Bickley: Valley sports scene full of hidden pleasures – azcentral.com
The Valley sports fan also has quirks: We refuse to make noise at baseball games. We set Olympic records in bandwagon jumping. We’re willing to sell our fandom for profit, even it means offering up our most valuable tickets to opposing fans.
The Valley sports fan has perks. We are one of 13 markets with all four major professional sports. We’re a magnet for big events. We have options galore, with good seats available for most everything.
We are both lucky and scorned, envied and pitied. And most outsiders don’t even know the half of it.
Here are some of the Valley’s hidden treasures, the most underrated aspects of being a sports fan in Arizona.
A Brad Ziegler double play: The Diamondbacks closer induced 21 double plays last season, the most in Major League Baseball since 1988. This season, he saved a huge win by recording a double play with the bases loaded in San Diego. It’s amazing how consistently Ziegler and his submarine delivery coax opposing batters to pound the ball into the dirt, right at a Diamondbacks infielder.
Diana Taurasi: She is the greatest women’s basketball player in history. She might be the best trash-talker Phoenix has ever employed. Wish we could actually print some of the stuff we’ve heard over the years. You’d love her even more.
A clutch rebound from P.J. Tucker: The Suns forward isn’t a great player. But there are times when he snorts like a raging bull, takes on the best players in the NBA and prevails on sheer force of will. If the Suns weren’t teetering on the brink irrelevance, he would be beloved in the Valley.
Valley mascots: The Gorilla belongs in someone’s Hall of Fame. Sparky was originally created by a Disney artist. D. Baxter is snarky, funny and actually adds to the baseball experience. All of our mascots are cool, detached and willing to cause a little trouble. In other words, they fit the market perfectly.
The Great Lawn: In most NFL cities, fans tailgate in a concrete parking lots, communing inside a jigsaw puzzle of parked cars. In Glendale, Cardinals fans get lush grass, live music and one of the best pregame scenes in football.
There is much to love about the game-day experience at University of Phoenix Stadium, most notably the electricity inside the building and the vast array of great finishes we’ve witnessed over the past 10 years. But it’s what goes on outside, before the doors are open, that sets the tone for everything.
Our mythical Mount Rushmore: Consider our growing foundation of statesman athletes. Now that the Rams have fled St. Louis, Kurt Warner is all ours; Shane Doan is one of the nicest guys in the history of sports, except when he’s elbowing the opponent or dropping gloves to protect a teammate; Larry Fitzgerald is a great ambassador for Arizona, with a popularity that spans the globe; and these days, you might bump into Randy Johnson while he’s photographing a sporting event and actually get a smile.
And then there’s Pat Tillman, the greatest symbol of courage and sacrifice a sports town could ever ask for. It’s hard to list his annual race, Pat’s Run, among the most underrated scenes in Valley sports when it attracts nearly 40,000 people. But 12 years after his death, Tillman’s spirit is stronger than ever. That’s remarkable, and it says we are careful caretakers of the legacy left by a true American hero.
Prodigal sons (and daughters): Our sports teams don’t always land the prized free agent. But many former stars retire in the Valley, allowing us to watch the nascent careers of their talented offspring. To wit:
Bob Lanier’s daughter is a great volleyball player, Mike Bibby’s son starred at Shadow Mountain; Luis Gonzalez’ son plays third base for Chaparral; Chandler wide receiver Kolby Taylor is the son of ex-NFL player Keith Taylor, and his uncle is former 49ers great John Taylor; while Kurt Warner coaches his son at Desert Mountain. And that’s just a sampling.
No rainouts: We have an uncomfortable relationship with retractable roofs. When sealed shut, Chase Field feels like an airplane hangar. And in Glendale, the Cardinals rarely utilize a retractable roof that cost taxpayers a good chunk of money, playing only 24 games under an open sky since the building opened in 2006.
But the flip-side is pretty nice. There is no threat of rain-outs in the Valley. And if you’ve lived elsewhere, you know that sinking feeling of impending thunderstorms ruining a planned night at the ballpark. Or the misery of freezing in the stands of a football stadium, when hot chocolate is actually preferred over cold beer.
Constant change: The malleable nature of our market means we are very unpredictable, and nothing is sacred. Ten years ago, the Cardinals were a civic nuisance, Cactus League tickets were affordable and the sight of Sun Devil Stadium perched between the buttes was one of our most iconic views.
Now, the Cardinals are kings; a fan was asked to pay $47 for a lawn seat to a recent exhibition game between the Giants and Cubs; and that view of Sun Devil Stadium is now hidden behind glass structures, no longer a morsel for the morning commute.
The Valley’s image: We take a lot of flak for our fickle nature and our conditional allegiance. But being different is not always a bad thing. We didn’t riot when the Diamondbacks won the World Series. We generally don’t act like morons at sporting events, or physically abuse opposing fans in the parking lot. We care a lot until we don’t. And hockey fans in Canada? They have no idea what to make of us.
To quote Coyotes CEO and President Anthony LeBlanc:
“We’re the only city that cheers Gary Bettman and boos Wayne Gretzky.”
Who else can say that?
Reach Bickley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 602-444-8253. Follow him at twitter.com/danbickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta,” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.
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