Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tour 2011: Salt River Fields at Talking Stick

All photos of Salt River Fields available on Flickr.

Friday was the day I was looking forward to most on the trip: a doubleheader featuring a nightcap at the brand new Salt River Fields in north Scottsdale. The day started out by picking up Frank at about 10:15 and heading all the way out to Surprise, which took over 45 minutes in traffic. We thought we would be seeing the Giants play the Royals there at 1:05, but it turns out that the Spring Training Online schedule incorrectly listed this game as a matinee instead of a 6:05 nightcap. I thought I had learned my lesson in Burlington last year about checking schedules the day of a game, but I guess not. So we made the longest drive in the Cactus League for nothing. We collected our bearings and consulted the Spring Training pocket schedule, but found no other decent daytime options so we decided to just go back to Maryvale to watch the Crew. We had rainout tickets from Monday that we had to use anyways, so it worked out fine other than me having to change out of my Rick Vaughn jersey since they were playing the Indians. We arrived at noon and got the exact same seats we had on Sunday by the Brewers' bullpen (read more about this game in the Maryvale post from 3/28/11).

After the Brewers' victory we made our way east to the heralded brand new facility of the Diamondbacks and Rockies, the Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Our first encounter with bad traffic on the trip was an absolute crawl from AZ-202 all the way up the 101 to the ballpark. We parked the car in an adjacent "lot" for $5 that was actually just a lawn. Why they would cover an entire field in the desert with turf just for you to park on was beyond me, so I hope that it's used for something else the other 11 months of the year. What made the parking situation even more awkward is that there wasn't really a path exiting the lot, you had to navigate this sort of drainage ditch and climb over some rocks to get onto the sidewalk. Once on the sidewalk, it led us through the D-Backs training area and up to the left field gate. We didn't really have a chance to explore the grounds more than in passing, because we got there after 6pm for a 6:40 first pitch. From what we could tell they seemed pretty fan-accessible and close to the ballpark. The practice fields also had a similar landscaped setting to Camelback, including the same type of plinth seating behind the backstops and some small creeks. Unlike at Camelback these creeks are natural, and the complex gets its name from the five "salt rivers" that converge on the site; in reality, they are just five sections of the same small dried-up river bed. There is clearly a lot of leiniency on what passes for a "river" in Phoenix. The other part of the complex's name is a historical reference to a stick used by the local Pima Indian tribe to record events. When it opened this spring, Salt River Fields at Talking Stick became the first MLB ballpark to be built on Native American land.

We collected our tickets at an automated will call kiosk (like the ones they use at Great American Ballpark) and entered in the left field corner. Just when I don't think the next day's ballpark could possibly be topped, it happens. The sight was absolutely breathtaking. To our right was a beautiful, dynamic roof form that swept over the seating at various angles and was designed specifically to shade 90% of the seats at a matinee game in March. In front of us was a fairly plain batters eye and the team offices of the Rockies. And on our left, we saw the large jumbotron, team store, and Diamondbacks offices. Behind all of this was a phenomenal view to the McDowell Mountains in the distance. I just took it all in for awhile and snapped some photos, amazed at the grandeur rolled out by these organizations just for a Spring Training facility. I then grabbed a program and we headed into the team store, which had just about everything imaginable including baseballs with the Talking Stick logo on it. Up to this point, all of the balls I had purchased just had the team logo on one side and "Spring Training" on the other, nothing about the ballpark. Exiting the team store and taking a lap around the outfield, Phil and I noticed how similar this ballpark was to Camelback Ranch. This was especially evident in the identical basic layouts - team offices in the outfield corners, ramp down to mid-level walkway through the seating bowl, expansive second level, and no pronounced entry gate. The similarities continued with color palette and materials, and both parks also have a very distinctive roof form. I was not surprised to find out just now when I looked it up that the two facilities were indeed designed by the same architect, HKS. I'm not sure if these guys have a small foothold in the ballpark monopoly that is Populous, but I thoroughly enjoyed their two stadiums. My rankings are going to show that Salt River Fields scored higher, but I'd still have to give the slight edge to Camelback Ranch if for no other reason than the sensational practice complex.

We had awesome seats for Friday night's game: 1st row of the 200 sections, just off-center from home plate. The teams took their BP in the main ballpark for this game, so we got to watch a little of that. From where we sat, the ballpark really felt like a big league ballpark. If you added 15,000 seats to the upper deck, there's absolutely no reason this park couldn't play in the major leagues. They literally have just about everything else you need and expect from an MLB ballpark except an appropriate seating capacity. There's all sorts of food and a beer stand at the top of every aisle, but most importantly it just has that intangible comfort level you feel at a major league stadium. It's a very spacious park and a relaxing place to watch a ballgame. And what better way to relax at a ballgame than with a silo of beer and a gigantic hot dog? These two items have been the standard fare offered at every park this week, but Talking Stick did it best: a Salt River Dog featuring roasted green chiles, onions, and bacon, and a 24-oz Blue Moon. All of the specialty hot dogs looked delicious and it was a hard choice. There were actually so many concession options that we made a second trip later in the game for garlic knots and daiquiris, both of which were outstanding.

The tenant of Salt River Fields that we saw on this night was Colorado, and they were hosting Texas. The Rockies plated 10 runs on 20 hits, including 8 and 13 off of Rangers starter Derek Holland. Watching Holland's long arm action I could tell that the ball was probably easy to pick up for the hitters. Catcher Chris Ianetta slugged a towering homerun in the 4th, and Rockie legend Todd Helton effortlessly collected 3 singles and an RBI. Eric Young Jr., the son of former Brewer Eric Young, got the start in center and had 2 hits and a run scored. I was really hoping we'd get to see Jason Giambi sub into the game, but he was probably off preparing his testimony in the Bonds perjury trial. Not really much action to speak of for the Rangers. Josh Hamilton went 1-2 with a walk, and Arthur Rhodes might ride into the sunset after his All-Star 2010 campaign, because he surrendered 4 hits in an inning of refief and looked pretty terrible.

After the game, we tied one on pretty hard for the first time that week. We were out in Scottsdale with Rob and Frank until bar close and didn't get to bed until after 4. Saturday is our last full day out here and we have tickets to the Giants game in downtown Scottsdale.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 8
views from park - 8 (mountains)
view to field - 9
surrounding area - 7 (downtown Scottsdale nearby)
food variety - 9
nachos - 5 (standard)
beer - 6 (points deducted for ridiculous serving policy and long lines)
vendor price - 6
ticket price - 7 ($20 behind home plate)
atmosphere - 9 (sellout)
walk to park - 7
parking proximity - 4 (adjacent lot $5, hard to get from lot to path)
concourses - 9 (very spacious)
team shop - 9 (two)
complex - 7

best food - Salt River Dog
most unique stadium feature - roof
jumbotron - yes (kind of hard to read, and the "Salt River Fields" sign on top needs some lighting)
best between-inning feature - n/a

field dimensions - 345/410/345
starters - Derek Holland (TEX) v. Esmil Rogers (COL)
opponent - Texas Rangers
time of game - 3:10
attendance - 12258
score - 10-3 W
Brewers score that day - 7-4 W

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