The James gang

Spring Training is great family time. The James gang, left, Alex, 14, William, 12, Gary, 43, Nicole, 46, and Tracy Grady, 47, hit the gift shop to get ready for spring ball at Peoria Sports Complex. (Peoria Times photo by Tom Scanlon)

Mike and Debbie Christian have been coming to Spring Training since they landed in Peoria a few years back.

“It’s a hoot,” Debbie Christian said, of spring ball.

“Baseball in its purest form,” Mike Christian added. “You’re not sitting in a 50,000-seat stadium.”

 They wandered over to the Peoria Sports Complex last week and bought tickets for an upcoming game, planning to see the Milwaukee Brewers play.

After walking about 100 yards from the ticket office, Mike Christian looked at the tickets.

“Oh, shoot,” he said (or something like that). “He gave us the wrong tickets.”

But, instead of walking back and exchanging the tickets, Mike and Debbie did a quick version of a mound visit. They decided to just go with the tickets they have.

Such is how Spring Training rolls.

The Cactus League kicks off this weekend here and around the Valley. 

The San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners, the two teams that call Peoria home in the spring, face off at 1:10 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22.  This will be the annual charity game, an event celebrating the fundraising success for various local charities through the Peoria Diamond Club.

Padres and Mariners games will continue here for the next month, with the hometown Arizona Diamondbacks playing the Mariners March 20.

For folks like the Christians, it doesn’t really matter who is playing.

“It’s a good time,” said Mike Christian, who works in the insurance industry. “The confines are smaller, you’re closer to the action.”

And the price is right, he added. Using his Peoria resident discount, he scored four tickets for a total of $74 (even if it was for the wrong game).

Spring ball often makes for good family time. Gary James, of the Boston area, brought his wife Nicole and kids  Alex, 14, and William, 12, plus sister Tracy Grady to the gift shop. Gary and Tracy’s mother lives in Surprise, and they are looking for their first taste of the Cactus League.

What do they imagine it will be like?

“Very relaxing,” Gary James said.

“You can bring a blanket and sit on the grass and watch a game,” said Grady. “Plus, the weather is so nice.”

Those who have been to games here will say they pretty much hit that one out of the park.

“Spring is here and it’s time to get excited about baseball,” said Peoria Mayor Cathy Carlat. “No matter how you like to enjoy America’s pastime, stretched out on the lawn, sitting in a shady seat, or with a group of family and friends surrounded by specialty foods and craft beer, the Peoria Sports Complex has it all.”

Early-season matchups include the Mariners and Chicago Cubs on Feb. 24 and the Padres and Cubs on Feb. 28. 

Five of the season’s eight night games will be on Fridays. The stadium will be open early at 4:30 p.m. every Friday for the new Happy Hour and includes drink specials ahead of game time and entertainment in the Four Peaks Pavilion.

Back by popular demand this year are Dog Days, Kids Days, Little League Day, Education Night and Book it to the Ballpark.

To those who use baseball as a background to socialize, eat and drink, this is the place.

Mike Hyland, Peoria Sports Complex superintendent, said new menu items include a street taco cart, a Ruthian Foot-Long hot dog wrapped with jalapeno bacon and the Mac Attack hot dog.

Pitchers and catchers from both the Padres and Mariners reported to Peoria last week for workouts. 

Full-squad workouts started this week. The players are getting loose, the fans are buying tickets, the grills are being fired up.

The days are ticking down for the umpire behind the plate to call out the official opening:

“Plaaaaaay ball!”