Attending Spring Training in Arizona has been on my bucket list for about 20 years. My love for baseball and the Chicago Cubs began in the late 1980’s as a young child, but it was just about the baseball cards and Harry Caray in the backgrounds of my childhood summers.
It was 1998 that my true love for baseball was born. It has grown ever since. I actually had a Cubs spring training trip scheduled (plane tickets and all) in 2012. By this point I had returned to college full time as a student while also working for Western Illinois University as the Director of the Leatherneck Sports Network. One of my duties was the play-by-play voice of Western Illinois football and men’s basketball.
My sister and brother-in-law, Debra and Greg, have a home in the Phoenix suburbs. My nephew, Mike, was also living out there in 2012. Mike and I are essentially the same age, so even though I’m “Uncle Beau,” we grew up more like first cousins.
The trip to Arizona to visit the family and enjoy Chicago Cubs baseball was scheduled and flights booked for my parents and I. It was scheduled two weeks after the college basketball regular season…a safe time because it was spring break for myself as a student, and it was during postseason basketball tournaments, so I wouldn’t be covering any basketball (or so I thought).
Western Illinois competes in the Summit League, which is one of the earliest conference tournaments to earn an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. The 2011-12 Leathernecks were a good team, but as the #5 seed in the eight-team tournament a deep run was unlikely. Western Illinois had also never made an appearance in the NCAA tournament since transitioning to Division 1 in 1981.
The Leathernecks pulled off a minor upset in the first round defeating the fourth seeded North Dakota State Bison. Now, the Leathernecks would face to face the #1 seed, Oral Roberts in a semifinal matchup.
Earlier in the season we had an 11-day road trip with games in Kansas City, Omaha, and South Dakota. While in Omaha, the team hotel was near a mall. We spent like three days in Omaha, so one day my entertainment was a stop at the mall. There was a store with eccentric suits, and I had watched too much Craig Sager and collected some outlandish suits to wear to the games. I added a white suit in Omaha and wore it later in the season for a “white out” night. I brought that white suit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for the Summit League Tournament in the unlikely event we advanced to the championship game that would air live on ESPN2.
Western Illinois did it. The Leathernecks pulled off the upset of top seeded Oral Roberts to advance to the Summit League title game against South Dakota State. The Leathernecks held a lead against the Nate Wolters-led Jackrabbits throughout the game. It was unreal. Were the Leathernecks going dancing in March Madness? I would be missing out on a Spring Training trip, but I would be broadcasting an NCAA Tournament game….and it would likely be against one of the best teams in the nation as we would almost certainly be a #16 seed.
Let’s not get a head of ourselves. The game was tied with 15 seconds remaining…but we had possession. The offense started moving and Ceola Clark, the guy you want taking the last shot, took a leaning jumper in the waning seconds that rimmed out. Overtime!
South Dakota State had all the momentum. And with the tournament venue being an hour from the Brookings, South Dakota campus…the sellout crowd was mostly yellow and blue. The Jackrabbits had also erased a 10-point lead midway through the second half. The teams traded baskets in the overtime period until a three pointer with about a minute left by South Dakota State set the final score at 52-50. South Dakota State was going dancing. Western Illinois was dealt a devastating loss. It was stomach churning and I was just the broadcaster. I can’t imagine the feeling being in uniform or a coach taking a loss like that.
I woke up the next morning thinking I can erase the awful feeling by quickly transitioning to baseball with my upcoming spring training trip. The team had breakfast, we checked out, jumped on the bus and began our eight hour ride back to Illinois.
At some point during the bus ride I could overhear the coaches in the seats in front of me. If memory serves correctly our coach, Jim Molinari, took a call from our Athletic Director, Tim VanAlstine. It sounded like a postseason tournament could be in the cards for the Leathernecks. It would be either the CBI or CIT. The former was a fairly new tournament that took 32 teams that missed both the NCAA and NIT. The latter, CIT, was a 16-team tournament for mid major programs.
By the time we reached Des Moines, IA for dinner at the mall food court, it sounded like the CBI was all but a go for Western Illinois. That also meant my spring training trip would be wiped away. A few days later we did learn our fate. For the first time in program history the Western Illinois Leathernecks basketball team was going to play in a Division 1 postseason tournament. And for the 30th straight year, I was going to miss baseball spring training.
Our first round opponent would be the Oregon State Beavers right smack dab during my scheduled trip to Arizona. Many of my trips with the university were fun, but a few were all business and a lot of planes, trains, and automobiles. Quite literally, minus the trains. We lost to the Beavers by about 20 points, and the only free time in Salem, Oregon (we stayed in Salem and not Corvallis) was a few hours on game day. It was raining, so my sightseeing in Oregon was limited to very wet two blocks walk to Starbucks.
So, that’s the story of my planned spring training trip that never was. It’s also tough for me that I never got to experience it with my dad, who passed away in 2016 (two months before the Cubs won the World Series). But, I am pretty sure he was looking down at me enjoying my trip this year.
The alarm woke me up at 4 a.m. My flight took off at 7 a.m. from Madison, Wisconsin going direct to Phoenix, Arizona. There wasn’t much traffic on my early morning commute to the airport. I had checked in online, and just needed to check my suitcase. Everything but some books and random things were in my carry on backpack. The rest, including all of my baseballs and binders, were in the suitcase. As I placed it on the scale at the counter it weighed 58 pounds. It was eight pounds overweight and that would carry a price tag of an additional $100. Or, I could use the empty scale next to this counter and pull out eight pounds of stuff. Turns out three baseballs equal one pound, so two dozen baseballs went into my backpack.
I proceeded to security, which was actually much busier than expected for Madison, Wisconsin. Still, it went pretty swiftly and I was on my way to the terminal. The flight was smooth. Really smooth. We landed 57 minutes early. Yes, 57 minutes ahead of schedule for a flight from Wisconsin to Arizona. I haven’t even been on a European flight that beat the expected travel time by an hour. What made this even smoother? Despite the flight attendant telling passengers we would likely wait on the tarmac for an extended period of time….we didn’t. We were off the plane within five minutes of landing.
Since I was so early it appeared I would make it out to Surprise, Arizona in plenty of time for the Cubs/Rangers game that afternoon. After picking up my rental car I was on the freeway to visit the Texas Rangers spring training facility.
I arrived about two hours before first pitch, so I took a cruise through the area to find a lunch spot. I’ve heard so much about In-N-Out Burger, and found one just a mile or two from the park.
In-N-Out Burger was good, but not great. It’s not someplace I am yearning to go back. The burger was on par with Five Guys or any other similar fast food burger.
My plan was to buy a cheap ticket (lawn) for the game, which runs $15 at the gate. As I approached a guy asked if I wanted a lawn ticket for $10. Sold!
I walked around the facility to take it all in. For the first few innings I found a spot on the lawn in left field next to the Cubs bullpen.
Midway through the game I went for a walk around the park. One of my trading partners, Brandon in Nebraska, had asked to get a Taylor McGregor autograph if I saw her. She is the new sideline reporter for the Cubs TV network, and formerly worked for the Colorado Rockies.
As I was standing down the first base line I saw a woman with a Marquee Network microphone. Could this be her? Indeed it was, and I told her that a friend wanted her autograph. I had a baseball with me, and she personalized it to Brandon.
After the game, I drove back to Mesa to check into my hotel. I dumped all my stuff and made my way over to Scottsdale to meet up with the Club 400 group taking part in The Heckler bar crawl.
Miguel Montero and John Mallee (Cubs hitting coach for the 2016 World Series team) were also part of the group. I grabbed a seat at their table and listened in on some great behind the scenes stories, which I will keep to myself!
What a great first day at Spring Training! Even though it was a super long day of travel, baseball, and fellowship…I was up early Friday morning to scope out Sloan Park. Stay tuned for day two of my spring training diary.