Am I a hardcore fan now?  Wow, I am really warming up to this baseball thing – literally. 

After getting swept up in World Series fever last fall, I joined the annual pilgrimage to Arizona for baseball’s Spring Training.  The six weeks of practice baseball in both Arizona and Florida is an event of which I was only vaguely aware. I’d certainly heard of spring training, although I’d be hard pressed to tell anyone the difference between spring training, spring break and fantasy camp. I barely know all the words to “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” I have no business attending spring training.

Nonetheless, I am tanned, rested and ready for baseball after returning from a sun-drenched weekend in Phoenix cheering on the San Francisco Giants. Perhaps this elevates me to hardcore bandwagonner.

Full disclosure: my parents invited my 27-year old brother and me to join them in Phoenix this year, and while I am not the world’s most devoted baseball fan, I will gladly accept a free trip. I attended Sunday’s game against the Texas Rangers, held in the annoyingly-named city of Surprise, Arizona.  My family is very patient in explaining the ins and outs of baseball to someone like me, someone who prefers the details of Brian Wilson’s personal life to his stats.

For fans (established and bandwagonners alike), there is really nothing like getting up close and personal with both established stars and new players and prospects, all while soaking up the southwestern sun in a party atmosphere.  I’m starting to see the point of all this.

Sunday’s Giants game against the Texas Rangers was held at the Rangers’ Cactus League home in Surprise, Arizona. Fans clamored near the dugout hours before the game, hoping to see their baseball idols. On this day, Giants stars Brian Wilson, Buster Posey, Aubrey Huff and Tim Lincecum were nowhere to be found.  Instead, I watched a collection of players I had never heard of wander onto the field, one by one. A few came over to sign autographs, but most tossed the crowd a wave and headed straight for the shade of the dugout.

A 7-year old boy in a Giants cap right in front of me kept calling out, “Mr. Wilson! Mr. Wilson! Sign my ball!” Unfortunately, he was speaking to the also-bearded Sergio Romo. Mr. Romo did not sign the ball, although he did do a little jig for fans in what I assume was an homage to impending St. Patrick’s Day festivities.

The small stadium was packed, although much more relaxed and a regular season game at AT&T Park. Our family was surrounded by Giants fans on one side, and Ranger fanatics on the other. The woman sitting directly next to me comes to all six weeks of spring training every year, driving to Phoenix from her hometown of Dallas.  She was warm and friendly, asking all kinds of questions about the stars on the team in her charming Texan drawl. Mainly, she wanted to know about earthquakes and Bay Area weather, which as a member of the CBS San Francisco web team, is a subject in which I am well-versed.

I mostly enjoyed watching my brother, a lifelong Giants fan and sports lover. While normally a very laid-back, easy-going guy, my brother Alex has a special voice reserved for screaming at sporting events. He’s dramatically invested in the game and encouraging of the players, like a parent cheering on their child. Alex couldn’t help but leap to his feet for every hit, every run, every time anyone did anything remotely exciting.  And this was for games that don’t even count!

Actually, this game was pretty exciting, particularly for Giants fans. Unfortunately for my seatmate, my Giants beat her Rangers yet again.  Sorry, y’all!   

After Nate Schierholtz hit a homerun, I regaled those sitting nearby with my story of standing next to him at Bar None in San Francisco’s Marina District. I reported that Mr. Schierholtz is surprisingly tall, had a polite blonde girlfriend and that his shoulders are so wide, he probably has to shimmy through doors sideways.

My family took this opportunity to encourage me to date a professional baseball player, as if women can sign up somewhere to lock arms with Matt Cain. At one point, our entire section of Surprise Stadium debated which professional athlete I might have the best chance at romancing, factoring in both attainability and professional success.

For example, while a minor league player might be more likely to wine and dine the likes of me than a national star, he won’t be able to get my brother behind home plate at the World Series.

It’s always nice to have one’s personal life discussed and dissected by one’s immediate family AND strangers. Perhaps this is my penance for getting to attend spring training.

Speaking of sizing up ballplayers … holy Lean Cuisine! Have you seen Pablo Sandoval?  He is almost unrecognizable after losing nearly 40 pounds.  He actually stole a base, a play that was met with both applause and chuckles.  No longer resembling a panda, Giants fans are going to have to come up with a new nickname (and fur hat) for this popular player. 

Cody Ross and Andres Torres were the obvious fan favorites on the field on Sunday, although I particularly enjoyed watching first basemen, Brandon Belt. Currently playing for the Giant’s AAA affiliate, the Fresno Grizzlies, Belt is being hailed as “the next Buster Posey” by some and “the next dreamy Giants player” by me.

Just like in the World Series, the Giants took an early lead, the Rangers made noble attempts at catching up, and then my boys snuffed out the Rangers’ hopes.  The Giants blew open the game with 5 runs in the 4th inning, the Rangers weren’t able to overcome that, and that was that.  Giants, 11-8. 

Or so I’m told. The excitement, the hotdogs and the sun took its toll on me by the 7th inning stretch, and much to the horror of the gentleman seated behind me, I fell asleep on my father’s shoulder.

After surviving my rookie year at spring training intact, my tips for sports fans making the trek to the Cactus League include:

  1. Sunscreen: Based on my sunburn, Surprise, Arizona appears to be the Earth’s closest spot to the sun.
  2. Bring your own Sharpies. Giants fans hoping to get their memorabilia signed often managed to remember to bring 463 baseballs along, but forgot the Sharpie.
  3. Have dinner at Don & Charlie’s in Scottsdale.  We popped in for a late dinner and who did we find signing autographs (for $200 each) at the front door? None other than Giants legend, Willie Mays.
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