This season, the Cactus League was slated to start with the Mariners facing the A’s on February 21st. It was unseasonably cold — a high of 54 (average: 72) — and rain poured down from the desert skies. The grounds crew rolled out the tarps at Hohokam Stadium; the game, cancelled. Opening day delayed. The next day, under clearer skies, the Mariner’s trounced the A’s, 8-1.
This is Spring Training, in late winter. The venture generates nearly $650M in tourism dollars for the greater Phoenix area, with around 2M fans descending on the sun-baked ballparks for baseball and beer.
For six weeks in late winter, fifteen teams gather in the Sonoran desert: the Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. The teams play at ten different stadiums: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Sloan Park, Camelback Ranch, Goodyear Ballpark, Surprise Stadium, Tempe Diablo Stadium, Maryvale Baseball Park, Hohokam Stadium, Peoria Sports Complex and Scottsdale Stadium.
The Cactus League started with Bill Veeck. In 1945, Veeck owned the Milwaukee Brewers and the team played their Spring Training games in Ocala, Florida. As Veeck relays in his autobiography, Veeck as in Wreck, the Jim Crow section of the Ocala stadium sat between the Brewers clubhouse and the field. One day, he “saw a few Negroes sitting in the bleachers and sat down with them.” The sheriff quickly narrowed in on Veeck and told him he couldn’t sit in that section. Veeck protested, and the sheriff called over the mayor. The two fought it out until Veeck threatened to pull the club out of Ocala. The mayor let him sit where he liked, but the incident cemented in Veeck’s mind he was relocating. The following year, after selling Milwaukee and acquiring the Cleveland Indians, Veeck brought the Indians to Tucson, Arizona, where he’d recently purchased a ranch.
That first year owning the Indians, Veeck also signed Larry Doby — the second African-American to play in the MLB and the first to play in the American League. In Tucson at Spring Training, Veeck writes, “the bleachers weren’t segregated, but the hotel was.” That year, 1946, Doby had to stay at a separate hotel from his teammates. Veeck also writes about his battles with anti-Semitism in Arizona. After going in with a partner from Chicago on his Arizona ranch, Veeck learned that the partner wanted the ranch to be “restricted.” “For the benefit of those not familiar with the vocabulary of prejudice,” Veeck writes, “restricted means No Jews.” At the time, the broader resort area was considered restricted. Veeck immediately bought the partner out, and “The Lazy Vee became one of the few completely open ranches in the state.” Veeck returned to Arizona the next year — with all members of his club able to stay under the same roof. And he slowly drew other teams out to Arizona.
Today, the Cactus League and Grapefruit League, in Florida, split the MLB clubs evenly — fifteen teams apiece. And all patrons can sit and stay where they please.
Games do and don’t count. Wins and losses, marginal. Scores, relatively. Statistics, sometimes. For the purpose of the club, this is dress rehearsal. Superstars take a few at bats, then sign autographs in the tunnel. It all feels very relaxed. Out on the grassy knolls past the outfield fence, life is good, slow, calm. Beer is cold, sun is hot. The game ebbs along, rising on a tide of innings. There are no pennants on the line.
But for players vying for spots, this is their final pre-season interview. Rosters are finalized in Spring Training and every pitch is a proving ground. These six weeks are the precarious precipice of the MLB dream. As fans, you feel that, too. Big swings. Long at bats. Extra effort, even deep in a blowout. For now, these players wear an MLB uniform on their back. Memories of farm leagues and the long, difficult road to the premiere stage are nearly in the rearview mirror.
As the game wanes, the stadium thins. The beer garden shutters in the seventh. Stewards stop checking seating assignments and fans can wander — to seek shade down the third base line, nestle within earshot of the dugout or, for some, to spread out on the grass under the trees and billboards out beyond deep center field.