Salt River Fields at Talking Stick opened three years ago as the latest (perhaps last) two-team spring training facility in the Cactus League. It’s unique in that it sits on the western edge of the lands of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, a group of federally recognized Native American tribes. The Rockies and Diamondbacks came over after spending a stint in Tucson, formally making the Cactus League a Phoenix operation in the process.
Coming from Tempe, I found myself driving through a shopping center to get to the ballpark. In the process I avoided the $5 parking fee by parking at the shopping center. From there I followed a large crowd past a movie theater to the south entrance to the baseball complex. A gently rising path elevated above the Rockies’ practice fields. The path deposits fans at the main concourse level, high above the field. Prior to the opening of Cubs Park, Talking Stick was the most expansive ballpark in Arizona. Wide concourses open to even wider spaces. The press/suite level, with its dark metal and amber lighting, is reminiscent of a resort. Instead of bleachers, bars flank the grandstand down both lines. Team executive offices look the part.
Proximity to a mall notwithstanding, Talking Stick takes some of the lessons learned from Camelback Ranch and Goodyear Ballpark and applies them well. Camelback is too isolated and sometimes feels more like a landscape architecture exercise than a baseball experience. Goodyear is nearly devoid of character due to its cold, spartan appearance. The lighting along the main concourse at Talking Stick may be too casino resort-like at times, but get out from under the shade and the little pleasures start to take hold. Everything feels very angular and shows differently depending on the sunlight. The split roof structures don’t contour with the grandstand. Stairs and ramps leading down to the lower walkway invite fans to stop and appreciate the views of the field. At sunset a little dust kicked up to lend a little mystery. Camelback Mountain looms in the distance behind the grandstand, majestic and stark. Trees sit on the berm.
The big critique of Talking Stick is that it lacks intimacy. The different eras of spring training ballparks have proved this out. The older parks are simply closer and more geared towards watching the game than the new ones, which are designed for easily getting to the concourse for concessions. Those concessions, however, aren’t bad. The pulled pork nachos were decent. Beer selection was poor. There’s a fry bread stand in center, and I wonder why fry bread isn’t more available throughout the Cactus League. And there are complimentary SPF 30 sunscreen dispensers along the berm. Those things should be mandatory.
As the Cactus League continues to evolve, we’re in a spot where we haven’t yet hit the net era. Cubs Park marks the end of the current era. A modified and smaller HoHoKam Stadium is a stylish refurb of a 90’s era park. Maryvale is something of a question mark for the Brewers going forward. And the two-team facilities appear to be solid, though the Mariners and Padres could choose to squeeze Peoria for upscale renovations. For now, let Cubs Park and Talking Stick be the standard-bearers for single and dual-team facilities, respectively. Long live the Cactus League.