The beginnings of what became Arizona's Cactus League started back in 1947, when the Cleveland Indians and then New York Giants moved their spring training camps from baseball's traditional Florida preseason locale to Tucson and Phoenix, respectively. Since then the league has grown incrementally, reaching its current 15 teams playing in 10 ballparks throughout the greater Phoenix region every spring.
Since 2000, Elderhostel has been offering an Arizona spring training program called the Road Scholar Spring Training Baseball Program with approximately 400 people participating annually.
A typical day begins with breakfast at a participating hotel, followed by a morning speaker who might be a sportswriter, an official scorekeeper, a former player, a major league team executive or a baseball celebrity, such as Joe Garagiola.
The group is almost always equally divided between men and women, all sharing a love of the game. Hard-core baseball fans like to challenge each other with serious baseball trivia.
More than just baseball
The main event, of course, is the Cactus League ballgame, but because this is a Road Scholar program, there is even interesting stuff to learn along the way. The bus ride to the ballpark doubles as a guided tour of the region with informative historic lectures delivered by Road Scholar program coordinators, such as Tim Harrington.
"When we are driving by any of the aqueducts," explains Harrington, referring to one of the notable sights between hotel and ballpark, "I like to explain how the canals were originally built by hand back in the 1300s by the native Hohokam tribes. They built the entire canal system that still exists today and then they disappeared for no apparent reason. I also like to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright and his influence on the region." History, architecture and baseball make for a great mix among Road Scholars.
Spring training baseball is different from regular season major league games; just about all of the games are played in the afternoon. Because they are exhibition games that don't count in the standings, the pace is slower and more relaxed. The ballparks are much smaller, usually seating about 10,000 people — as opposed to the 50,000-person average major league stadiums — which creates an intimacy between the players and the fans as well among the fans themselves. The players are more likely to sign autographs before and after the games. There's no upper deck in spring training ballparks; most fans sit together on the same level. Of course there are also bleacher sections and even grassy berms behind the outfield walls, where fans can stretch out on blankets and just enjoy the afternoon sunshine.
After the game, dinner is served back at the hotel and followed by another classroom presentation. At least one night during the program, baseball movies, such as A League of Their Own or The Hank Greenberg Story, are shown. Another night is left open for independent exploration, or a group excursion to an event such as the Scottsdale Art Walk.
If you go
The spring training program's five-night, six-day trips are focused on particular teams from week-to-week with some programs running concurrently. The Texas Rangers and Cincinnati Reds programs kick off this year's season, running from Feb. 27 to March 4, 2011. Accommodations for both programs will be at the Four Points Sheraton, Phoenix Metrocenter (602-997-5900). Rates start at $826 per person for double occupancy or $1,071 for singles and cover almost everything, including accommodations, ballgame tickets and most meals, with the exception of ballparks snacks and beverages. For more information call 800-454-5768.