SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — 2018 will be my 29th spring training. As a veteran of going to spring games, I thought I’d post some helpful hints for those of you venturing to the Valley of the Sun for the first time. This is an updated version of the guide I ran last year.
If you don’t have tickets to games at Sloan Park yet, the good news is that tickets are still available for all 16 games. Prices are high for some games, but you can still get lawn tickets for some games for $14, which is pretty close to the season-ticket price. The Cubs’ home schedule this year isn’t optimal for spring breakers, as six of the 16 games at Sloan Park will be before March 3 and only two games will be in the final week. With spring training starting earlier than ever this year, it’s possible some Sloan Park games won’t sell out, at least early on.
Tickets for games at other parks in the Valley are pretty reasonable. You can see this game against the Padres at Peoria for $12, and lawn tickets for this game against the Indians at Goodyear are just $8.
Keep in mind that for most spring games, except maybe for the last week, you will be seeing minor leaguers as much as half of the innings.
Getting to the various spring training parks in the Valley is easy. Most of them are located close to freeway exits and have ample parking. Parking prices range from $10 at Sloan Park (see the pro tip below, though!) to free at Surprise (spring home of the Rangers and Royals).
Here’s a driver’s guide I wrote two years ago that encompasses all of the 10 parks in the Phoenix area. That link includes a map of the general locations of the ballparks and specific directions to help you avoid traffic snarls. In general, no matter what spring park you’re going to, I’d recommend arriving early. Traffic can get backed up near game time at any of these parks.
Apart from Sloan Park, my favorite is Talking Stick, home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies. It’s right off AZ Loop 101 at Via de Ventura and has multiple parking lot entrances. Here’s useful information about Talking Stick, officially called “Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.”
Other parks I particularly like are Peoria Stadium (Padres and Mariners) and Surprise Stadium. Both are easy to get in and out of and have varied food choices.
If you’re flying in and don’t have plane reservations by now -- do it quickly, because March is (obviously) high season for trips to Phoenix and prices can be exorbitantly high. If you live in a market served by Southwest, that might be your best bet, as you can always use Southwest travel dollars for up to a year if you have to cancel your flight.
Hotels are, similarly, expensive, and if you don’t already have a reservation, you might be out of luck. There is now a hotel immediately adjacent to Sloan Park, the Sheraton Mesa at Wrigleyville West. I checked some dates during spring training, and most of them are already sold out. There’s also a Hyatt Place hotel at the Mesa Riverview shopping complex across Dobson Road from Sloan Park (east of the park). Some rooms are available there for spring training dates, generally at $250 a night (and up).
You might be better off checking out hotels in Scottsdale, which is only a 15-minute drive from Sloan Park, or elsewhere in Mesa.
If you are renting a car after flying to Phoenix, I’d recommend not doing it at the airport. First, the rental car place is quite a long ride from PHX, and taxes and fees on your car rental at PHX can be more than 30 percent. Take a taxi or the SuperShuttle to your hotel and rent a car near there; there are quite a few in-town car rental agencies (some actually attached to hotels) where you aren’t charged the airport taxes. Unless you’re going to rely on Uber, you will need to rent a car somewhere. Public transit options are slim, and few if any go to the spring training parks.
Here are some things to do and places to see outside baseball.
There are tons of these in the area and you shouldn’t limit yourself to Mesa, as the area is easy to navigate. The Phoenix area is a grid, with numbered streets (east of the center dividing line, Central Avenue) and numbered avenues (west of Central). Once you learn the main east-west streets, almost any place is easy to find.
Mesa Riverview, as mentioned across Dobson Road from Sloan Park, has quite a few restaurants and bars. One of my favorites there is Matta’s, a family-owned Mexican restaurant with very reasonable prices.
Tempe Marketplace, about a mile and a half west of Sloan Park on Rio Salado Parkway, has a similar selection of restaurants. If you’re missing Chicago while you’re there, Portillo’s has a restaurant at Tempe Marketplace (as well as a location in Scottsdale).
Pro tip: Both Tempe Marketplace and Mesa Riverview will let you park free on Cubs home game days in their huge parking lots and take you to Sloan Park on a free shuttle.
Going farther afield from Mesa, many people stay in or near Old Town Scottsdale, which is kind of kitschy (tourist-style gift shops) in its look back to Scottsdale’s history as an “Old West” town, but also has some excellent restaurants and art galleries, if you’re into such things. My personal restaurant recommendations in or near Old Town and other parts of the area:
Old Town Tortilla Factory, 6910 E. Main: Contemporary Mexican. Has a large outdoor patio and the food is reasonably priced. As of the last time I was there (a year ago), they didn’t take reservations for parties of less than six, so go early or be prepared to wait.
Don & Charlie’s, 7501 E. Camelback: The baseball fan’s heaven. You could spend hours in there, as the walls (and ceilings!) are covered with baseball memorabilia and autographed baseballs. Food is old-fashioned Chicago steakhouse style (the founder, Don Carson, grew up in Rogers Park). Many baseball people go here so you could make a celebrity sighting or two. This place is packed all March, so if you want to go, make a reservation early or you will wait up to two hours.
Malee’s Thai Bistro, 7131 E. Main: Some of the best Thai food I’ve ever had. It’s not large and also gets very busy, so reserve a table early.
The Sugar Bowl, 4005 N. Scottsdale Road: Old-fashioned ice-cream parlor that’s been in this location since 1958. Bil Keane, creator of the “Family Circus” comic strip, was a longtime resident of Scottsdale and he and his family took a liking to this place. Some signed strips are on the walls.
Cowboy Ciao, 7133 E. Stetson Drive, is a Western-themed Italian restaurant. The concept works and the staff is friendly and efficient. Despite its location in a tourist area, it’s reasonably priced.
Scottsdale Fashion Square, 7014 E. Camelback, has several sit-down restaurants as well as a food court and movie theaters.
Four Peaks Brewery, 1340 E. 8th Street, Tempe: Brewpub with several different locally-brewed beers and a good selection of bar-style food.
Culinary Dropout is a bar/restaurant with an eclectic atmosphere and live music. Three locations in the Valley: Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe.
If you are into a Vegas-style experience, the Talking Stick Resort (9800 E. Talking Stick Way in Scottsdale) has a full casino and several very good restaurants.
For much more on places in Mesa, you can go to visitmesa.com.
I’m not a golfer. But if you are, there are quite a number of courses open to the public in the area. Some will be expensive. Coronado Golf at 2829 N. Miller in Scottsdale is affordable. McCormick Ranch Golf Club, 7505 E. McCormick Parkway in Scottsdale, has two 18-hole courses. It’s a bit pricey, but the views of Camelback Mountain are pretty spectacular. Troon North Golf Club, 10320 E. Dynamite Blvd. in Scottsdale, also has excellent mountain views of Pinnacle Peak.
Speaking of Camelback Mountain, there are several hiking trails open to the public. Here’s some information on the trails there.
Camelback has a reputation as being a tough climb. Somewhat easier hiking trails are on Piestewa Peak in Phoenix.
The Heard Museum, 2301 N. Central in Phoenix, is the pre-eminent museum of Native American art in the United States. Their website says: “The approximately 4,000 fine art works in the Heard Museum collection document the American Indian Fine Art Movement from the 20th century to the present, and include work by some of the finest historic and contemporary American Indian artists.”
OdySea Aquarium, 9500 East Vía de Ventura, Scottsdale. Yes, there is a huge aquarium in the middle of the desert. Worth your time, if a little pricey.
Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix. I have not been to this one, although I keep promising myself I should go. BCB’s Danny Rockett says it’s fantastic and TripAdvisor says it’s the No. 1 museum in the Phoenix area and among the top 20 in the United States.
The Grand Canyon is worth a visit if you’re coming to Arizona for the first time, or if you’ve been there many times and never seen it. It’s just as impressive as the photos make it appear. Pro tip! Even if it’s 75-80 degrees in the Phoenix area, it will be colder at the Grand Canyon, which resides at about 7,000 feet elevation. Typically in March it’s in the upper 40s or lower 50s during the day. Dress accordingly. The Grand Canyon is about a three-hour drive from the Phoenix area; you’ll be going to the South Rim, as the North Rim (which is also farther) is generally closed until mid-May.
If you are into astronomy, the Lowell Observatory is at 1400 W. Mars Hill Road in Flagstaff, two hours’ drive north of Phoenix.
Sedona is about 90 minutes’ drive north of the Phoenix area. There are hiking trails, beautiful scenery (here’s a photo I took near Sedona), great restaurants and art galleries.
Enjoy your trip... and bring sunscreen. (Trust me on the sunscreen.)