The request we're sending to bloggers of all 30 teams this spring is a simple one: What are the 10 best things about being a fan of your favorite team? What features of the franchise have you excited for opening day and what keeps you coming back year after year?
Over the next few weeks, we'll give each of the 30 teams a day in the spotlight, showcasing the icons and traditions that make each big-league hamlet special. Up next is our pal Jim McLennan, the proprietor of the great AZ Snakepit.
Let's get the obvious "best things" out of the way. You know we're the reigning NL West champions. You know Justin Upton is one of the most exciting players in the game. It's hard to argue it's a marvelous time to be a D-backs fan, with a good team now and, as we'll see, reason to look forward to the future.
So here, in no particular order are a few other nuggets, from the obscure to the renowned, that are part of the pleasures of Arizona fandom.
1. An amazingly fan-friendly organization: You might already be aware that team president Derrick Hall is a giant among executives. To add to that story, the night before his cancer diagnosis was announced, he hosted a Tweetup at the park for fans. It was just a silly little social media get-together, and given the circumstances, no one would have blamed him in the slightest for blowing it off. But he didn't, and you'd never have known he'd recently received a life-threatening diagnosis. That says a ton about the man, and how much he values his team's fans.
It's a philosophy that extends throughout the franchise. Since he took over, all of my interactions with anyone in the team, from the ticket office to GM Kevin Towers, have been nothing but a true pleasure. Something Towers said recently rings true for the whole organization, "To me, the character evaluation is as important, almost more important, than skill evaluations." While there have been a few missteps along the way, the current roster is stuffed full of players for whom it's very easy to cheer for.
2. Spring training: Summer in Arizona is hell. But it's worth paying the price, simply for February and March, when we wander around in shorts and T-shirts, as much of the country shivers. We get an early start on the baseball season, too, with the state home to an ever-increasing number of teams — there were only eight in 1997, but now exactly half of major-league franchises play here. And, unlike Florida, all the parks are within a 20-mile radius of central Phoenix, making for very easy access.
Salt River Fields. (Getty)The jewel in the crown is Salt River Fields, home to both the Diamondbacks and Rockies. The park opened last spring and was built without forcing local cities to drain their coffers. (Cubs fans please note the second half of that last sentence.) It's a marvelous venue, complete with sun-screen dispensers on the outfield lawn, but it also gives fans a unique chance to get up-close to the players as they train. The four main practice fields are arranged round a central area open to the public, so spectators can see exactly what's going on, and maybe snag an autograph or two, as the players move from park to park.
3. Arizona Fall League: As well as an extra month of baseball at the start of the year, Arizona also gets to see quality baseball well into November, with the AFL showcasing many of the game's top prospects. Over 60 percent of those who appear go on to be major leaguers, and 41 players on last year's All-Star rosters were alumni of the league. It has also produced nine MVPs, three Cy Young winners, three World Series MVPs, eight All-Star MVPs, 20 Rookies of the Year, 51 Silver Sluggers and 46 Gold Gloves.
For $7, less than the cost of a matinee movie, you can pick any seat in the stadium to watch the next generation of future stars as they develop. Last November, for example, we sat behind the dugout and watched Bryce Harper working as first-base coach for his team — rather unenthusiastically, it has to be said. And it's a truly hidden pleasure: The crowds are so small (typically in the hundreds), that if you want to cheer or heckle, you can be certain your target will hear every word.
4. Saturday blacks: The change in D-backs colors from the original purple and teal to sedona red that took place in late 2006 divided the fan base. It was seen — to some extent, rightfully — as an attempt to separate new ownership from the Jerry Colangelo era (which brought great success, but at the cost of a quarter-billion dollars in deferred salaries that are still being paid off a decade later). Aesthetically, I was happy to see the purple go, personally; I couldn't wear it without looking like Barney — or, worse yet, the Colorado Rockies' mascot.
Still, there's one thing that united the purple traditionalists and red revolutionaries: The team's Saturday black home uniforms are almost universally loved. For reasons involving basic survival, black is not a costume choice generally recommended in Arizona (see No. 3). But it has turned out to be a very popular alternate uniform, in part because it's not one all that commonly seen in baseball.
Luis Gonzalez celebrates winning the 2001 World Series. (AP)5. Winning the 2001 World Series: OK, you've probably heard of this, but no such list could be complete without it. Against the backdrop of 9/11, the Diamondbacks became the quickest team to win after their inaugural year, in the most thrilling series in recent history; three times, the team leading in the middle of the ninth lost the contest, with walk-off wins in Games 4, 5 and 7. New York came back from 2-0 down to leave Arizona facing elimination in Game 6, but a blow-out victory set up the stage for a winner-take-all Game 7.
It never gets old. The script for that epic deciding contest would have been rejected by Hollywood as too improbable, with Game 6 starter Randy Johnson coming out of the bullpen for the W, and Arizona rallying against perhaps the best reliever in baseball history, Mariano Rivera. Seriously, every time I watch it, I think we're going to lose. Instead, I proposed to my then-girlfriend, now-wife, immediately after Gonzo's game-winning bloop: I had to do so twice because she couldn't hear me the first time, in all the chaos.
6. $4 beers: Keeping things affordable has been a central plank of ownership, and they've succeeded. Last year's fan-cost index has Arizona the cheapest place in the majors to see a game. The package analyzed by TMI, including tickets, souvenirs, parking and snacks, cost $120.96 at Chase Field, almost 40 percent below the MLB average of $197.35, and over two hundred bucks less than certain teams, not found in the 2011 post-season, that I could mention...
It's not just decent ticket prices, though the team has promotions like $5 Student Night. Programs are free too, and best of all, certain beer-stands will sell you 14 ounces of suds for $4, the lowest price in the majors. Those locations are marked with a "Value Items" logo, so keep an eye out for that around Chase — at some of these spots, you can also pick up a $1.50 hot dog, with Pepsi or a popcorn at the same low price, so it's not just the adults who benefit.
7. Pitching: past, present and prospects: We have been spoiled. In the team's brief history, 10 D-backs have won or been runner-up for the NL Cy Young, and the team has more Cy points over that time than the second and third teams combined. That looks set to continue this year, if our starters simply stay healthy and match their average numbers, with the worst career ERA being Joe Saunders' 4.16. Just two teams since 1980 have had five pitchers start 30 games with ERAs that low (the '93 Dodgers and '05 Cardinals, in case you were wondering).
Things may get better still: Three of the top 13 pitching prospects on MLB.com's list belong to Arizona: Trevor Bauer, Archie Bradley and Tyler Skaggs all lurk in the wings, and may start helping the team as soon as this season. With Saunders the only member of the current rotation older than 27, the long track record of pitching excellence in the desert should be safe for quite some time to come.
Opposing baserunners would prefer that Gerardo Parra use his right arm. (AP)8. Gerardo Parra's arm: Between Parra, Chris Young and Justin Upton, the team arguably had the most talented outfield in the majors last year, particularly on defense where all three could have won Gold Gloves. Left fielder Parra did exactly that, outshining far more famous nominees, but it was an entirely justified nomination. The "Parrazooka," as we call it on the SnakePit, gunned down base-runners with the relentless precision of a Special Forces sniper.
For instance, here he nails Emilio Bonifacio, one of the fastest men in baseball, as the Marlin tries to score from second. It's not even close. By the end of the season, the word was out and opposing runners were becoming a great deal more circumspect. Witness this reaction from Parra, during a September game against the the Dodgers, after Matt Kemp made an aggressive turn around first, before wiser council prevailed, and the Parrazooka delivered a strike to second base...
9. Greg Schulte: In their 14-year history, the Diamondbacks have already had five GMs and six managers, but Schulte has been the voice of the team on the radio since the very start. "The Gub'na," as he is known, has covered just about every memorable event in franchise history, and his home run call, "Warning track ... wall ... You can touch 'em all!" is instantly recognizable by any fan of the team.
These days, there are so many ways to follow games: You can watch on TV, the Internet or even on your mobile phone. It's easy to forget about listening to the radio, which seems like a throwback to a pre-Neolithic era. But with Schulte on the mic, it's a unique pleasure, worth going out to the garage and sitting in your car to experience.
10. The Million Dollar Slam: Was it the coolest contest ever in baseball? Back in 2001, there was a promotion run with the help of a local dairy company and radio station. One lucky caller would not just get tickets to a D-backs game, but the chance at a million dollars. Emphasis on "chance," because to win, you had to pick not just a specific Diamondback player, but also specify the exact inning in which they'd hit a grand slam. Given 153 of the 162 D-backs games that year were slamless, odds were strongly against even seeing one.
Enter Gylene Hoyle. She picked Jay Bell — who, to that point, had four slams in about 6,500 career PAs — and the sixth inning. Of course, you know where this is going. Tony Womack drew a two-out walk to load the bases for Bell, who was fully aware of the circumstances. After working the count full, Bell fouled off a pitch to stay alive, then dispatched a fastball up over the fence in left field, making an instant millionaire of Hoyle. World Series win or not, 13 years later, it's still one of the most memorable moments in team history.
Postscript: It was phenomenally difficult to limit myself to 10 items, and I'm sure the SnakePit is about to blow up with criticism of my omissions. No D-backs Swing? What about the pool, into which our players plunged when winning the division last September? The murals in the entrance rotunda? A roof that opens to music, specially composed to fit the length of the process? They all could have been in here as well. And if you think this last paragraph is a poorly concealed attempt to defy 'Duk and cram in more than 10 things... Yep, you pretty much nailed it!
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Big League Stew encourages you to join in the fun! Please share these lists with your fellow fans on Facebook, tweet us your suggestions with the #BLS10best hashtag or just use the comment section below to tell us your favorite things about being a fan of the Arizona Diamondbacks.