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Down on the Farm: Spring training

During my last week in Arizona, I attended a spring training baseball game in Scottsdale.

The game between the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies, two teams about which I know nothing, was the first held in the brand new Salt River Fields at Talking Stick stadium.

Gone are the days when spring training games were played on bumpy fields surrounded by sparsely-populated wooden grandstands.

The Salt River complex, which includes 13 full-sized baseball fields, cost over $100 million. The main stadium, which is the spring training home of both the Rockies and Diamondbacks, seats 11,000 fans.

The stadium is a gem. You'd think it was a theme park. If you're bored with the game, you can shop for clothes. There is good food. There is a playground for the little kids. There is a batting cage for bigger kids.

The outfield doesn't have grandstands. Instead, they built sloped lawns behind both the left and right-field fences. Thousands of people pay good money to spend four hours sitting on their own blanket.

The sky was cloudy and the air a bit cool by Arizona standards, yet the stadium was nearly full. For the many midwesterners in the audience, it was t-shirt weather. Everybody seemed satisfied to lounge around just to hear the crack of the bat and cheers of the crowd.

Spring training games are meaningless. Although individual rookies try to make their mark, the teams don't play to win. Instead, they save their big players for the regular season and try out the new ones in fast-changing shifts.

It used to be that you could get closer to the players in the spring, if that is your idea of a good time. But these days spring training is really just a scaled-back version of Target Field. Guards and fences everywhere.

Spring training has become a big deal, enough of a big deal to justify a $100 million expenditure for a beautiful complex.

Mind you, the owners didn't come up with the money. In this case, a Native American tribe and the local community built the place to draw people to their casino and resort.

Today, spring training is all about money. The players, for the most part, don't need six weeks of preparation. They train all year.

But the owners love spring training. They have developed the theme-park idea because baseball in the south during March makes an ideal vacation for winter-addled northerners desperate to see green grass.

Die-hard fans love spring training because it gives them a chance to see the young prospects, most of whom will never see action in a major league ballpark.

But most people in the stands seemed to be there just to spend an afternoon outside, gazing at the grass, eating, visiting, sipping drinks.

And, it was exhilirating. It was February 26, I had to keep reminding myself, and I was watching fly balls sail over the fence into a colorful, cheering crowd. Don't pinch me, I might wake up!

A young outfielder dropped an easy fly ball. A young umpire blew a couple of easy calls.

It was obvious that despite the prices of tickets, food and drink, this was just practice.

After the fourth inning, several dozen players left the stadium to get in their swings on the other twelve diamonds.

Ties don't happen in baseball, except for spring training. In spring training, it doesn't matter who wins or loses

Despite the game's lack of meaning, it contained several bang-bang double plays, a few home runs, a big crash at home plate and one controversial umpire's call that brought Rockies' manager Jim Tracy a few steps out of the dugout.

Then, Tracy realized it was spring training. With a shrug of his shoulders, he slumped back down the dugout steps.

No matter. The crowd went home happy. I know I did.