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I’ll Miss You, Spring Training

It’s been three weeks since the FanGraphs staff — some of the coolest mother you-know-whats on the planet — descended on Phoenix, Arizona, to revel in the sights and sounds of Spring Training. And I can’t get her out of my mind.

Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Now that, friends, is a name for a baseball stadium. Nay, a baseball complex. Say it: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Say it twice. Not only does the name roll off the tongue, but the brand-spanking new facility — home to both the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies — is a stunning example of why Florida’s Grapefruit League just might be on baseball’s list of endangered species.

The jaunt down to Phoenix was my first ever to watch Spring Training’s fake games. And Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, which opened its doors for the first time on February 11, 2011, and hosted its first game two weeks later on February 26, was everything I imagined Spring Training to be.

Even the drive to Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (I even love writing it!), the first Major League Baseball facility built on Native American land, was memorable. Heading north out of Phoenix on a brilliantly sunny Saturday afternoon, with the Phoenix Mountains ahead in the distance, we, my good friend Winson and I, cut east through Paradise Valley. The Paradise Hills, to our left, were home to what looked like brilliant hillside estates. I couldn’t help but wonder if ESPN guru Keith Law lived in one of them. He probably does. Anyway, my point is: scenic, yo. We must appreciate our surroundings. At least that’s what my elders, along with cool photography websites on the Internet, have taught me.

Upon arriving in North Scottsdale, we made it onto Pima Road, and saw Salt River Fields, the crown jewel of the Cactus League, ahead on our right. Even from a distance, we knew she wasn’t like the others. And that’s not a knock on Goodyear Ballpark, in Goodyear, Arizona, spring home of the Cleveland Indians, which we FanGraphs nerds visited the day before. It is kind of a knock on Peoria Stadium, in, duh, Peoria, spring home of both the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres. Bottom line: the bar has been raised, and now set, by Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.

Parking cost us $5. At the box office, only single seats were available for the 1:00 pm affair between the Rockies and Padres. The last thing I ever imagined when traveling to Phoenix for Spring Training was that a game might actually be sold out. In my ignorance, I simply had no idea Salt River Fields was that new. Attendance records were smashed thanks to the dream Spring Training facility. Take it away, Arizona Republic:

The Arizona Diamondbacks set a team spring attendance record of 189,737 in 17 home games at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. That was up 90 percent from last year and beat their previous record of 136,940 in 2002 after their World Series title.

Math has never been and never will be my strength, but being up 90 percent in anything can only be a good thing.

Luckily for us, Salt River Fields has 4,000 lawn seats. The outfield’s all grass. And at $8 a pop, the lawn is exactly where you want to be sitting. Especially if you’re a couple of sun-starved, and extremely polite, Canadians, as Winson and I most certainly are.

After a leisurely stroll around the ballpark, I found it: a Leinenkugel’s beer stand. Behind the lawn seats, in center field, Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy on tap. The brew, which last summer quickly became my favorite, isn’t available up in the Great White North, and it had been so long. I’d love to tell you how much it cost, except in my excitement, I failed to take note. Eight dollars? Nine, perhaps? I don’t know. It didn’t matter then. It doesn’t matter now.

We grabbed our beers, our “Leinies,” found some grass in left-center field, and, in what was surely mid-eighty degrees temperatures, watched some baseball. As if our lives weren’t blessed enough, Ubaldo Jimenez was on the mound for the Rockies.

I asked Winson what, three weeks later, came to mind when he thought of Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. He got all poetic on me. Witness:

The sun
The beautiful sun
How it was such a lovely day.

Winson, in his infinite wisdom, was right. It was a damned lovely day. There was something incredibly relaxing about hanging out on the lawn, a home run landing just a few rows in front of us, enjoying fine hops, and the Arizona sun, in early March. And let no one tell you otherwise: the Phoenix/Scottsdale area is home to some beautiful women.

The experience was what I imagined Spring Training to be. The baseball didn’t really matter. People were out on the lawn tanning, and talking to one another, and even reading. I saw one man immersed in a book, only looking up at the sound of a bat making contact with a baseball. The stats didn’t matter, nor the standings. Or anybody’s fantasy team. Up on the scoreboard behind us was listed a Colorado player, #98, named UNKNOWN. That’s just how Spring Training rolls.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m about as excited for Opening Day as Joe West is for his first, and hopefully soon, regular season ejection. The fake games are over, the real ones are about to begin. I’m ready. “Vernon Wells would have popped out to second base right there.” I’ve been practicing. “Lyle Overbay would have had that.” Baseball, every night. “The Blue Jays are only six and a half games back of the Wild Card!”

But, trust me. Do yourself a favor and, if you’re in the greater Phoenix area in February and/or March, visit Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Enjoy the inconsequential baseball, worry free of the players’ statistics, and the standings. Enjoy the atmosphere. Soak up the sun. (Flurries due tonight in Toronto.) Thank me later.

They say you never forget your first time. They’re right. Again. See you next year, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. I’m hooked.

Image courtesy me. That was my view.