The Boys of Spring

I think I’ve lost my son. The crowd in the stands along the right-field foul line is now five deep at least.

By: Kenneth Shapiro

A helping hand

San Francisco-based Sports Marketing USA has been booking baseball trips for 19 years. Currently they have an exclusive contract as the travel company for 17 Major League teams.

"All we do is baseball," Lisa Goularte, director of sales and marketing, said. "People say ‘What do you do when spring training is over?’ Well, we have 10 different baseball road-trip packages that we create for different teams throughout the season."

Sports Marketing USA handles all the details for its clients, including flights, rental cars, hotels, tickets and more. The company also arranges for special events and exclusive access.

"Since we work exclusively with the teams, we get opportunities that wouldn’t be possible otherwise," said Goularte.

The company is usually contacted directly by customers through each team’s Web site, but they offer commission for travel agents as well.

"We think of ourselves as the agents’ saving grace, because we take care of everything and it would take a lot of time for agents to do it themselves," she said. "Also, we pay commission on everything — tickets, events, all the land-package components."

This year, they are also building the official packages for the World Baseball Classic.


Cactus League Baseball

Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau

The Phoenician

Sports Marketing USA

Sports Marketing USA can be reached through the official Web sites of these MLB teams: Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, New York Mets, Philadelphia Phillies, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Washington Nationals.

Father and son play like major leaguers at the Angel’s practice facility. // (c)  Judd Eustice
Father and son play like major leaguers at the Angel’s practice facility.

I think I’ve lost my son. The crowd in the stands along the right-field foul line is now five deep at least. Grown men and little boys are holding out baseballs, programs, jerseys and bobblehead-doll boxes. Russell Martin, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ all-star catcher, is on the other side of the rail working his way up the foul line, patiently signing whatever object is handed to him.

Henry, my 7-year-old son, is somewhere in that crowd. A few minutes earlier he had grabbed a baseball and a black Sharpie and dived into the mass of bodies — disappearing in a forest of pant legs.

"Over here, Martin."

"Martin, you’re the man."

Voices call out as the bright Arizona sun casts long shadows across the perfectly groomed field. A few of the other Dodger players sit on the outfield grass a couple yards from the stands doing their post-game stretching. The stadium is almost empty.

The autograph seekers tense up when a trainer starts urging Martin to stop signing and move along already. Finally, amid a chorus of disappointed moans, Martin waves goodbye and runs off toward the players’ locker room.

As the crowd breaks up, it takes a while for Henry to reappear — with a huge smile on his face.

"Got it, Daddy," he says, holding out the baseball for me to inspect. "He was standing right there in front of me the whole time. Right there!"

He says it with such disbelief at his good fortune that I know he’ll remember this moment for a long time to come.

Fan-tastic Access
Experiences like this are a big part of the draw of spring training. For years, fans have been traveling to Arizona and Florida to cheer for their favorite teams and meet their heroes. In an age marked by soaring ticket prices and security concerns, the access available during spring training seems quaint in comparison. Tickets are relatively inexpensive, and stadiums are small — many venues offer lawn areas where fans can spread out a blanket and have a picnic during the game. They can also watch teams practice up close. I was able to stand just a few yards away as future Hall of Famer Ichiro Suzuki took batting practice. The players themselves are more relaxed and friendly to fans.

This access has made it a booming tourism industry for the host communities.

"Spring training has a total economic impact of about $300 million for the month of March," said Doug Mackenzie, director of communications for the Greater Phoenix Convention and Visitors Bureau. "And it’s a great family vacation. It’s warm enough to swim; you’re 15 or 20 minutes from the desert; there’s mountain biking; hot-air balloon rides; a new children’s museum downtown; and programs at the art museum. Just a lot to do."

Currently there are two states, Arizona and Florida, with spring-training games.

In Florida, the Grapefruit League has 16 teams, and games take place in cities spread out across the state. Arizona’s Cactus League has 14 teams and is more condensed, with the majority of games taking place in the Phoenix area. Teams in the Cactus League include: Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago Cubs, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Los Angeles Dodgers, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland Athletics, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.

Of the two leagues, the Cactus League has seen more growth in recent years. The Dodgers and Indians just joined and will play their first full seasons in 2009, while the Reds will be moving to Arizona in 2010. And, of course, more teams means more visitors.

"Because all of the West Coast teams are playing close by in Arizona, it also makes for a good weekend getaway from most of those cities," said Lisa Goularte, director of sales and marketing for Sports Marketing USA, a baseball travel tour operator that specializes in exclusive spring-training trips for 17 Major League teams.

Goularte said her company sees a lot of repeat business, with 60 percent coming back each year and 75 percent coming every other year. Also, the average length of stay increased to 4.6 nights last year, with more families choosing area resorts.

Of course, it helps that games take place from the end of February through March, when much of the rest of the country is snowed in.

"You can’t beat the weather," said Goularte. "We have Cubs fans that can’t believe it. Some end up buying a second home there."

Resort Amenities
For families, the weather also opens up opportunities for activities, whether that’s swimming, golf, tennis, shopping, biking, hiking or spa-going. When Henry and I weren’t at a game, we spent time lounging in one of the nine pools (including one with a 165-foot water slide) at The Phoenician resort, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection. We also had our choice of tennis, lawn bowling, basketball, a large-screen Wii room and a kid’s club. Henry even took a golf lesson.

The resort is also a great base for families because of its range of accommodations. In particular, the Five-Diamond award-winning Canyon Suites is a resort within a resort and features suites big enough for a family to share. And, despite the upscale service and accommodations, the hotel maintains a family-friendly atmosphere. For instance, one night as a surprise, the maid used multicolored, alphabet sponges to spell out Henry’s name in our bathtub.

"People are looking at our resorts as places to escape to. As places for rejuvenation," said Mackenzie. "Certainly, they all have wonderful spas. There’s 400,000 feet of spa space in the area and over 200 golf courses, too."

For families that want to take a break from baseball and want to see even more, Mackenzie pointed out that it’s also possible for families to take a road trip to Sedona, Tucson, Tombstone or, of course, the Grand Canyon.

"There are just so many activities that surround the games," said Mackenzie.

Having too few options was certainly not a problem for us. On the last night, Henry blew a shot by me on the Wii tennis court for game, set, match. Then he turned to me and said with a smile, "This trip just gets better and better."