In 1946, Bill Veeck, baseball's maverick owner, had a bold idea that changed the national pastime forever. Disgusted with the racial segregation of the game in the South, Veeck, then owner of the Cleveland Indians, proposed relocating his team's spring home from Ocala, Florida, to Tucson, Arizona. When he convinced the New York Giants to go west with him, the Cactus League was born. Today, half the teams in Major League Baseball have followed Veeck's lead and gear up for the upcoming season in Arizona.
For the baseball fan, spring training in the Cactus League is superior to spring training in Florida for two reasons: (1) the convenience (teams in the Grapefruit League are scattered across the state, while Arizona spring training locales are all within an hour's drive of each other); and (2) Phoenix's recent standing as one of the most underrated cities in the country. As such, a day in the Phoenix area during Cactus League season is not just baseball under infinite blue skies—it's also a plate of first-class crudo in between matches of shuffleboard, an Old Fashioned any Kentuckian would gladly drink and a slice of Margherita pizza that will change your life.
7:17 A.M. If you're up this early, here's some advice. First, grab a sweater on your way out the door. While the daytime weather in February and March is consistently gorgeous, wander out in a T-shirt early morning in Phoenix and you'll swear you're back on the East Coast. Second, before heading to the ballpark, swing by Matt's Big Breakfast in central Phoenix. Matt's lost some of its charm when it moved out of its hole-in-the-wall spot down the street, but it still serves the best breakfast in town. The wait can be up to an hour on the weekends, but it's worth it for the Chop and Chick—scrambled eggs with a pork chop that's been marinated in pesto—and a side of peppery bacon strips that are as thick as ham steaks.
9:01 A.M. In 2010, the Dodgers left quaint Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Florida, and relocated to a sprawling, state-of-the-art complex in Glendale, 15 miles west of downtown Phoenix. The team's spring training facility will never be as casual and intimate as it once was, but it's still worth getting out to the field early for the Dodgers' morning workout. (Teams open their workouts to the public.) Wander away from the stadium to a smaller practice field and watch a Hall-of-Famer like Sandy Koufax play catch with a no-name scrub. Walk over to the bullpen mounds and see Clayton Kershaw flip curveballs to a bullpen catcher. Wave to Tommy Lasorda shuffling around in a golf cart, and there's a chance he'll come over and tell you a story about the 1988 World Series.
11:11 A.M. After a morning in the sun, head downtown to Heritage Square and Pizzeria Bianco, home to the best pizza in America (sorry, sensitive New Yorkers). James Beard winner Chris Bianco started in the back corner of a neighborhood grocery store in the late 1980s and now has three local restaurants. His mozzarella sandwich at Pane Bianco might be the best sandwich in the country. As for the pizza, don't screw around: Get the Margherita. An hour wait greets those who don't arrive before the doors open, but don't worry. Head next door to Bar Bianco and order a Hop Knot IPA to drink on the front porch of the old bungalow that Bianco uses to house the spillover from his pizzeria.
1:25 P.M. Phoenix Municipal Stadium is the great dame of the Cactus League and the oldest ballpark in the Valley. (Willie Mays hit the first home run there way back in 1964.) The numerous new Arizona spring training facilities are Versailles-like in scale, and the stadiums can feel as grand as their major league counterparts. But at the Muni, now home to the A's, there isn't a bad seat in the house. Get your fastball clocked at the Speed Pitch booth, and take in the breathtaking views of the round, twisting rock formations of Papago Park beyond the outfield wall.
4:39 P.M. Across town is The Yard, an ideal place for happy hour and an early dinner. There's an outdoor patio with ping-pong tables, cornhole and shuffleboard. It might feel Dave and Busters-esque at first, but a $2 Mystery Beer—a random 12 oz. can in a brown paper bag—will ease that feeling. There are also two solid restaurant options there. Culinary Dropout is one of the most popular spots in the city—the chicken truffle hash is a standout—while Little Cleo's Seafood Legend is a gleaming white-tiled, 12-seat oyster bar with excellent cocktails. Order a Death in the Afternoon, a concoction of absinthe and sparkling wine that Hemingway claims he created, to go with the Sturgeon bacon toast topped with a fried egg and a plate of the scallop crudo with scallion puree and clementines.
7:01 P.M. The Cubs have one of the largest followings in the Cactus League, and this year, the team opened Cubs Park in Mesa. Not surprisingly, games at the gorgeous 15,000-seater (the largest spring training stadium in the country) are the hottest ticket in town. Spend the first few innings on the steep grass berm in the outfield before wandering to right field and the rotating selection of Phoenix food truckslike Sandra Dee's creole food or a guest appearance by the Giordano's pizza truck that ventured down from Chicago. From the replica Wrigley marquee in the main concourse to the field dimensionsto the cantilevered roofs and the green outfield scoreboard, the park captures some of the best parts of the real thing back in Chicago. (Fortunately, the architects forwent Wrigley's livestock corral-like bathrooms.) But no one will really wish they were at the actual Wrigley: The first-pitch temperature for the stadium's inaugural game this spring was 75. It was nine degrees at that same exact moment in Chicago.
10:13 P.M. Ditch the scrubs and the no-name prospects for Lux Central, a coffee shop that morphs into a cocktail bar as day turns into night. Open from 6 a.m. to midnight, it draws an eclectic assortment of locals, and the space is maze-like, with multiple rooms of mid-century modern furniture, eccentric artwork and typewriter centerpieces. It's a little weird, but it all works. Lux Central makes arguably the best coffee in the city, and at night, DJs entertain while beautiful bartenders mix Old Fashioneds the way they were made in Louisville circa 1880—rye whiskey as the showcase, a slice of orange peel muddled with sugar and touch of club soda. But remember, if you have too many, Tommy Lasorda will be able to smell them on you in the morning.
Albert Chen is a staff writer for Sports Illustrated and lives in New York City. He writes about baseball and other sports for Sports Illustrated and SI.com.
Photo courtesy of the Cactus League and John Hall Photography