Baseball in the desert: Part 1

Special to The Globe and Mail

The Arizona Diamondbacks know the way to my baseball heart. It's simple, really, but I've got to show them some love for figuring it out. Having discovered Stealing Home, Diamondbacks season ticket services account executive Chad Frosland was in touch by e-mail before I made my way out to Phoenix. And he proceeded to hook your boy up with a $135 (all currency U.S.) first-base box ticket, mere rows from the field, with in-seat service, and next to the visiting ball club's dugout, at no cost. Yep, I was living large. For free. And that's not all. Guess who was in the visitors' dugout, in town to face the Diamondbacks, on a radiant Sunday afternoon in May? You know it: the Toronto Blue Jays.

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Ladies and gentlemen, the Arizona Diamondbacks. One helluva organization. They've really got it figured out down there in the north Sonoran Desert.

First and foremost, some thank yous: to Chad, and the Arizona Diamondbacks. Your hospitality was most appreciated. Not only was a free, and most expensive, duccat waiting for me at Chase Field's box office, my new friend Chad also invited me on a behind-the-scenes tour of the ballpark, and even onto the field for batting practice. Giddy at the thought of watching Jose Bautista crush baseballs into orbit before the game, I was naturally a touch disappointed to learn that batting practice doesn't happen before Sunday day games. But, hey, you can't have it all. And I came pretty close.

The Valley of the Sun

At this point on the baseball road trip of a lifetime, headed to stop 23 of 30, to say I was road weary would be a gross understatement. So I devised a new travel rule: if the journey took 10 hours or more via Greyhound, I would fly. Wallet be damned. I'd reached the point where I could no longer put a price on my sanity. Unless, you know, that price was very, very cheap. Then my sanity could go to hell.

From Arlington, deep in the heart of Texas, to Phoenix, it was a leisurely 23 hours, and $112.64, on the good ol' Greyhound. I gladly paid the folks at U.S. Airways $160, for only two-and-a-half hours of their time, to escort me to The Valley of the Sun.

You know what's great about Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport? Free WiFi. Also: its Metro Light Rail station, where you can hop aboard an air conditioned train headed downtown. It's $1.75 per ride, or $3.50 for a day pass. Note: the honour system is in effect. (I paid. For the day pass, to boot.) If you're travelling west into the city centre towards Chase Field, get off at the 3rd St./Washington stop. If you're going south, and east, towards the ballpark, perhaps from your hotel, the Holiday Inn Phoenix Downtown-North, exit at the 3rd St./Jefferson stop. Both are a stones throw from the oasis that is Chase Field, the home of the Diamondbacks.

If you're shacking up downtown, you can walk to the ballpark. But it'll probably be way too bloody hot. You're in the desert, after all. If you're driving, with your air conditioning at full tilt, there are ample parking spots available in and around the area.

Full marks for access. The Arizona Diamondbacks can do no wrong, I tell you.

Chase Field

Like her tenants, Chase Field is 12 years old, having opened her doors, and her retractable roof, back in 1998. Walking up to the box office, what greets you is a red brick facade, and green steel; exactly what you want to see.

Situated beside the ballpark: Sliders American Grill. With such a name, you know it's a Diamondbacks baseball institution. And it's massive; two floors, four bars, and a grand patio. It's your spot before, and after, the ball game. Me, I decided to save Sliders for later; I wanted to get to my seat. The Blue Jays were in town, and I hadn't seen them in forever. For Fred Lewis and I, it would be our first-time meeting, as player and fan, and I was excited.

I did make one stop, though, inside Chase Field's main entrance rotunda, to marvel at a showcase celebrating Arizona's 2001 World Series title. The jerseys of heroes Randy Johnson and Luis Gonzalez, as well as the World Series trophy, are on display. While the Diamondbacks' history is short, it is certainly proud.

As I walked through the spacious and open main concourse towards my seat, I snuck a few looks onto the diamond; it looked immaculate. What caught my eye, though, was a large sign at one of the concession stands: $4 COLD BEER. Mind: blown. But I continued on; the Blue Jays were my first priority. Not before promising the cantina I would surely return.

Having finally arrived at the junction between sections 113 and 114, I started down the stairs. And I kept going, and going. And going some more. My seat was in row C; I'm talking after the numbered rows. Before I got there, I turned around and looked back towards the entrance of the section, from where my journey began. I was so close to the field I could hardly see it. It was official: this was the best seat, and closest to the grass, I'd ever had at a baseball game. Thank you, again, Arizona Diamondbacks.

I sat down, and looked to my left. There they were: Cito Gaston, Vernon Wells, John Buck, Brian Butterfield, and Brett Cecil, hanging over the dugout railing, talking to one another. Before I could even think about what they might be discussing, I was interrupted by a man's voice to my right: "Excuse me, son. Your ticket, please."

It didn't take long, all of two minutes, for a Diamondbacks employee to think I was in the wrong place; to assume I was a seat thief. Ironic, because for the purposes of Stealing Home, that's exactly what I was. But not on that day in Phoenix. I can't blame the man, though. I don't; he was doing his job. I was alone, and certainly didn't look the part of a man who buys a $135 ticket to a baseball game. With nothing to hide, and with a smile, I handed over my ticket stub. He told me to enjoy the view. I assured him that would be the case.

Luck? Or Destiny?

A few days before my arrival in Phoenix, temperatures were in the 100s. In May. Crazy! In game one of three between Toronto and Arizona, on a Friday night, the thermostat at game time read 95 degrees. And when it's that hot, the lid at Chase Field is closed, the air conditioning - powerful enough to cool 2,500 Arizona homes - is on, and you're watching indoor baseball.

The baseball gods, they work in mysterious ways. I believe they knew I was on my way to Phoenix, and wanted to make my stay a comfortable one. Two days before my jaunt in the desert, Chad sent me an e-mail letting me know that I'd be sitting close to the Blue Jays, and that temperatures were due for a sudden drop for Sunday; it was scheduled to be only 82 degrees. Which meant the roof would be open, and I'd be basking in the Arizona sun. Blessed, was I.

What were the odds? Slim, at best, considering the average temperature in Phoenix in May is 93 degrees. As I settled in and perused the in-seat service menu, it was a most-pleasant 75 degrees, and the wind was blowing in at 14 miles an hour. There I was, perched next to the Blue Jays dugout, staring up at the bright, blue sky, the wind at my face, on the coolest day in May in the desert. It was then that I realized that it wasn't luck; it couldn't be. No, this was baseball destiny.

Singing The Praises

In keeping with the theme of this entry, and while also being truly honest, I can't say I have anything negative to tell you about Chase Field. Some have visited and have come away unimpressed; I'm not one of them. What I loved about the ballpark, right off the bat, were the little things: the dirt strip from home plate to the pitcher's mound, a tribute to ballparks of yore; the giant "A" logo of the Diamondbacks painted on the grass behind home plate - simple yet so effective - and something every team should emulate: the giant panels that function as both windows and wall behind the scoreboard in centre field, eight in total, which were open, flooding the ballpark with more natural light, and more air; the roof, telescopic from left and right towards the centre, open that day, resulting in some fantastic shadows on the field late in the afternoon; natural grass, a first for a retractable roof stadium in Major League Baseball; and the scoreboard itself, one of the baseball fraternity's largest, in centre field, where it should be, and the large analog clock above it. Baseball is majestically without a game clock, but the time's always there for you if you need it.

Make no mistake about it: I'm sure Chase Field is a very different ballpark, the baseball experience altered as well, when the roof is closed, and the air conditioning is on. But I'm glad I got to see it in the light of day. And I hope the same opportunity awaits you.

As I watched the Toronto Blue Jays jump into an early lead in the ball game, one they wouldn't relinquish, I couldn't help but think about the seat usher who'd asked to see my ticket stub. He would have been proud of me; I was more than enjoying the view.

Chatting With Chad

About an hour into my visit, my friend Chad Frosland came down to see me. After thanking him profusely, and asking where the Diamondbacks sat on the Phoenix sports radar, Chad and I talked desert baseball.

The franchise, growing up but now in its adolescence, continues to search for its true identity. Phoenix, Chad told me, is a Suns town. And the NFL's Cardinals, who play in neighbouring Tempe, are a huge draw as well.

"Everyone's a transplant," Chad said, about the city. And he's right. One of the fastest-growing metropolises in America, people live in Phoenix; they're not from Phoenix. And that's resulted in, mostly, a young Arizona Diamondbacks fanbase. "Most people are [Los Angeles]Dodgers fans. Or [San Francisco]Giants fans." Makes sense, considering Phoenix, from 1958 until 1997, was home to the Firebirds, the-then Triple-A affiliate of the Giants.

Chase Field is diverse in terms of what it offers the average baseball fan, Chad explained, and he believes that works in the ballpark's favour. I agreed with him; the more diverse the building, the better. The park caters to its young fans, and the Diamondbacks are doing everything they can to get more people to the ballpark, Chad said. Averaging 24,807 fans a game, the Diamondbacks rank 21st in attendance in baseball, and they of course want to improve on that number. With a capacity of more than 49,000, Chad did agree with me that the ballpark was likely too big for its own good. It's the same problem we have in Toronto, I told him. And it was at that very moment that I came to the conclusion that no ballpark should ever be built with more than 36,000 seats. It's all about supply and demand. And to expect 45,000-plus fans a game, 81 times a summer, in Toronto or Phoenix, is no longer realistic in a day and age where entertainment options are in abundance. Even in 2001, when the Diamondbacks captured their World Series title, they averaged 33,881 fans a game, good for 14th in all of baseball. And they were still new, still fresh; only four years old.

"We've Been Through It All, Man."

In my conversations with a few Diamondbacks fans at the game, it's that line - "We've been through it all, man." - that has remained with me. They've been around for only 12 years, but the D'Backs have lived a hard and fast 12 years.

After winning only 65 games, and losing 97, in 1998, like most expansion teams do in their maiden season, Arizona grew up fast. In 1999, still only sophomores, the Diamondbacks won 100 games, and took their first National League West division title. They turned the divisional trick again in 2001 and 2002. Three division titles. In five years. Their first five years. And, ho hum, a pennant and World Series title to go along with their 2001 NL West title. Welcome to Major League Baseball, Phoenix.

You remember the 2001 World Series, right? When the Diamondbacks came back from the dead against the Yankees? Yeah, that one. Down three games to two versus New York, Arizona won Game 6 handily, refusing to bow to the historic pinstripes. In Game 7, at home at what was then Bank One Ballpark, the Diamondbacks made history. Down 2-1 in the ninth inning, the young franchise rallied against the greatest closer baseball has ever seen, Mariano Rivera, and Luis Gonzalez became a hero, legend, and lifelong Diamondback - his No. 20 was retired by the organization on August 7 - when he sent a single into centre field to bring Phoenix its first professional sports title. I remember the 2001 Fall Classic, and Game 7, vividly; it was the first time I found myself openly rooting for the Yankees. Yes, for the Evil Empire. In the aftermath of the unfathomable 9/11 attacks, I thought New York could have used a parade.

As quickly as the Diamondbacks rose to the top, they fell just as hard. Success is fleeting. Especially in baseball. In 2004, the same year Phoenix baseball fans were treated to a Randy Johnson perfect game, at age 41 no less, the team lost a Kansas City Royals-like 111 games. In 2007, sporting new uniforms and new team colours, 'Zona made it back to the playoffs after collecting division title No. 4, but were swept away in the National League Championship Series. Since then, once again, they've fallen on tough times. On July 1, general manager Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch were both relieved of their duties. Another new chapter has begun in the desert.

Yeah, it's been quite the roller-coaster ride out in Phoenix. I can't argue: they have been through it all, man.

Stay tuned for part two of my visit to Chase Field. I'll tell you all about a Toronto Blue Jays jersey I saw, one not enough of us own, and take you on a tour of the ballpark, from its swimming pool, to its bleachers. Along the way, we'll stop for a cold one. I'm buying - they're only $4.

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