The pitchers and catchers are warming up at practice fields around the Valley. Their teammates and fans are on the way. The first crack of the bat will mean Cactus League baseball is at the plate.
And despite the gloomy economy and sagging consumer confidence, local tourism leaders are expecting spring training to hit another financial home run this year.
"We were worried about the economy, but in talking with teams about ticket sales, everything is encouraging," said Cactus League President J.P. de la Montaigne. "You can tell when the practices start, and there is already a crowd watching."
But those are mostly locals, de la Montaigne admits, and it's the number of out-of-state license plates and packed hotels that will determine the financial success of the season.
Cactus League's economic impact on the Valley and the state is huge. Last year, spring training spending left Arizona's hotels, restaurants, shops, golf courses and related businesses a combined $310 million richer, according to a study completed by the Cactus League Baseball Association.
It is the biggest draw of the entire event-packed winter tourism season, said longtime Scottsdale hotelier Tom Silverman, general manager of the Chaparral Suites Resort.
"If you asked me what is the one thing we just couldn't do without, it is spring training," Silverman said.
It's no wonder.
Nearly 60 percent of the 1.2 million who bought tickets to spring training games last March were from out of state. And they, unquestionably, did the bulk of the big spending.
They came to the Valley to watch baseball, but between games they shopped (29 percent), dined at gourmet restaurants (25 percent), played golf (22 percent) and went sightseeing (26 percent), according to the survey.
Possibly the best thing about Cactus League's draw is that unlike other reasons to get on the road - such as a beach vacation or business trip - sports-related travel is almost recession-proof, according to local tourism leaders.
Tempe, which has carved out a niche in sports tourism, has proved that during big and small economic downturns since the start of the new millennium, said Stephanie Nowack, president of the Tempe Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Sports-focused travelers may scrimp a little on the plans, shave a day off a trip or dine more frugally when they get to their destination, but they don't cancel.
"Even if they drive, they come," Nowack said.
Spring training trips, especially, have over the years become a tradition for many families, said Rachel Sacco, president of the Scottsdale Convention & Visitors Bureau.
"People see it as something they have looked forward to all year," Sacco said. "These are plans they are unlikely to cut."
Cactus League spring training officially begins Feb. 27 and lasts through March. Twelve teams suit up to play in nine stadiums, all but one of those venues in the Valley.
Chicago Cubs fans come in droves to Mesa to watch their team prepare for the summer season.
San Francisco Giants followers show up en masse at Scottsdale Stadium.
The Los Angeles Angels attract fans in growing numbers to Tempe, said Robert Alvarado, the team's marketing vice president.
ANGELS TICKETS SOARING
Ticket sales for the Angels' spring training games are up 16 percent over last year, he said, and seven out of 10 ticket buyers are from California.
The wave of fans planning trips to Tempe has been building every year, Alvarado said.
"More and more fans are getting connected to the club. It's becoming a tradition," he said. "It's like the Cubs pilgrimage from Chicago to Arizona every year. That's our model."
In fact, at the Buttes Marriott resort, a short sprint from the Angel's spring home at Tempe Diablo Stadium, room reservations for March are up compared with a year ago at this time, said general manager Steve Eberhart.
And it's not only die-hard fans from California.
"We are favored by Angels fans, but spring training has become more of a general fun thing to do," Eberhart said. "It seems every year we get more people coming from cold-weather places just to go to a few games."
Chicago certainly has the winter weather to engender an excuse to head south, said Robert Brinton, executive director of the Mesa Convention & Visitors Bureau. The Cubs and the Giants have traditionally been the top two Cactus League ticket sellers.
This year, tickets to a Cubs-White Sox matchup in Mesa sold out just 20 minutes after they went on sale via the Internet, Brinton said. And ticket sales for all the other Cubs games have kept pace with last year's statistics.
Giants ticket sales are also on par with last year, said Alfonso Felder, vice president in charge of Arizona operations for the team.
"Things are looking good," he said.
Things are looking even better for next year.
Two new teams - the Cleveland Indians and the Los Angeles Dodgers - will escape from Florida's Grapefruit League to join the Cactus League in time for 2009 spring training.
And the Cincinnati Reds are currently in exclusive negotiations with the Cactus League, de la Montaigne said.
If talks go well, the Reds could join the Cactus League as soon as 2010, he said.
Dodgers fans will get a preview of the team's closer-to-home spring training destination this year.
The Oakland A's, who step up to the plate each spring at Phoenix Municipal Stadium on the Tempe-Phoenix border, will make an early exit mid-March to play in Japan. That'll make room for the Dodgers to move into the Valley for the last 10 days of the spring training season, de la Montaigne said.
That could encourage even more Southern Californians to show up in the East Valley next month.
"All indications are this will be a very good year," Brinton said. "I don't think we are talking about a record (attendance), but it will be a good year."
Cactus League's record attendance was in 2005 when the number of gamegoers topped 1.25 million.