Winter can be a long, slow grind, especially for baseball fans. The cold and snow only serve as reminders that sunshine, green grass and the crack of the bat are still so far away.
Some fans, though, have the perfect cure for the winter blues: a trip to Florida or Arizona for spring training.
With the average March high temperature in the Phoenix area a pleasant 76 degrees, "it's just sunshine, warm weather, bratwurst, tacos, hot dogs and a cold soft drink and a chance to watch baseball on a beautiful day in March, when folks back here might be still shoveling snow," said Tim Schweizer, who has been attending Cubs spring training in Arizona for 25 years.
And it isn't just the weather that's attractive to baseball fans. The venues where teams train are smaller than their major league counterparts, putting fans closer to the game and the players.
"When you go to spring training, it's like seeing your major league teams, but in a venue sort of like Lanphier Park. It's about that size, no matter what stadium you go to," according to Al Dallavis, who has been going to Cardinals camp in Florida, where the March temperature averages a balmy 81, for the past 15 years.
Schweizer earned his Cubs-fan pinstripes in the early 1960s, catching his first game at Wrigley Field, when the North Siders took on the Atlanta Braves. "I can remember as a 6- or 7-year-old kid getting to see Henry Aaron, getting to see Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. That's all it took to make me a Cubs fan," he said.
His first spring training was in 1984, on the heels of a ski vacation to Colorado. After a spending only a couple of days in Mesa watching the Cubs, he was hooked and has been going ever since.
And as a veteran local sports broadcaster, Schweizer had a unique perspective during his early years visiting Mesa.
"Working in radio full time, as I was at the time, I had media credentials," which allowed Schweizer to get down on the field and interview players.
And it wasn't just players and managers he was getting to speak with. Legendary Cubs announcers Harry Caray and Jack Brickhouse and Cubs alumni there as guest coaches would gather before games, holding court and telling stories.
"It was almost as much fun sitting listening to those guys before the game as it was visiting with the players who were on the field," Schweizer said. "Harry and Brickhouse and guys like that holding court, it was a lot of fun."
After a few years of mixing business and pleasure, though, Schweizer now leaves his press pass at home. "These days, I just buy tickets and go sit with the fans."
But as interest in spring training increases, so does demand for those tickets.
"Cubs tickets are very hard to get from what we found out. Even when they play on the road," according to Bob Engel. The Chatham resident and his wife visited Mesa to see the Cubs in 2005, and they managed to score some choice seats at one game.
"They ended up being about three rows behind the Cubs dugout. We got really good looks at (Carlos) Zambrano and Derrek Lee."
Field box seats at HoHoKam Park are $26. For "premium dates" (generally the weekends), they're $29. But for seven bucks, you can sit in the grass beyond the outfield wall, which is what the Engels did for the other game they saw. "They were great seats. It's not that far away, and we were right above the bullpen."
Engel also happened to be in Mesa at the same time Springfield College in Illinois was playing a school in the area. "We drove all the way to Mesa, Arizona, to watch SCI play," Engel joked.
And Springfield also is usually well-represented in the stands at Mesa, Schweizer said.
"It's not uncommon to be walking in the stands and somebody yell at me, and I see them sitting four or five rows up or standing down around the beer wagons before the game."
Story published Friday, March 6, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 2 )