Late February through April 1, watch baseball under blue skies and enjoy all the Phoenix area has to offer.
PHOENIX — The Arizona capital is Seattle’s opposite, weather-wise — a tempting thought for those of us growing weary of gray days. And from late February through the first of April, it offers an added baseball bonus: spring training.
The Cactus League draws fans from the West Coast, Midwest and Southwest hungry for a taste of summer even as it’s still winter back home. Everything feels relaxed and casual. Refreshments are cheap and crowds are friendly. Kids congregate to ask for players’ autographs at practices and before games. The air is dry and warm, with an occasional gentle breeze and temperatures topping out in the 80s.
Baseball is only part of the fun, though, if you’re leaving America’s cloudiest large city for its sunniest.
Getting into the game
If you go
Spring training around Phoenix
Dates and tickets
Seattle Mariners spring-training games run Feb 25 through April 1. Tickets, from $5 (for lawn seating) to $27, are at m.mlb.com/mariners/tickets/spring/
Peoria Sports Complex
The City of Peoria spring-training website has all kinds of information, including an exhaustive A-Z guide to the Peoria Sports Complex: peoriaspringtraining.com.
Hiking and biking
• Trails around Peoria: bit.ly/peoriatrails
Visit Phoenix has information about greater Phoenix, including information on lodging, dining and outdoor recreation: visitphoenix.com
It’s easy to acquire tickets and attend Seattle Mariners spring-training games in Peoria, Ariz., just northwest of Phoenix. There, the Mariners (along with the San Diego Padres) play their “home” games at the Peoria Sports Complex in the middle of town (peoriasportscomplex.com).
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Buy tickets through the Mariners website (m.mlb.com/mariners/tickets/spring/) or at the ballpark’s box office. On game days, bring a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen, and if you’re prone to wilting in the heat, try to score shaded seats (club sections 305-308 and upper box sections 200-214, rows HH and up).
While the Cactus League’s 10 ballparks maintain a casual vibe, they’ve upped their offerings in recent years as fans increasingly expect high-quality food, beverages and amenities. New this year in Peoria: a kids’ splash park with a pirate theme, along with a miniature baseball diamond where youngsters can act out their major league dreams.
For the adults, there’s a “Craft Courtyard” featuring microbrews from Arizona, California and the Pacific Northwest as well as whiskeys. Drink a certain number of beverages there or feast at an all-you-can-eat area for an extra $20 on top of the normal ticket cost.
Although parking ($5 for cars, $10 for RVs) is plentiful and easy to find, fans can also cycle to the stadium on a bike path through town (bring your own lock).
For an even more casual and close-up — and free — view of this season’s players, spend a nongame morning at the Mariners’ ballpark-adjacent practice fields starting at 9:30. Die-hard fans turn up in mid-February for early practices, where they’ll likely be among a mere handful of fellow enthusiasts. Be sure to bring a seat, shade, water and snacks.
It’s also relatively easy to take in games at other ballparks, each of which offers beer, food and souvenirs specific to the team’s hometown. But while you can walk up and buy a ticket on game day at some parks, others sell out well in advance. Since the Peoria Sports Complex is one of the larger-capacity venues at about 13,000 seats, getting Mariners tickets generally isn’t a problem. On the other hand, although the Cubs’ field, Sloan Park, is the largest in the Cactus League at 15,000 seats, Chicagoans seem even more desperate to escape the winter blahs than Seattleites are (even when the Cubs haven’t just won the World Series).
While most stadiums have partially covered seating, you might be in full sun the whole game. With almost no shade, Tempe Diablo Stadium (home to the Angels) lives up to its name; I spent much of one ballgame there passing my tube of sunscreen to fellow sunbaked fans.
Buying tickets and negotiating the ballpark are the easy parts. Finding a place to stay can be tricky if you wait too long. Your main options are Peoria, another suburb, or Phoenix itself. Although everything is spread out, it’s easy to get around on highways where you can actually drive the speed limit.
Each of the towns in the greater Phoenix area has its own personality: Tempe, home of Arizona State University, feels young and energetic. Scottsdale is vintage and artsy.
Downtown Phoenix is living up to its namesake, remaking itself with downtown housing, arts festivals, food trucks and bike lanes, all aided by an improving public-transportation system that includes a light-rail track from the northern outskirts to Tempe and Mesa.
Peoria wasn’t exactly bustling back when the Mariners started playing here in 1994, but now shops, restaurants and other amenities surround the park in the P83 district (named for the main drag through it, 83rd Avenue). It’s easy to grab brunch at the cowboy-themed Lone Spur Café one day (lonespurcafe.com) and the sleek Headquarters restaurant the next (headquartersaz.com).
Although I explored beyond Peoria many evenings, I stayed in town for a surprisingly good production of “Fiddler on the Roof” at the Arizona Broadway Theater.
For something completely different, there’s Modern Round, sort of an upscale new-West saloon that combines food, entertainment, and a (virtual, in this case) shooting gallery (modernround.com).
One of my favorite things about Peoria: Visitors can get a week pass ($15 for an adult and $10 for kids under 17) to use the well-appointed fitness center, climbing wall or racquetball courts at the multipurpose Rio Vista Recreation Center, a short walk or bike ride away from the Peoria Sports Complex.
On a visit last spring, I chatted with fellow Mariners fans — some of whom have been coming for years — about what they like to do with their non-baseball time while they’re in town. The good news: Options seem endless. That’s also the bad news, since they can be hard to narrow down.
A couple of Harley riders said they check out the casinos on the edges of town, as well as local breweries (Peoria Artisan Brewery was their postgame destination), when they’re not riding in the hills around the city. Another couple scouted out the blooming culinary scene.
Although Arizona was relatively slow to the microbrew game, numbers are growing fast alongside a similarly robust profusion of locavore restaurants. Among the favorites for suds: Arizona Wilderness in Gilbert (azwbeer.com); Cartel Brewery (cartelbrewery.com) and its spinoff, The Shop, in Tempe; and Mother Bunch Brewing in Phoenix (motherbunchbrew.com).
And while the Arizona wine scene is puny compared to Washington’s, it does exist. Even Peoria has at least one tasting room (for Winery 101, winery101.com). While many local wineries import grapes from California, a few vineyards have sprung up both north and south of Phoenix. I had some Arizona wine, along with a lovely dinner, at Postino, a beloved Phoenix restaurant that has sprouted new locations around the valley (postinowinecafe.com).
Of course, if you’re listing the best things about Phoenix in February and March, weather has to be at the top. A sunny, desert hike in late winter feels like a jolt of electricity, in a good way. Trails squiggle across the jagged buff-colored mountains periodically jutting up from the valley’s flat floor, making recreation easily accessible from most of the valley’s cities. Early one morning, I joined a bunch of locals scrambling a steep 1.5 miles up Camelback Mountain for 360-degree views across the urban sprawl to the mountains beyond.
As much as the mountains make for accessible trails, the flat valley floor makes it easy to get around by bicycle, and we spent one pleasant morning tooling around on a rented bike (the Grid bike-share system has 50 pickup/drop-off locations, and you can take bikes on the light-rail system), sticking to designated bike lanes and paved off-street trails (gridbikes.com).
Spring is also the perfect time for a hot-air balloon ride, something I’d long wanted to try. We signed on with Phoenix-based Hot Air Expeditions ($179 and up for adults, hotairexpeditions.com). At first I was a bit apprehensive about the possibility of high winds aloft, but I had nothing to worry about, since summer’s gusty winds were absent. We scanned the desert landscape, spotting rabbits and a coyote, as our craft silently floated on the breeze.
I didn’t spend all my time outdoors. One of my favorite mornings was the one I spent at the Musical Instrument Museum, really more of a museum of music itself, and an affiliate partner of the Smithsonian Institution. Most exhibits are arranged by geography, which makes it easy to recognize how cultures influence one another. You wear headphones that automatically play the music of a particular country as you walk past the display about it, so rather than a sterile collection of instruments, it’s a lively and sound-filled exploration. There’s also a fun exhibit of famous musicians’ instruments and a room where anyone can pop in and play instruments ($10-$20, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix; mim.org).
The museum is one sign of where Phoenix and environs are headed: toward a more cosmopolitan future, yet one where you can still catch a cheap baseball game on a sunny March day.