Writer Rebecca L. Rhoades // Photography Courtesy of the Cactus League
We’ve all heard the saying, “Pitchers and catchers report.” For baseball fans, those rousing words signal not only an end to winter but also the beginning of one of the best times of year — spring training.
February is in an important month for sports in Phoenix. Hundreds of thousands of golf enthusiasts descend on the Valley each year for the WM Phoenix Open, and this year, more than 60,000 NFL fans will be cheering on their favorite football teams as the Super Bowl returns to State Farm Stadium in Glendale for the first time in eight years.
But the excitement doesn’t end there. Once the big games are over, the true fun begins as the 15 Major League Baseball teams that comprise the Cactus League take to the field. This year, spring training begins on Feb. 24 and runs through March 28.
A Brief History of Baseball’s Favorite Season
Spring training by MLB teams in locations other than their hometowns began in the late 1800s, when teams such as the Chicago White Stockings (now the Chicago Cubs), Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds began traveling to Hot Springs, Arkansas to prepare for the upcoming season. Additional popular spring training locations in the early 20th century included Tulsa, Oklahoma; New Orleans; West Palm Beach, Florida; and even Honolulu, Hawaii.
The Detroit Tigers were the first team to play in Phoenix; they trained at the now-defunct Riverside Park in the 1920s. The New York Yankees also trained in Phoenix when the team was owned by real estate developer Del Webb.
Other teams followed the World Series Champions to the Valley of the Sun during the midcentury. The Baltimore Orioles trained in Yuma. The Boston Red Sox took up residence at Scottsdale Stadium. The Houston Colt 45s (now the Astros) made their spring home in Apache Junction. And the San Francisco Giants began training in Casa Grande.
In 1954, spring training in Arizona was officially referred to as the Cactus League in response to the Grapefruit League, a selection of teams that played in Florida. Today, teams are equally divided between each location, with 15 teams training in 10 stadiums throughout the Greater Phoenix region.
Get Ready for Spring Training 2023
So what can you expect this year? To learn more, Images Arizona spoke with Bridget Binsbacker, executive director of the Cactus League.
Q: What does spring training mean to the Valley?
A: I believe that the Cactus League is a source of pride for all Arizonans. And it is a significant source of revenue. Spring training games don’t count, but the money they generate does.
The most recent economic study of a full Cactus League season came in 2018, when Arizona State University researchers estimated an overall impact of $644.2 million. In the COVID-shortened 2020 season, ASU reported an estimated $363.6 million in economic impact. The Cactus League did not commission a study in 2021.
From an economic impact perspective, ASU researchers have called the Cactus League a mega event on par with the Super Bowl — but one that happens every spring. We have commissioned another study for the 2023 season, and with tourism rebounding, I expect a return to pre-COVID economic impact.
Q: How does spring training differ from the regular season?
A: For many fans, the charm of spring training is in its intimacy. Even the upper deck seats are close to the action. The players are more accessible than they are during the regular season. Overall, it’s a more relaxed environment than you’ll find almost anywhere in major pro sports. It really is a celebration of the game, so it’s no surprise that six out of 10 fans come from out of state to experience it (that’s according to recent ASU economic impact studies).
Q: Are there any new developments that fans can expect this year?
A: For fans, the biggest development has been an earlier start to the season. When MLB pushed the start of spring training into February, it created an opportunity for more local fans to attend before the influx of out-of-state visitors, which occurs in mid-March. The demand for tickets isn’t as strong in the early weeks, but the weather is just as beautiful. We want to make sure Valley residents know about that opportunity to enjoy baseball during the best time of year in Arizona.
Q: The 2021 and even 2022 seasons were still overshadowed by COVID. What response are you seeing from the teams regarding the 2023 season.
A: Everyone I speak to is excited about the prospect of a “normal” spring training season. It seems like it has been forever since we had one of those — and that is a reason to celebrate.
Q: What do you hope fans will take away from the 2023 season?
A: For out-of-state visitors, I want them to take away priceless memories of their time in the Grand Canyon State. I hope that their experiences — before, during and after the games — would make them want to return again and again. And ASU studies show that about a third of out-of-state visitors had attended spring training for at least five seasons. Generations of baseball fans have fallen in love with Arizona, and they return year after year.
For local residents, I want them to enjoy the games with friends and family — and I hope they understand that the heavy investment in spring training facilities by the host municipalities and the tribal community has created a major economic benefit for the state.