There's nothing funny about snow in March. But if you planned ahead, you can have the last laugh this month at Brewers Spring Training in Phoenix.
Airfares to Arizona were particularly high this year from Milwaukee, but we promise: once you get there, you won't regret it.
Here's everything you need to know about how to plan a Cactus League vacation:
Cactus League basics
The Brewers play 32 games in a schedule that started Feb. 25 and wraps up on April 4 (their final two games are against the Dodgers in Los Angeles). They only have three off days, March 4, 10 and 24. And, because the World Baseball Classic takes place again in 2009, the Brewers play Australia in an exhibition match up on March 5. All games (except March 27) are played at 1:05 p.m. local time, which is either two or three hours behind Milwaukee -- Arizona doesn't do Daylight Savings Time on March 8.
In total, Arizona hosts 14 teams in the Cactus League. Most, including the Brewers, play in the Phoenix area, and a few play 90 minutes to the south in Tucson. You'd be surprised how well you can get to know the area, and your favorite baseball team, in just a long weekend in the Valley of the Sun. Cleveland and Los Angeles joined the Cactus League this year, and more teams are on the way in years to come.
The Brewers train at Maryvale Baseball Park, 3600 N. 51st Ave. -- a short jaunt west of downtown Phoenix off of I-10. Upon opening 12 years ago, Maryvale got a bad rap from some Midwesterners, who claim the park is in a rough area of town.
While it's nothing like its upscale Scottsdale counterpart where the Giants play, Maryvale is safe, with plenty of good parking available. You probably wouldn't pick the neighborhood as your nighttime hangout, but it's spacious and friendly, and it has a field shaped just like Miller Park.
For accommodations, look for a motel that's centrally located between all the parks. You can't go wrong in Tempe or Scottsdale. Keep in mind, though, that Phoenix traffic is notoriously bad, and some parks are a 45-minute drive from anywhere. If you're looking to go upscale, you've got tons of options; among the best are the Four Seasons, Hotel Valley Ho, Westin Kierland, XONA and InterContinental Montelucia. All of these properties are awesome.
Even though the games don't count, you can actually see some fierce competition during March. The veterans treat spring games as a tune up, and you'll regularly see starting pitchers toss about two innings -- then run laps in the outfield right in the middle of games (a surreal scene the first time you see it). But for future stars and players "on the bubble," spring is a chance for these kids to make the team.
In the first half of March, it's all about talent assessment, and the Brewers will trot out dozens of young players in every game. Since all of the minor league affiliates train in Maryvale, you'll feel constantly surrounded by an army of no-name Brewers.
Get to games as early as you can, as watching these prospects practice is an experience you won't get in Milwaukee. They run from field to field -- Maryvale has a handful -- chatting and mingling with the fans. Most will sign autographs if you ask nicely.
If you want a real seat, just play it cool and sit somewhere that isn't occupied. With the exception of Cubs games at HoHoKam Park in Mesa, these games rarely sell out, and the laid-back ushers really don't mind where you plop yourself down and catch some sun.
You'll notice a big difference from Miller Park if you find yourself sitting in a real seat, however: the proximity to the field. The Cactus League ballparks are more than just intimate; you'll almost feel like you are sitting on the field. Foul balls are a plenty, so keep your eye on the game and bring your glove.
If possible, plan your trip around days when the Brewers play a mix of home and away games. All of the stadiums have their own unique charm, but some of the nicest parks include the Angels' Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Cubs' HoHoKam Park, the Royals' and Rangers' Surprise Stadium and the Giants' Scottsdale Stadium.
A week of sun and baseball may tire you out, but the fun doesn't stop after sundown in Phoenix. Tempe, the home of Arizona State University, sports a thriving collegiate nightlife, while Phoenix and Scottsdale offer a more upscale bar experience. If you must take a break from baseball, you can try a number of side trips. Some worth noting:
Daytrip to Nogales, Mexico: If you're in Tucson for a Brewers game (March 11 vs. the White Sox, March 18 vs. the Diamondbacks or March 23 vs. the Rockies), drive a little farther south to Nogales. You can walk across the border and shop or just take in the sights. Critics will tell you Nogales isn't "real Mexico," and they have a point, but it's a fun change from the ordinary. If you are really adventurous, plan a trip to Puerto Penasco (a.k.a. Rocky Point) three hours southeast in Sonora, Mexico. Just make sure you go during ASU's Spring Break.
Climb Camelback Mountain: Considered a novice climbing experience, it's still plenty challenging. Clear away a couple hours of your schedule for the free and breathtaking experience just north of Phoenix.
Play some golf on one of Arizona's 300 courses: Considered one of the world's top spots, it's a fair bet you haven't been able to break out your clubs in Milwaukee for months. Here's a link to our 2008 course review; stayed tuned for a 2009 review.
Visit Taliesin West in Scottsdale, the architecture school built by Wisconsin's own Frank Lloyd Wright: It's just as beautiful as the Spring Green original but completely different. Take the tour, it's well worth it. Wright also designed Tempe's Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium.
Drive north to Sedona, a beautiful artist community near Flagstaff: It's a few hours, but it's well worth it. The landscape is like nothing you'll see in Wisconsin. Simply breathtaking and totally romantic.
Check out the cultural events the Phoenix / Scottsdale area has to offer: More info is available at the Arizona Department of Tourism Web site, arizonaguide.com.
If you get homesick: There are a surprising number of connections between Wisconsin and Arizona. Milwaukee custard king Karl Kopp owns an upscale restaurant called AZ88 in Scottsdale. He also opened a new restaurant in Phoenix this year called Hanny's. If you are a Packers fan (even out of season), there are several bars and restaurants in the Phoenix area that list themselves backers of the Green and Gold. The Buffalo Chip Saloon in Cave Creek was owned by Marla McGee, the daughter of Max, former Packers' wide receiver and radio color commentator. And a former Bayside couple owns two delis is Scottsdale called Kashman's Place.
No matter how you plan your trip, keep this phrase in mind, "It's spring training for everyone." Keep your schedule flexible and take the opportunity to relax. It's a sure bet you'll come back tan, rested and ready for the start of the 2009 baseball season with renewed passion for your Milwaukee Brewers.
Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.
Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.
Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.