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February 27, 2013

Punk Hits

A Love (Hate) Letter From Arizona

by Ian Miller

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If you set out to design a place that I would hate, it would look a lot like Arizona.

It’s got natural beauty, sure, but it’s usually way too hot, or too cold, to enjoy. Everything is spread out, Houston- or Los Angeles-style; you have to drive everywhere to get anywhere. And once you get there, odds are “there” is a prefab thing conceived by a team of hospitality management experts.

People carry guns and drive enormous trucks and elect Joe Arpaio sheriff over and over. But they also have baseball nearly year-round, and that more than makes up for all its shortcomings. I will brave the bro-laden concourses of Old Town Scottsdale to get my fix. And so Tracy and I have made the pilgrimage again this year.

The culture shock usually begins when we touch down at Sky Harbor. I have full sleeves of tattoos, which are pretty much ubiquitous in Oakland, CA. When you move to the Bay Area, you’re issued a band, a job at a record store or coffee shop, and tattoos. (You can opt for job-blockers -- hand and neck tattoos -- but I never felt the need.) Apparently this trend has not yet taken hold elsewhere in the world, as my fellow travelers seem to regard me with a mix of revulsion (80 percent) and wonderment (20 percent).

We collect our rental car which, for reasons I can’t explain, costs $6 a day. And it’s not like a Kia or a Le Car; it’s a Jetta. Six dollars! With taxes and fees the total comes out to around $85 for the six days we’re here, but still. I hold on to the $6/day figure as a small but important consumer victory.

Home base for this trip is the Hyatt Place in Old Town Scottsdale. We’ve stayed here on and off since it opened a few years back; it’s pricy, but the location and amenities are unbeatable. It seems like every other year we forget this and try staying someplace else -- someplace cheaper and further from Scottsdale Stadium -- and every other year, we regret it. So we’re back at the Place this year, and it’s lovely.

GAME ONE
Our first game was the Giants Spring Training home opener against an Angels split-squad; los Angeles de Los Angeles fielded a team comprising Kole Calhoun and a bunch of guys younger and worse than Kole Calhoun. No one looked especially sharp in the first game of the year.

As is often the case in spring training, the goings-on in the stands were more entertaining than those on the field. There’s Derrick, the world’s greatest lemonade vendor. Somehow his shtick not only doesn’t get old, it actually gets better with age. It’s not spring training until you’ve heard Derrick do his thing.

Then there are the two guys sitting immediately to my right. They’re in their early or mid-20s, and one is wearing what must be his older brother’s suit; it’s easily a size too big for him. They’re drinking Croctails -- wine-based cocktails in a pouch, snuck into the ballpark. They graduate to $7 beers, and we watch as they get progressively more hammered and entertaining. Adrian, the guy in the ill-fitting suit, is absolutely beside himself that there are players running on the warning track while the game is being played.

“I PAID TO WATCH THIS,” Adrian yells, pointing in the general vicinity of the infield, “NOT THAT!” (points at the relief pitcher and conditioning coach running on the track). Tracy explains to him that this is S.O.P. for spring training; since none of it counts or matters in any way, there’s no real reason not to run on the warning track. Adrian tilts his head like a dog listening to a high-pitched noise and eventually processes this data. “OKAY,” he relents, finally, “BUT I STILL DON’T LIKE IT.”

Turns out he and his companion, Shannon, are both trainee pilots at a local airfield, and they’re the rare strain of human who gets more charming the more they drink. (At least this was the case during the course of the game; it was likely not so when Adrian was puking all over his brother’s suit on the walk home.) But they provided a steady stream of amusement during a less-than-stellar on-field contest.

Dinner that night is at Cafe Lalibela near ASU which, while not the best Ethiopian food I’ve ever had, was surprisingly on-point for Tempe. Recommended.

GAME TWO
We made the trip to Hohokam Stadium, spring training home of the Chicago Cubs. Hohokam is like a slice of Chicagoland transported to the Valley of the Sun: pasty white people of Slavic extraction, hot dogs festooned with sport peppers, and an abundance of Old Style. Old Style everywhere. So much Old Style.

This game pitted Jeff “Bo Jackson” Samardzija against Matt “I May Look Like Bobby Hill But I Have Two World Series Rings” Cain. Things went south for the Giants pretty much right away, as Alfonso Soriano rocketed a comebacker off Matt Cain’s right leg in the bottom of the first. Dioner Navarro brought home three, including himself, with a no-doubt homer to right before Cain got out of the inning. The Giants scratched out single runs in the second, third, and fourth, but they’d eventually lose 4-3.

But the real story was the weather. The box score may say 51*F and partly cloudy, with 20 mph winds, but that doesn’t begin to describe the experience. Our seats were in the shade of the overhang, which would usually be a good thing. But it had to be 40 degrees in the shade, and we were being buffeted by desert winds. Totally miserable, and we’ve attended hundreds of games in San Francisco, so please believe me when I say I know from miserable.

We eventually took refuge on the leeward side of the beer tent on the center field berm, where there were sun and shelter from the wind. That gave us a pretty good view of the game, although we couldn’t see right field, and we’d lose the center fielder when he’d disappear behind the batter’s eye. But we were almost comfortable, at least while the sun was out. When clouds would pass in front of the sun, Tracy and I would lean in to one another for warmth and pray for the sun to return like primitive people during an eclipse.

We lasted seven innings before we came to our senses and left. They’d taken the Chicagoland analogue a little too far, if you ask me. I’m pretty sure I saw a few flakes of lake-effect snow.

After the game Tracy went off to meet up with an old college chum, while I headed to downtown Phoenix to hang out with fellow baseball nerds Conor and Voros. We started out at an Irish pub called Seamus McCaffrey’s. I know sweet F.A. about Irish pubs, but this place played Sabbath and Maiden and kept my soda topped up, and the company was excellent, so it gets a thumbs-up from me.

We ended up at Hanny’s for a late supper. At first glance, this looks like exactly the kind of place I would hate: too slick and too clever for its own good, but it somehow managed to stay charming. It didn’t hurt that the food was good and very reasonably priced; I’d call it cheap by big-city standards. There’s also the matter of the art; I still don’t really know what to make of that, and that’s fine by me. If you find yourself in the vicinity of the U.S. Airways Center and need to eat and/or drink, you could do a lot worse than Hanny’s. Check it out.

GAME THREE
Today we were back at Scottsdale for a White Sox-Giants friendly. The weather was far more agreeable today; I was able to keep my sweatshirt on all day while neither freezing nor overheating. Great success!

We also had fantastic tickets just two rows behind the Giants dugout. And being that this was a Monday, the joint was maybe half full, and the crowd had dwindled to less than a thousand souls by the time the game ended. You could hear the chatter on the field and each of the umpire’s utterances; “OUTSIDE!” or “Dennis, did he go?” It was absolutely fantastic.

Coincidentally, these seats give us a near-perfect vantage to watch two of the best in the business ply their trades. For two innings, we got to watch Madison Bumgarner’s freakishly easy-yet-effective delivery. He gave up two hits and a walk in his two innings and had trouble locating his release point at first. He left lots of pitches up early but seemed to make adjustments over the course of nine hitters. So impressive to watch, especially when you realize he’s only 23 (!!!expletive!).

The other guy we got to ogle was Paul Konerko. I love watching this guy take at-bats on TV, but being that close, at that angle, was something totally different. His approach at the plate is perfect. It’s every single thing you’d want to teach your kid about hitting: the approach, the stance, the eye, the stroke... I can’t remember ever having watched a hitter stand in and NOT swing and have it be so compelling. I could’ve sat there and watched Konerko take pitches all day.

Probably the most impressive swing of the day, however, was by journeyman first baseman Seth Loman. In the eighth inning, he turned on a Brett Bochy pitch and deposited it on the roof of the patio structure in right field. Bochy was only responsible for two of those runs, however; he got a blown save and Fabio Castillo, who loaded the bases prior to Bochy coming in, earned a 135.00 ERA.

That made the score 9-9. Chicago failed to score in the top of the ninth, so San Francisco had a chance to win it in the bottom of the frame. The first two hitters reached, and Ehire Adrianza attempted to bunt them over. Adrianza squared, stabbed at, and fouled off the first pitch, then pulled the bat back and took the second. On the third pitch he squared to bunt and popped it foul down the third base line. Pitcher Leyson Septimo sprang off the mound and lunged to make a fantastic catch on the foul bunt, but appeared to catch a cleat and injure his groin (possibly) during the play. He was lifted and replaced by Ryan Kussmaul. (Aside: Where are the White Sox finding these amazingly named guys? Kussmaul replaces Septimo. Outstanding.)

After the injury timeout and Kussmaul’s warmup pitches, Angel Villalona promptly rolled a tailor-made double-play ball to shortstop to end the inning. I was close enough, and it was quiet enough, to hear Bruce Bochy say “That’s it” to the home plate ump. And that was it. A 9-9 final. I’m just glad Adrian wasn’t there to see the game end in a tie. It probably would have been too much for his drunken heart to handle.

After a nap we drove out to True Food Kitchen to have dinner with the lovely and talented Kevin Goldstein. Even though Kevin and I have only hung out a handful of times, he’s one of those people I feel instantly comfortable with. We caught up, nerded out on baseball stuff, and generally had a great time. Underestimate the Astros at your own peril, people.

We discovered True Food Kitchen a couple of spring trainings ago; it’s good, fresh food with lots of veggie options. Even Kevin the comfort-foodie seemed to enjoy it. The apple crisp was especially impressive for a vegan dessert. If you’ve eaten nothing but ballpark food for days on end and need to get right, try TFK.

And now we’re back at the hotel in Old Town. It’s Monday night at 11 local time, and I’ve got a 1978 Van Halen bootleg blaring in my earbuds and Tracy’s watching TV in bed. We’ve got two more games left on this jaunt: tomorrow at Camelback Ranch in Glendale and Wednesday at Tempe Diablo, then it’s back to real life in Oakland on Wednesday night. The Bay Area has a lot going for it, but it’s got no pro baseball at the moment. No, right now Florida and Arizona, two of the nuttiest states in the union, are the two best, because they’ve got a monopoly on the greatest game in the world. As long as that’s the case, I’ll keep making the trek.

Ian Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ian's other articles. You can contact Ian by clicking here

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