Green grass. That isn’t the first indication that you aren’t in Frozen Tundra territory anymore, but for baseball fans it is the most beautiful thing you see when arriving to watch games in the Arizona Cactus League.
A couple of my high school buddies and I made our annual venture to the Valley of the Sun last week to take in Brewers spring training games, sit by the pool and drink some beer.
And this year, it even included a Bucks game. And a smashed windshield.
Those weren’t the only differences in this year’s trip to the desert. The Brewers and Maryvale made $60 million worth of renovations to what was known as Maryvale Baseball Park. It is now known as American Family Fields of Phoenix.
Maryvale, a Hispanic section of Phoenix, was essentially sent to the minors.
The majority of changes were baseball-related—more practice fields, bigger clubhouses and a medical facility.
The entrance has been moved to the third-base side of the park from the first-base side, which makes for a slightly longer walk from the parking lot.
Our first game was against the Reds on Sunday, March 3. The line of cars getting into the park should have been our first indication that this was not the same Brewers exhibition game that we have known. It was one of the first sunny, warm days since Cactus League play began. The lines to enter the stadium were about 30 yards long.
Talking to fans in front of us, it was apparent they were there to check out the new stadium and the Brewers. The announced crowd was 8,800—the largest crowd ever to watch a game there. There were about two dozen cans of aerosol sun screen around a pole near the entrances.
Nice gesture by the Brewers, I thought. Putting out sunscreen for us Snowbirds. When I got to the gate, however, I saw the sign. “No aerosol cans allowed.” People just dropped them down by the pole.
We missed the top of the first inning and came in with the Brewers already trailing 6-0. Nice. Don’t expect Josh Tomlin to be in the Brewers’ rotation.
On the second pitch to the Brewers’ second batter—some guy named Christian Yelich—he hit a homer to right. This kid has a nice swing. Keep an eye on him this season.
Catcher Manny Pina also hit a homer. Hernan Perez and young sensation Keston Hiura (HERE-rah) each added homers later in the game.
Hiura hits line drives. He struck out twice in a game later in the week, but otherwise I did not see him miss many pitches. The team has some doubts about his fielding at second, but he will be the starting second baseman next year—if not by this September.
Josh Hader struck out all three hitters he faced. I wonder what young left-handed hitters think when the manager tells them to go up and bat and Hader is coming in. “What did I do, skipper?”
While going back to our car, we encountered a young lady from Oshkosh, who was standing by her car. The vehicle was parked close to the high outfield screened fence of one of the several new practice fields. On the windshield—or, more accurately, in the windshield—was an embedded baseball.
She was waiting for someone from the Brewers to arrive and tell her what to do. Not that she had to worry—it was her friend’s car.
The Brewers were off the next day, which was a Monday. One of my buddies and I decided to go downtown and see the Bucks play the Phoenix Suns. We dropped $30 per ticket to sit in a lounge on the third level. The scalper said it was standing room only but seats would be available.
They were, but about 15 feet behind the railing seats, which obstructed the view of the near basket. But there was a huge TV screen and bar just a few steps away, and one Bucks fan that was wearing huge deer antlers on his head.
The Bucks lost.
The next day, we read that the Yelich guy and Robin Yount were shown on TV sitting courtside.
They must know the scalpers to go to.
The next day we headed out to Scottsdale and the Talking Stick reservation, where the Colorado Rockies play at Salt River Fields. It was 80 degrees and sunny, and we decided to sit on the unshaded third-base side. Sizzle City.
The Brewers won 1-0, a score that is unheard of in spring training. Corbin Burnes pitched the first three innnings, and Mr. Spring Training, Nate Orf, scored the only run after hitting a single.
Poor Nate Orf. The infielder hits every spring training, but at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds with limited power, he probably doesn’t have a chance of securing a long-term spot on the MLB roster.
The other thing that stood out was the amount of defensive shifts used now in exhibition games. The Rockies’ leadoff hitter is Charlie Blackmon, a career .300 hitter, a three-time all-star and the 2017 National League batting champion. He has a black all-star beard, as well.
Twice Blackmon got to two strikes. Each time, Travis Shaw moved his normal third-base spot to the right of second base. The scouting report must be Blackmon hits the ball on the ground to right when he has two strikes on him.
But then Sam Hilliard comes up. I had never heard of Sam Hilliard. The Brewers had.
They put a shift on him.
Against some hitters, Hiura was playing in shallow right field. One batter hit a line driver—right to him.
Our final Brewers game was back at American Family Fields of Phoenix against the home-state Diamondbacks. This crowd was back to normal.
I met up with the O’Leary brothers—Russ, Bill and Jim—and John Haffery. They were getting their golf swings in shape for our local courses.
You meet a lot of people from Wisconsin during spring training. A couple and their son from Elkhorn were at poolside one day at our hotel. I was wearing a UW-Whitewater T-shirt at Talking Stick and walking up the aisle when three people sitting in the top row yelled.
“I used to party there,” a guy said.
That is what a week during spring training is. When the Brewers’ opening day starter, Jhoulys Chacin, came out of the game after three innings, he signed autographs all the way down the third-base line as he walked to the bullpen and tunnel to the new clubhouse.
Hader chatted with fans leaning over the railing above the bullpen. A bullpen coach made a cup of sunflower-seed shells rain over Jeremy Jeffress as he walked to the warmup mound.
Green grass. It’s all fun.
Except if you park your car too close to the outfield fence.