Working for a cold-weather team like the Chicago Cubs brought a huge perk this time of year. Namely, being forced to travel to Arizona for spring training.
After months of fleece and parkas and head colds and sinus infections, a higher being lets you know that it’s time to step on an airplane and get the heck out of town for six-to-seven weeks (that higher being, of course, being your team president or general manager).
Thanks to the fine folks at United Airlines, life would be different 1,440 air miles away.
After your first couple of spring trainings, there’s a certain repetition that comes with it.
No matter the year, I flew out of O’Hare on the earliest flight I could get. It would be cold outside. It was still dark. It was the perfect way to get away.
No matter the year, when I arrived at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, the sun would be out. The sky would be cloud-free. After a winter in Chicago, I would be allergic to rolling down the car windows, so I purposely put on the rental car air conditioner to make sure it worked properly.
And then I’d head east to Mesa … Superstition Mountains in front of me … heading to the spring training complex, looking for my first cactus of that given year.
I had more than 20 spring trainings in Mesa, and it changed so much over the course of time.
When I first started going to spring training, the present-day highway systems were still under construction – or a vision for the future. The 202 – the loop that takes you from the airport to central Mesa – was a work in progress. It was several spring trainings before I didn’t have to take surface streets to get out of the airport. And once the 202 opened, it was exciting every February to see how much further the road would go. It took almost 20 years for the road’s completion. Obviously, the rough Arizona winters make it tough to work year-round.
And then there was the 101. In 1990, the road’s development was just in its infancy. Getting from Mesa to Scottsdale – and then north to places like Carefree and Cave Creek – seemed like a day trip. But little-by-little, step-by-step, the road grew longer and longer. And the region got bigger and bigger. And the compressed Cactus League continued expanding and expanding.
Back in the day, most of the spring training activity centered on Phoenix, Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa and Chandler – which was almost a hike. You’d have your day trip – or sometimes an overnighter – to Tucson. Then there would be the multi-day trek to Palm Springs and Yuma to take on the Angels and Padres.
And you’d have quaint spring training parks like old HoHoKam Park – designed for spring training use and not much more. During our time at old HoHo, we didn’t even have a permanent structure for the front office staff to work out of; the front office was housed in a trailer – with a half dozen small offices from which all baseball operations work took place.
Now, thanks to the different world we live in, there are huge multifunctional facilities spread out all over the valley. Things change, and it’s all good. But I look back fondly at the old days of Fitch Park – the minor league complex the Cubs practiced at before the start of spring training games – when you could walk from field to field and talk to the fans. There was something special about just walking around and saying “Hi” to people – even though I knew they were there to see the guys in uniform, not me. It was just a different time, a different era.
The first time I went to spring training, I was wide-eyed. About 48 hours in, you realize you’re going to be there another six weeks.
When you do the math, you realize that I spent roughly three full years of my life in Arizona thanks to spring training and organizational meetings – so I witnessed a lot.
Still, there was something fresh about heading there every spring.
I became a creature of habit. Get the rental car and head straight to Fitch Park to unpack my desk. Then, head straight to the rental condo to unpack my bags. By early evening, it was time see that first amazing sunset on the way to grocery shop – first at Basha’s, then at later years at the Walmart Supercenter.
By day two, it was time to plan the first of countless annual pilgrimages to my favorite restaurants: Don & Charlie’s, Carlsbad Tavern, Z Tejas, P.F. Chang’s – before it went national.
On day three, it was time for training camp to officially start. Spring training was underway.
And a few days in, just as repetition was starting to set in, there was always the lure of the Kohl’s Presidents Day Sale – for when the 30 shirts I’d pack for six-plus weeks weren’t deemed enough to get me through spring training.
All around the sport, pitchers and catchers report this week. It’s the first step in the commencement of the 2017 campaign – and the marathon that a baseball season is from start to finish.
And there’s nothing like walking out of the airport and taking in that first breath of fresh air after a long winter in Chicago. It’s a new beginning.