GOODYEAR, ARIZ.: Perhaps it came with the pothole that jolted your car out of alignment.
Maybe it was when you slipped and fell in an icy parking lot.
Surely the latest weather report made you dream of a warm, friendly place where nothing is more urgent then figuring out whether your favorite baseball team will keep a third catcher.
In Phoenix, Ariz., there are places like that — at least 10 of them.
For the Cleveland Indians, they call it their Player Development Complex. The baseball is free, the skies are almost always blue and you can find a new baseball friend just by standing around and watching young millionaires play a little boy’s game.
In all, 15 Major League Baseball teams call Greater Phoenix their spring home, even though they start way before spring. It’s a baseball nomenclature thing. Five ball yards host two teams, so many have a game every day. Goodyear Ballpark is used by the Indians and Reds, for example.
But this story is not about those spring-training games that, in many respects, are like regular-season games. You buy a ticket. You watch a game. You have no contact with the players.
This is about what baseball people call the “back fields,” where hundreds of players for each team get up early in the morning to hone their skills and compete for jobs. Most of all, it’s about the fellow baseball fans you will meet there who are in a joyous mood to feel the warmth of spring.
“Where else can you get up in the morning and look at blue skies and mountains and watch baseball?” said George Chay of Mentor as he watched the Indians’ major-leaguers take infield practice about 10 a.m. on a Wednesday this month.
For the Indians, letting fans watch practices for free is a way of building goodwill.
It’s nothing fancy, just a gravel area with a couple of small bleachers and wire fences. You can get close enough to hear the players joke and cheer and cuss at each other.
Many players will smile, say hello or even sign autographs as they move from field to field.
“Yeah, sure, we do encourage [fans],” said Ryan Lantz, the Indians’ manager of Arizona operations. “The fans are important to our sustainability.”
A rite of spring
Traci Christler of Brunswick has been coming to Goodyear each spring since the Indians moved there from Florida in 2009.
She is a master autograph hound, standing at a fence the players must pass on their way to the main practice field. She holds a framed poster with the lyrics to Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Her goal is to get every player on the Tribe’s 25-man roster to sign.
“I’m incredibly prepared,” she said while waiting for players to show up. “I have Sharpies of every color and backups for balls and everything. I’m ready to go at a moment’s notice.”
Last year, she only missed catcher/designated hitter Carlos Santana, who was away participating in the World Baseball Classic.
Her strategy is simple.
“Key is: Be nice,” she said. “Be friendly. Anywhere you go in Goodyear or the surrounding area, if you wear your Indians gear, you are going to run into other fans, and they are more than willing to give you their tricks and tips that they found out over the years in different visits to the ballpark.”
Brian, a fan from Louisville, summed up the appeal of hanging out with other fans and seeking autographs in one word: “The camaraderie,” he said. “You just sit here and you talk about ‘Oh, I got this guy’ and ‘You got that guy.’ ‘Last year I was at some event and I got that guy.’ ”
You might spend only 15 seconds with a player signing your book or T-shirt, but Brian said it goes beyond that.
“It’s almost as much fun to talk to the other fans,” he said.
The bond can be automatic.
“You just have that link,” said Ron Sinchak of Chardon. “Even at breakfast yesterday, this guy had his Indians hat on and we immediately started talking baseball.”
Bill Crook of Utah and his son Chazz, 10, took their attention away from the professionals for a few minutes and played catch in a nearby gravel area.
Bill Poe of Medina keeps his pen and large framed photograph ready at all times. He must stay mentally strong to recognize a player’s face and immediately know if his name is already on the poster. No duplicates, please.
“As they come off the field, I have to have a running roster of who I got,” he said. “A lot of times they are in a hurry and if you are not careful you might get somebody a second time.”
The picture will hang in his office after it is finished.
Major and minor
The “back lots” are not just about major-leaguers. The Indians have six full-sized fields and two additional diamonds with no outfields. With five regular minor-league teams, summer and fall leagues based at Goodyear and injured players rehabilitating in the Arizona warmth, there can be hundreds of players wearing the team colors at any one time.
The minor-league teams, including the future Akron RubberDucks, play their practice games at the “back fields” and fans are welcome, free of charge.
“We’ve done, I think, a better job of this from when we first got here,” Lantz said. “We’ve expanded our fan access since year one. A lot of people came out here and always compared it to Winter Haven as fan friendly, and we’ve really worked to build upon that. And so that’s why we expanded this year.”
In Florida, an Indians spring opponent could be three hours away. In Phoenix, the most distant road trip is to Mesa, spring home of the Chicago Cubs, about 35 minutes away.
One day, Christler watched the team practice in the morning, then saw it play a regular game elsewhere in the Phoenix area.
Not everyone was pleased with the move to Arizona. Bill Russell of Huron, formerly of North Olmsted, said you could get closer to the players in Winter Haven.
“Winter Haven, albeit it was old and the facilities for the players weren’t that great, but in terms of fan friendliness, there is no comparison,” he said. “I hate to say this because I respect the Indians and I’m a lifelong fan, but it’s somewhat of an insult that you are kind of caged in here.”
He also objects to some of the long walks getting from field to field.
Prepare to walk
Parking is available along South Wood Boulevard beside the back fields, which are a few hundred yards from Goodyear Park. The Cincinnati Reds also have six fields of their own that are even farther down the road. Wear good shoes and bring your sunscreen.
Lantz said the Indians are looking for ways to accommodate fans who want more than just a game.
The team offered four-, six- and seven-day packages that included a chance to get on the back fields, take batting or infield practice and shag fly balls in the outfield. The deals can include airfare, lodging, game tickets, chances to meet players and other benefits. This year’s offering of about 130 packages sold out. Prices ranged from $800 to almost $1,300 each.
Lantz knows all it takes to boost the packages for next year would be a strong dose of Ohio weather.
“After a hard winter like you’ve had back in Ohio, I think it is even more enticing to come out and experience it,” he said.
Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Scott on Twitter at @Davescottofakro.