About a week and a half ago, my lady and I packed our bags, hopped in my car and took the 10 out to Tempe for our first dose of Angels Spring Training baseball. The four days that followed ended up being one of the better vacations I've ever had the opportunity to take, so much so, that almost every day since we got home I've found myself shaking my head and kindly cursing myself for not having made the trip sooner. It was an absolute blast, and a trip that every Angels fan needs to try to take at least once. Goodness knows I'm going to make it a point to get out there at least every other year. It's just too close, too easy and too fun not to, and here's why…
1) The Drive and The Digs
The 362-mile drive from Orange to Tempe is a breeze. A boring breeze, scenery-wise, but a breeze nonetheless. It took us just under six hours, including a brief stop in Blythe (whose city slogan is surprisingly not “A Place To Pee”). When armed with good company and an iPod full of solid tunes and entertaining podcasts, those six hours fly by. Granted, I've done that same drive (and far worse) on tour in a fifteen-passenger van and trailer roughly twenty times in the past decade, but it's far less daunting a drive than it might seem. Bonus: We also got there on a single tank of gas (~$55), which beat the hell out of any discount air fare we could find, and gave us the luxury of having our own car to wander around Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale in. When in doubt, drive.
Most of the Spring Training vacation literature we found seemed to push The Buttes, a resort-style hotel located (literally) a stone's throw away from Tempe Diablo Stadium, as the best place to stay in the area, but the $300-a-night price tag threw up a red flag right away. My better half found us a great deal at the Aloft hotel by Arizona State University (that I managed to eff up by accidentally booking us at the Aloft at Sky Harbor Airport). My gaffe turned out to be OK, as the airport location was not only a comfortable, clean and affordable place to stay, but it was only a five-minute shot down the 143 from Tempe Diablo Stadium and far enough removed from inebriated college goons to be fairly relaxing. The views were great too, because we're both really into airplanes and cold, boring industrial architecture. (That's a lie.)
2) The Grub
Between the local knowledge of a few friends and a fantastic Spring Training restaurant guide posted by ESPN baseball analyst (and food blogger) Keith Law, we really couldn't go wrong for postgame meals. We ended up hitting Four Peaks Brewery on East 8th and Dorsey twice on the trip. It's an awesome microbrewery with some really solid brews (the Hop Knot IPA and Kiltlifter Scottish Ale were my favorites) and above average pub grub (the Salmon BLT w/ pepper jack and pesto, and the Chicken Beer Bread Wrap stood out).
We also really enjoyed The Vig on North 40th and India School. The vibe sort of reminded us of Memphis here in OC; dimly lit, with a retro upscale tavern feel. They've got a decent selection of beers and cocktails, the Vigazz Burger is outstanding (despite it's lame name), and the wings are probably the best wings I've ever had. And I've had a lot of wings in my day, as it seems to be the thing to eat on days off on tour, and has become one of my favorite things to make on the grill at home. These wings are crispy, full of flavor without drowning in sauce, and not so overpowering that you feel them burn on the way out as much as they burn on the way in.
3) Oh Yeah, Uh…The Baseball
If you're familiar with some of my work here, or my personal blog, or my twitter feed, or my baseball-only twitter feed, or my personal history, you're well aware that I love the game of baseball. I've been to hundreds of games in my life, played in hundreds, and watched thousands. In all that exposure to the game, there's something I find remarkable about Spring Training baseball. It was something I didn't realize was available until this trip, and it's the thing that will keep me coming back to Spring Training year after year. In such a small, scaled-down setting (Tempe Diablo holds just under 10,000 people, as opposed to Angel Stadium's 45k+) there's an intimacy there that is impossible to find anywhere else in professional baseball. There isn't a bad seat in the house. There are no nosebleed seats. The din of the crowd doesn't drown out the in-game chatter amongst players, the call of the home plate umpire, the crack of the bat, the pop of the catcher's mitt. It's baseball being played at its highest level (aside from when they make wholesale lineup changes around the 5th or 6th inning and bring in non-roster invitees and low-level prospects) with the feeling of connectedness you can only get at a high school or small college game. It's as close as you can get to the action without being a player, coach or umpire, and it's fantastic.
And it's why I can't wait to get back out there.
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