PHOENIX — We apparently had good timing with our trip to spring training.
The weather was perfect, we got a head start on our summer hues, and baseball was played in the intimate but spectacular confines of American Family Fields of Phoenix, now in its second year of use after a $60 million renovation and expansion that was completed just prior to the start of last year’s Cactus League camp.
Our group of Madisonians and Sheboyganites had no idea at the time how lucky we would be to enjoy the crack of a bat, a sausage race and a glimpse of a Milwaukee Brewers baseball squad hoping to make its third straight post-season appearance.
When we arrived in Arizona on March 4, there was talk of maybe limiting autographs or having players use their own pens to carefully sign balls, caps and other memorabilia due to the COVID-19 coronavirus. Those concerns pretty much held by the time it was wheels up back to Wisconsin four days later.
None of us would have predicted the unprecedented week that would follow as sports leagues at all levels began limiting fans before scrubbing games, tournaments and seasons altogether and throwing a wrench into the social norms of spring.
The Maryville neighborhood of Phoenix is now sans fans as spring training games have been canceled and the start of the regular season pushed back at least two weeks. The Brewers were scheduled to host the Chicago Cubs on March 26 for opening day at Miller Park, but it’s unclear when tailgating and Bob Uecker’s call of the game will begin.
“I think it’s kind of a deal where you don’t really know what’s going to happen,” Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff told MLB.com last week. “You don’t know what’s going to come of the next couple of weeks.”
What is certain is that a trip to spring training is like a miniature version of Miller Park only there’s free sunscreen, jugs of complementary ice water and announcements about the UV ratings sponsored by the University of Arizona Skin Cancer Institute. But just like back home, you can get a can of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy, a Johnsonville brat and a hamburger topped with cheese curds.
There’s also a healthy dose of Wisconsinites roaming the grounds and taking in the sun-splashed scene.
‘Just a great experience’
Patrick Baldwin, who is in the process of moving his family from Wauwatosa to Owatonna, Minnesota, stood in the second row about an hour before the March 7 game between the Brewers and Texas Rangers. Baldwin’s son, Jackson, 13, was in the first row trying to collect autographs on his Brewers’ cap from players walking to the first-base dugout. It was the Baldwins’ first spring training.
“We’re just here for a quick weekend,” Patrick Baldwin said. “Jackson’s at the right age where it’s just a great experience for him to take in the spring training atmosphere.”
Steve Kwaterski of the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood was just settling into his seat on the first-base line with his daughter, Emma, 8, who was working on a bag of peanuts. They were part of a group 14 family members, some of whom, including his mother, live in the Phoenix area. It’s the fourth time the Kwaterskis have made the trek to spring training.
“We just love coming out. It’s just really cool to be that close to players, and the prices for tickets are reasonable,” said Kwaterski, who works for the Wisconsin Laborers District Council. “It’s nice having spent the winter in Wisconsin to be out wearing shorts and a T-shirt and watching baseball. I remember the first time we came out here it was nice, but what (the Brewers) have done with the facility is fantastic.”
More than just baseball
We booked our trip to Phoenix as way to get my mother-in-law, Ruth Adamavich, of Sheboygan, back to spring training, after having not gone for nearly 20 years. She turns 92 later this month, but the redesign of the stadium made for easy access and her seat for two of the games was in the shade behind home plate. She also saw the Brewers play the Cincinnati Reds at Goodyear Ballpark, a facility the Reds share with the Cleveland Indians.
But our trip, which included eight of us from Wisconsin, was more than just baseball. For some of us there were hikes in the desert and a trip to the 200,000-square-foot Musical Instrument Museum. The $250 million museum opened in 2010 and has a collection of 13,600 musical instruments and associated objects from nearly 200 countries. It displays about 6,800 of them at any one time.
We also hit up a few Mexican restaurants and grabbed a few pies at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa, Arizona, where the centerpiece of the restaurant is a massive Wurlitzer organ and its nearly 6,000 pipes. We also ventured into South Mountain Park & Preserve, one of the country’s largest city parks. The more than 16,000-acre destination includes petroglyphs and a road to the top of the mountain that becomes jammed with traffic at sunset but provides sweeping views of the Phoenix area, which has more than 4.6 million people. And yes, traffic can be a mess and have you wishing for the Beltline back in Madison.
But the big-city feel didn’t prevent Aaron Stracke, 34, of Milwaukee from getting a close encounter with Brewers management. He carried a six pack of beer as he roamed the adjacent training facility, which does not require a ticket. He had no problem approaching David Stearns, the Brewers president of operations and general manager, who was with Doug Melvin, former general manager and now a senior advisor for the Brewers. Stracke even got the duo to pose for a photo with Stracke standing between the two.
“It’s like the young and the old. It was pretty sweet,” Stracke said of his photo shoot with Stearns, 35, and Melvin, 67.
Stearns was named general manager in 2015 and in 2018 saw his team win a franchise record-tying 96 games, win the National League Central Division title and come within one game of advancing to the World Series. But at spring training, he mingled with the masses and kept an eye on workouts at the practice facility that is used year-round and replaces the antiquated complex that opened in 1998. The primary game field holds about 10,000 fans, while the players have upgraded batting and pitching cages, a fitness center and expansive clubhouse.
“It’s been phenomenal. We have a number of players that are now using our facility in the winter and that never used to happen,” said Stearns as we walked toward the main field. “From a fan experience it’s got to be the most intimate spring training complex in baseball right now. Fans can get up right up to the fences on every single one of our fields. It’s been a wonderful investment for our organization.”
And a destination for Brewers fans like Todd and Melissa Rudolph, of Milwaukee, who get the award for most arduous journey. They pulled their son, Ethan, 11 from school but chose not to fly. That way they could hit Crater of Diamonds State Park in Arkansas on the way to Phoenix and, on the way home, Flagstaff, Arizona, for snowboarding. They departed Milwaukee on Feb. 29, and their Chevy Silverado had already logged 2,600 miles by the time they pulled into the Brewers sprawling complex on March 6. The trio was scheduled to return to Milwaukee this past Friday just in time for Ethan’s tryout for a catcher’s spot on a tournament baseball team.
“You’ve got to bring all the winter gear and the summer gear. I mean, (the truck) is full,” said Todd Rudolph, who pours cement for a living. “We probably brought way to much, but you never know.”
Barry Adams covers regional news for the Wisconsin State Journal. Send him ideas for On Wisconsin at 608-252-6148 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!