Love is in the air. Can you feel it?
It happens every year in the Valley right around this time. Springtime means spring training, when baseball brings us together, we dream of hope and new possibilities, and melt as our favorite teams and heroes play a children’s game in our very own backyards.
Like a budding romance, the start of the Cactus League season is full of excitement and expectations. Do you think it’s just a coincidence that pitchers and catchers almost always report on Valentine’s Day? Of course not. It’s the first kiss to our annual rite of spring, the beginning of a six-week love affair.
The players are equally as enthralled as the fans.
“I had trouble sleeping last night,” Diamondbacks pitcher Archie Bradley said upon arriving in camp at Salt River Fields. “It’s exciting, man. Spring 2017! It’s a new year. New team. New everything. We’re excited.”
Cactus League play, which opened in earnest this weekend with a full slate of games, means something a little different to everyone.
It’s a time when winter visitors flock to the sun to check out their hometown teams training in the desert. It’s a chance for locals to sneak away from school or work for a day to hang out with pals, catch some rays, snag a foul ball and soak up suds and some friendly atmosphere.
“I always look forward to this time of the year,” said Avondale resident Charles Martinez, a diehard fan of the world champion Chicago Cubs. “Baseball’s back and it’s a chance for me and my family to go to games and spend time together. It’s not just me and my kids, though. It’s Mom, my cousins, the aunts and uncles. It’s a huge family gathering for us.
“We’ve all grown up around baseball and it’s become a tradition for us, going out to spring training games and being together. It was great once we got our own team here, too. When we got the Diamondbacks, it meant baseball didn’t have to end after spring training.”
But spring has just sprung, and it’s a time for young prospects to turn a manager’s head and for veterans to prove they still pack a punch. It’s an opportunity for new faces to create new memories with new teams. It’s a time to shake off the rust from a winter of convalescence. It’s the death of cynicism and the rebirth of optimism.
“This time of year, everyone is at glass half-full,” Indians manager Terry Francona told reporters upon arriving in Goodyear. “We have good reason to be.”
The Indians are one of three Arizona-based spring-training clubs that advanced to a league championship series this past season. The others are the Los Angeles Dodgers and, yes, the Cubs, who highlight the 2017 Cactus League with their historic World Series title defense.
The San Francisco Giants, meanwhile, have won the World Series three times in the past seven seasons and will be contenders once again after falling short and losing to the Cubs in the National League Division Series.
“It’s a day you look forward to, getting a chance to see everybody and hear the sound of the bat and watch these guys work out again,” manager Bruce Bochy said from Giants camp in Scottsdale. “So it’s a good day.”
As much as he likes to have fun with his club, from bringing exotic pets and magicians to spring training, Cubs manager Joe Maddon said he wants his players to be “uncomfortable” in camp.
“It’s really important to be uncomfortable,” he told reporters. “If you become a comfortable person, I think that subtracts growth from the equation. I think if you remain somewhat uncomfortable, you’ll continue to grow. You don’t become stagnant. You don’t become complacent, set in your ways.
“On every level, I want us to be uncomfortable. I think that’s a really positive word. That’s one off the messages I want to get out there quickly with our boys.”
Spring. It’s a chance for injured players to rehab their way back and for some teams to rebuild and for others to reload. The Reds, for instance, are supposed to still be in full rebuilding mode. But according to Dick Williams, the team’s president of baseball operations, it’s dangerous to put labels on a franchise before it plays a single meaningful game.
“The players are going to tell us this season as we get into it exactly where we are in the life cycle,” Williams said last week during the Cactus League’s media day at the Arizona Biltmore. “I don’t want the players in the clubhouse thinking about it being a rebuild. For them, it’s season. And we’re going to go out and win games and play.
“They shouldn’t have any preconceived notion about what the team is supposed to be like this year or where it is in the life cycle (of a rebuild). They can just control how prepared they are for the season and how well they play. The more they do that, the better they do that, the more we can accelerate.”
Spring. It’s a time for young autograph seekers to hang over rails and wait outside ballparks for passing superstars like Mike Trout of the Angels, Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers and Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks. It’s a sign of heavy sales and traffic for sports bars, restaurants and hotels, not to mention memorabilia shops and trading card stores.
“I’ll tell you what, for us it’s definitely Black Friday every day,” said John Gola, owner of AZ Sports Cards, located at 10045 W. Camelback Road in Phoenix. “Right now, for example, I’ve got 15 people in the store and you should see the steady flow I get before and after games. It’s like a 200-percent increase in sales once spring training gets here.”
Most of Gola’s customers in the spring tend to be fans of the Dodgers and White Sox, which makes sense considering his store is located less than a mile from Camelback Ranch-Glendale, where the two teams have trained since the facility opened in 2009.
According to a pair of Cactus League-financed studies released in the fall of 2015, spring training brings a total economic impact of more than $800 million annually to the Valley, where 15 teams train and play at 10 different stadiums all located within less than an hour’s drive.
That makes it big business, to be sure. But our spring fling helps out the little guy, too. Take Neal Harol, for instance. He’s a unionized beer vender from Washington, D.C. who for nearly a decade now spends springtime in the Valley hawking suds during ballgames at Camelback Ranch.
The rest of the year, you can find the 63-year-old Boston native back east selling beers anywhere within a 250-mile radius at professional sporting events thanks to his union seniority. He’s a fan favorite at home games for such teams as the Redskins and Ravens, the Orioles and the Phillies, and the Capitals and the Wizards.
This past baseball season, Harol said he sold $118,000 worth of beer in just 75 nights at Washington Nationals’ games, which was the most in the fewest games of any vendor at the stadium.
“It’s the accent and the sweat,” Harol said. “There are a lot of vendors who have as shtick. I don’t. It’s just hustle. It’s one of those jobs you can make what you want out of it. Some people are happy if they make $100 dollars a day. I’m not happy unless I make $400 or $500. If it’s out there, I can get it.”
Harol doesn’t pocket that much coin at Camelback Ranch; he’s just here to supplant his income while escaping the cold and harsh winters of Washington.
“I take a pay cut to come here,” he said. “But it’s worth it. I get out of the weather and it’s kind of like a vacation.”
Not exactly. According to Susan Perez, vending manager at Camelback Ranch, Harol works harder than any of her other six regular vendors.
“He’s the best there is. And he’s the fastest,” she said. “But I’d put our vendors up against anybody’s. They’re the greatest and I’ll keep doing this job as long as I have the same seven vendors.”
For Harol, it isn’t just about the beer. It’s about the baseball.
“Who doesn’t love this time of the year?” he asked. “It’s the start of another season. A new spring means hope. Everybody starts out equal in baseball in the spring.”
Optimism may abound, but only one winner gets to be crowned World Series champion. Expectations eventually give way to reality for the rest, including the Diamondbacks, who are coming off a disappointing 69-93 fourth-place finish in the National League West.
“Last year we came to spring with these outrageous expectations and whether you wanted to or not, we all kind of bought into it,” Bradley said. “We had an unbelievable spring training so that’s what we expected from the season and obviously, 2016 wasn’t our best year. But I think the motto for this year, or at least for me personally to stress to these guys as a team, is forget about expectations.
“Who cares what the media says? It comes down to the people in this room, becoming a team, having each other’s back and if we do start off bad or if we start out hot, whatever it is, we’re together. We’re in this thing as one unit. We’re going to be a team and we’re going to do things together as a family.”
Like Martinez, the Cubs fan, it’s always about family during spring training. And like a lot of Cubs fans, he couldn’t score a single ticket to the team’s fabulous still-new digs at Sloan Park in Mesa because all of their Cactus League home games sold out almost immediately after they went on sale.
“I expected that,” Martinez said, “so I came up with a different strategy and bought us tickets for a bunch of their away games around town. We’re going to see them play the Diamondbacks at Salt River Fields, the White Sox at Camelback Ranch and we’re going when they play the Rangers out in Goodyear.
“I wasn’t expecting to have to pay $25 per ticket for lawn seats, which I think is normally the price of a regularly-priced ticket, but hey, it’s the Cubs. We’ve all waited forever for them to win the World Series and it was worth the wait. So is the price of a ticket. What can I say, I love the Cubs.”
Love is in the air. Can you feel it?
Reach McManaman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @azbobbymac and listen to him live every Wednesday night between 7-9 on Fox Sports 910-AM on The Freaks with Kenny and Crash.