TEMPE, Ariz. —The elbow is fine. The knee is OK. The new kid is ready to step up. The old veteran still has it. A slump is history.
In baseball's Cactus League spring training, last year is over and this year isn't quite here yet. Optimism blooms in the Arizona desert, yet to wilt in the heat of 162 games across a long, hot summer.
Thirteen baseball teams began to show up in the Valley of the Sun around Phoenix last week, with two more reporting south in Tucson. Along with the Grapefruit League contingent in Florida, they are the first signs that baseball's long winter, between the ninth inning of the last game of the World Series and the first inning of Opening Day, is almost over.
Turn off the hot stove, the real cooking can begin.
I arrived in Tempe last week for the spring training of spring training. Officially, it's called PFP — pitcher's fielding practice. But fans know it by those magic words: "pitchers and catchers report." For a week the Angels throwers and the guys who throw it back work out the kinks of the offseason. A few position players trickle in for early workouts. The business steps up a notch the first week of March with the beginning of spring training games.
A trip to the Cactus League is like a visit to a baseball mall. So many teams packed so close together. In Florida, the distance between rival teams is measured in miles. In Arizona, sometimes it's a matter of blocks. Increasingly, teams share facilities, like the Dodgers' year-old ballpark in Glendale, split with the Chicago White Sox.
In the Phoenix area, it's possible to pick one hotel in one town as your base — say, Tempe or Scottsdale or Phoenix — and easily drive to nine stadiums, with two more just down the interstate in Tucson. It's an exciting time to be a baseball fan in a region awash with fans from around the country.
I love the "pitchers and catchers" period. It's the quiet prelude to the preseason. Baseball in February is the game at its most pure and languid — tossing, bunting, fielding, stretching. Baskets filled with batting-practice baseballs, red bags of bats and gloves strung out along the foul lines. Clusters of coaches drilling the basics over and over again.
"Man on second, man on second!" shouted minor-league pitching coach Ken Patterson to a group of young pitchers learning to cover first base. "That doesn't mean check second base — it means check third base!"
At Tempe, the Angels in red jerseys sprint and jog and sprint some more.
"This (expletive) ain't (expletive) fun," said a flushed Joe Saunders as he stopped running to chug some Gatorade before heading back out onto the track to run some more.
You can hear the Angels say what they do because in these early days, players outnumber fans 3-to-1. It's not just because of the dearth of fans motivated enough to watch a morning of squats, pepper and batting practice, but for the sheer number of players.
Spring training isn't just for the cleanup hitter making $6 million a year, but for the backup shortstop playing on the lowest rungs of the minor leagues. Numbers seen mostly on football jerseys are worn by spring training long shots — Brian Walker, a catcher who is one of 28 players invited to the Angels' camp without a roster spot, tops out the count, wearing 98 on his back.
The fans who do show up often have the area behind the practice field dugouts nearly to themselves. Brandon Gagnon of Peace River, in the far north of Alberta in Canada, sat with his dad, Noel, watching bunting drills.
"I've been an Angels' fan since 2001 or so," said Brandon Gagnon, sporting a red Angels shirt. "I live and die with them in the summertime. It's great to be down here to see the players before the start of the season."
Noel Gagnon isn't as passionate about the Angels as his son, but on a sunny day with temperatures in the high 60s, he acknowledged he was glad to make the trip.
"It's nice to come to Tempe since it's pretty cold back home right now," Noel said. "Below zero."
On the next field over, batting practice for a group of catchers was delayed while coaches tried to round up "shaggers" to chase down balls and get them back to the pitcher behind a protective metal mesh shield.
"Come on, let's go — we don't need shaggers, we're going to hit them all over the fence," joked catcher Mike Napoli as he killed time scouring the bottom of the barrel of a bat.
Sometimes the relaxed atmosphere goes too far, as when some players coming back from sprints in the outfield sauntered along the foul line paying little attention to a nearby batter, who smacked line drives around the grass. A coach finally stopped the action and yelled to the rookies, "Hey, look up and live."
You can tell it is Angels spring training because the players are out of shape and Mike Scioscia is (relatively) in shape, before the 162 games (and maybe a few more in the postseason) hone the players' physiques and stress out the manager's.
Fans who come to Tempe this season will see something new not just on the field, but in the stands — Japanese media and fans have come to see new Angels designated hitter Hideki Matsui. On a day when Matsui did nothing more than put on an Angels T-shirt and walk on the field, 30 Japanese reporters and camera operators captured the image.
"I expect about 50 on Opening Day in Anaheim," said Isao Hirooka, Matsui's interpreter and liaison. "This is just the start."
IF YOU GO
ANGELS SPRING TRAINING
The games: The Angels play 17 home games at Tempe Diablo Stadium (2200 W. Alameda Drive, 480-350-5205). Games begin March 4 against the Chicago White Sox and end April 1 against the Cleveland Indians. The Angels will play additional games as the visiting team at Phoenix-area stadiums. Tickets in Tempe cost between $4 for lawn seating along the outfield and $22 for MVP seats at the plate. Field box seats are $12 and $17, while grandstand seats are $7. Call 888-796- 4256 for tickets or go online at angels.mlb.com.
Ticket tip: It's best to get tickets in advance, especially against popular teams like the Dodgers and Chicago Cubs. Games against the Seattle Mariners are expected to be especially popular because of former Angel Chone Figgins' debut with his new team and the head-to-head play of Japan's two most famous players — Matsui and Seattle's perennial All-Star, outfielder Ichiro Suzuki. Tickets are available on the day of games from the stadium box office. The three Angels travel packages offered earlier this year, which included airfare, hotel and tickets, are sold out.
Getting there: Tempe Diablo Stadium is less than seven miles from the airport. It is possible to stay near the stadium and not have a car, but with most other attractions and restaurants spread out, a rental car makes for a more enjoyable trip.
Accommodations: There are several hotels and motels in and around Tempe. The top choice, if you can afford it, is The Buttes, a Marriott Resort (602-225-9000, marriott.com). The Southwestern style hotel sits right next to Tempe Diablo Stadium, and it is a short walk to the ballpark. Prices vary because of the proximity to the stadium. I paid just under $200 a night midweek during the first days of spring training, but prices hover around $300 during game day weekends. My second choice very near the stadium is the Homewood Suites Phoenix Airport South (602-470-2100, hilton.com). Its rates are less than $200 on nongame days and just over when the Angels are playing. If you have a car, staying at a business-type hotel off one of the nearby freeways can save you $75 or more a night.
Other Arizona spring training sites (for interactive map and online ticket orders, go to www.cactusleague.com and www.mlb.com):
Teams: Dodgers and Chicago White Sox
10710 W. Camelback Road, Glendale 623-877-8585
Team: Chicago Cubs
1235 N. Center St., Mesa
Team: Cleveland Indians
1933 S. Ballpark Way, Goodyear 623-882-3120
MARYVALE BASEBALL PARK
Team: Milwaukee Brewers
3600 N. 51st Ave., Phoenix
PEORIA SPORTS COMPLEX
Teams: Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres
16101 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria
PHOENIX MUNICIPAL STADIUM
Team: Oakland Athletics
5999 E. Van Buren St., Phoenix
Team: San Francisco Giants
7408 E. Osborn Road, Scottsdale
SURPRISE RECREATION CAMPUS
Teams: Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers
15960 N. Bullard Ave., Surprise
HI CORBETT FIELD
Team: Colorado Rockies
3400 E. Camino Campestre, Tucson 520-327-WINS
TUCSON ELECTRIC PARK
Team: Arizona Diamondbacks
2500 E. Ajo Way, Tucson