Spring Training is a fantastic vacation, but it has some downsides. The first and foremost is the cost; there are only so many places to stay and cars to drive in the Valley of the Sun, which means that prices are at their peak during Spring Training. Once you’re there, you will occasionally see some superstar MLB regulars in games, but not regularly, and often for only a few innings at a time before they yield to the Triple-A players and journeyman spring tryouts of the organization. And while many of the games are reasonably priced, woe betide you if your vacation happens to overlap with a game at Scottsdale Stadium or Camelback Ranch, especially on a weekend, when prices can be easily double what you’d expect to pay to get into T-Mobile on a weekend. So I am here to offer you a life hack: eschew Spring Training and go to the Arizona Fall League instead. Here’s why:
Everything during the AFL is off-peak, which means off-peak pricing. A room that will run you $150 a night in Spring Training is $50-$75, and it will be readily available. If you’re going the Airbnb route, you will be surprised by how many options you have available, including some very unique properties (if anyone wants to go in on the 1920s Old Hollywood-style villa that sleeps 15, let me know). Car rentals are also less than you’d pay at peak (I like Turo, which is like Airbnb, but with cars), as are flights: I just went and peeked at flights and they are in the double digits to go from Seattle to Phoenix during the week I’m looking at. The AFL starts earlier this year, while Arizona is still hot, but the games are at night, so you won’t fry in the sun. This should translate into even cheaper ticket prices.
In addition to spending less to get down and stay there, the games themselves are inexpensive; every adult ticket is $9 and seniors are $7. Kids fifteen and under (a generous definition of kid) are free. Once inside the park, you can sit in any open section you’d like, allowing you to get close enough to hear players bantering in the dugout between innings.
Back to the basics
After you pay your entrance fee (cash preferred, or Visa and Mastercard only), you’ll start noticing differences immediately. There are no wandering concessionaires; there is usually one concession stand that’s open, options are limited and they’re out of that thing you like. Bring your own snacks and carry your own garbage out, there’s no bored teenager pushing an industrial sized broom, sweeping the rows free of your garbage for college money; there’s a retiree named Stan, and if you make Stan bend down to pick up your trash I will find you. There’s no between-innings show, no hydro races or hat trick, no walkup music some places. There might be a bobblehead giveaway raffle if you’re lucky. It’s very quiet, generally, at these games. The main sounds are bat on ball, ball popping mitt, and teammates cheering for each other. It’s wonderful.
Player interactions/player quality
The most compelling reason to go to the AFL is it’s a unique opportunity to see a very high level of talent, in an intimate setting, who you might not get to see otherwise. Getting to be just a few feet away from Vlad Guerrero Jr. was legitimately thrilling. Since the AFL is the only league like it, that also means that players show up there who wouldn’t be in an Arizona Spring Training otherwise, making it your one chance to see AL East prospects before they make it to the bigs, and an even rarer opportunity to see NL East players.
This year, the talent pool will be expanding even more, as all restrictions about who can play in the AFL have been lifted. Previously, clubs were restricted to sending only Double-A or Triple-A players, and permitted just one player below Double-A and one international player. Any players who had accrued a year-plus of MLB service time were declared ineligible. The AFL has always been a little light on pitching, as clubs rested arms that had racked up a lot of mileage over the season, but that pitcher pool is now much deeper.
Because crowds are tiny (like, double-digit tiny), it’s not too hard to get close to the field to ask for an autograph or a picture with one of your favorites. While sometimes kids can get run over by professional autograph-seekers at ST, I’ve noticed the players go out of their way to sign for the few kids in attendance at the AFL games. When I went last year with my friend Brittney, her son even walked away with a game-used bat.
Most importantly, what the AFL gives you is a broad investment in the future of the game. Obviously as Mariner fans we’re very excited about Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic (both of whom would be logical AFL selections), among others, but the AFL gives you a whole host of new players to be excited for and careers to track, which makes the game more universal while at the same time more personal.
This year’s schedule:
September 18 - Opening Day
October 12 - Fall Stars Game
October 26 - Championship Game
Games will be played at Sloan Park (Mesa), Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (Scottsdale), Camelback Ranch (Glendale), and the Peoria Sports Complex. If you go, you’ll probably need a vehicle to get around, unless you plan on staying near one field and attending all the games there (since some parks are undergoing renovations, the schedule is a little more condensed, so this is possible). There will also be some games played against teams from the Mexican Pacific League. See the whole schedule here.