Hope Springs Eternal
Imagine the changing of the seasons, if you will. The Super Bowl has ended and the doldrums of winter’s short days have enveloped the soul. All of existence seems to have been coated in a viscous, choking grey mist reminiscent of Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel. New Year’s resolutions, worthless to begin with, have been tossed asunder. It is a time of wretched despair. Yet, somehow, we mere mortals persevere and carry on, the promise of spring our life’s only blood… and then like a field of vibrant bluebonnets the month of March arrives in all its glory! Our spirits are renewed, and with this lifting of our beings comes baseball!
It should come as no surprise to faithful followers of the Tuesday Night Cigar Club that The Doctor loves his baseball. Where else in professional sports will you find unabashed boozers and brawlers and raconteurs like the late titans Earl Weaver and Billy Martin? The great Earl Weaver once referred to Don Stanhouse, one of his relief pitchers, as “full pack” because that is what Earl would have to smoke when Stanhouse was on the mound with the game on the line. Wasn’t he wonderful? If you close your eyes at the right time on a spring evening, you can almost hear the crack of the bats in New York circa 1927 as Babe Ruth enjoys a pre-game meal of whiskey and hot dogs…
There exists a prevailing opinion that happiness lies not in purchasing material goods but rather in purchasing experiences. As a man who enjoys both, the TNCC Doctor will have to leave such a spiritual conundrum up to others to decide. As an offshoot or sidebar of that theory, I will posit one of my own: let not the parade of tedium that comes with airline travel keep you and yours from visiting other places. You don’t even have to go that far. Sure, you could travel to the south of France on a Bordeaux tour – and not to sound like Yoda, but envious I will be – but you can also find numerous places in the lower 48 states to visit, depending on your idiosyncrasies and peccadillos. As a lover of baseball, when late March rolls around I like to hop on an aeroplane and take a brief visit to Phoenix and the Valley of The Sun for baseball’s annual Cactus League spring training.
The flight out of DFW International Airport went smoothly, which is all anyone can ask of God when embarking on air travel. Seated next to me was an attractive young lady wearing a purple TCU jacket. She donned a pair of headphones for most of the flight, but shortly before landing I was able to inquire what she did at TCU and she informed me that she was on the golf team. Being an avid, if somewhat erratic golfer myself, it was pleasing to meet a collegiate (lady) golfer. In addition to Cactus League spring training for baseball, Phoenix and its environs are a golfing mecca and there were more than a few sets of golf clubs eventually unloaded from the plane. Residents of Surprise and Sun City have street legal golf “cars” with Arizona license plates that they drive up and down the suburban thoroughfares. The TCU Horned Frogs of the Big 12 were playing in a tournament hosted by Arizona State in Tempe that weekend. The young lady I met was not only very cute but also extremely personable, so The Doctor is now a fan of TCU Women’s Golf. I can’t help it, I am a sucker for the smile of a young lady, especially when dealing with travel lag. In fact, I was so susceptible after playing a game of revolving baggage carousels at Phoenix Sky Harbor – first our luggage was on Carousel 5, then Carousel 3, then Carousel 1 and then back to Carousel 3 – that when another young lady at the rental car outlet offered to upgrade me to a Cadillac LTS for a mere extra $60, I acquiesced.
Weather is quite possibly the most innocuous and boring of all subject matters, but the spring time weather in Phoenix is worth mentioning. The temperature was warm on each day of my visit with highs in the mid to upper eighties, but the humidity was almost non-existent. To say this was a change from my normal stomping grounds in suburban north Texas is an understatement. When playing golf or drinking outdoors in the springtime, I often feel inclined to cut the humidity with a butter knife. Not so in the Valley of the Sun. A person would have been able to wear shorts, but one could easily traipse about all day in jeans and a t-shirt and be at the pinnacle of comfort. And my God, the clean desert air! A couple of times I became lightheaded from an oxygen high. No wonder they play spring baseball out here. The clean air effect became even more pronounced when we ventured to a higher altitude in the town of Wickenburg, Arizona where who knows what an enterprising individual might find…
After soiling myself, it was time to retreat back towards something approximating civilization, although the old downtown of Wickenburg is definitely worth checking out. Driving around is very easy; Loop 101 and I-10 basically serve as the Valley’s borders and the scenic topography is visually arresting.
A modicum of sightseeing thusly completed, it was time for what we came for: baseball. Arriving at Surprise Stadium to see the Rangers host the Reds, The Doctor’s dad attempted to enter the premises with a pocket knife and was nearly jailed while I began quickly scanning my surroundings for possible escape routes. They were out of lockers for him to put it in, so my dad left his knife in a cardboard box next to one of the security guards. Thank Christ that didn’t happen at the airport! Most of the spring training ballparks have smaller, more intimate designs than the big-league varieties and Surprise is a perfect example. Tickets could be had ten rows behind home plate for $30 each, making it that much easier for your olfactory senses to enjoy the freshly cut green grass, the unhealthy and delicious smell of the concessions, and the never-ending stream of people-watching opportunities for a man of science like myself…
What of the actual game that I witnessed? Ok, fine… Rangers starting pitcher Mike Minor didn’t walk anybody, but he sure as hell got the shit hit out of him. Minor is attempting to convert from reliever to starter and this development is something I will keep a close eye on in the season’s early stages. Rougned Odor actually took two pitches without swinging before blasting a homer, but the Reds were leading 7-3 when we left in the 8th inning and would go on to win the game.
The next day we took a sojourn to downtown Scottsdale, an area that is littered with a multitude of shops selling baseball memorabilia, antiques, and Native American and southwestern modern art. There is no shortage of bars and restaurants in the area as well. Unfortunately, Scottsdale is also the spring training home of the San Francisco Giants who happened to be playing an afternoon game on the day of our visit so finding a place to park was a virtual impossibility. Being that I hate the Giants anyway because they beat my Rangers in the 2010 World Series, I had no trepidation about moving on to Peoria. It was another lovely day in the Valley and, although we hadn’t brought along our golf clubs, we still found a way to get a round in…
Having sated my desire to be on the links, if even a terrible facsimile, I needed a cigar. As fate would have it, Ambassador Fine Cigars was a mere stone’s throw from the Peoria Sports Complex and leaf lovers need look no further than this place. Ambassador had a large lounge and a well-stocked humidor with all of the Drew Estate and Steve Saka sticks a discerning smoker could ask for. I grabbed a Todos Las Dias robusto and was ready for game time. To learn more about that particular Saka cigar, check out the TNCC podcast’s highly entertaining Christmas episode from last year.
The stadium in Peoria serves as the spring training home to the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners. It’s a little older and therefore a little more rustic than Surprise Stadium, but the layout is basically the same. There is plenty of seating behind home plate and down the first and third base lines and open lawn seating in the outfield. These miniature baseball cathedrals are like minor league ball parks with major league amenities (and players).
The Rangers were teeing it up early and often off of young Padres starter Bryan Mitchell. Joey Gallo hit a moonshot home run to center field and Rougned Odor went deep again. The Rangers had a 7-1 lead before Martin Perez suffered what is known in the parlance as a “middle inning meltdown”. What appeared to happen was that Perez became frustrated at shortstop Jurickson Profar’s inability to snag a line drive for an out, so he closed his eyes and threw the ball as hard as he could down the middle of the plate. Of course, I have no idea if that is what really transpired but the next hitter, backup Padres catcher Raffy Lopez, blasted a three-run tater over the center field wall to make the game interesting. The Padres ended up winning the game but the real winners were those of us baseball lovers in attendance on a beautifully crisp night in the desert.
I encourage everyone to take a trip to Phoenix and the Valley, especially if you are a fan of the great game of baseball. But even if you are not, there is still plenty to see and do. Wickenburg and Scottsdale are well worth a visit. Stop at Ambassador and say hello to Tyler while picking out a leaf refreshment. I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed living it. As always, dear friends, The Doctor wishes you all a clean bill of health.