Take me out to Spring Training

The Anaheim Angels – the World Champion Anaheim Angels – practicing on a field that looked a neighborhood park. A few dozen fans, arms crossed, watched from just a few feet away behind a chain link fence.

Therein lies the beauty of spring training.

For a month every year, the grand heroes of America’s pastime, and those who would be the next heroes, visit our neighborhoods.

The larger-than-life guys who make millions play in small-town parks. They sign autographs. They trade high-fives with kids wearing small versions of their jerseys. They mingle with the masses.

Spring training in Arizona is as popular as ever. A record 12 teams now call the Grand Canyon State home during the month leading up to the first pitch of the regular season.

Our beloved Diamondbacks are here, of course, training in Tucson before reoccupying the BOB.

The Cubbies are back in the Valley, hoping their month of training in Mesa will launch them on a path toward their first World Series title since forever.

The Giants – and all-star slugger Barry Bonds – make Scottsdale home. The Oakland A’s take over Phoenix Municipal Stadium. The Mariners and Padres share the Peoria Sports Complex, and the Brewers turn Maryvale into home base.

The Angels’ “neighborhood park” is actually the grounds of Tempe Diablo Stadium. The Rockies and White Sox join the Diamondbacks in Tucson.

This year, for the first time, Surprise gets in on the action, hosting new Cactus League members Texas and Kansas City in a brand new 10,714 seat stadium.

Most of the games are in the afternoon, giving spring training an even more relaxed feel. The stars usually start most games, giving way to the younger guys in the later innings.

If you see “ss” beside a team’s schedule, that’s a split-squad contest. One team’s roster is divided in two, giving more players more playing time (and fans more chances to watch baseball).

Before you head off to the ballpark to watch some of the action over the next few weeks (a schedule can be found at left), here are team capsules on each of the 12 Cactus League squads to whet your appetite:

Anaheim Angels

2002 Record: 99 - 63

Finished in their division: 2nd place AL West

Playoffs: World Series Champions

Manager: Mike Scioscia

Key players: Pitcher Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, 3B Troy Glaus, the Rally Monkey

Story lines to follow: It’s always intriguing to follow a team after they’ve won a championship. Can they repeat? The Angels still have the weapons to make a good run. But this time they’ll be wearing targets on their backs as defending champs. How much will the Rally Monkey be needed?

Arizona Diamondbacks

2002 Record: 98-64

Finished in their division: 1st place NL West

Playoffs: Lost in NLDS to St. Louis

Manager: Bob Brenly

Key players: OF Luis Gonzalez, LHP Randy Johnson, RHP Curt Schilling, IF Craig Counsell

Story lines to follow: Can Byung-Hyun Kim make it as a starter? Will Randy and Curt lead the pack in the chase for the NL Cy Young again? How will Gonzo and Counsell fare in their returns from injury? Can Arizona get that World Series trophy back with its unique mix of veterans and young guys?

Chicago Cubs

2002 Record: 67 - 95

Finished in their division: 5th place NL Central

Playoffs: n/a

Manager: Dusty Baker

Key players: OF Sammy Sosa, RHP Mark Prior, IF Eric Karros

Story lines to follow: Can Dusty Baker take the National League’s most beleaguered franchise to the promised land? Will Sosa keep slamming HRs (and Barry Bonds in the media)? What will Mingus Union grad Jeff Huson provide to the Cubbies farm system as a coach?

Chicago White Sox

2002 Record: 81 - 81

Finished in their division: 2nd place in AL Central

Playoffs: n/a

Manager: Jerry Manuel

Key players: 1B Frank Thomas, P Bartolo Colon, C Sandy Alomar, IF Tim Huson (minor leaguer from Mingus Union)

Story lines to follow: Can the Big Hurt (Thomas) put a hurtin’ on pitchers again this season? Will acquiring Colon help the pitching rotation?

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