sports Complex, 16101 North 83rd Avenue, Peoria. Opened: 1994. Capacity: 12,224. Home of the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. 2017 average attendance: Mariners, 7,522; Padres, 5,426. The drive: from Camelback Ranch, east on Camelback, then north on the 101. Distance: 11.7 miles.

3:45 p.m.: But baby, it’s cold outside.

It’s 59 degrees, scattered raindrops are falling on my head, and the wind is whipping them around at 17 mph now, according to the National Weather Service. Fans are wrapping themselves in whatever they can find. Many are gathering in the team shop, searching for more than just souvenirs.

“We’re selling sweatshirts, blankets, things we don’t usually sell in Arizona,” says Gabriela as I purchase my Mariners and Padres hats.

Yet outside, Kevin Caldwell is cheerfully helping anyone who needs it. He’s one of 554 volunteers with the Peoria Diamond Club who usher, take tickets, sell 50-50 raffle chances, etc., at the Cactus League games.
Last year, the organization donated more than $85,000 to local charities, according to Erin Shreenan, general manager of the Diamond Club.

For Caldwell, it’s an opportunity to give back while doing something he loves.

“I enjoy being around sports,” says Caldwell, a retired banker who splits his year between here and Washington, Iowa. “It’s a hobby. Back home I referee, umpire.”

Almost every park in the Cactus League has a similar organization ... staffed primarily by retirees like Caldwell. The best-known may be the HoHoKam Foundation, which works the two spring training venues in Mesa, Sloan Park (Cubs) and Hohokam Stadium. The group’s website says it has raised more than $1 million for charities since incorporating as a nonprofit in 2000.

And those 50-50 raffles can pay off for fans, too. At the Cubs spring training opener on February 24, the daily jackpot was $23,808.

That will buy a lot of Chicago Dogs.

3:47 p.m.: Don’t want to spoil my dinner.

Peoria may have the most enticing food deal in the Cactus League — the daily chef’s a la carte menu for $25. Today’s deal is pasta with chicken sausage, mushrooms, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and bell peppers in a marinara or alfredo sauce with garlic bread, steamed vegetables, cheesecake, and a glass of wine.

Wine? At a baseball game?

I settle for a $5 churro.

4:02 p.m.: First day is done.

Seattle’s Dan Altavilla mercifully strikes out the side in the bottom of the ninth, to preserve a 3-2 victory over San Diego and send those still remaining from the original crowd of 5,441 heading for the gates. I begin the 31-mile drive back to south Phoenix, but it’s rush hour, so I’m stuck listening to Burns and Gambo whine about the weather as they broadcast outdoors from the Diamondbacks opener, which goes into extra innings,  on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM. Wimps. I didn’t even wear a jacket today. But so far on my Cactus League marathon, I’ve spent more time searching for my car in parking lots than actually watching baseball.

Let the Dog Debate begin: Sonoran or Chicago?EXPAND
Let the Dog Debate begin: Sonoran or Chicago?
Stuart Warner

DAY TWO: SATURDAY, FEBRUARY 24

FOURTH STOP: Sloan Park, 2330 West Rio Salada Parkway, Mesa. Opened: 2014. Capacity: 15,000. Home of the Chicago Cubs. 2017 average attendance: 14,818. The drive: again starting from home in south Phoenix, Baseline east to U.S. 60, to the 101. Distance: 15.5 miles.

12:07 p.m.: Soaking in the memories.

Until the 2016 World Series, Cubs fans had nothing but nostalgia to satisfy their baseball cravings.
And although the $99-million Sloan Park is the newest and largest stadium in the Cactus League, it reeks of days gone by. The light towers on the roof were designed to look like the ones at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The outfield berm is sloped to look like Wrigley’s bleachers and the architects even re-created some of Wrigley’s rooftop seating, according to springtrainingconnection.com.

Fans also are lining up and paying a lot of bucks to get autographs from Cubs heroes from yesteryear.
Today, Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins headlines a cast of former Chicago stars signing for the fans to benefit the the Fergie Jenkins Foundation, which has raised more than $4 million since 1997, according to the foundation’s brochure.

Volunteers are carrying wads of cash as they hawk items such as a blue-and-white Adirondack chair autographed by Jenkins. They quickly sold 100 tickets at $10 each to raffle the chair.

Jenkins clearly enjoys the meeting and greeting.

“No, I hate it,” he says with a grin that belies the reputation he built as a fierce competitor during his playing days.

“I didn’t see any fans when I was pitching,” he continues. “I was so focused on the game. So it’s great to get to interact with them now.”

The feeling is mutual.

Tony D’Alexander and his wife, Maria, who have been splitting time between here and their home in Chicago for the past 17 years, are beaming after Jenkins signed a ball for their daughter, Chris.

“She’s a huge Cubs fans,” Tony says. “She’s going to love this. And he was great to talk with.”

12:38 p.m.: Walking the dog.

The authentic Chicago Dog, according to Wikipedia, is an all-beef frankfurter — Vienna’s are preferred at Wrigley — on a poppy-seed bun, topped with yellow mustard, chopped onions, bright green pickle relish, a dill pickle spear, tomato wedges and pickled peppers, and a dash of celery salt.

Mine had everything but the tomatoes … which it didn’t really need. It was good. But it was no Sonoran Dog.

12:57 p.m.: A silent salute.

Before the National Anthem, the announcer asks for a moment of silence for the victims and their families of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre.

The players are all wearing caps with an SD on them, which will be auctioned later to raise money for the families of the 17 who were killed by the lone gunman on Valentine’s Day.

With that, it’s time to move on.

FIFTH STOP: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, 7555 North Pima Road, Scottsdale. Opened: 2011. Capacity: 11,000. Home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. 2017 average attendance: Diamondbacks, 10,049; Rockies, 8,999. The drive: north on the 101. Distance: 9.3 miles.

1:45 p.m.: Being fashionably late takes practice, too.

This should have been the quickest drive of my journey. Just hop on AZ-101 Loop North, exit 52, right outside of Sloan Park, then get off at exit 44 for Salt River Fields.

And it was … until we reached the parking lot around 1:25. The game between the Diamondbacks and the Cleveland Indians is already in the bottom of the second inning and cars are still backed up for a half mile or more. Guess fans need spring training, too, to get themselves in regular-season form.

2:05 p.m.: Father does his best.

The D-backs’ David Peralta lines a single to left field in the bottom of the third inning, his second hit of the game already. Six-month-old Sofia Peralta sits on her grandmother’s lap, watching her daddy play baseball for the first time.

That she witnessed this moment is one of baseball’s best stories.

Peralta was signed as a left-handed pitcher by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2005, but by spring training in 2008, he had already had two shoulder surgeries.

That’s when he met Jordan Laria, a softball pitcher at Palm Beach Atlantic University, which is near where the Cardinals trained.

As their romance blossomed, his career continued to falter. But after he was released from the St. Louis organization in 2009, he decided to make a comeback as a hitter.

That meant working at McDonald’s while he was playing for an independent league team trying to catch a major league team’s attention.

Finally, the Diamondbacks took an interest. They signed him to a minor league contract in 2013, called him up to the majors in 2014, and made him their full-time left-fielder in 2015. He has a .293 batting average going into the 2018 season.

He and Jordan married in 2015. Sofia was born on David’s birthday, August 14, 2017.

“It’s going to be different, arranging travel with her,” says Jordan, who is sitting in the stands with other players’ wives as well as her mom, Jenny Chronister Laria, and Sofia. (Full disclosure: The Larias are from Akron, Ohio, where I lived for many years. Jordan was a teammate of my daughter on winter and summer teams.)

“But it’s much more relaxing this spring than it was that first one here,” she says. “It seemed like they had so many outfielders then.”

After Peralta’s second hit, Jordan gets a text message from him.

“Daddy’s done for the day,” she tells Sofia. “Let’s go home. We’ll see him later.”

But as my photographer tries to take her picture before she leaves, Sofia keeps turning her head toward the field. Obviously, she wants to watch some more baseball.

2:45 p.m.: Taste test.

I let my photographer do the dining honors at Salt River. Amazingly, he’s a 20-something native of Phoenix, but had never tasted a Sonoran Dog — the delight from Hermosillo, Mexico, that includes bacon, yes BACON, mayo, tomatoes, beans, onions, and other sauces with a roasted pepper on the side.

The first time is always the sweetest.

In the meantime, the Indians are crushing the D-backs, so we’re off to Tempe for our final game of the day.

Tempe Diablo Stadium is the oldest and the smallest ballpark in the Cactus League but also one of the most scenic.EXPAND
Tempe Diablo Stadium is the oldest and the smallest ballpark in the Cactus League but also one of the most scenic.
Blake Benard

SIXTH STOP: Tempe Diablo Stadium, 2200 West Alameda Drive, Tempe. Opened: 1968. Capacity: 9,558. Home of the Los Angeles Angels. 2017 average attendance: 6,752. The drive: from Salt River, 101 south to the 202, then east on Route 143. Distance: 16.4 miles.

3:30 p.m.: A quick sayonara.

Dozens of fans, many of them Asian-American, are leaving as we arrive, even though the game is only in the sixth inning. The main attraction, Japanese star Shohei Ohtani, who is making his U.S. debut for the Angels, is already done for the day.

In his home country, Ohtani is called “Nito-Ryu,” which is a style of fighting with two swords, one in each hand. His swords are his pitching arm and his bat. In Japan, he excelled at both — their Babe Ruth.

But his Cactus League coming-out party didn’t go well. Apparently, he’s having trouble adjusting to Arizona’s dry air on his pitching hand. He was removed from the game in the second inning after giving up two runs, including a long homer.

More than 150 members of the Japanese media are here to cover Ohtani. They even have their own press tent set up in the parking lot at Diablo Stadium because the regular media facilities are big enough to accommodate all of them.

“He told us he didn’t feel pressure,” says Taro Fukuda, a reporter for the Hokkaido Television Broadcasting in Sapporo, who says he will be in Arizona for two weeks. “Maybe we feel pressure. We expect him to strike out six.” (Don’t fret. In his second start, Ohtani struck out eight of 12 batters.)

3:52 p.m.: Enough hot dogs.

A California veggie platter ($10.75) seems appropriate for an L.A. arena. Normally, the tasty mixture of grilled greens, avocados, mushrooms, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., is served over something not so healthy, like tater tots or mac and cheese (really?). I asked if I could just have mine on a tortilla. The man was happy to accommodate.

4:37 p.m.: An omen?

Our photographer is peering into the Angels dugout with his camera when prospect Zach Gibbons singles with the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth to end the three-and-half-hour game, a 6-5 victory for the home team. The mood wasn’t so much elation that the Angels won the game, but relief that they wouldn’t have to play extra innings on this 57-degree afternoon, Blake says later.

My drive home is a mere 8.7 miles and another day is in the books. Nine teams, six stadiums down. Six teams and four stadiums to go. It’s going to be a long final day with two games on the west side and two on the east side to see.

Am I ready for the challenge?

DAY THREE: SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 25

SEVENTH STOP: Goodyear Ballpark, 1933 South Ballpark Way, Goodyear. Opened: 2009. Capacity: 10,311. Home of the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. 2017 average attendance: Indians, 6,345; Reds, 4,285. The drive: from home in South Phoenix, Seventh Avenue to I-17 North, to I-10 West. Distance: 26.7 miles.

12:17 p.m.: Can Arizona cut the mustard?

So far I’ve tried to taste something at each park that is representative of the home team that day. But now I’m going to make an exception. The Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians share Goodyear Ballpark and Cincinnati is the home team today.

Cincinnati is famous for two things: awful chili, which really isn’t chili, but a meat sauce with cheese and onions served over spaghetti, and cornhole, the bean-bag toss game. Goodyear serves a Cincinnati Chili Dog. I’d rather eat the bean bag.

Besides, Goodyear is the only Cactus League stadium that has an alternative to French’s mustard. Cleveland sports arenas serve two legendary brown condiments: Bertman Ballpark Mustard and Stadium Mustard. Some people remove the hot dogs and slather their buns with Ballpark or Stadium.

“We only had the yellow mustard the first year we were open,” a Goodyear spokesman told me before I began to run this marathon. “But the Cleveland fans demanded we added a brown mustard.”

I’m hoping to get a taste of each, but Goodyear only provides Ballpark. No problem. I load up my plain hot dog, then buy a bottle in the team shop to take home.

While shopping, the discussion of the Indians’ racist icon, Chief Wahoo, comes up. This will be the last season the team will wear him on its uniform.

“The Chief is still our best-seller in here and you’ll be able to buy him in here next year,” assures sales clerk Larry Kleingartner, a retiree from North Dakota who winters near Goodyear.

Joe Ferrise, an attorney from Akron, defends his faith in the Chief, pointing to the block C the teams has replaced him with on their caps.

“What does that stand for, nobody is sure,” the lawyer argued. “It could be Chicago. It could be Cincinnati. But everybody knows the Chief.”

Fair enough.

Besides, I have no time to debate. Too many games still to see. I skip out right after Homer Bailey of the Reds throws the first pitch to my favorite player, Francisco Lindor of the Indians at 1:05 p.m.

EIGHTH STOP: Surprise Stadium, 15960 North Bullard Avenue, Surprise. Opened: 2003. Capacity: 10,500. Home of the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. 2017 average attendance: Royals, 6,155; Rangers, 5,820. The drive: Pick up 303 North near Goodyear. Distance: 18.8 miles.

1:49 p.m: I need a sign.

I didn’t realize that Surprise is at the end of the world. I guess that’s how it got its name: Surprise! People actually live out here. The folks there have a beautiful sports complex, which includes the baseball stadium, but signs for parking are few and far between.

After twice being told, “You can’t park here,” I find a lot a long way from the stadium and began my trek.
By now, I’m thinking more about food than baseball, anyway. And since Surprise is home to both the Texas Rangers and the Kansas City Royals, I reckon I can find some good, down-home barbecue here.

Surprise!

I try a pulled pork sandwich from Diamond Barbecue. Get this: They have no extra sauce and it’s as dry as the desert. Chuck’s Famous Pork Tenderloin’s booth has some tangy barbecue sauce, but this really isn’t barbecue. It’s fried.

Enough. Besides, by now it’s 2:25 p.m. and Siri says I’ve got a 45-mile drive ahead of me with two stadiums still to go.

NINTH STOP: Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 East Osborn Road, Scottsdale. Opened: 1992. Capacity: 12,000. Home of the San Francisco Giants. 2017 average attendance: 10,140. The drive: from Surprise, east on Bell Road to the 101. Distance: 44.3 miles.

3:27 p.m.: Those are some cans you’ve got.

“You’re hot,” the woman tells the Scottsdale police officer.

“How much have you had to drink?” the officer replies.

“Just three of these beers,” she says.

She’s holding a 24-ounce can of Coors Light.

Her friends assure the officer they will get her home safely.

There’s a reason they stop selling alcohol at all Major League Baseball facilities after the seventh inning.
I want to spend more time in Scottsdale Stadium, the second oldest of all the Cactus League parks and the most urban. It’s only three blocks from Old Town Scottsdale, so every spring game is an extended party.

But this is where we began this story. Now it’s 3:37 p.m. I buy my Giants cap, the 14th on my quest, by avoiding the team shop where there is a man standing way in the back of the store holding a sign that read, “The line starts here.” I find a kiosk instead.

I had consumed something at every park, but I wasn’t that hungry after double-dipping in Surprise. So I order a lemonade as I check the ESPN app on my phone for an update on the game at Hohokam, the one stadium I haven’t seen yet.

As I mentioned long ago, the score is 4-4 in the bottom of the eighth.

My only hope is extra innings.

I’m almost 66 years old and I have two artificial knees, so the sprint to my car in a nearby shopping complex is like one of those slow-motion replays you watch on TV.

Leaving Scottsdale is even more difficult. The party is already spilling over into the streets. Super-size golf carts are transporting fans to the nearest bars.

To make it worse, I find myself driving behind a Scottsdale police car as I exit west on Miller Road.

This isn’t going to be pretty.

TENTH AND FINAL STOP: Hohokam Stadium, 1235 North Center Street, Mesa. Opened 1997. Renovated 2015. Capacity 10,000. Home of the Oakland A’s. 2017 average attendance: 6,012. The drive: from Scottsdale, North Miller Road to the 101 South, to 202 East to West McKellips Road. Distance: 10.5 miles.

4:03 p.m.: Turn out the lights.

The good news as I pull into the parking lot at Hohokam Stadium, there are plenty of parking spots near the entrance to the ballpark. The bad news, of course, is that fans are leaving by the hundreds. Even worse news, the Oakland A’s, the host team, are the only club that didn’t respond to my request for press credentials.

“Can I buy a ticket,” I ask the security guard.

“Why?” he replies “The game is over.”

“But … but the score is still 4-4,” I say.

That’s when I learn that extra innings are optional in the Cactus League. The A’s and Royals had both decided they had had enough and called it a tie at 4:02 p.m., a minute after I arrived.

A tie? There’s no tying in baseball!

The guard finally lets me in after wanding me … what, did he think I was going to set off a bomb in an empty stadium? … so at least I can buy an A’s cap, the final jewel in my Cactus League crown.

But I hadn’t seen a single play here. My mission of watching all 15 teams play in all 10 stadiums had failed.
I began to question my strategy. Why did I insist on buying a second barbecue in Surprise? Why didn’t I go to Hohokam first — the Giants-Cubs game in Scottsdale didn’t end until after 5 p.m.?

Ah, but what, the hell. I gave it a good try.

In just 52 hours, driving only about 260 miles, I at least reached all 10 ballparks as I witnessed a weekend of baseball that’s not available like this anywhere else in the world.

I watched fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, play catch in grassy knolls beyond the outfield fences, generations of families sharing a game they loved. I saw a veteran major leaguer give an elderly fan a hug as well as an autograph. I saw fans of opposing teams happily hoisting beers together.

I heard no talk of Russian investigations, gun control, or "Crooked Hillary." Just baseball. Three days of baseball and, mostly, sunshine.

So despite my failure, I’m smiling as I write this, remembering every moment of the experience.

Arizona, you can be proud of what happens here every spring. Even if it is still technically winter.

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