FanPost

Spring Training 2011: From Salt River, to Narnia, And Back Again

I always find it difficult to get psyched for baseball after the football season ends. It's almost like there's too much time between when the football season is over and when the baseball season begins that somewhere I start to get lost in the depressing sports month that is February.  Every year, however, it seems like something happens that sparks my interest and begins to get me excited all over again.

This year it was a blockbuster trade that revamped a tired Nuggets team and made them fresh and new again. Before the football season began it was the pickup of a superstar college athlete that brought a certain amount of promise to a backsliding organization like the Broncos. Then there is always that spark that just simply doesn't last like when the Avalanche start out with Adonis DNA and then crash faster than Tiger Wood's hopes of speaking at the next BYU rally.

Baseball, though, baseball is different. Baseball is all about endurance. For a baseball fan there is a certain amount of commitment that it takes to make it through an entire season. Thus, every baseball season needs to start out strong and for me that means Spring Training.

As a Rockies fan, this is my baseball Mecca. This is where I go to find that energy and excitement that will take me throughout an entire year. So, over the past couple of years I have made it a point to make it out there every spring. Every year Spring Training is different and this year is particularly unique. For my wife, my buddy BA, and myself, this is our story of Spring Training 2011.

The Journey Begins

I love roadtrips. Flying definitely has its benefits, but unless you get that over-zealous Southwest Flight attendant who makes the just-too-far plane crash joke that sends the already nervous grandmother next to you into a crazed sweat, it's just not the same.

Where else, other than a roadtrip, do you get to spend 13 straight hours in an enclosed space with your wife and friend and reminisce over songs from high school and get into ridiculous arguments about nonsense.

Case in point:

In the middle of nowhere between Pueblo and Trinidad, CO we had a conversation that went like this.

BA: "It must be so boring to be a horse." 20 seconds of thoughtful consideration before all passengers silently nod in agreement. We consider the lot of the equine and quietly carry on for a few miles.

Me: "Seriously, it must be so boring to be a cow." 20 seconds of thoughtful consideration.

BA: "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard." My wife nods in silent agreement. W..T...F

Where else, other than a roadtrip can you eat the worst food possible AND find the inspiration for that NCAA basketball bracket name you had been searching for for so long (Jimmer Eat World baby, that's what I'm TALKIN bout!). How else would you experience small town Las Vegas New Mexico and run across The Devil's Tattoo parlor whose claim to fame is "We always use a fresh needle."

Roadtripping is like hamburgers, Jerry Bruckheimer films, and small town meth labs; there's just something All-American about it. When heading out to Arizona for baseball, there just isn't any other way to get there.

Over the past couple of years this trip to Arizona has become a tradition for my  friend BA and I. The heat, the crowds, the beer, the stadiums, and the drive back and forth from Tuscon to Phoenix have all become part of the magic of the experience that is Spring Training. I recently got married last April (Jimenez threw his no-no for my bachelor party) so this year my wife, BA, and I packed our bags and made the trek to Arizona to see our new Spring Training Mecca, Salt River Fields.

I did want to take this moment to say goodbye High Corbett Field. It was good knowing you but I'm going to save that ridiculously creepy late night drive through the low-light city limits of Tuscon and its airplane graveyard as ambiance for when I need to make a point to any future unborn daughters as to what happens if they attempt dating before they turn 35. This year there wasn't going to be any late night drives on the I-10 trying to get back to Tuscon so we could crash at a buddy's Mom's house (yes, the jokes are just too easy) on inflatable mattresses rent free. Nope, this year it was just Phoenix and that yellow brick road that is the 202. I will admit that I am a little bummed for my wife. Those trips to Tuscon will be the old days and every Rockies fan should experience that drive back and forth at least once.

For those of you who haven't made the drive from Colorado to Arizona via the Tonto Forest let me tell you, it's a trip and a half. You get it all. You get the flat grind of I-25 into New Mexico, the climb into the foresty swampland/bogland (another discussion of distinction that becomes a heated debate on a road trip) that is 7250 feet Tonto Forest AZ, the gorgeous mountain scenery that reminds you that you are in canyon country, and then the long descent into Phoenix via Casino Way. The whole drive takes about 13 hours and with the right music and coffee it doesn't feel half bad at all. Apparently "right music" is up for interpretation but this DJ was bangin' the whole way.

We chose to stay in a motel right in the middle of Phoenix. It was a strange location as three blocks one direction you'd find yourself in Little Mexico, three blocks in the other you'd end up in Little Highlands Ranch (which I suppose is the equivalent of saying Little Caucasia), and three blocks in the other you'd run right back into the concrete jungle that is the 202. Phoenix is an interesting place.

I wouldn't say our motel was exactly top of the line as our non-smoking room looked and smelled like Cruella DeVille and Danny DeVito spent their afternoons in there watching re-runs of Jersey Shore while enjoying a nice glass of red Kool-Aid and a good smoke (a combination of flavors and vice that I have yet to try). In other words, our room had character, and there's always something to be said for character.

I will say this, though, that if you spend time in Arizona for Spring Training and you plan on visiting a few different ballparks there is nothing better than staying close to the 202. As my wife and BA will attest to, I had zero clue where I was at any time on this particular trip so I have no clue exactly where the 202 is, where the 202 goes, and how in the name of Jim Tracy you use it to get anywhere. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that if push came to shove and my bro BA were forced to drink warm Corona or sell me out he will admit to having more faith in Franklin Morales closing out an inning than me getting us accurately to any given location on the 202 without help. That's cool though bro, I forgive you, that's why they made Garmins. No shame here. We may have been miles away from where we wanted to be, but we were miles away from ordinary.

However, if you have any sense of direction... or a map... the 202 is your ticket to fields all over the city and the closer you are to it the closer you are to wherever you want to be. After last year's treks back and forth across I-10 from Tuscon to Phoenix, the 202 was like a highway to heaven. If you can't afford to stay in Scottsdale, definitely check out anything close to the 202 for your Spring Training needs.

Game 1 - Rockies vs. Reds - Goodyear Park

I've been to quite a few Rockies games in my life. In fact, BA and I had a mini season pass in 2008 where we went to something like 25 games and only once did I ever come close to catching a foul ball. It was off the bat of now Oakland A's stud Kevin Kouzmanoff and it was a monster foul that actually reached the third deck where I was sitting. I got so excited in that moment I forgot exactly how to catch a baseball and I missed it by about three feet.  It was an effort that would have made Alphonso Soriano proud. The rebound off the concrete the baseball came within about two inches of my face, sending me to the hospital, and putting me at #6 on Sports Center's Not Top 10.

However, this time I caught a ball at Goodyear Park. It wasn't a foul ball or anything, and I'm not exactly sure which Rockie it was that threw it to me, but I was ready this time. There are few feelings as satisfying as catching a ball used by the players, even if it was just for long toss. I feel like I've become a part of an elite group of baseball fans... fans that have caught a baseball. I also often have delusions of grandeur but that's neither here nor there. Perhaps this is just me, but I had a split second feeling of guilt as I looked for any small child around me that I may have deprived of a lifelong story and possible fandom but there were no small Rockies fans around, only small D-Backs fans. Forget that. No way I was giving that ball up. Instead my wife looks at me and says, "Hand it over."

BA: "Owned."

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John Maine was our starter and he was facing off vs. the Reds' ace Johnny Cueto. Troy Renck was apparently taking the day off from tweeting (how dare he) so we weren't exactly sure what the starting lineup was going to be but it turned out to be a backup lineup showcasing:

C - Pognozzi, 1B - Giambi, 2B - Jose Lopez, SS - Herrera, 3B - Wigginton, RF - Smith, CF - Dex, LF - Spilly

Right away my first thought was how in the world is Wigginton an outfielder? The guy must weigh close to 250 pounds. Don't get me wrong, I love his versatility and I know that the guy has a bat when he gets hot but I just don't see him as a speedster in the OF by any stretch of the imagination.

John Maine had a solid first inning but began to struggle down the stretch, as did all of the relief pitchers, including Franklin Morales who won me a free PBR from BA on a bet by giving up only 2 runs in his only inning of work instead of 3 or more.

My initial takeaway from this game is that John Maine isn't ready to be a starter. He was facing a less than full strength Reds lineup that was noticeably lacking Votto and after one inning of work he was getting lit up like the Fourth of July. Even in his bullpen warmup it was pretty obvious that he was struggling to find the strike zone. One of the beauties of Spring Training is that none of these stadiums are large and thus emotions of the players are almost palpable and John Maine was anything but settled on his way to the mound. I'm afraid that with the plethora of right handers we already have on our roster John Maine's shot in rotation or relief may have to wait.

The Rockies got off to a hot start and a 2-0 lead in the top of the 1st but watched it slip away over the rest of the game and dropped it 3-10 in the end. It was an all around poor performance by our hitters and an even worse performance by our relief pitchers, namely Franklin Morales and Huston Street.

Goodyear Park is one of my favorite Spring Training ballparks. It is simple, small, and there is great access to the players. Also, it is the only ballpark we have yet to find that sells $5 16oz PBRs. This might seem like a small thing, but let me assure you, $5 PBR tall boys vs. $11 Sam Adams bombers is a no brainer for drinkers on a budget.

Game 2 - Angels vs. Rockies - Salt River Fields

What can I say about the Salt River Fields that hasn't already been said? But hell, I'll just say it again. They've got Coldstone Ice Cream. I know. You are sick of hearing it, but it's true. This complex is impressive by just about any standard. Locals in the area told me that while the stadium seats 12,000+ there is only parking for about 3500 but if you show up early and are willing to drop $5 on parking it's no problem. Compared to stadiums like Scottsdale Stadium (Giants home stadium), the Oakland A's home stadium, and especially old High Corbett this is the proverbial Ritz Carlton. It's the Billy Crystal to your James Franco, the Grey Goose to your McCormicks, and the David Hasselhoff to your Pierce Brosnan. Salt River Fields is all that. This one goes to eleven.

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Esmil Rodgers was the starting pitcher and the Rockies showcased a near-starting lineup that had:

C - Ianetta, 1B - Helton, 2B - Herrera, SS - Tulo, 3B - Wigginton, LF - Cargo, CF - Dexter, RF - Spilly

Once again the Rockies exploded offensively led by two homeruns from Tulowitzki who ended the day 3-3. Esmil Rodgers, who looked dominant in the first three innings couldn't hold onto his lead and gave up 5 runs as the Angels eventually tied the game at 6-6 after 10 innings. Rodgers came out throwing strikes and throwing power and let me tell you, in those first few innings, the guy was dominating the Angels. Yet, as it often goes with Rockies pitching, once that crack begins to open the flood pours through.

One of the things that is so special about baseball and Spring Training specifically are the type of people that come down and watch the games. I sat next to an older gentlemen from Massachusetts by the name of Robert Wright. A retired man, he was spending his summer in Arizona with his daughter and they were friends of Matt Daley and had decided to come to the new stadium to watch his team play. Normally, I wouldn't have much to say to a Red Sox fan in AZ but this man, who has been a baseball fan for more than twice the length of my life, began to tell me why he became a fan and what the sport meant to him.

I hope that every baseball enthusiast has a chance to talk to someone much older than them who remembers the game back when they were a kid. Every professional sport, and especially baseball, is an entity in evolution and the product from decade to decade features its own unique history and its own heroes. Mr. Wright took me through about 5 decades of baseball history that included tangents from Walter Mitty to Frank Lloyd Wright. After the game was over his daughter came to me and thanked me for listening to him like it had been a burden for me, but in reality it was special getting that kind of perspective from a man who has obviously spent his entire life enjoying a game I am only beginning to understand in comparison.

Also worth nothing. My wife, a baseball enthusiast and a firm believer that the quality of the stadium food is as important to baseball tradition as the 7th inning stretch and a pretty good judge of the best Hebrew National, is of the opinion that the hotdogs at Salt River are so far the best available.

Game 3 - Rockies vs. Giants - Scottsdale Stadium

Rain is the enemy of wicked witches of the west and baseball fans everywhere. It usually melts your skin, brings the cold in, delays games, and waters down your $8 beverage. Plus you have to wear those ridiculous looking ponchos that still smell from last summer's camping trip. The forecast for Monday was overcast and rainy and even a promise from a Phoenix native that the weather forecast was often 99% wrong couldn't keep the rain away. Apparently, 1% of the time the Phoenix weather forecasters are right all of the time. By the time we left for the ballpark the temperature was dropping quickly and wind was beginning to pick up. This game was going to be cold.

Scottsdale Stadium is tiny and while it has bench seating for a few thousand, most of us fought over limited lawn space in the outfield. On any other day I would recommend the lawn to anyone. Sometimes it's just nice to stretch out a blanket and chill in the sunshine. However, in the drizzling rain it becomes a real problem. A poncho really would have been nice.

Tim Lincecum was the starting pitcher for the Giants against the Rockies hopeful Matt Reynolds. This game promised to be the closest lineup to opening day and had:

C- Ianetta, 1B - Helton, 2B - Lopez, SS - Tulo, 3B - Stewart, LF - Cargo, CF - Dex, RF - Smith

Due to the weather we were only able to get through three innings but the Rockies went to town on the Giants' ace. Fowler abandoned his bunt game and hit the ball extremely well, including a triple that turned into an in-the-park home run on a lazy error from the Giants outfield. By the time the game was called at the end of the 3rd inning Lincecum had given up 5 runs on 7 hits and was out of the game. Reynolds, on the other hand, was working a no-hitter and pitching with more command than I saw from any of our pitchers this weekend. It's unfortunate it had to end when it did.

Escaping Arizona

We had just enough time to grab one final meal at In-N-Out, head back to the motel and pack our bags, and then attempt to beat the growing storm out of Phoenix. Weather reports out of Flagstaff called for heavy snow and we decided to change our plans of heading home via Flagstaff to going back through the wonderland that is the Tonto National Forest.

The drive up to 7500 feet is a long one, and in the rain and sleet it makes it even longer. By the time we had reached the apex of our climb the rain had turned into heavy snow and the 85 degree sunshine that had beckoned us in only a few days earlier had turned into some kind of twisted version of Narnia and the Fire Swamp from the Princess Bride. If you slipped off the edge of the road in Tonto that was it bro, it was time to grab the flip-flops, Gatorade, and Tulo jerseys and vacate the premises before the vehicle got eaten up by whatever R.O.U.S. that lived beneath that greenish sludge.

Still, we pressed on in our little Corolla and pushed through the storm to other side where just rain, darkness, and an excessive amount of soda and coffee led us all the way back home.

There is definitely something to be said for leaving work and the "real world" behind for a long weekend to enjoy Spring Training baseball. I will honestly say that nothing puts me in the mood for a baseball season faster than sitting in a small stadium, drinking ridiculously expensive suds, eating smuggled peanuts, and watching the starters, hopefuls, and scrubs of my team get prepared for April 1st. If you haven't taken the time to go to Spring Training I couldn't recommend it more. Especially now that the Rockies play right next to everyone else.

This is definitely a tradition that we plan on continuing every year in the future and I especially cannot wait until the years when I can spend it with my own kids and introduce them to the magic that is the sport of baseball so that in about 3 decades I can sit down and tell them and other strangers stories about my team, tangenting on Charlie Sheen bangin 7-pound rocks, and how it was back in the day.

Which of course... was a Wednesday.

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P.S.

PurpleRow, I have been a longtime fan from the sidelines, keeping up with the posts and great information that passes through this website daily and I very much look forward to contributing to and celebrating in what is shaping up to be a fantastic year for PurpleRow, the Rockies, and Rockies fans around the country!

Eat. Drink. Be Merry. But the above FanPost does not necessarily reflect the attitudes, opinions, or views of Purple Row's staff (unless, of course, it's written by the staff [and even then, it still might not]).

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