A good week in Goodyear
The temperature was 28 degrees and it was snowing when I left Ohio. Upon landing in Phoenix, I immediately raced to Goodyear Ballpark to watch the Indians game.
The temperature at the ballpark peaked at 95 degrees, a record high for that day. The stark contrast was not lost on me. Walking to my seat, I told the usher about my concern with the extreme temperature change and asked him how long it would take me to get acclimated to this heat. His answer: about three beers.
Here are highlights from this year’s visit to the Valley of the Sun to follow the Tribe in Spring Training.
The Cactus League - How it All Started
Spring Training began in Arizona through the efforts of the Cleveland Indians.
A young Bill Veeck previously owned a minor league team, but sold it and then bought a ranch in Tucson, Arizona. He quickly became bored without baseball. In 1947, Veeck put together a group of investors who purchased the Cleveland Indians. This investor group included celebrity Bob Hope among other Hollywood stars and businessmen.
At the time, the Indians held their Spring Training in Florida, but Veeck wanted to move their pre-season venue closer to his home. He needed a partner in order to establish camp in Arizona and found one in the New York Giants, who settled on Phoenix Municipal Stadium as their spring home. The Indians set up spring operations in Tucson at a stadium that would later be called Hi-Corbett Field.
The next year, the Cleveland Indians won the World Series, their latest championship. Tuning up in the warmth of the Southwest certainly helped.
Gradually, as more teams moved to the Southwest, the spring baseball schedule became known as the Cactus League. Today, fifteen major league teams play in the Cactus League at ten stadiums. The Cleveland Indians moved to Goodyear Arizona in 2009, and were followed by the Cincinnati Reds in 2010. The Reds share the Goodyear facility with the Indians.
This history is spelled out in much more detail on the walls bordering the entry of Goodyear Ballpark.
A Chip off the Old Tito
Terry Francona’s dad, “Tito”, visited Goodyear and attended several practices and games. Tito was awarded the best seat in house for games – first row directly behind home plate (he obviously has great connections for tickets). Tito was gracious as he was greeted by observant fans during the game. They thanked him for having a talented son with the managerial skills and baseball insight that will lift the Tribe into contention this year.
Terry’s knowledge and passion for baseball was inherited, as Tito Francona played 15 years in the major leagues, including six seasons with the Tribe. Tito was selected as one of the Top 100 Greatest Indians. He was an excellent left-handed hitter (.272 lifetime average) with the ability to play all three outfield positions as well as first base. Tito was born in Aliquippa, Pennsylvania, an old, gritty steel town, not too far across the border from Struthers, Ohio, the old, gritty steel town where I grew up.
The first Indians game my dad brought me to at the old Municipal Stadium was in 1959 and together we enjoyed watching Francona patrolling center field next to Rocky Colavito, who was a stalwart in right field. Because of our Italian heritage, Tito and Rocky quickly became our favorites.
That 1959 season was magical for Tito, when he batted .363 with 20 home runs. Even though he had the highest batting average in the American League that year, Tito did not qualify for the batting title since he finished the season just 34 at bats shy of the minimum number of plate appearances required. Instead, the batting title went to Harvey Kuenn of the Detroit Tigers who posted a .353 average. Ironically, the Indians traded Colavito to the Tigers for Kuenn the next year.
A River Runs Through It
On the way to Goodyear Ballpark on St. Patrick’s Day, one drives over a bridge and underneath is a “river” called Agua Fria. But this was nothing like the robust, rolling rivers of Ohio. This “river” was the color of green, but men in kilts didn’t need to apply any dye in the water. In fact, this river bed had no water. It was completely dry and the green color was present due to the substantial growth of trees, cactus plants and other desert vegetation. It is estimated that the last time water flowed in the Agua Fria, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was in kindergarten. (Hint to those who do not follow the political landscape – that was a long, long time ago).
Agua Fria translated means “Cold Water”. That’s like referring to that big body of water to Cleveland’s north as “Lago Caliente” during ice fishing season.
Under the Lights in the Desert
The corner of South Ballpark Way and Estrella Parkway, where Goodyear Ballpark resides, was packed for a Saturday night contest versus the World Series champion San Francisco Giants.
Carlos Carrasco was impressive in the four innings that he hurled. The crowd was buzzing, and the game had a mid-summer’s night atmosphere. The game was well played and followed by a good fireworks show. Not at the level of “Rock ‘N Blast”, but entertaining nonetheless.
Unfortunately, due to an immense traffic jam, many fans missed Carlos’ strong performance, since the sellout crowd overflowed all available parking. As a result, many fans weren’t parked in their seats until the fifth inning. It was like sitting in your car motionless on Prospect Avenue while trying to get into a parking garage on Opening Day at Progressive Field.
What made it surreal was this scene: As fans drove in for the game, I looked out at the traffic converging on the park from all directions, and saw hundreds of headlights. I was reminded of the final scene in the movie Field of Dreams. All I could say was “People will come, Ray”. On this night, people did come, and this time, they were very sure why. It’s baseball, Ray.
Hot Dog Heaven
The food at Goodyear ballpark is pretty good with great variety. Concessions even serve Margaritas, and Jimmy Buffett songs are regularly played between innings.
Several types of specialty hot dogs are served featuring a regional flair, including:
- The Cleveland dog – a very proud Polish sausage, aka Kielbasa, with authentic stadium mustard
- The Cincinnati dog – really a Bratwurst; it’s a fraud of a dog, and is jealous of the Cleveland dog
- The New York dog – with sauerkraut; thinks it’s superior to the other hot dogs
- The Chicago dog – Peppers and onions smothered on top of an over-sized hot dog; can only be prepared and served by unionized workers
- The Arizona dog – covered with chili and jalapenos; put it on a soft tortilla and it could pass for a burrito.
Calling a Home Run Shot
Another ballgame tradition is emerging, at least with my group of fans. We call it the Ruthian Cheer.
Whenever a Tribe hitter launches a ball high and deep to the outfield, it is imperative to yell at the top of your lungs in an attempt to coax the ball over the outfield fence.
Here’s an example of how the Ruthian Cheer works.
Carlos Santana at the plate, game tied, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth. Carlos takes a mighty swing. The crack of the bat echoes loudly into the stands around home plate. The ball gets airborne quickly and climbs majestically toward right center field. You yell “Get Outta Here!” so loud that your vocal chords stain. Right fielder looks up, turns his back so you see his uniform number. Ball lands deep into the right field seats. Carlos triumphantly circles the bases and as he steps on home plate, he is greeted by teammates who wildly jump around and slap his helmetless dome. And the Tribe emerges victorious with a dramatic, walk-off victory.
A fellow Tribe fan estimates that yelling “Get Outta Here!” at exactly the proper moment will add ten feet to the distance of a long drive, enough to transform a rally-killing, warning track fly ball into a game-winning home run. We take credit for several dramatic home runs, including the memorable Santana walk-off grand slam against the Tigers two years ago.
The Ruthian Cheer takes some practice. Synchronizing the timing of the yell with the crack of the bat and deciding whether to yell is important. One must avoid the embarrassment of wasting the yell on a popup to the shortstop or a foul ball.
In a recent Cactus League game against the Brewers at Maryvale Park, Indians power hitter Mark Reynolds timed up a fastball with a mighty swing and smashed a rocket to left center field. A “Get Outta Here!” yell immediately followed. That ball went way, way outta here. At Maryvale, the outfield fence measures 365 feet down the left field line. There is a grassy area behind the fence and then a high concrete wall bordering the facility. The ball landed over this concrete wall. Doing quick math, we estimated that this ball travelled over 480 feet.
Proof again that the Ruthian Cheer works.
At the practice facility, several dozen fans, young, old, and in between, assemble patiently at the fence line and near the parking areas hoping to add to their substantial autograph collections. They stake out their perch ninety minutes before any players appear. No one uttered complaints about the limits to player access, which can be rather restrictive.
Most of these fans recognize even the most obscure player, and call out names for the fans who don’t. They politely ask each player if they will sign, please.
The variety of items brought to sign is impressive: poster sized pictures, professional grade photos, baseball cards, batting helmets, baseballs, and bats. All are suitable for framing and signing. Once achieved, the prize is then catalogued and carefully placed back in their protective containers.
The most ardent Signature Seekers don’t do this to make money selling their items on-line. Theirs is truly a labor of love… for the game… for the players/celebrities… for the challenge and when successful, for bragging rights about their conquest.
Each autograph has a story. It may be the time the pursuit lasted (in months or even years). Or the banter shared between the player and Signature Seeker. Or how a player’s signature changes as he advances through the organization (it usually shortens to a scribble). There is strategy involved, like who to “allow” signing a team batting helmet, since at this time of year, roster spots are uncertain.
Signature Seekers are a fascinating group of people and hearing their stories was educational and very entertaining.
If Cooperstown had a baseball museum in Arizona, it would be at Don and Charlie’s Restaurant in Scottsdale. The proprietors moved from Chicago to the Valley of The Sun many years ago and opened their namesake restaurant. They also loved baseball and enjoyed visiting the Spring Training venues. Their restaurant, known for serving Windy City-sized steaks and outstanding barbeque ribs, quickly became an establishment frequented by professional baseball players, coaches, and of course, rabid fans. Players and other sports figures visiting Don and Charlie’s signed autographs on baseballs, jerseys, photos, and posters, which were put on display at the restaurant.
Today Don and Charlie’s is a veritable sports museum as there are thousands of authentic articles on display throughout the restaurant.
This is a place where, upon arrival, you happily accept the news that you will have at least a forty-five minute wait for your table, even with a reservation. The great food is worth waiting for, but you need extra time to peruse the unique collection of baseball (and other sports) history.
A quick walkthrough finds the following sampling of items having a Cleveland connection:
- Hundreds of baseballs signed and preserved in individual cases. A separate display for baseballs signed by members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Indians players Bob Feller, Lou Boudreau, Gaylord Perry, and Bob Lemon are represented here.
- A baseball signed by three generations of the Bell family who played major league baseball: Indians outstanding third baseman, Buddy Bell, his dad, Gus, and Buddy’s sons David and Mike. Side note: Besides the Bell family, there are only three other grandfather, father and son combinations who played major league baseball:
- Ray, Bob, Aaron and Brett Boone
- Joe, Joe (Jr.), and Casey Coleman
- Sammy, Jerry, Jerry Jr., and Scott Hairston.
- A fading picture of Minnie Minoso and Ted Williams in a dugout, holding baseball bats, flashing wide smiles and apparently discussing their favorite subject: hitting.
- A black “Big Stick” bat signed by Cory Snyder.
- An oversized frame containing a home white jersey bearing the red INDIANS block lettering. It’s from the 1970s and bears the number 18. The jersey is from former Indians slick-fielding second baseman Duane Kuiper. A footnote at the bottom of the frame states that Kuiper is honored here for holding the major league record for most career plate appearances (3,754) while hitting exactly one home run. Apparently, not many fans yelled “Get Outta Here!” with “Kuip” at the plate at Municipal Stadium in the 1970s. Well, maybe exactly one.
As another Spring Training trip comes to an end, a return to Ohio is greeted by yet another snowstorm. Maybe the Indians should remain in Phoenix and open the season playing the Diamondbacks. Just a thought.
There was a noticeable air of optimism at this year’s camp. The Tribe coaching staff, players, and fans all appear very excited about the possibilities. 2013 could be a great season.
With good health, high achievement in the starting rotation, and of course some luck, this Indians team could be playing when the snow is falling again… in late October.
An excellent report on the Indians Training Camp as always. You truly are an eternal optimist. But yes this could be the year.
Only one thing lacking in this years report. Did Jennie survive?