Just like Christmastime, spring training comes but once a year.
And like the holiday season itself that builds with anticipation after Thanksgiving dinner and lasts for a little more than a month, a new Cactus League spring training season began to blossom with the arrival of pitchers and catchers. There also was the gathering of autograph seekers this week hoping for at least a glimpse of their favorite player and to achieve that personal exchange of a handshake or signature.
A dozen autograph seekers participating in the phenomena they call “graphing” waited in the front parking lot of Tempe Diablo Stadium on Wednesday with boxes of baseball cards and albums; each of them were from a different city in another state including Danny Green, an eighth grader from Boston on a trip with his parents. Already a veteran of his game at age 13, Green said he’s been chasing autographs for five years now, the last two in Arizona and the first three in Florida’s Grapefruit League. He said he keeps the autographs all for himself.
“It’s fun for me,” said Green, who was hoping to get Angels’ All-Star pitcher Jered Weaver outside the Tempe facility. “This is better than the snow back home. Getting autographs is all about the hunt. I have good days and bad days, but in the end, it’s all about the memories. I’ll also get to relax by the pool and enjoy the sun.”
More of the madness will continue on Monday when the position players arrive and the games are set to begin on March 4.
Families from around the nation are converging on the Grand Canyon State to attend spring training festivities, friends plan to reunite for a hot dog and a beer or two while watching their favorite teams, and in the famous words of Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Manager Mike Scioscia, the players are preparing to go “Full Gorilla,” or full steam ahead into a new season.
In recent years, the buzz was about Barry Bonds with the San Francisco Giants at Scottsdale Stadium, or new sprawling spring training complexes, or which international player would be next to make a splash.
But now, in addition to half of Major League’s teams (15) calling the Grand Canyon State their spring training home and the state possessing the crown jewels of spring training complexes, the Cactus League and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim now have Prince Albert in the can.
Not since Bonds created such a buzz as he neared becoming baseball’s all-time home run king has there been such an air of focus on one player. That’s the case now with the arrival of former St. Louis Cardinals superstar Albert Pujols, who left behind a defending world championship team to sport a 10-year, $254 million contract for the Angels.
Pujols is perhaps baseball’s premier player who will be most watched in the spring prelude to the 2012 season.
Erik Turnrose of Gilbert is ready for the attention that will be placed on Tempe’s temporary club. Turnrose is the first line of defense to check in players and members of the media, working as an attendant and guard inside the clubhouse tunnel at Diablo.
A part-time employee for the city of Tempe and graduate of Western Carolina in sports management, Turnrose has changed his schedule as a security worker for the W Hotel in Scottsdale so he also can work at Tempe Diablo, making for a 16-hour work day.
“If you have to be working, you might as well be around baseball,” Turnrose said. “It’s been crowded here, but low-key. About 200 fans showed up on the first day (Monday), just seeking autographs and trying to get a look of you-know-who.
In fact, the Angels have sold more than 67,000 tickets so far for the 2012 spring training season ranging from $10 to $34 — 5,000 more tickets sold than last year, so far — and that’s with 15 games on their schedule, one less than a year ago, according to Ryan Vance, the team’s marketing manager.
That includes two sellouts — one on March 10, and the other on March 17, and only a few hundred tickets left for its big rivalry game with the Texas Rangers on March 25. Comparably, the Chicago Cubs — the largest draw in all of spring training, do not yet have any games sold out at Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium, but are on track to sell out its March 16 game with the Giants and March 18 game with the White Sox. As of Tuesday, the Cubs had sold 95,000 tickets, ranging in price from $8 to $31, sales slightly up from last year, according to Mark Gallo, manager of Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium.
“The dynamics definitely have changed this year,” Vance said of the Angels new additions in 2012. “We usually end with about seven or eight sellouts, but we don’t usually sell them out this early.”
After appearing at a press conference at the Buttes Resort in Tempe on Monday, Pujols has quietly progressed through the week, taking swings from the lower practice fields and working out, preparing to be part of a slugging tandem with Kendrys Morales.
About 200 fans gathered at Tempe Diablo and its practice fields throughout this week in hopes of getting a glimpse of Pujols, just the beginning of a ritual for generations of fans, hoping to see baseball’s elite.
For several weeks now, a large banner of Pujols could be seen among banners of other Angels players along streets leading up to Diablo, and his baseball card-like photo is on front of the team’s spring training pocket schedule. It’s all part of the buildup of the arrival of baseball royalty.
About 6:45 a.m. on Wednesday, Pujols arrived at Tempe Diablo, and could be seen inside the team’s clubhouse thumping a black and red Rawlings baseball glove while speaking in Spanish as he held court with a small group of his teammates.
As a small group of reporters approached Pujols around his cubicle, Pujols was asked if he had any goals in the way of numbers he would like to achieve this season.
“I don’t play for the numbers,” Pujols said. “My job is to do what I can to help the team win. My goal every year is to help the team win a championship, and that will be my goal here for the next 10 years. When you retire, at the end of your career, that’s when you can look at the numbers.”
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