Under the Phoenix Sun – How MLB Does Spring Training Right
I’m confident in saying that no one can market meaningless games like Major League Baseball. Spring training is one of the only times you can see people lined up and waiting at their computers waiting for preseason tickets.
In what other sport do fans from across the country and around the world go to two different venues to welcome minor leaguers with numbers in the 90s, free agent experiences and – if I forgot to mention – games that DO NOT COUNT.
I recently vacationed in Phoenix, Arizona to attend a few Brewers spring training games, and today I’m going to go over all the reasons why the experience is so special and unique.
One of the things that becomes apparent when you arrive at the Phoenix airport is that a lot of people are here for the baseball.
One of the most exciting parts of going to the Cactus League is seeing other fans in and around the Phoenix area. Immediately when you step off your plane at the airport, you can’t help but notice the stream of people with their team pride on full display. You can’t walk around the PHX without seeing someone wearing a red Cubs hat, an orange Giants jersey, or a classic Dodger Blue.
For most of March, different jerseys and caps, all from different teams and different eras, light up the streets of Phoenix. Some people are wearing their grandfather’s faded Cubs hat, others are wearing their Corey Seager Rangers jerseys they bought four days before, and plenty of kids in their brand new little jerseys, gloves in hand with the dream of a foul ball flying their way dancing in their head.
It really is a sight to behold.
Most are ready to strike up a conversation about their marching band. Many of my fondest spring training memories over the four Cactus League vacations I’ve had in my life are of meeting fellow fans from other parts of the country. Whether it was the two Alabama Dodgers fans who were kind enough to sell you their excess tickets when they sold out (for only a slight markup) or the large group of White Sox concession vendors who invaded the same pool hotels with their speakers and coolers for years, you can always find a good story if you look hard enough (or, as mentioned before, they invade your hotel pool).
One of the coolest experiences is when you see one of those hopeful fans in the same colors as you. You can share your fan stories of the same teams. It is very easy to get lost in one of these conversations. For a moment, you’re waiting for your breakfast table, and suddenly you’re bonding over all the heartbreaks, triumphs, and dirty Manny Machado plays you could imagine. It’s starting to feel like the universal experience that so many baseball fans (like me) brag about when it comes to watching this game.
One thing that has always stood out to me about spring training is the heightened level of intimacy that comes with it. Of course, there are always rules – they obviously have to protect player safety – but they’re much more relaxed in the spring than they are in the regular season.
My first spring training experience was in March 2012, when I was just a little kid who, in all honesty, didn’t really care about baseball (or at least one who didn’t drive himself crazy like the 17 year old version of him does this daily). Although I don’t remember it personally, the story my dad loves to tell about those vacations was that of my very first game.
We were walking down the aisle to our seats in the then-named Maryvale Baseball Complex when we turned and saw newly signed veteran outfielder Nori Aoki.
We had no idea you were even allowed to get this close to players, let alone while walking to your seats.
Little did we know it was far from a unique experience.
Despite recent Covid-19 restrictions, pre-game autograph sessions next to the dugout are commonplace, a circle chat or photo on deck happens every few innings, and if you’re playing Well your cards, you can stand within yards of a Cy Young winner warming up in the bullpen before games (especially if your team is on the road).
Finally, another of the most enjoyable aspects of spring training is the fact that games don’t count. A lot of people see this as a downside because there really isn’t much at stake.
However, I see it the other way around.
I find the “meaningless” spring training games incredibly fun to watch because the stakes are so low.
Those who know me personally know that I could probably back off a bit when it comes to my emotional connection to a baseball team in a city where I don’t even live.
I wrote a story last season about celebrating the success of the brewers new base (“claws up”), and inside of that I told the story of the Brewers losing an eight-point lead and near total collapse in a single inning against the Braves on May 16, 2021 .
I vividly remember saying to my friend who watched that game, “I’m warning you: if the Brewers lose this game, I might start crying on the way home.” Sure, it was a joke (although I could totally see myself doing that…It’s happened before), but part of it was the fact that the Brewers were on a massive slip-up and looked like they were about to be buried in NL Central. It was one of the most stressful times of the season as a Brewers fan.
In the spring, you can blow a fifteen point lead and it still won’t matter. Because games don’t matter, team momentum doesn’t matter (as much) either. The point of going down to Cactus League is just to sit back, relax, and get out of the infamous 40° rainy mud puddle that is Wisconsin in March for a week, without losing any sleep over with a brisk advance.
In conclusion, I believe Spring Training isn’t just the best thing MLB does, it may be the only thing they do well. Spring training is nothing but fun, and I absolutely recommend going there at least once. This is the only time in sports where your team can lose by seven points and it won’t matter! You’re in the 85° desert sun and all your friends are stuck shoveling their driveways. The only thing that matters is the game, the weather, and the friends you make along the way.