Happy Wanderer: Spring training is fun, food — and baseball


Oakland Athletics outfielder Coco Crisp (4) signs autographs before the start of their spring training game against the Los Angeles Angels at Hohokam

HILLS NEWSPAPERS: March 18, 2015

Spring training is to Phoenix what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans — it’s crazy gear and ice cold beer and wacky hats. And baseball.

I’ve covered this rite of spring since my days on the Oakland A’s flagship station, KSFO, in the early 1980s. Three decades later, the Cactus League is on steroids, to use a sports analogy.

Ten ballparks and 15 teams playing over six weeks bring in $632 million in tourist revenue. The San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s provide much of the draw.

What’s the big attraction? It’s the yin and the yang — the silliness and seriousness of preseason baseball in small, sun-drenched stadiums where players sign autographs, kiss babies and mug for the cameras. It’s the lawn seating where T-shirt clad fans sprawl across a mosaic of brightly colored blankets.

And it’s the sausages. Hands down, my favorite is the Monster (Mike) Ditka … a juicy grilled polish smothered in peppers and onions with a heady aroma that wafts over the Chicago White Sox infield. It seems to pair perfectly with a megasized Mike’s Hard Lemonade.

Food is a common theme for the spring training crowd. And resorts across Phoenix have stepped up their game. The Omni Scottsdale Resort and Spa at Montelucia is a favorite for fans who like a retreat after the festival-like atmosphere of a ballgame. It’s not far from the Giants home, Scottsdale Stadium, which has become insanely popular with all those World Series wins.

Camelback Mountain is the Omni’s backyard with fountains and floral walkways perfumed with jasmine and orange blossoms. And while you might hear catcalls at Scottsdale Stadium, it’s a cacophony of bird calls that pepper the air at the Omni — reminiscent of a nature soundtrack.

The resort’s executive chef is Michael Cairns, whose Bay Area training blends well with his knowledge of Spanish tapas and Sonoran Desert delights. If you think, as I did, that only cactus grow in the desert — you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Farms and outdoor markets abound in the Phoenix area and Cairns takes full advantage.

Henry the VIII invented the first tapa, or at least that’s the story I heard at the resort’s Spanish-influenced restaurant called Prado. He came up with the idea of a sausage wrapped in a pastry.

I’m guessing olĂ© Hank would have loved not just sausages, but the whole festive mood of spring training. It’s giddy pleasure, sensory delights and surprises at every turn.

The other night, Will Ferrell dropped by the White Sox and Giants game. I do mean dropped. He flew in by chopper and landed in center field, dressed in a Sox uniform, as part of a stunt to play all nine positions in five games that day. The crowd went wild as he batted for Chicago and then caught for the Giants.

A lighthearted celebration of spring? You bet. And one you won’t see in the French Quarter.

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