I’m making plans for my fourth Spring Training vacation this year and looking forward to another perfectly timed break from the cold and winter that Arizona is immune to. On my three previous trips I’ve attended several games at the beautiful, 9-year-old facility the Royals share with the American League Champion Texas Rangers in sunny Surprise, AZ. Next to Kauffman stadium, this is the best place to see a baseball game. Not a bad seat among the 10,500 chairs in the house, and all the fried twinkies you can eat.
One of the things that surprised me (no pun intended) about Spring Training is that I wasn’t able to mingle with the players the way I’d always imagined. The Royals typically make a couple of players available along the left field line (the Royals use the 3rd base dugout) immediately following a game to sign autographs across the railing between the seats and the field. But I always expected a little more than this.
Before making my first trip, I envisioned that I could just walk up to the batting cages on one of the practice fields and start up a conversation with a current or aspiring major league player – not so. Many years ago I was able to catch up with several Chiefs players at Summer Camp this way, but no such luck here. For the most part, the experience of attending a Spring Training game in Surprise is much the same as attending a game in Kansas City (which is not a bad thing), except that the setting is much more intimate, the sky is always crystal clear blue, and the temperature is generally about 70 degrees in March while your friends in the Midwest are digging out from the latest snow storm.
One of the best aspects of Spring Training is the opportunity to watch current and future Royals stars on the same field. You’ve heard a lot about Wil Myers haven’t you? He’s a potential superstar who had a down year in 2011 and everyone is wondering if he’ll bounce back like he did in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. Come to Surprise and see for yourself. Do you want to learn if John Lamb has recovered from Tommy John surgery and if he’s ready to begin playing again? Come to Surprise and see for yourself. Do you want to know if Mike Montgomery is ready to begin his major league career as a starting pitcher or if he needs to spend more time in Omaha? Come to Surprise and see for yourself.
As much fun as the games are, they only take up a few hours each day. If you go to Spring Training (and I hope you do), you’ll need to find a few additional activities to pass the time. There are ten other Spring Training facilities in the Phoenix area, so one option would be to go to a day game in Surprise and a night game at one of the other nine beautiful stadiums (or vice versa), and then repeat for each day of your visit. Another option would be to rent a motorcycle at the local Harley Dealership or spend hours shopping in the Scottsdale Fashion Square or any of the hundreds of Southwestern and Native American specialty shops around the city. (If there’s a woman in your group, you better plan on at least a little time shopping.)
Don’t wear a tie to the Pinnacle Peak Patio Steakhouse and Saloon, or they’ll cut it off and hang it on the wall. You can take a ride down the slide in the middle of Rustler’s Rooste before you eat rattlesnake. There are tons of great sports bars like Alice Cooperstown, or Padre Murphy’s which is rated one of the top 10 sports bars in America by MSN. If you’re like me, you’ll definitely want to taste a bit of the local cuisine, and I’m not just talking about rattlesnake. They definitely have their own delicious style of Mexican food and BBQ in Phoenix that is different from anything you’ll find in the Midwest.
If you are spending several days in Arizona and you have time to take a trip outside of Phoenix, I’d like to suggest one super cool destination to the North and another to the South. Meteor Crater is located about 3 hours north of downtown Phoenix, 45 miles to the east of the high elevation and tree covered Flagstaff, AZ. (Bring a jacket.) It’s desolate, serene, and surrealistic all at the same time. It was formed by a meteor 150 feet wide traveling at 26,000 mph which created an explosion the equivalent of 10 megatons. (For comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a .02 megaton detonation.) The resulting crater is nearly a mile wide and 550 feet deep. When you get there, you’ll realize you aren’t in Kansas anymore.
Three hours to the South of Phoenix is the historic cowboy town of Tombstone, AZ, home of the real live gunfight at the OK Corral and battle of good vs evil – Earps vs the Clanton gang. The gunfight is reenacted everyday on the very spot of the original and the Boot Hill Cemetery holds the remains of those who lost the fight. I’ve been to Tombstone a couple of times and I still get excited about the living history of walking in the footsteps of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, standing on the spots where Marshall Fred White was shot in the street and Wyatt’s younger brother Morgan was murdered while playing pool. If you don’t feel like a real cowboy when you leave Tombstone, then you must be from New Jersey.
Fortunately, there are several additional local attractions that won’t take up all your time traveling. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions from my visits to Phoenix:
Rawhide Western Town – located on a real Indian Reservation about 12 miles South of the Airport, Rawhide is an authentic frontier town and Arizona’s largest western-themed attraction. They feature gun fights, stage coach rides, shops, live country music, sundown cookouts, burro rides, and a steakhouse with plenty of good grub to satisfy the hungriest bullpen catcher. I couldn’t find it on their web site, but when I was there a few years ago, they had a live chicken that could play tic-tac-toe. I watched in awe as it defeated several human opponents.
Organ Stop Pizza – When was the last time you were serenaded by a 6,000 pipe Wurlitzer organ (the largest Wurlitzer pipe organ in the world), playing everything from the Star Wars theme to Hello My Baby, Hello My Dolly in ragtime, while eating pizza? Located in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix) just North of Hwy 60, this restaurant is certainly one of the most original concepts you’ll find and one of my favorite family destinations in the country. The organ was originally built in 1927 for the Denver Theater and played during silent movies.
Over the years, the organ has been transported and rebuilt in Phoenix and installed in of all places – a huge pizza restaurant. With 23 rows of pipes – some up to 32 feet high, 422 stop tabs, 32 foot pedals, all powered by 4 enormous turbine blowers and accompanied by xylophones, glockenspiels, and drums, etc., I’m confident you’ve never seen an organ like this one. The trio of virtuoso organists who play the gigantic instrument each night are some of the most talented musicians in the world. It all sounds weird, but trust me, you’ll have a great time. If you take your kids, they won’t want to leave.
Horseback riding – have you ever ridden a horse through the desert? I’m guessing, probably not. A couple years ago I took my family to Cave Creek Trail Rides located on the far Northeast side of Phoenix, a few miles north of Scottsdale in the foothills of the Sonoran Desert among the Saguaro cactus, and it was an afternoon we’ll always remember. The elevation is higher than the valley to the south and you can overlook the entire Phoenix area on your ride. You can choose between rides of 1-3 hours and they even have optional chaps and cowboy hats if you want to look the part of a real Cowboy/girl while you’re on the horse. Be sure to take your camera.
Los Dos Molinas Mexican Restaurant – A local chain with my favorite location on Central Ave. serving spicy Mexican dishes out of the old Phoenix home of early Hollywood cowboy legend and silent movie star Tom Mix. Tom made 335 films and was the predecessor to John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. He was a close friend of Wyatt Earp and pallbearer at his funeral. The city of Phoenix has grown to surround the home / restaurant that once upon a time was located far out in the country. The food is hotter than fire (it’s a great place to show how manly you are – don’t say I didn’t warn you), but rated among the best Mexican restaurants in the country. Voted the best Carne Adovada (pork marinated in Red Chili – a great Southwestern favorite) in the Phoenix area, and that’s saying something. Reasonably priced with traditional style Mexican food – no frou frou / new wave menu items served here. Closed Sundays and Mondays. Where else can you get a fried egg on top of your enchilada?
A trip to Spring Training has become a tradition in our family and one that we look forward to all winter. If you’ve been, we’d love to learn of your suggestions of things to do in the comments below. My guess is that if you’re a Royals fan and you haven’t been to Spring Training yet, you’ve always wanted to try it. Why not make 2012 the year?
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