SCOTTSDALE, Arizona — 2020 will be my 31st 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. Spring training games begin a week from Saturday.
If you don’t have tickets to games at Sloan Park yet, the good news is that tickets are still available for all 17 games. Prices are high for some games, but you can still get lawn tickets for some games for $15 (plus fees), which is pretty close to the season-ticket price. The Cubs’ home schedule in 2020 has games spread out throughout the five-week span. That’s good because of the very early start, with four home games before March 1.
Ticket prices for games at other parks in the Valley can be pretty reasonable. You can see this game against the Reds at Goodyear for as little as $8, and this game vs. the Royals at Surprise also can be had for just $8 (both plus fees). Pro tip: Though it’s a nice ballpark and convenient to Old Town Scottsdale, avoid Scottsdale Stadium for Cubs games, as tickets there are priced even higher than Sloan Park. Here’s a map which will give you an idea of the general location of all the spring parks in the Phoenix metro area. All the exact stadium addresses are here.
Keep in mind that for most spring games, except maybe for the last week or so, you will be seeing minor leaguers for as many as half of the games. And speaking of minor leaguers, you can see Cubs prospects play games at the back fields at the Sloan Park complex. Admission is free to those games, and on days when the Cubs aren’t playing a home game, parking is also free. Also at the complex, the Cubs generally set up an area for autographs for kids only (up to age 12) next to Field 1, which is the one next to the Red Lot in this map of the complex:
Players have gotten better about stopping for autographs for kids at that location. They will sometimes take time near the Home Plate Gate as they make their way from the practice fields to the main field.
Sloan Park’s food choices are generally pretty good and they also have an area where local food trucks park and sell their wares. They change up the trucks pretty much every game so there’s a wide variety of food offered. The Phoenix Street Food Coalition’s Facebook page will tell you which trucks are at Sloan Park each day. You can bring outside food into Sloan Park, but many of the other Cactus League venues don’t allow that. Check with each park before you go. One thin you can do at any venue is bring in sealed plastic bottles of water. I can’t emphasize enough how good an idea this is, especially since the price of bottled water at ballparks can generally be termed “extortionate.”
Pro tip: Freeze a bottle of water before you come to the game. By the time it gets really warm you will have a nicely chilled bottle of water, with maybe a bit of ice left, that you can then refill at the ballpark water fountain.
Getting to the various spring training parks in the Valley is easy. Many of them are located close to freeway exits and have ample parking. Parking prices range from $10 at Sloan Park to free at Surprise (home of the Rangers and Royals). You’ll note on the map above that some parking lots at Sloan Park are $5. The $5 lots are a long way from the ballpark and if you’re not into a half-mile walk, check out the pro tip for parking below.
Here’s a driver’s guide I wrote four 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, and Sloan Park is one of the worst for traffic snarls close to first pitch. If you’re taking Uber to Sloan, the drop-off and pickup location is outside the Right Field Gate along Sheffield Avenue (see the map above, and yes, they really did name those streets Waveland and Sheffield).
Apart from Sloan Park, my favorite is the home of the Diamondbacks and Rockies. It’s right off Arizona Loop 101 at Via de Ventura and has multiple parking lot entrances. Here’s useful information about this venue, officially called “Salt River Fields at Talking Stick.”
The average high temperature in the Phoenix area in March ranges from 72 degrees at the end of February to 80 by the time March ends. In a typical spring training season, many high temps can get into the low to mid 80s, which is quite comfortable given the low humidity. Note that low humidity means that once the sun goes down, it will be a bit chilly at night. Light jackets or sweatshirts are useful to bring along if you’re going to sample the nightlife.
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. Some of the dates for spring training are still available, but expensive ($275 a night and up). 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, a bit cheaper than the Sheraton.
You might be better off checking out hotels in Scottsdale, which is only a 15-minute drive from Sloan Park, elsewhere in Mesa, or in Tempe, where there are plenty of hotels near the Arizona State University campus. AirBNBs might also still be available at various Valley locations.
If you are renting a car after flying to Phoenix, I’d recommend not doing it at the airport. First, the rental car hub 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 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 or Lyft, you will need to rent a car somewhere. For the time being, Uber and Lyft are still operating out of Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix while new airport fees are being challenged in court. It’s worth checking with these companies before you arrive for the latest information. 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 apart from baseball.
There are tons of them in the Valley and you shouldn’t limit yourself to Mesa, as the area is easy to navigate. The Phoenix area is mapped out on 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 through 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 and from Sloan Park on a free shuttle. Here’s info on the Tempe Marketplace shuttle and here’s the scoop on the trolley from Mesa Riverview.
More for the Chicago visitor: Lou Malnati’s has three locations in the Phoenix area.
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.
Sadly, the baseball fan’s heaven, Don & Charlie’s, closed last spring. It’s still an open question as to whether the restaurant might re-open in a smaller form in the boutique hotel now under construction on that property at 7501 E. Camelback in Scottsdale. I hope it will. Don Carson was always a splendid host, the food was great, and the baseball memorabilia worth the trip.
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, they didn’t take reservations for parties of less than six, so go early or be prepared to wait.
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.
Scottsdale Fashion Square, 7014 E. Camelback, has several sit-down restaurants as well as a food court and movie theaters.
Paul Martin’s American Grill, 6186 N. Scottsdale Road: Surprisingly affordable, regional American specialties, excellent attentive service. (Parking here can be a hassle at times, they do have valet service.)
Blue Adobe Grille, 144 N. Country Club Drive, Mesa: Old-fashioned place with good beer and New Mexican-style food (which is quite different from Mexican). Be prepared to wait, it’s popular with the locals.
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.
Higher-end restaurants that are worth it if you’re willing to spend a bit more:
Fat Ox, 6316 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale. “Modern riffs on regional Italian classics” is what they advertise, and the food’s very good. They have a happy-hour menu from 4:30 to 6:30 that’s less expensive and you can make a meal out of it. This was reportedly one of Joe Maddon’s favorites and who knows, you might see the former Cubs manager there.
El Chorro Lodge, 5550 E. Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley. This has been a Phoenix-area favorite since the 1930s. It recently underwent modernization and features spectacular views of the mountains in the area.
For much more on things to see and do in Mesa, go to visitmesa.com.
It is worth noting that Maricopa County police take DUI very seriously. You might remember what happened to former Cub Mark Grace when he was arrested for the second time for a DUI. If you’re going to go out drinking — please have a designated driver or take an Uber or Lyft.
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. TPC Scottsdale, 17020 N. Hayden Road in Scottsdale, is the host of the Phoenix Open PGA Tour event every January.
Speaking of Camelback Mountain, there are several hiking trails open to the public. Here’s some information on the Camelback trails.
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.”
Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington in Phoenix, is especially fun for kids, with interactive exhibits. There’s a planetarium, too. This spring, you can see Victoria, the world’s largest touring Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton. From the website: “Now open to the public, this world premiere exhibition transports guests to a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, bringing to life one of the most important discoveries in the history of paleontology and giving museum visitors the rare opportunity to visit the Cretaceous period where Victoria’s story will unfold in her natural habitat.” The exhibit runs through May 25.
OdySea Aquarium, 9500 E. Vía de Ventura, Scottsdale. Yes, there is a huge aquarium in the middle of the desert. Worth your time, if a little pricey. Occasionally you can find a Groupon for the aquarium, which will lower the cost from “outrageous” to “reasonable.” Very kid-friendly if you have children with you.
Musical Instrument Museum, 4725 E. Mayo Blvd., Phoenix. I went to this museum a couple of years ago and had a fantastic time. I spent three hours in there and could easily go back and see more that I missed. I give it my top recommendation and TripAdvisor says it’s the No. 1 museum in the Phoenix area and among the top 20 in the United States.
Taliesin West, 12621 N. Frank Lloyd Wright Boulevard in Scottsdale, is the architecture “laboratory” Wright established in Arizona in the 1930s. There are public events and you can take a tour, which includes some spectacular views of the entire Valley of the Sun.
In addition to the usual selection of bars (some listed above), there’s other entertainment in and around the Phoenix area. The first listing is baseball-related!
The Innings Festival is an annual music fest that also includes appearances from baseball people, including Ryan Dempster, who will hold his “Off The Mound” talk show from the festival. Other baseball folks scheduled to attend include former Cubs Rick Sutcliffe and Miguel Montero. Music headliners are the Dave Matthews Band and Weezer. Also featured: Portugal The Man and Death Cab For Cutie. It’s at Tempe Beach Park & Arts Park, 80 W. Rio Salado Parkway in Tempe, February 29-March 1.
ASU Gammage Theater, 1200 S. Forest Avenue in Tempe, features touring stage shows and musicals from all over the world. The link has the latest schedule. It’s worth a visit just for the architecture, as it is one of the last public buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Grand Canyon is definitely 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’re into astronomy, the Lowell Observatory is at 1400 W. Mars Hill Road in Flagstaff, two hours’ drive north of Phoenix.
There are even more Phoenix-area tips and recommendations here. (It’s from last year, but still valid.)
Enjoy your trip... and bring lots of sunscreen. (Trust me on the sunscreen.)