Confessions of a Benchwarmer: Spring Training and Beyond in the Sonoran Desert
It was the promise of an ice-cold grape Crush or a Dairy Queen Blizzard that kept me coming back. It certainly wasn’t the long hours spent relegated to right field, the inevitable strikeouts or the verbal slings of "You throw like a girl!" that enchanted me with "America’s Pastime." We’re talking baseball. Or as I’d like to call it: two preadolescent summers of humiliation and physical demise. So why wouldn’t I jump at the chance to head to Phoenix, Arizona, for spring training and the chance to confront those long-buried Little League demons?
Since 1947, Phoenix and the surrounding metropolitan area has been home to spring training, although that first year it was only two teams: the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants. The Sonoran Desert now serves as a training ground for 15 Major League Baseball (MLB) teams and has become a hub for vacationers craving 300 days of sunshine per year and access to 40 luxury resorts.
I’m an A-list player when it comes to the resort part. Upon checking in at Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort, I quickly dump my bags and locate the Hole-in-the-Wall, a 1940s-era ranch house serving up barbecue and margaritas. I wonder what the weekend may have in store.
It’s been decades since I’ve stepped onto a baseball diamond and the last game I attended was the minor league Brooklyn Cyclones in Coney Island, where I was more fascinated by King Henry the Clown (the slightly creepy seventh-inning-stretch entertainment that you might see on an episode of "Law and Order: SVU"). After kicking back a cactus pear margarita with tequila floater, I’m ready to get up close and personal ... in Peoria.
Peoria: It’s Not Just for Illinois Anymore
The Peoria Sports Complex houses the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners and was the first such complex (built in 1994) to offer a dual-team spring training facility. The 11,000-seat stadium will receive major renovations in the next year, which will enhance the recent rebuild of the two clubhouses, 12 full-size practice fields and other amenities for the complex’s year-round activities that include concerts, art shows, tournaments and holiday events. But I’m more interested in the costumes ... um, I mean uniforms. My favorite part of Little League was getting dressed up and strapping on stirrup socks. Imagine my dismay to realize that this trend went out of fashion in the ’90s, though some players like Casey Janssen (Toronto Blue Jays) and Daniel Descalso (St. Louis Cardinals) have been known to sport knickers and flashy socks.
The Padres and the Mariners both wear navy and white, and from a distance they converge into a kaleidoscope of sapphires and diamonds. I become keenly aware that an integral part of what makes the game of baseball so compelling is lost on me - its history.
For me, baseball meant solitary evenings in the outfield, only to be interrupted by the occasional "Hey, batter, batter!" The distraction at the plate became an opportunity to practice my Andrea McArdle impersonation. I had seen Annie on tour earlier that spring and was convinced I could become the first boy orphan. Then -swoosh! - another fly ball would pass by followed by heavy parental sighs, carried by infield dust kicked up from an athletically inclined opposing player easily rounding his way to second base.
Baseball and Iceballs
Prior to arriving in Phoenix, I sat down with baseball writer and poet Judy Kamilhor for a one-on-one coaching session to see if she could clue me in. She currently is working on a book that focuses on the intersection of sports, sexuality, creativity and spirituality, using memoir, essays, poetry and other forms of expression.
"If you watch baseball without any history, it may not grab you," Judy said. "I see baseball as our mythology. Babe Ruth is like a Biblical character. He is part of our American psyche. The thing about baseball that is it so cool; they play virtually every day for six months and each day more legend is added."
That legend spans more than 168 years, with the first recorded game held in 1846. What was once a street game has grown into an $8 billion industry, according to Forbes. The free agency structure established in 1976 has contributed to a massive uptake of contracts that has top free agents seeing green. If I weren’t so focused on the uniforms, I would have paid closer attention to Robinson Canó, who recently signed a $240 million, 10-year deal with the Mariners.
While I miss catching all of the foul balls pelted into the stands at the Peoria Sports Complex, my record is far better when it comes to ice balls - as proven by a visit to the Gladly, a new restaurant featuring craft cocktails and new American dishes with global accents. Dinner with friends includes house-smoked olives, their "original" chopped salad (composed of pepitas, smoked salmon, freeze-dried corn and more, the menu item has its own Facebook page), coffee-rubbed short ribs and seared sea scallops with cola gastrique.
But it’s the cocktail menu and signature tableside ice mold that knocks it out of the park. Servers arrive with an anodized aluminum casing that transforms a chunk of glacial goodness into a perfectly spherical frozen tumbler. Good for at least two rounds, the globe maintains the integrity of cocktails such as the Gladly Manhattan, featuring Guinness maple syrup, and the Isabella, an intoxicating combination of Glenlivet 16-year-old Scotch, cognac, vermouth and Peychaud’s Bitters.
Cubs Park: The House That Hope Built
The following day I feel inspired (and slightly hungover) by spring training momentum. Metro Phoenix sees more than $30 million spent by visitors each day and much of that happens during the month of March, when tourists descend upon the desert to support their favorite teams.
And there arguably is no team with such loyalty as the Chicago Cubs, who haven’t won a World Series since 1908. That didn’t stop the franchise from constructing the Cactus League’s largest training facility and stadium, which opened to enthusiastic crowds this spring. The 15,000-seat Cubs Park sits on a former golf course amid 140 acres of practice fields, park facilities and a grass lot for tailgating. I’m all for the underdog but can’t help rooting for my childhood hometown team, the Cleveland Indians.
During my pre-trip visit with Judy, I gained a better understanding of how teams like the Indians and Cubs face inherent challenges when facing financial constraints.
"The Indians don’t have a very big payroll, which makes their season very unpredictable," she explained. "When you’re trying to save money, every mistake gets magnified. If something goes wrong, you can’t just buy another all-star."
According to BaseballProspectus.com, the Indians are working with a $77 million budget for the 2014 season, the Cubs come in at approximately $87 million, while last year’s World Series-winning Boston Red Sox clock in at almost $149 million. It’s been nearly a decade since a smaller club won the World Series, with the Chicago White Sox taking the title in 2005.
The Pink Elephant
I switch up my game plan and head to the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa to take in the rose-hued sunset and muddle over baseball’s construct - literally. I’m at the property’s "muddle bar," featuring handcrafted caipirinhas, piscolas and chilcanos. I contemplatively chew on a stick of sugarcane and wonder if my lack of adolescent athletic prowess could be the result of an unresolved sexual identity. I was called "fag" far before I could even admit to myself that I liked boys, learning to defend myself not through brute strength but through creativity. Throw a George Washington wig on me and I was golden.
But that was my story. There are plenty of LGBT’ers out there who have taken to athletics as naturally as I did to capes and crayons: Billie Jean King, Greg Louganis, Brian Boitano, Orlando Cruz ... the list goes on and on.
But it is only in recent months that active players in team sports have come into the limelight. College football player Michael Sam, if drafted, will become the first publically gay player in the National Football League. And on the court, Jason Collins, now playing for the Brooklyn Nets, is taking the publicity in stride while concentrating on the game at hand.
The openly gay basketball player recently told the Daily News that he received backlash from an opposing team. "One player, one knucklehead from another team," Collins said in an interview with the newspaper. "He’s a knucklehead. So I just let it go. Again, that goes back to controlling what you can control. That’s how I conduct myself just being professional."
Where does that leave MLB? Judy pointed out in our chat that baseball has traditionally leaned more conservative, which is ironic given its origins as a sport filled with immigrants and minorities. She also referenced famed Los Angeles Dodgers coach Tommy Lasorda, whose son died of complications from AIDS.
"If you covered the Dodgers and you did something to piss off Tommy Lasorda, you could get bet that you’d lose access to the team and interview," Judy said. "The media respected privacy and things have changed."
LGBT sports fans hope that MLB is ready to welcome a gay player. "I think someone’s going to come out sometime in the next year, and I hope it’s a star," said Judy, who proposes that a player may come out before he’s even drafted. "When you get to the top level of a sport, it’s not about physicality - it’s about knowing how to stay in the moment; it’s almost spiritual. They’re all great physical athletes, but the ones who are successful are the ones who know how to stay focused." And that means putting the game first.
Yankees manager Joe Girardi agrees. "Obviously players want players that are going to help them win championships. That’s what we want," he told the Daily News. "You see that there’s a lot of different cultures that come together. There’s different ethnic backgrounds, different financial backgrounds. I think players just want to win. Whoever the best players are in that clubhouse, get ’em in here."
The Sweet Smell of Failure
I doubt I’ll be donning a glove and returning to the baseball diamond again anytime soon. Some memories are best left in the past. But as a last hurrah to my sporty gay brothers and sisters, I take on the Westin Kierland’s FlowRider, a waveform that combines boogie boarding and surfing with elements of skate- and snowboarding. The water force could wash me away to the Nevada border, but I hold tight and manage to stay upright for a few seconds at a time. The adjacent lazy river is more my speed, and I’m more than happy to spend the rest of the morning squeezed into the doughnut hole of an oversized inner tube with mimosa in hand.
Floating along, I remember something that Judy said to me at the end of our conversation: "There’s a lot of failure in baseball." It resonates as I think about those stomach-churning nights in right field. And all of those fruitless auditions in New York City for the decade that I attempted to be an actor. And the overcooked eggs in culinary school. And the unanswered emails to magazines to which I "pitched" what I thought was the perfect feature story. I come to realize underneath the hot Arizona sun that it isn’t a matter of failure but what kind of failure we’re willing to endure to pursue our dreams. And to me, that’s baseball.
Click and Go
The Cactus League
Peoria Sports Complex
Pointe Hilton Squaw Peak Resort
Westin Kierland Resort & Spa