By David Moriah
It was “mancation” time! Throughout the winter, several baseball friends around the country and I planned a spring training rendezvous amidst the Arizona desert, finally getting serious about an idea we’d been tossing around for years. This spring we made it happen, renting a five-bedroom condo in Scottsdale and plotting our way around the sprawling Phoenix metro where 15 teams settle in for the month of March.
It was classic “guy time” without the wives. One of our bunch, Jack Cohen, mentioned his wife had reacted with bewilderment when he told her of the plan to see as many exhibition games as we could squeeze into a six-day getaway.
“Why do you want to see ballgames that don’t count?” she asked, leaving Jack stammering for an answer she might understand.
Early disclosure here. I’ve been writing for SCD for 30 years, and spring training and the autograph scene in either Florida or Arizona has been my beat. For me this was a “working mancation,” as I was focused on reporting the usual gossip of who was signing, who was not, where the best locations are for autographing, etc. But I was also determined to have fun with my buds and show them some of the special spots I’ve discovered over the years.
To that end, we started with a somewhat pricey dinner at Don & Charlie’s, a legendary Scottsdale steakhouse that’s well worth breaking the budget. The walls are crammed with signed and game-used memorabilia, mostly baseball but other sports as well, and celebrities are known to frequent it.
As our group was seated, my baseball buddy of more than 40 years, Gary Canter, said, “Isn’t that Rollie Fingers at the next table?” Sure enough, it was the Hall of Fame pitcher and his wife finishing their steaks. When we asked our waiter if anyone else of note was around, he casually pointed across the dining room to former commissioner Bud Selig.
No one in the house appeared to bother either for an autograph, though one fan approached Selig for a selfie, which the commissioner cheerfully obliged.
The next day it was time for a ballgame at the still sparklingly new Salt River Park at Talking Stick, spring home of the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks. Salt River came on line in 2011 and is a spectacular, fan-friendly venue. Stadium Journey magazine (see stadiumjourney.com) annually rates the Top 100 sports stadium experiences in the country, and in 2014, ranked Salt River No. 21, just behind Lambeau Field in Green Bay and Boston’s Fenway Park, but ahead of Chicago’s Wrigley Field. That’s pretty heady company!
Fortunately for autograph seekers, both the Rockies and Diamondbacks reward spring fans generously before each game, as most players move along the railing from outfield to dugout signing freely. The Rockies and D-Backs boast only a handful of star players, however, and the D-Backs’ biggest star, Paul Goldschmidt, was a tough autograph to obtain. He did sign a few the night we were there, but only a few.
The Dodgers were the visiting team for the game we attended, and they, too, signed for many. Of course, one frustration in spring training is that teams on the road bring less than their full roster on the trip, and if it’s a split-squad game you can miss many of a team’s best players. On this day, the Dodgers arrived minus Yasiel Puig and Adrian Gonzalez, but among those signing were newcomer Jimmy Rollins, Carl Crawford, manager Don Mattingly and hitting coach Mark McGwire.
The Dodgers home park is Camelback Ranch, a six-year-old complex in Glendale shared with the Chicago White Sox. After five decades at their charming Vero Beach, Fla., site known as “Dodgertown,” the team designed a spring training venue in Arizona that continues its tradition of requiring players to move from practice fields to game-day stadium along a walkway lined with fans, making autograph opportunities abundant, if highly competitive.
Dodger fans, and autograph seekers, swarmed the site in almost unimaginable numbers, and “Kershaw-mania” was in full force the day I visited. Hundreds, perhaps more than a thousand screaming, eager fans pressed toward the rope line hoping for a quick signature from the reigning National League MVP and Cy Young award winner, and Kershaw accommodated many, if not all, who pressed forward.
Second only to Kershaw in the eyes and hopes of autograph hungry fans was Puig, and he proved up to the task of satisfying many of those who sought his John Hancock. Puig stayed on the rope line for a long time before retreating to the clubhouse. The Dodgers, as a whole, were very generous with signatures, though the large crowds caused many to go away empty-handed.
A special treat for Dodger fans this spring was the presence and willingness to sign by Hall of Fame great Sandy Koufax. The living legend spent a week at camp before we arrived, and reports were that Koufax took time each day to sign. Photos of many of his signatures and accompanying stories were posted on the Facebook page “Autographs 101,” all showing Koufax’s flowing and easily legible script, a marked contrast to the indecipherable scrawls of most modern players.
There was another feeding frenzy around the Angels of Anaheim, and there the focus was the American League’s reigning MVP and mega-star Mike Trout. Like Kershaw, Trout did his best in the impossible task of making everyone happy. Trout takes signing seriously and gave away his prized signature in small but frequent bursts – 10-20 here, 10-20 there. The Angels’ other superstar, Albert Pujols, was far stingier with his signature.
There was one way Cactus League fans could head back to snow country with a signed prize that didn’t involve plunging into the Sharpie-wielding mobs and elbowing for position. The Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association has recently taken to setting up game-day auctions at rotating Cactus League parks featuring high quality, and reassuringly authentic, autographed merchandise. A minimum bid is set and after six innings, unsold items become available at the minimum price.
On the day I observed the MLBPAA auction, they did a brisk business, selling items such as Trout bats signed with “2014 MVP” at $610 (bid) and $550 (minimum); a Trout ball signed “MVP and ROY” at $275 and an 8-by-10 photo at $200; Ken Griffey Jr. jersey at $600 and 16-by-20 photo at $150; Ernie Banks bat at $325; and Nolan Ryan ball with “7 no hitters, HOF” at $190. The buyers can also be assured the proceeds go to benefit youth clinics and several charities supported by the MLBPAA.
As I readied to leave the sunshine and ballparks of Arizona, I discovered a small gem of a museum in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, home to the Chicago Cubs in their brand new Sloan Park stadium and the Oakland A’s, who moved into the park, Hohokam Stadium, that the Cubs abandoned two years ago. Not far from both is a tidy museum exhibit called “Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience.”
The exhibit, which is seeking a permanent home somewhere but for now resides in the Mesa Historical Museum, is small but classy. It features historical documents and photos from the early days of the Cactus League, which began in 1947 when the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians first trained in Arizona. Those items are supplemented by a hodgepodge of memorabilia from teams and players who have passed through the spring circuit, including signed bats, balls and jerseys from the likes of Willie Mays, Reggie Jackson, Ernie Banks and Bob Feller.
I discovered the museum by spotting an exhibit of several large, framed posters sprinkled throughout the Angels’ Tempe Diablo Stadium that featured photos from the museum’s collection. The museum charges a modest admission fee that is well worth it for anyone interested in baseball history or memorabilia.
As I headed back to snow country, there were two new items in my carry-on bag for my personal autograph collection. The irony of being an up-close reporter on the autograph scene is that when it yields media credentials, as it did at several parks this spring, it effectively eliminates the option of hustling for autographs myself. Doing so is the reporter’s equivalent of Pete Rose betting on baseball – caught once and you could be banned for life!
So, what did I score and how did I land these new treasures? The first was a signed ball from someone who wasn’t even in Arizona during my visit! One of my “mancation” mates, Jeff Solis, serves as assistant coach for the Point Loma, California high school. Point Loma’s head coach? Former All-Star pitcher and perfect game author David Wells. Jeff arrived with a gift for all – a beautifully signed Wells ball in a cube, with the inscription PG (for perfect game) and the date Wells dazzled a Yankee Stadium crowd with his perfecto, 5/17/98. Thanks, Jeff!
The other prize was a sweet spot signed ball from none other than Mike Trout. How did I land that beauty? I think I’ll keep that story to myself.
David Moriah is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.