Today I totally got into Phoenix. I discovered why people like living here, besides just the weather (although I think that weather is most of it). The secret is to keep moving at all costs.
I woke early, ate pancakes at an IHOP, and went to the A’s complex. It was blissful. Stupendously dull also, but that came later. First, the bliss. I have not fallen instantly in love with the desert, but standing out there on the immaculately green grass, with the sun piercing through the clouds and the red clay rocks looming in the near distance, well, I could see how it was possible. Even the steady drone of passing traffic seemed part of the magic. Baseball was perfect in this context. The players wore dark-green jerseys, with “Athletics” in gold script across the front. They seemed extremely happy to be professional ball players, as well they should be.
Unfortunately—and this is where it got boring—they did not play baseball today or anything close to it. If a sweat was broken at the A’s complex, it could only have been the clubhouse attendants cleaning the players’ spikes.
The pitchers broke up into three squads, going through drills of practicing their pick-off moves, fielding grounders, and covering first base. It was impossible to watch for more than, like, 30 seconds without drifting into a coma. For the rest of the players, there were fielding and throwing drills. That was marginally more compelling, tolerable for maybe a minute.
Thankfully, it was all over pretty quickly. By 11 a.m., practice was wrapping up. I introduced myself to a couple of players who agreed to hang out with me later in the week, and that was that. People started leaving, and I had no idea what to do with myself. Should I beg one of the players to take me wherever he was going, show me the real spring training? I doubted I could pull that off on my first day, if ever. Should I try to get to another team, or was everybody’s practice winding up this early, too?
A photographer suggested I head out to the Seattle Mariners’ camp, where a great mob of Japanese reporters was following Ichiro Suzuki everywhere he went. Suzuki, the best hitter in Japan, is hoping to make it as a star here. Scouts marvel at his flawless, compact swing. Problem is, he stands 5 feet 9 inches and weighs 160 pounds, not exactly an intimidating figure at the plate. If he can only hit singles, he’ll have to bat .350 just to stick.
The Mariners train in Peoria, on the far northwestern fringe of the Phoenix sprawl. It would’ve been a long way to go just for Suzuki, but the San Diego Padres share the same complex, and I’ve been meaning to track down Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. I want to understand how a pitcher can dominate the way he does throwing exclusively change-ups. So I found a map and figured out the way to Peoria.
Getting there took me right up the gut of sleazoid Phoenix, real-life Tarantino-land. Fifty-year-old ranch houses with weeds growing out the window frames. Rent-by-the-hour motels made of pink cinder blocks. Bunker-style topless joints with corrugated-tin roofs. Fliers for last week’s gun show (“the big one”) stapled to every light pole. Billboards touting a local business called The Divorce Store. That was as high-end as it got.
When I arrived (safely) at the Mariners’ camp, I had a thousand bad screenplay ideas swirling around in my head. The Suzuki circus was going at full tilt, but I couldn’t get close to it, because I hadn’t called ahead for credentials. Outside the gate, a bunch of fans were accosting the driver of every car that was leaving the parking lot. I hung with them for while and attempted to interview a pair of Japanese teen-agers who I think were in the United States solely to bird-dog their hero. I can’t say for sure, though, because their English wasn’t all that great, and they would barely acknowledge me. They were too worried I’d make them miss the SUV carrying the precious Suzuki.
On the Padres side of the camp, everyone had already split. “Got to make their tee times,” an old man in a Padres shirt told me with a chuckle.
So I spent the rest of the day in my silver Grand Am from Avis and discovered another form of bliss. Cheese-ball bliss. I put on my sunglasses, tuned the radio to a hard rock station, and I drove. Phoenix, I discovered, is a very pure form of sprawl. There are tall buildings loosely collected in something that approximates a downtown, but things are more decentralized than any big city I’ve ever been in, so traffic doesn’t bog down much. You just glide from place to place. If where you are doesn’t hold your attention, head on to the next destination. The tedium can always be relieved by movement.
From Peoria, I cruised out to a mall in Scottsdale, where I bought the new New Yorker and sat down to read it at a Johnny Rocket’s counter. I felt like the smartest person in the whole mall, and then, suddenly, the dumbest. A moment after ordering a burger, fries, and a chocolate malted, I turned unwittingly to Malcolm Gladwell’s assault on the French fry. In another time and place, I can imagine shrugging off his attempt at rehabilitating Olestra (how come he didn’t address the dreaded “anal leakage” side effect by name?) and promoting burgers made of seaweed. But here in fast food paradise, it struck me to the core. The experience of actually consuming French fries while reading the story made me taste trans fats for the first time, really taste them, and they were nasty. I walked out leaving half the burger and two thirds of the fries uneaten on the counter. The malted I took with me, and I drank the whole thing. How will I survive Phoenix with fast food?
But I didn’t let it bother me. I got back behind the wheel and drove out to Taliesin West, the Frank Lloyd Wright shrine, then down to Tempe, and finally to my hotel near the airport. Coming off the high of driving, I felt a little down, depleted. I tried to take stock of what I had and had not accomplished during the day. Fortunately, the phone rang then. It was Glenn, an old friend from high school and the only person I know in all of Phoenix. He invited me to dinner with him and his girlfriend. I was kind of tired, and I thought I might never be hungry again. But the restaurant was across town, and that meant getting back in the Grand Am. How could I turn it down?