Cactus, Churros, and Baseball
The Meaning of Cactus
I assume that when most people look at cactus growing in the western part of the United States they just see unusually big indigenous plants.
They might also see a big spiny succulent that reminds them of cowboy movies like John Wayne chasing some bandits or Dale Evans giving Roy Rogers some much needed advice.
Some cactus have many branches or they might have none. They might be bright green or starting to turn brown, while others are leaning sideways ready to drop.
They might grow tall or be so small that they are barely worth mentioning.
When I see a cacti, I don't only think of a big, beautiful succulent, I think of major league baseball, spring training baseball.
I Think of an Umpire Crouching at Homeplate
I think of a middle aged man in a dark, gray suit with a chest-protector and a face guard crouched down behind the squatting catcher. I think of an umpire sticking his head close to the strike zone, getting down very low, and calling balls and strikes with definitive hand gestures at a major league spring training game in Arizona.
I worry a lot about the umpire's face getting hit by a 98 mile an hour fastball, knocking him backwards into the netting and woefully concussed. I think of that poor umpire being booed by the fans because his strike zone is too small or perhaps too large. I think of the abuse that the umpires get every game. Instead of being revered by bringing order to the game, umpires are ridiculed for being overweight and blind. That's baseball, I guess. But I do wish they would fight back after getting dirt kicked on them by a "manager gone wild."
Good Lord, Look Out for My Precious Beak!
I may not be as close to the action as the players and the umpires in spring training, but I am close enough so I can see almost every detail there is in a major league baseball game. So close in fact, whether it be on the first or third base side, that I worry about getting hit by the ball. I fear that the hard, tightly-woven ball would harm my precious face, break my beak, or even worse, the ball would be hit so hard that it would become lodged in my cranium, leaving surgeons clueless as to how to extricate the ball without removing part of my gray matter.
So I play it smart. I'm no dummy. I bring my beautiful girlfriend along to sunny Arizona so she could shield me from a wicked line drive foul ball. You may think I'm callous, but I'm just being practical. She is ten years younger than me so she has better reflexes, heals faster, and more bouyancy.
When I'm not flinching or shielding my face, I am amazed at how close I am to the action. I see every detail. Not only do I see the batters peculiar idiosyncrasies like "crotch-grabbing" or "snot-rocketing", but I see the players unique batting stances and pre-hitting rituals that you don't see while in the nosebleed section of a regular major league park.
Don't Need Binoculars
There are no binoculars needed. I don't even have to wear my bifocals with the no-scratch lenses.
I am so close to the dugout that I can see the manager's sour puss and stained teeth. With rapid, swirling fingers, he gives signs to the pitcher, moves the outfielders in position and has tactical conversations with the catcher. I see the inside of the dugout with all the trash on the floor--the shells of the sunflower seeds, the crumbled-up paper cups, and the dark spittle from chewing tobacco. You name it, if its trash, it ends up on the floor of the dugout for some low paying manservant to clean up after the game.
I am so close to the action that I see the scouts in the front row sizing up a new prospect. I watch their speed guns gauging how fast a Bumgarner fastball sails or how much a Kershaw split finger breaks across the plate.
I see the scouts writing down notes and analyzing the players every move. They decide whether he a five-tool player or just a utility guy. As I imagine what these scouts are thinking, I also dream about being in a different profession, one where I can watch baseball games for free and have a say in deciding what players could be an asset for my team.
You can dream at a relaxing spring training game, it is so laid back that it's almost like home.
Cactus League Stadiums
Dodgers, White Sox
Phoenix Municipal Stadium
Maryvale Baseball Park
Tempe Diablo Stadium
A Special Intimacy
When you see the ball games in the cactus league there comes with it a special intimacy. It feels that you are not just another fan going to a game, but a special guest. Staffers say hello to you or joke with you as you try to find your seat. The players seem to notice you in the stands and are more amenable to signing your baseball. You hear all the live sounds of the game that you don't get to hear in the huge stadiums, like the smacking of the players lips as they chew gum or the first base umpire kibitzing with the players about what they did on their family vacations. The cracking of the bat when it meets the ball seems to reverberate up and down your spine, sending shock waves to your sports cerebellum.
It's a different feel that you have in small ball parks as opposed to those major league montsrosities where you are just a number and you are scolded when you walk through the turnstile carrying a bag of food. Sure the spring training parks may check your bags, but they are nice about it and don't make you feel like you are an escaped convict if you bring in a red delicious apple.
It's special because the people that come to see a game travel hundreds of miles just for the love of baseball. They are the true fans, the fans that would root for their team no matter where they are in the standings. They may bleed red or they may be a Cub forever. They care about their team more than most people will ever know. They would sacrifice a limb if it meant helping their baseball team win a pennant.
What is Your Favorite Sport to See in the Preseason?
Where to Stick the Churro
There is a downside to seeing a Cactus League baseball game.
The obvious one is that the game doesn't really count. So If you get hoarse cheering or if you chafe your hands from clapping too much, it will all go for naught. It won't really matter if your home team wins or not, it doesn't count. It's just an exhibition game.
If you happen to get tickets where you sit on the grass, you're in trouble. You just might be looking at the back of some poor guys fat head. It might make your bum hurt and the Arizona sun has a tendency to burn a hole through your scalp. Worse yet, when you sit on the grass with a bunch of people, you don't get to see the players close up. You might get distracted like watching a woman's toes doing calisthenics.
Perhaps the worse aspect of spring training baseball, is the vendors. They may be colorful and wear funny hats and glasses that sparkle, but they hound you like an irritating used care salesman. Because the stadiums are smaller, there is less space for the vendors to travel. They compensate for this by going down your aisle every few minutes, getting in your face, obstructing your view of the game and making themselves a royal pain in the butt.
It gets to the point where you just want to buy something, "all right, give me the glow stick even though I don't need it!" Or if a vender really gets under your skin you might want to say, "I'll tell you where you can stick that churro!"
Even Will Ferrell Likes the Cactus League
It's Not Just an Exhibition Game
Even though the spring training game doesn't count, it counts in your heart where the love of the game resides. It counts in your mind's eye and in your very baseball soul. It counts in your field of dreams. It counts where it means the most, in the part of your brain that stores happy memories. You get to experience baseball like it was meant be back in the days when they wore woolen baseball uniforms and players came to the game a little inebriated. At a spring training game in Arizona there are no crowds to fend off, plenty of sunshine, a bountiful of smiles and laughter, all the baseball sounds you ever wanted, and plenty of hotdogs and peanuts that you don't have to wait in line for. It's what baseball should be. Simple and pure. Like a cactus