Monday, March 09, 2009

Prairie style: White Sox at home on the Phoenix range

Chicago red hots are a tasty mystery in Phoenix. As our kosher dogs were groomed at the White Sox' new spring training home, the vendors asked if they were doing it right. And except for the celery salt covering more pickle than wiener it was picture perfect, right down to the kelly green relish. An empty container was labeled "TIPS" in Magic Marker so we primed the pump. That's the Chicago way.

The White Sox are working to get it right at Camelback Ranch Glendale, the new park the team shares with the Los Angeles Dodgers on the northwest edge of Phoenix. Vienna Beef dogs and Connie's Pizza lend Chicago flair to an otherwise indifferent menu, but pub brews from Gordon Biersch and Deschutes Brewery are a heady reminder that you'd really rather be spending March in the Western sun. I'll pass on the Lemon Chill, thank you.

We saw the Sox as nominal visitors in a split-squad game with the Dodgers March 5. The A-team was squared off against the Cubs in Las Vegas, which gave us a good look at non-roster players, some of whom like lefty slugger Miguel Negron were playing without names on their jerseys. Jack Egbert struck out 4 in three innings as a starter before Adam Russell (wearing #46) came in and gave up two runs to make things too interesting. Kelvin Jimenez lost the game 5-4 in the ninth.

We returned with my parents the next day for a non-Cactus League exhibition vs. Australian minor-leaguers warming up for the World Baseball Classic. Neither game made the Phoenix papers, but the lopsided 10-3 WBC warmup put more prospects in play. Gordon Beckham got cooking in a potential bake-off at second base, as the hinge in a 6-4-3 double play, and Brian Anderson stroked a solid opposite-field homer to improve his odds in the center-field derby.

Despite the comfy scenery, the Sox risk being visitors in their new ranch home: L.A. fans show up in quantity no matter who's playing, and although the teams share a Playbill-size gate handout I was toning up my flabby scorekeeping in a Dodgers program, the only scorecard available. But home-plate seats were available and affordable, and the outfield lawn's up-close bullpen view was an $8 bargain. And while the Herbie Hancock sample from US3's "Cantaloop" became an earbug between innings, it could not beat hearing again the Sox' opening "Pirates of the Caribbean/Thunderstruck" medley.

Another day of third-base wind and sun would have been perfect, along with a chance to stroll the practice fields beyond the outfield wall, which include park-dimension facsimiles of both Dodger Stadium and the Cell. Sadly, that was not to be. One consolation: Sox season tickets were awaiting the return to Chicago. Spring, bring it on.

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