The sun blazes as the smell of hot dogs wafts through the air. Fans wearing Major League Baseball jerseys and hats fill a packed stadium to see their favorite players warm up on training fields in a scene punctuated by picturesque mountain ranges.
It’s spring training in Arizona, which has become the new popular spring training setting.
“Phoenix is a very unique area for baseball—you have the opportunity to play your entire Cactus League season and only have to drive about 45 minutes,” Chris Iannetta, Colorado Rockies catcher, said. “All the teams are centrally located, so it’s a cool atmosphere to play baseball.”
It used to be that Florida was the only place for Major League Baseball teams to practice before the regular season. But a growing number of MLB teams are now heading to Arizona for spring training – partly because, while both have year-round sunshine, Florida has something Arizona does not: incessant rain.
While a majority of teams used to play in the traditional Grapefruit League in Florida, now it’s mostly evenly split—with half the teams in Arizona’s Cactus League and half in Florida’s Grapefruit League.
There are currently 15 MLB teams training in Arizona this year, drawn by the balmy weather and a more compact setting than Florida – where league training practices are more spread out. In Arizona, the training facilities are all in the Phoenix area, most less than an hour away.
Some teams in Arizona even share stadiums. The Cincinnati Reds and Cleveland Indians both call Goodyear Ballpark home The Kansas City Royals and Texas Rangers both share Surprise Recreation Campus. The San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners set up shop at Peoria Sports Complex. And division rivals, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, share Salt River Fields at Talking Stick in Scottsdale.
And the state is benefiting from the spring training infusion.
Cactus League president Jeff Meyer said a 2015 study showed the league brings in around $545 million on an annual basis to Arizona. About 1.9 million fans attended spring training exhibition games in state’s ballparks last year. About half the fans come from out of state.
Florida officials insists that Arizona is not becoming the dominant spring training location. The Sunshine State, they say, still reigns.
“Competition-wise, Arizona has a lot going for it with the proximity of all the teams playing in the Phoenix area, but here in Florida we like to think we have a lot of good amenities that go along with a fans’ perspective to get them to come to Florida, as well,” said Nick Gandy, Florida Sports Foundation director of communications, adding that Florida still appeals to teams because of its beaches and world-renown theme parks.
"It’s fun. But, you take these early games kind of seriously...the trash talk starts now."
Hunter Pence, World Series champion and outfielder with the San Francisco Giants, played in the Grapefruit League with other teams before coming to the Giants and playing in Scottsdale, Arizona for the Cactus League. He said he loves the new setting.
“I just feel like we can’t get away from each other...we’re here all the time. It’s all good, it’s just kind of weird."
“Spring training, it’s a blast—everything’s just done really well out here,” Pence said. “Everything’s super close. It’s just nice having all the fans come out from all the different teams. It’s a good atmosphere.”
MLB players say spring training is not just fun and games – it’s also serious business.
“You take these early games kind of seriously. It’s an early look at who you’re going to be playing 19 times throughout the season. It’s the start of the season. The trash talk starts now,” said Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Archie Bradley. “Although the numbers and stats don’t carry over, you try to have a good spring. You try to win games. At the end of the day, you’re trying to get ready for a season and trying to put together the best team that can go out and win a World Series.”
Even with the rivalry, both teams still have respect for each other. Adam Ottavino, Colorado Rockies pitcher, describes what it’s like to be so close to your rivals.
“I just feel like we can’t get away from each other,” Ottavino said. “We’re here all the time. We played each other in the playoff game last year and in the season all the time, opening up against them this year. So, it’ just kind of like we’re linked in that way. It’s all good, it’s just kind of weird. We’d like to beat them, they beat us last year. So, obviously, we’d rather turn that around if we can.”
The rivalry starts in the dugout but continues in the stands. Fans travel from across the country travel to Arizona to watch spring training games – and they say they are as avid during preseason as they are after Opening Day.
Elaine Knox and Marilyn Roberts and their spouses packed their bags to travel with a group in a van from Colorado to Arizona.
“We want to win, we love the Rockies,” Knox said. “We got to beat Arizona, they beat us in the playoffs last year.”
Two brothers who are die-hard Diamondbacks fans and went to a Rockies-Diamondbacks spring training game for a bachelor party say there is no chance the Rockies will win.
“It’s exciting to see both teams play again and hopefully we beat them like last year, so they can go home packing early and we can go to the playoffs again,” said Rigo Garcia.
Chris Owings, Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman, said spring training is a “fun” time of year.
“I think a lot of people come out here with the intention of watching baseball, play golf, with the intention of getting some warm weather,” Owings said. “So, it’s a really fun time of year. It’s exciting for us because that means Opening Day is right around the corner.”
Bradley, the Diamondbacks pitcher, said as Arizona continues to become the spring training capital, the team will continue to take its hosting duties seriously.
“You get to defend your home turf – even though everyone’s here, this is our state,” Bradley said. “This is our city. This is where we’re going to play baseball and win games. So, they got to come here and lucky we’re good hosts.”