Driving To Utopia, Arizona

Spring Training baseball isn't quite like regular baseball, or quite like anything else.
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“The island of the Utopians is two hundred miles across in the middle part where it is widest, and is nowhere much narrower than this except toward the two ends. These ends, drawn toward one another as if in a five-hundred-mile circle, make the island crescent-shaped like a new moon. Between the horns of the crescent, which are about eleven miles apart, the sea enters and spreads into a broad bay. Being sheltered from the wind by the surrounding land, the bay is never rough, but quiet and smooth instead, like a big lake. Thus, nearly the whole inner coast is one great harbor, across which ships pass in every direction, to the great advantage of the people. What with shallows on one side, and rocks on the other, the entrance into the bay is very dangerous.”
~Utopia, Sir Thomas More

One of the several routes one might take from Casper, Wyoming to Phoenix, Arizona carries through Bairoil, Wyoming. Bairoil perches between the Green Mountains and the Great Basin in south-central Wyoming, not far from Rawlins, and the highway follows the foothill rise then drops into that wide plain. For a moment, one can see until forever, to everywhere. In the first week of March, everything in sight is the same shade of dust, wintering sage, snow. The sky itself striates gray and does nothing to say anything ends anywhere; the landscape becomes spherical. Driving into the flat, Bairoil becomes an empty intersection, a few oil tanks, a sour tang of sulfur. At the first DANGER—POISON GAS sign, the view metamorphoses completely: this endless, still snowglobe becomes the road to nowhere, or at least nowhere anyone really wants to be.

But, with miles, blessedly, the view changes. The perspective remains uncertain, though; so much of this path overlaps the famous trails west—the Oregon Trail, the Mormon Handcart Trail—and there’s no leaving behind that historical sense of not-knowing whether this road leads to some future promised land or nowhere at all; that is, more of the same at best and, at worst, the end. Cutting south on I-191, a quiet, two-lane highway that goes from the Canadian border all the way to Mexico, at least the former feels more present than the latter. The red rock of Flaming Gorge gives way to feathered clouds on an impossible blue backdrop in Ashley National Forest, striking enough that fifty miles of mountain switchbacks behind heavy equipment trucks is no real hardship. Nevertheless, on this winding road, there is no way to tell what impassable obstacles lie ahead; there is no sightline for distance. It is hard to find a place to pass.

***

Eventually, this road also leads to a visitation of four stadiums spread in a rough crescent around the greater Phoenix area. Its two arms nearly touch as the wide ribbon between Peoria and Goodyear stretches east and nearly kisses itself in Scottsdale, a mere six miles between Talking Stick and Scottsdale Stadium. The circumference is certainly no five hundred miles, but this Cactus League island’s sheltered, idyllic heart is a sort of utopia: a week of pure summer in fickle, tempestuous March, and home to a kind of baseball that exists nowhere else. Still, it is a dangerous place to enter.

***

On Tuesday afternoon at Scottsdale Stadium, as the Giants hosted the Indians, Indians DH Ben Francisco hit a double in the top of the third off young Giants pitcher Brett Bochy. Ben Francisco is one of those players traversing this utopia carefully; a non-roster invitee for the Indians this year, Ben Francisco was Philadelphia’s heroic Benny Fresh in the 2011 NLDS, and so I cheered—the lone voice in my section—for the hit. The Indians didn’t manage to drive in that run, the double was Francisco’s one hit of the afternoon, and the Indians subbed in Yan Gomes with one on and no outs in the seventh. Francisco didn’t see any work in the second Indians game I went to that week, and on March 11, the Indians released him. The Yankees picked him up within hours.

Former Phillies infielder and secret pitching ace Wilson Valdez stands in a similar position with the Giants—invited but guaranteed nothing—and even aging, graying slugger Jason Giambi fights for one last hurrah in Cleveland. Giambi, on Thursday afternoon in Goodyear, stepped in during the bottom of the fifth to crush a home run to right field, going back to back with another former Yankee, Nick Swisher. The ball clanged off the metal roof of some exclusive bar seating (something that seems to be a staple at these stadiums), the shot both loud and far on a swing that looked—and has often looked—effortless. Giambi’s way around the bases was labored, though, and the smattering of fans in the right field box said so. They weren’t loud about it; no one booed. It was a quiet topic of discussion, and the fans, mostly Indians fans, seemed pleased with the potentiality of Giambi’s bat on the bench.

Spring training is potentiality. Spring training is the dream-space. The title of Sir Thomas More’s famous Utopia translates to “no place,” even though the word has come forward as the ideal place. More knew his idea of utopia was an impossibility for various reasons related to human nature; his perfect world was always impossible and therefore, it was no world at all, just a place in a book. Spring training is its own no-place, but it is because its very construction is not meant to last. Its very heart is flux: of rosters, of fans, of the idea of a place of one’s own.

Of the Cactus League stadiums, only a few have a single resident, and one of those, Scottsdale Stadium, houses the current World Series champion San Francisco Giants. Most other teams share space; most other players have to see another team’s name and logo on everything—across the top of the other dugout, on the scoreboard’s analog parts, on the gates and signs and in the single, glossy spring training program for each shared field.

This is economical. This is wise. This is a good use of space in a part of the world where getting the outfield grass that perfect lushness of green requires both divine benediction and deep pockets. But none of this really belongs to anyone in a singular and dedicated way, even for those single-club venues, and not even these trappings will last. Arizona Fall League will be played in some of them, a commingling of prospects from every team, and the lines between baseball nations blur further.

Isn’t that the beauty of spring training, though? The lines are indistinct, and for some, it’s a particular boon that the statlines in particular are so. The stats don’t matter is the spring training cry, and there’s a lot of good reason in that, particularly for pitchers. They’re not necessarily taking the mound in search of the shutout; they’re working on single pitches, over and over, striving to find their spots, adding wholly new pieces to their repertoire—it’s nothing that happens in a regular season game, and so there’s no reason to treat the line like regular season evidence, either.

For hitters, everyone seems to accept that there’s rust to scour off. Maybe if someone’s on a tear, we get excited. But if a star player has a slow March, we don’t get too concerned. Buster Posey will not, barring a very potent hex, close the season hitting .200. For players like Chase Utley, currently below the Mendoza line, whose injury-proneness remains fresh in memory, perhaps the concern increases. But still, the wand is waved: it’s spring training. It doesn’t matter. It’s not even real.

***

Some of it feels very real, of course. Goodyear had walk-up music in place for the Cleveland home side, even for the players who existed on the centerfield screen only as a name and a jersey number somewhere in the seventies, and it was the only one of the four stadiums to do so. The music is a small detail, but it’s one that says we’re ready. The Indians went on to beat the Giants, too, six to four. At Salt River Field at Talking Stick, a sleek, new facility housing the Rockies and the Diamondbacks, the crowd felt real enough as Team USA faced the Rockies under the lights in preparation for the World Baseball Classic.

That hadn’t been the case previously. People treated the lawn seating in Peoria as a beach or quad, making a full commitment to the prone baseball nap most often reserved for a recliner. In the stands, everywhere, fans were often silent and in a pattern of circulating absence. That behavior fits this amorphous place; only the Diamondbacks have large numbers of home fans near their spring training venue, and though some diehards made pilgrimages for their teams—Giants fans, in particular, traveled well—there’s not the same energy of permanence as one finds in most major league parks. The local baseball fans seemed more interested in a sun-bathed afternoon in the presence of baseball—any baseball—than in devoted, shouting service to any one team. Maybe, too, it’s about self-preservation: don’t get attached to what won’t, can’t stay.

But that night at Talking Stick, the crowd showed up as more than occupied seats, perhaps because fans were guaranteed to see stars in the field—Troy Tulowitzki started at shortstop for Colorado and it was like seeing a ghost; Giancarlo Stanton took right field for Team USA, and every long-legged step brought the metallic red flash of his cleat-bottoms. One expects some metaphorical flash from Stanton’s bat; he made the spark literal and embodied even as he jogged out into the green.

The game’s finish—the Rockies coming back from a five-run deficit in the bottom of the ninth to win 8-7—was fittingly exciting. After Team USA tacked on its final two runs in the top of the ninth, it seemed like another “that’s so Rockies” loss was in the works. Then Nolan Arenado knocked a two-run single, and Rockies prospects Ben Paulsen and Lars Davis got to play hero, driving in the last needed runs. The crowd—admittedly thinned from its first-pitch robustness—got into it, got properly and proportionally loud. But the verisimilitude to the real game stops there: the Rockies completed their comeback against their own pitching prospects, borrowed for the evening. Team USA wasn’t wringing its bullpen dry for an exhibition game, and the Rockies, like everyone else, took the chance to work on things.

***

For the guaranteed starters and the guys who know they’ll be back to the farm, spring training doesn’t have to be real. Both Buster Posey and Chase Utley will, barring injury, be on the diamond come Opening Day. Lars Davis, regardless of those big singles that Wednesday night, will get his swings and continue to develop in the minors. For Ben Francisco, for Wilson Valdez, even for the Great Giambino—not to mention the scores of young and not-so-young players trying to break in or at least catch enough notice to stay on the management’s radar—this chimeric dance in the desert is most real. Sure, there are mid- and late-season call-ups, opportunities created by injury, but it’s not the same as being on that Opening Day roster, not the same as knowing, with some shading of certainty, that there’s going to be one more season. 

***

By necessity, the playful, perfect harmony of this baseball utopia can’t last. Soon, the rosters will be set, teams will return to their proper homes, their own stadiums, the proprietary grounding and logo-ing and labeling, the permanence of the regular season. The narrow opening of the bay must close, cutting off for another year the place that must be nowhere because no place, not even this one, can be everywhere and everything forever.

Photos by Holly Wendt.


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