Spring Training is baseball at its best -- up close and personal. Although the Padres start their exhibition season Feb. 27, it's not just the games that make Spring Training special.
Attend a morning practice and you can be close enough to the action to hear the crack of the bat and the whoosh of a fastball as it heads for the catcher's mitt.
Spring Training is the perfect time to get that ball autographed. Bring your own pen -- players like to sign with Sharpies -- and ball or notebook. The key word is "Please!" And it helps to know your players.
Throughout spring -- even when the exhibition games are being played -- Padres players start arriving at the complex around 6:30 a.m. Early birds can get autographs outside the gate to the players' parking lot. Another prime time for autographs is when the players leave the parking lot every afternoon. But that is not your only opportunity to see the players up close.
All Padres practice fields and practice mounds have viewing areas. Players will often pause while moving from one field to another to sign an autograph or two.
And, once the Minor League players report, their exhibitions are free to the public.
Here are some tips for young fans seeking autographs:
• Make yourself stand apart from the professionals seeking autographs to sell. Players can spot the true fans in the crowd. Padres Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, for example, always looked for the kid with dirty hands clutching a well-used baseball.
• Hold out your baseball or autograph to make it easy for the player to make a quick stop. And saying "Please, Mr. Headley" doesn't hurt.
• Remember, players also have a schedule. They can't always stop. But don't give up. The Padres usually report to the practice fields just after 9:15 each morning. Practice extends to around 1 p.m., before the start of exhibition games. Once the exhibition season begins, players leave the practice fields earlier to prepare for games.
Most Padres fans making the trek to Peoria head to Arizona after the start of exhibition games -- watching practice in the morning and taking in the game after lunch. Peoria Stadium is home to both the Padres and the Seattle Mariners of the American League.
Although the majority of exhibitions are played in the afternoon, there are night games.
One of the pleasures of Spring Training is visiting the other complexes around the Valley of the Sun.
Adult box seats at Peoria Stadium range from $20 to $28. Bleacher seats go for $15. But, try sitting on the lawn bank around the outfield for $7.
Reaching Peoria: There are 17 flights daily from San Diego to Phoenix. We found round trips for as low as $171. But, be advised, rental car charges at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix are some of the highest in the nation (some of the fees go toward building sports venues in the area). Rates are cheaper at satellite rental desks.
By car, the Peoria Sports Complex is 360 miles from Mission Valley. Allow yourself 6 1/2 hours for the trip, although it can be done an hour quicker. It is a freeway or four-lane, divided highway for all but about 10 miles.
The directions are simple: Take I-8 east to Gila Bend, Ariz. Take Arizona-85 north 33 miles to the I-10. Take the I-10 east to the north 101 loop. Exit to the right on Bell Road. Take another right on 83rd. Turn left at the second light for the Padres side of the Peoria Sports Complex. Gasoline is usually at least 20 cents a gallon cheaper in Arizona.
Where to stay: There are 21 hotels of every variety within a seven-mile radius of the Padres complex, including four within walking distance. Be aware, Spring Training falls in the middle of Arizona's peak tourist season. Snowbirds are everywhere. Those cheap Arizona hotel rates of the summer are not available in February and March. Rooms begin to fill up once the exhibition games begin. Cheaper rates are available at hotels along the I-10 and I-17. There are also nine RV parks within a short drive from the Padres complex.
Where to eat: Almost every chain known to man has a franchise in close proximity to the Peoria Sports Complex. For fast food aficionados, there is a Chic-fil-A within walking distance, and an In-N-Out Burger. My favorite dinner spots are The Texas Roadhouse and Famous Dave's, but I'm partial to steaks and barbecue. There is something for everyone at every price. Try Jason's Deli for sandwiches. Want something different in fast food? Travel two miles south on 83rd to Culver's. The hamburgers are sensational and the frozen custard is the perfect end to a day.
What to wear: Yes, it is a desert. But the mornings and nights can be very cold, especially in February and early March. Pack warm clothes, as well as shorts.