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Oct 19

A look back at my columns about the Kansas City Royals: Part 5 — A surprise in Surprise. First published March 10, 2011, in The Examiner, an Eastern Jackson County, Mo., daily newspaper.

A surprise in Surprise

A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz (any old day). ~Humphrey Bogart

Hello Kansas City.

There is a surprise in Surprise, Arizona, and it is your Kansas City Royals and their breathtakingly beautiful spring training stadium.

If you have not been there dear readers, go if you can. Add it to your bucket list. It is that good, and I do not say this lightly.

I was in the land of the Cactus League this week visiting relatives and used the opportunity to take in as much of the spring training atmosphere as I could.

We watched the Kansas City Royals play a little ball and in the process discovered the joys of spring baseball training.

In the Phoenix metro area, there are 10 spring training ballparks shared by 15 Cactus League teams, and that means there is a lot of ball to see.

Besides, it is March and if one travels to Phoenix in March, it is written somewhere that one must see some spring ball.

We did our best to oblige.

Our plan, our personal baseball trifecta, was to see three games in three days.

On Day One, the Giants versus Mariners; on Day Two, the Royals versus Diamondbacks; and on Day Three, the Angels versus Rangers.

On Day One, we struck gold at the Scottsdale Stadium as we watched the world-champion Giants defeat the Mariners while Tim Lincecum pitched. We had no idea he would be pitching when we bought the tickets online. They don’t tell you these things in the spring. You may remember that Lincecum is the two-time Cy Young Award winner with a 25-mil contract who blew out the Rangers in last year’s World Series.

Skipping to Day Three, we watched the Angels beat the American League champion Rangers at the Tempe Diablo Stadium in a game that was mostly defense, a rarity in spring ball. Most of the games have more home runs than base hits, along with a high number of errors. But hey, it’s pre-season, and no one cares.

But let us go back to Day Two and the team we came to see—our Kansas City Royals.

My expectations were not high as we drove along Bell Road after eating lunch at the highly acclaimed In–N-Out Burgers in Peoria, Arizona, not far from the Billy Parker Field in the Surprise Recreation Campus.

As a Midwesterner, I didn’t know much if anything about In-N-Out burgers. We don’t have them because this small franchise of less than 300 stores serves only the western part of the country. Suffice to say In-N-Out is a fast food chain with a “loyal customer base”, a.k.a. California cult that loves animal-style burger and fries.

I’m in.

I learned quickly that nothing tops lunch at In–N-Out.

Nothing; therefore, after that high point we were intent only on enjoying the day soaking up sun at the ballpark. That would be enough.

We were about to be surprised, however, and I never saw it coming.

Here is some of what surprised me, besides In-N-Out:

Before we were out of the car in Surprise (very near Sun City), the picturesque Surprise Stadium, some say the best ballpark in the Valley, left us speechless. The Royals share it with the Texas Rangers, but this day, the stadium belonged to the Royals. The stadium alone is worth the trip.

We were surprised when the Sundancers (Sun City greeters) welcomed us as though we were their long-lost cousins from Pittsburg. In fact, one of them thought we were from PA due to the fact we looked like we were “from the north”. She said she can always tell Northerners because they are wearing shorts and tee shirts on what the Valley folks consider to be a cool day in March.

Pittsburgh and K.C. are in the north? That surprised me.

Seats galore, so take your pick. That surprised me. We found perfect ones right behind the Royals dugout and cheered loudly for each batter, whose name we never heard before, as if it were a Little League game.

Autographs and close-up pictures with the players–easy as pie to obtain. Granted, we never heard of them, but it’s spring ball. Did I mention that already?

Furthermore, I was surprised at the lack of formality in the ballparks, the absence of vendors hawking the crowd, little music or announcing and players wearing jerseys with no names on the back. It is sandlot ball, pure and simple, and I loved it.

Dear readers, there is so much more to tell about spring baseball in the desert that I have to stop now and write about it in part two. So stay tuned next week for the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say.

By the way, spring ball confirmed something I long suspected: “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem – once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.” ~Al Gallagher, 1971.