A close play at the plate.
A close play at the plate. (Photo: Eron Laber of Front Room Photography)

Getaway day: behind the scenes, behind the plate

SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Sometimes, the best stories are the ones you can’t tell.

As a writer, this eats me up inside, because my main reason for being at Spring Training is to tell you about it. But I can’t this time. All I can say is this: Major League umpires bought me drinks last night after the obligatory "this is all off the record, son" when they learned a pack of reporters just bellied up to the bar. You’ll have to fill in the rest of the blanks yourself.

Fortunately, there are plenty of other stories to tell, but if someone ever makes a "what happens in the Cactus League, stays in the Cactus League" T-shirt, I’m buying it.

When I left off yesterday, I was feeling tan, rested and ready for baseball, and we made the 30-minute drive from Talking Stick Resort to Peoria Stadium a little before noon. Brewers fans were out in force for the game against the Padres. St. Patty’s Day revelry was in full effect.

That extended to the green caps on both teams on the field, and like every year, we noticed the party atmosphere everywhere at this ballpark. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited Peoria, but once again I’m struck by how even the most modest facility trumps Maryvale in every way. If I sound bitter about this, I am. The Brewers are no longer the club that needs to be laughed at. They deserve a spring home that is befitting of a great franchise owned by a forward-looking owner.

On the field, the Brewers looked good on Tuesday. Matt Garza was far from crisp, but Carlos Gomez cranked a home run in the Crew’s 6-4 victory. Notably, Ryan Braun continued his spring slump and remained hitless this spring. He didn't look mopey like what we witnessed last summer, but if his thumb is healed, Braun needs to start hitting. The Brewers are sunk if Braun is, and halfway through March, this is getting serious.

After the game, we hightailed it back to Scottsdale to meet up with our friends from the Scottsdale CVB for dinner at Hula’s Modern Tiki Lounge. I say "friends," because we’ve known them for years now, and they don’t need to impress us like they might with other traveling journalists. This town took care of that on its own: I’ve been coming here for so long that I don’t just know my way around, but I don’t feel like a tourist anymore, either. Even with new experiences each year, the Valley feels so comfortable and welcoming. This is a community that fully embraces the economic boon that is the Cactus League.

Hula’s was amazing. Obviously, I’m a big fan of tiki drinks (who isn’t?) but this is more than just a theme bar, it’s a great restaurant with an expansive Polynesian and Caribbean menu. Lubricated with rum, I ordered the Jamaican Jerk chicken while others sampled polished versions of authentic Hawaiian dishes such as loco moco and southwestern spins on seafood. This is not your dad’s tiki bar that looks like it could just as easily be someone’s tricked out basement, but a refined and sleek – yet relaxed – atmosphere for potent potables and fresh Hawaiian cuisine.

From there we toddled around Old Town tippling more drinks. Stops included the Old Town Tavern, which has a neighborhood bar vibe like you might find in Milwaukee. One local we talked with over a Murphy’s stout said it’s like being at a friend’s house party. Very laid back and plenty of mingling as the two-man band played on.

We soldiered on in the name of St. Patrick and stopped off at the Rusty Spur. It’s a popular spot with Giants fans, as are many Scottsdale drinking emporiums. Plenty of regular baseball fans here but also some sophisticates from that city by the Bay decked out in black duds and sipping fancier cocktails.

Another great little discovery on our mini bar crawl was Grape Vine. You’ll see the open and airy balcony and patio first, but take a step into the dark interior and make your way to the back room, where you’ll find locals and visitors alike throwing down drinks and belting out songs on the karaoke machine. We performed our rendition of a Weezer’s "Say It Ain’t So" that brought down the house, if I do say so myself.

And that brings us to the end of our night, when we stumbled upon the watering hole favored by Cactus League umps in town for spring training. You may find some retirees there too, reminiscing about old times with their colleagues. You might hear them comparing notes on who has ejected more players over the course of their careers, or how they think the new rules designed to speed up the game might affect play this season.

Now I could tell you the name of this bar and its exact location. But I’m going to leave that information out for a couple of reasons. First of all, these umps are just regular guys tossing back a cold one after a tough day at the office. Though we might curse and harass them from the stands, this is their turf and they are human just like us and deserve to blow off a little steam just like anybody else. Second, half the fun of spring training is talking to other fans and locals, finding your way around and – much like a pitcher working the count on the mound – making your choices and building the baseball trip you want to be on. Use this kernel of info as an ice breaker to talk to your fellow fans.

Suffice it to say that as lifelong fans of the game, spending an hour hoisting a beer with an MLB ump had us uttering that line from "Field of Dreams" — is this heaven? For us, for a brief moment in time in a town where out national pastime is reborn each year, it sure felt like it. We listened like school children as they discussed favorite ballparks, long lost old friends from the game and lots of baseball lore you’ve only imagined could have existed.

If you really want to find this joint, just ask around when you’re in town and you will find it without too much trouble. We’ll honor their privacy and their right to have a quiet gathering place, but to also hold court if that’s what they want to do if you come across their hangout. Finding this spot is also just a good reason to talk to the locals and to other baseball fans, so we’ll toss you this fastball belt high and let you take a swing at it when you’re in town. After all, you won’t hit the ball if you don’t swing the bat.

Getaway day

And now, I’m really, really tired as we head to Surprise for our final Brewers game against the Royals before hopping on a plane at 7 p.m. and heading back to Milwaukee. One thing we learned from the umps the importance of getaway day, as we wrap up this trip. You have to keep a tight schedule, get the game done and let everybody out of town on time so they can get to their next destination.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I have to pack …

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