The Impulsive Traveler: Spring training in Arizona, on Native American land

Travel map of Scottsdale, Arizona
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Charlie Vascellaro
Friday, March 4, 2011; 12:02 PM

The shuttle bus from the Talking Stick Resort to the brand-new Salt River Fields ballpark is actually more of a limousine, complete with curved leather benches, blue-glitter skylights, crystal glassware and a large flat-screen TV on the back wall.

In the same way, Salt River Fields is the Cadillac of Arizona's Cactus League spring training venues. The sunken seating, invisible from the park's exterior, is protected from the searing desert sun by soaring roofs that are a signature element of the stadium's design.

Although I moved from Arizona to Baltimore 13 years ago, I return to the Copper State each spring to watch and write about the beginning of the baseball season. For the entire month of March, I step out of real time, whiling away the afternoons under high skies and sunshine with friends old and new, drinking beer and eating peanuts in Arizona's cozy spring training ballparks.

And every year, I look forward to the unveiling of what's new, from each team's lineup to changes in management and even uniform colors. This year, one of the biggest changes is the relocation of two teams from their former spring home parks in laid-back Tucson.

Salt River Fields, the new spring home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Colorado Rockies, is the first major league facility to be built on Native American land - the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRPMIC), which borders Scottsdale and is just across the 101 freeway from the community's six-month-old Talking Stick Resort. The teams haven't just moved out of Tucson - they've moved to a whole other nation. But it's a nation right next door to Scottsdale's tourism and entertainment district. So if you get tired of baseball (I never do), you won't lack for other things to keep you occupied.

From the balcony of my room on the sixth floor of the Talking Stick Resort, I could see the new ballpark in the distance. Illuminated by light towers on the eve of spring training's opening day, the traffic buzzing by on the freeway looked like one of those time-lapse photography sequences.

Both Salt River Fields and Talking Stick are grounded in Native American roots. At Talking Stick, the sense of where I was was evident in the slightest details, from the slate-tiled bathroom wall to the toiletries infused with such indigenous scents as cholla bud, mission fig and mesquite bean, all prevalent in native culture. Not only did I ask the housekeeper for a couple of extra soaps and shampoos, but I also bought larger sizes in the spa gift shop.

I dined at the hotel's Ocean Trail restaurant, a 19-seat bar nook along the casino's outer loop, lit by cool blue lights and specializing in Cajun and Creole cuisine. My bowl of Louisiana gumbo with crawfish was prepared in front of me at the bar. Washed down with a pint of Anchor Steam on draft, it was extremely satisfying. The Orange Sky restaurant on the 15th floor, with a wide-open view of the McDowell Mountains, is Talking Stick's premier dining spot and boasts an extensive wine list.

Talking Stick is a large, comfortable, multipurpose resort hotel and concert venue with seven restaurants and four bars. But be advised: It's also a full-blown casino, with all the trappings that come with that - including indoor smoking in the gaming areas and other public spaces.

Salt River Fields may be modern Native America's first foray into baseball, but ball and stick games have been played on the American continent for more than 2,000 years. Arizona's indigenous peoples created ball courts within a few square miles of where the new ballpark stands today.

The architects at Dallas-based firm HKS incorporated elements from other ballparks as well as from historic Native American architecture in creating Salt River Fields. Preliminary research took the designers to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument in Casa Grande (home to the ancient civilization of the Hohokam people), about halfway between Phoenix and Tucson. One of the state's most prominent prehistoric ball courts was unearthed here in 1918, although archaeologists didn't at first realize what purpose the hard surface they'd uncovered served. It wasn't until a much larger court with definitive markers was discovered at Snaketown on the Gila River Indian Community near Phoenix during an excavation in the 1930s that the ball courts were recognized for what they are.

Archaeologist Doug Craig, who gave me a personal tour at Casa Grande, told me that more than 240 prehistoric ball courts have been discovered across Arizona. To see more of them, I made my way to the Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Park, right near Sky Harbor Airport in the middle of Phoenix, the spot where another significant ball court was unearthed. Though I'd lived in the greater Phoenix area for 20 years, I'd never been to one of its authentic wonders. The oval ball court in the archaeological park at Pueblo Grande has been carefully preserved and is so well defined that it looks like a re-creation, not an artifact from thousands of years ago. It seemed amazing that remnants of an ancient settlement could be found so remarkably preserved in the middle of today's bustling metropolis.

"If you think about those areas, Casa Grande, Pueblo Grande and Snaketown, in remote areas of the desert, and close your eyes and imagine these places without the buildings and think about the people taking time out from their hard work and getting together to do these things, that's what it's still all about," says SRPMIC Vice President Martin Harvier. "Even in hard times, people can come together and have a good time."

So true. As I sat at Salt River Fields a few days later, watching the opening game, the problems of the world and the nation's economic travails - including the price of gas for my rental car - seemed a million miles away. Especially since I can just ride the Salt River shuttle bus to all the games, anyway.

Vascellaro is a freelance writer in Baltimore.

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