Wahoo for Spring Training!

It’s a whole new ballgame as the Indians return to Arizona for the first time in more than 15 years. A lot has changed since the last time around the park. We’ll get you ready for autographs, ballpark food and where to spend your time outsi
If an Indians fan drove through Goodyear when the Tribe last held spring training in Arizona in 1993, he probably didn’t notice it.

It was barely a spot on the map — some 6,000 residents who lived a half-hour outside Phoenix and 90 minutes from the team’s former digs in Tuscon. Just a tiny Sonoran Desert town.

But Major League baseball has sprung up throughout the West Valley with new ballparks in Peoria (1994, Padres/Mariners), Maryvale (1998, Brewers), Surprise (2003, Rangers/Royals) and Glendale (2009, Dodgers/White Sox). Goodyear, where the Indians start playing this year and the Reds the next, has grown to nearly 60,000 residents (about the size of Elyria).

Now this is baseball country. Home of the Cactus League. But even with all the new ballparks, Goodyear has worked to outdo the others.

Goodyear’s Ballpark Village will include the ballpark, practice fields (one with the exact dimensions of Progressive Field) and two year-round training facilities. Additional dining, conference, retail, office and lodging options will complement the facilities, providing plenty of food, drinks and souvenirs for fans.

Goodyear Ballpark, with the hazy Estrella Mountains visible in the background, is designed to make you want to walk around. A 360-degree concourse means you won’t miss a play while buying your kid a hot dog or walking to the restroom.

Goodyear will have the most comprehensive seating options in the Cactus League. While those accustomed to dreary Cleveland skies may prefer the shaded terrace seats ($35) on the rooftop behind the plate, you’ll find me sitting in the infield box seats behind either dugout ($23). The wider, cushioned premium field box or club seats (both $27) even include in-seat food and beverage service.

Of course, you could always forgo the formality of a seat and choose a blanket on the lawn ($8). Or check out the party deck in the RF Pavilion. Individual tickets are limited but available ($30 with a buffet included). There are also suite and luxury box options, but contact the ticket office immediately for those, as seating is scarce.

The place really distinguishes itself with extensive offerings of Mexican fare and Italian specialties. The menu will also be tuned to local tastes, including fried bologna on a stick — try it with Ballpark Mustard.

Autograph seekers should arrive at the practice facility at 8 a.m. Both teams’ clubhouses are located under the right field pavilion, so players will have to enter and exit the field from there. Wait for Indians along the first base line (by the home dugout), or try left field, where both bullpens are located. This should be the sweet spot for that first Kerry Wood signature.

Goodyear is doing a lot to draw fans, including several official autograph days, various appreciation days, post-game walks on the field, “catch on the field” and other more typical in-game promotions.

The atmosphere in Goodyear, Avondale and Litchfield Park is far more relaxed than the hustle and bustle of Greater Phoenix. Finding hidden gems is a little more difficult, then, as they are often tucked away in nondescript strip malls.

It’s also very easy to miss the “Welcome To” signs when traveling between towns. City Councilor Dick Sousa did just that when he first moved to town in the early ’90s. “My wife and I drove down to Arizona, and Goodyear was just a fleeting moment. We both asked, ‘Where the heck was Goodyear?’ ” Now, while there’s a lot more stuff, the cities still don’t do a great job of announcing themselves.

As Goodyear continues to develop, the 4- to 5-mile area surrounding Ballpark Village will be the core of the valley.

Fair warning: With the influx of three new teams, there will be a far greater demand placed on the hotels and restaurants in the area. Book early, and don’t fret if you can’t find lodging in the immediate area. Everybody drives everywhere.

If my first dining experience was a sign of things to come in 2009, I can’t wait to return. On a recommendation from Ryan Lantz, Indians manager of Arizona operations, I headed to Raul & Theresa’s. This traditional spot has grown from six tables in 1968 to seating for 250 patrons, but has still managed to preserve the charm of a little restaurant.

Most importantly, they serve top-notch Mexican fare. My “light lunch” of a Sonora enchilada and beef taco was both delicious and filling. But despite my many compliments on the spicy table salsa, owner Michael Chayrez would not share the recipe.

On the morning of the big NASCAR race at nearby Phoenix International Raceway, I visited the Estrella Mountain Golf Course for “cooked-to-order” bacon, eggs and toast on the patio adjacent to the 10th tee. I sat at a metal picnic table, but it was worth it: The tasty meal and the view were a perfect way to start the day. And Carmen Schrum, the charming chef, promised, “As long as I have the ingredients, I will fix anything the customer wants.”

Work off breakfast at Estrella Mountain Regional Park, which has great trails for hiking, biking or horseback riding.

On another day, I visited an old friend, the Wigwam Golf Resort and Spa in Litchfield Park, which opened in 1929 as a guest ranch with room for 24. Each time I’m here, I feel transported to some ranch or lodge in a black-and-white movie — with all of the comforts and amenities of 2009.

Grab a cup of coffee and check out the old photos of the place.It’s a great reminder of what this region was before its population (and baseball) boom. Enjoy the sun, fresh air and games. I’ll see you in March. (I’ll be the one in a Desert Dogs cap.)

[ If You Go ]

Key Dates:

Feb. 25: Spring training games begin
March 12: Cavs vs. Suns, 7:30 p.m.

Where to stay:
Wigwam Golf Resort & Spa, 300 Wigwam Blvd., Litchfield Park, 623-935-3811. A great taste of the Old West
Comfort Suites Goodyear, 15575 W. Roosevelt St., Goodyear, 866-368-7808. Closest property to ballpark

Where to eat:
Bistro Bernard, 14970 W. Indian School Road, Goodyear, 623-547-0501. You’d expect to see this in a much larger city
Estrella Mountain Golf Course, 15205 W. Vineyard, Goodyear, 623-932-3714. Say hello to Carmen.
Raul & Theresa’s, 519 W. Main St. (Hwy 85), Avondale, 623-932-1214. No better traditional Mexican fare in the valley
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