Our first baseball trip of the year took us to the Desert Southwest, a part of the country I had not yet seen, to see the New York Mets take on the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field in Phoenix, Arizona. Hoping to avoid the searing heat of Arizona, we chose to visit in early May, before the days when high temperatures regularly top 100 F would arrive.
We decided to take our Mom along on the trip, so she could get a taste of this part of the country. The trip began quite ominously, as we missed our flight from Newark, NJ to Phoenix, AZ because a dump truck full of sand left us immobile on the Garden State Parkway. We normally arrive at the airport two hours before the flight to avoid problems like this, but we were stuck in the same place (literally) for more than two hours.
Realizing we would miss our flight because of the dump truck incident, we quickly made reservations for a later flight while still locked in traffic. Fortunately there were seats for Phoenix available, and we found ourselves flying out in the mid afternoon. Arriving in Phoenix close to dinner time, we checked into the hotel and decided to eat at the nearby Waffle House. Following a disappointing meal in the greasy restaurant, we retired to the hotel to rest after a VERY long travel day.
1. South Mountain Park, Phoenix
Following our harrowing travel to Phoenix, we spent the morning and early afternoon hours at South Mountain Park. The largest municipal park in the USA at 16,000 acres, South Mountain Park offer trails for hiking and sweeping views of Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun. Fortunately for us, high cloudiness dimmed the sun to some degree, keeping temperatures in the 80s, along with low humidity levels.
A warm breeze greeted us as we started our visit at the South Mountain Environmental Education Center. After learning about the park there, we headed toward Dobbins Lookout. From the 2300 foot elevation, we could see the entire Valley of the Sun, as well as the mountains north of Phoenix. Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a semi present haze over the Valley, which made viewing the city more difficult than expected. Still, the vantage point gave us an amazing view of Phoenix.
From Dobbins Lookout, we wandered among the cacti, rocks and vegetation nearby. Having a fascination with cacti, this was my first up close encounter, and I was not disappointed. Being the middle of the day, the wildlife was well hidden, but the birds and the flora were fantastic. This portion of the park reminded me of pictures I had seen of the High Desert of northwest Arizona, though there was much more in the way of trees and bushes here.
Driving along the highway through the park, we stopped at various locations to get better views of our surroundings. Being from the Northeast, the rock formations vaguely reminded me of the rocks deposited by glaciers throughout the Delaware Water Gap. Scattered among the rocks and scrub brushes, I remained transfixed by the cacti. Ignorant of the different types of cacti, I wandered among them, taking picture after picture.
Engrossed in my environment, I lost track of time, and we ended staying in the park FAR longer than intended. At the behest of my companions, we left South Mountain Park in search of lunch in Phoenix. Having investigated only a small part of the park, I fully intended to come back during our visit. The park became an instant favorite, and we had only been here for less than a day!
2. Chase Field, Phoenix
Following lunch and some time relaxing at the hotel, my brother and I headed out to Chase Field to catch the game between the Mets and the Diamondbacks. Slated for a 640 pm start (which seemed like an odd starting time for an evening game, but we would find out later that the Colorado Rockies often start evening games at that time), we arrived about two hours before game time (just as the gates to the stadium were opening). Unlike many other MLB parks, we found few fans milling around the park this early. This might be attributed to not having much else in the vicinity to do before heading into the park.
Surprisingly, there was little in way of parking at the stadium itself, but there was ample parking within a couple of blocks of the ballpark. Since we arrived early, we parked down the street for about $10, which was a bargain compared to some other MLB parks. As is our custom, we walked around the park shortly after arriving. There wasn’t much in the immediate vicinity of Chase Field, so after taking a few pictures, we went inside.
When we entered the park, the roof of Chase Field was open with mainly clear skies, light winds and temperatures in the 70s. Our first impression of Chase Field was that is was huge, even for a domed stadium. Holding 48,000 plus fans, the stadium featured the largest capacity of the “newer” ballparks we had visited. The concourse allowed us access to much of the lower level, and we encircled the playing field, taking pictures.
We briefly stopped in right centerfield (not far from the pool) to take in some batting practice, as Mets players shagged fly balls in the outfield. As batting practice ended, we continued the tour of Chase Field on our way to our seats. Despite ideal weather conditions, we noted that the roof was closing. In the short time since we entered the park, the wind picked up outside, and the Diamondbacks management decided that wind was a hazard with the roof open. By the time we reached the upper deck to get a picture of the park from behind home plate, the roof had closed.
Like most MLB parks, there were no shortage of places to eat, with a large variety of Southwest based entrees and ballpark favorites. Before heading to our seats, we ducked into the lower concourse to grab a baseball dinner. During our tour of the ballpark, we noticed Randy Johnson warming up in the bullpen. A sure fire Hall of Famer, Johnson was still at the top of his game in 2006, a formidable opponent for the surging Mets.
While Randy Johnson often dominated opponents, his record against the Mets was rather pedestrian, especially in the playoffs. So, while the Mets were facing one of the best pitchers of the era, their high powered offense might just be a match for Johnson. The Mets sent right hander John Maine to the mound, who was enjoying the best stretch of his young career. Coming into this start, Maine was 5-0 to start the season, with a sterling 1.32 ERA.
Given the starting pitching matchup, we thought we might witness a low scoring game, though we did not know the characteristics of Chase Field, especially with the roof closed. We got our answer early, as the Mets scored a run off Johnson in the first, followed by two more runs in the second to take a 3-0 lead. It seems as though the Mets would continue their mastery of Randy Johnson.
Meanwhile, the Mets John Maine was cruising, extending his streak of good starts in the desert. During the game, we got a much better look at Chase Field. The first thing we noticed was the size of the crowd, which seemed disappointingly small for a Friday night. There were fewer fans in the park than the announced crowd of 26,000, making the park look that much larger.
The Mets John Maine threw six effective innings at the Diamondbacks, leaving a 5-1 lead for the bullpen. Though the Mets relievers allowed a pair of runs in the eight inning, closer Billy Wagner shut down the Diamondbacks in the ninth to preserve the 5-3 victory. Despite the number of runs scored, the game was played in a very economical two and one-half hours.
During that time, I feel we got a good sense of Chase Field. My initial impression remained with me through the game; the ballpark is HUGE, especially with the roof closed (like most stadiums with a retractable roof). Its size did not project any sense of intimacy, a seemingly important attribute of “newer” MLB ballparks. Of course, a stadium with a roof is a necessity in the Valley of the Sun, for the benefit of fans and players alike.
However, the necessity appears to make Chase Field somewhat less charming, in my opinion. We would be back the next night, giving us another opportunity to explore the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks.