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Everything is near and dear in Cactus League

Everything is near and dear in Cactus League

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Everything is near and dear in Cactus League
Where else can you go and see half of the Major Leagues' 30 teams play without ever having to drive more than 47 miles, and oftentimes much shorter distances? That would be the Cactus League, where 15 teams prepare for the season in a relatively tight radius surrounding Phoenix, Ariz.

It is here where the ballparks are surrounded by mesas, rock formations and cacti. It is here where stars stretch and hit and throw and play games in the laid-back atmosphere of Minor League-sized parks with beautiful, warm and frequently sunny backdrops.

But there is so much more.

Consider the Cactus League's Legacy Trail, a multi-locale, self-guided, educational historical tour of Spring Training-related destinations. The trail consists of several memorabilia collections, which tell the story of the Cactus League's six-plus decades, located in Scottsdale, Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix.

Launched in 2009, "Play Ball: The Cactus League Experience" is an ever-expanding and constantly evolving exhibit that features photographs and artifacts, including equipment, uniforms and pieces of old ballparks, autographed memorabilia and souvenirs that relate to Arizona's rich Spring Training history.

For more than a decade, a little building known as the Old Brick Red School House in the outdoor Scottsdale Civic Center Mall has been home to The Scottsdale Historical Museum's own Spring Training exhibit. It features wooden lockers from the original Scottsdale Stadium, historic photos, vintage video footage and a recently donated ball signed by none other than Babe Ruth. The Scottsdale Historical Museum is open from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. MST Wednesday-Saturday and noon-4 p.m. on Sundays.

A historic hitching post and watering hole for earlier generations of big league ballplayers and sportswriters during the Cactus League's formative years, the refurbished Pink Pony restaurant in Scottsdale, displays an impressive collection of its original owner's authentic memorabilia, including a home plate from the first incarnation of Scottsdale Stadium and dozens of bats autographed by members of World Series championship teams from 1968-98.

The Pink Pony gained its reputation as a baseball hangout when its regulars included the likes of Ted Williams, Dizzy Dean and Billy Martin. Photos of original owner Charlie Briley and his famous baseball pals still hang on the walls and hallways, as well as caricatures of former baseball writers, team executives, players, scouts and other local luminaries.

During the past three decades, Don and Charlie's Steakhouse has become the contemporary version of what the Pink Pony used to be: a regular hangout for Major Leaguers past and present, housing one of the greatest collections of baseball and other sports memorabilia this side of Cooperstown.

"I started collecting memorabilia from day one," says proprietor Don Carson. "Each piece has its own story, from Willie Mays to Michael Jordan to Josh Hamilton to then-senator Joe Biden. We have more than 750 signed baseballs, signed footballs, bats and countless signed magazine covers."

Karsen's Grill, is just blocks away from Scottsdale Stadium, and has become a regular hangout for visiting Giants fans.

"The Spring Training season is an exciting time of year for me because I'm such a baseball fan," says Karsen's co-proprietor, Ray Beamer. "We get another wave of regulars, and it's a strange feeling when it's all over. But when the next season comes it's like having old friends that you pick up with right where you left off."

Of course, there are still the ballparks and the Spring Training games.

In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies left their spring homes in Tucson and moved into the spectacular Salt River Fields at Talking Stick facility on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community near Scottsdale. It is the newest crown jewel of the Cactus League.

With a sunken seating bowl covered by large ramadas providing plenty of shade, the sleek new ballpark was met with rave reviews all the way to the top. Commissioner Bud Selig sung its praises. "Everyone told me it was remarkable. It's even better than that," he said after attending Salt River Fields' inaugural Opening Day.

Located just across the Loop 101 Freeway from the towering Talking Stick Resort/Casino, there is a free shuttle to and from the resort to the ballpark, providing one of the league's most convenient forms of transportation.

The grand dame of Cactus League ballparks, Phoenix Municipal Stadium has been in continuous service since 1964, and was the longtime home of the Giants' Triple-A affiliate. Spring home of the Oakland A's since 1984, the neo-modern, space-age ballpark is bordered by the surprisingly lush and colorful Desert Botanical Garden, located within the prehistoric geological formations known as Papago Park, a popular rock-climbing and hiking destination. The Papago Park Baseball Facility is also located within the surrounding rocky confines and is employed by the team year-round as a Minor League training headquarters. The Play Ball museum installation at the Arizona Historical Society is located less than a mile away, in Tempe.

One of the Cactus League's postcard images, Tempe Diablo Stadium, with its dramatic Tempe Buttes backdrop, has served as the picturesque spring home to the Los Angeles Angels since 1993. Flying into Phoenix, a real-life topographical view reveals that the city is built around its rock formations and numerous baseball diamonds. Both Phoenix Municipal Stadium and Tempe Diablo Stadium are within minutes of Sky Harbor Airport.

The Cactus League's westward expansion had its origins in the Milwaukee Brewers' Sun City Stadium, where they trained from 1973-84. The Brewers have conducted Spring Training at their current westside Maryvale Baseball Park since 1997.

At times it seems it's more about the beer and brats than the baseball for Brewers fans, whose mascots include Bernie Brewer, who rides a slide into a giant mug of beer after a home run by the home team, just as he does at Miller Park in Milwaukee. Five sausages stage the Famous Sausage Race before the bottom of the sixth inning, just as they do during the regular season.

The arrival of the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals, both of whom came aboard from Florida's Grapefruit League in 2003, sparked the Cactus League's growth spurt and continued the shared complex trend begun by the San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners at the Peoria Sports Complex in 1994. The Rangers' and Royals' move to Billy Parker Field at Surprise Stadium also followed the Cactus League's migration into the burgeoning West Valley.

Nearly as surprising as the Dodgers' move from Brooklyn to Los Angeles in 1958, the team's departure after 60 years from their Dodgertown home in Vero Beach, Fla., continued that growth. The Dodgers were joined in 2009 by the Chicago White Sox at the sprawling and scenic 141-acre Camelback Ranch complex in the West Phoenix neighborhood of Glendale.

The recent additions of the Dodgers, White Sox, Reds, and Indians to Glendale and Goodyear have presented Cactus League fans with a new variety of entertainment venues. Located in historic downtown Glendale, Haus Murphy German Restaurant and Beer Garden serves up a variety of German beers, schnitzel and sausage specialties, and has fast become a popular postgame venue of the baseball community.

The Cactus League's prodigal son, the Cleveland Indians, who teamed up with the New York Giants in 1947 to be the first to train in Arizona, returned in 2009 after a 16-year hiatus, moving into the fantastically futuristic Goodyear Ballpark, joined on the southern edge of the West Valley by their cross-state, cross-league rival Cincinnati Reds in 2010.

Cactus League activity creates more than a $350 million annual impact on the state's tourism-driven economy, and the recent surge that has seen the Cactus League catch up with the Grapefruit circuit has enhanced its reputation as a Spring Training vacation destination.

The Cactus League's origins can be at least partially traced to a visit made by Giants owner Horace Stoneham in the late '40s to a place called the Buckhorn Mineral Wells and Baths in Mesa, not far from the current location of HoHoKam Park.

Originally the site of a gas station, the Buckhorn location was converted into a motel that offered mineral baths and massage treatments after a hot-water aquifer containing significant deposits of potassium, silica, magnesium and iron was discovered on the property. Stoneham was introduced to the Buckhorn baths by officials from the Phoenix Chamber of Commerce while scouting for possible training sites, and was so enticed by the rejuvenating effects of the baths and therapy treatments that he thought it might make an ideal place for players to get in shape.

Around the same time, he received a call from Bill Veeck, the owner of the Indians who had a winter home in Tucson. Veeck had already been thinking about moving his team to Tucson for Spring Training, and thus, the Cactus League was born.

Charlie Vascellaro is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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