Thursday, November 13, 2008


Most people who visit Phoenix and vicinity from the North do so between New Year’s Day and Easter, the better to escape the frigid weather in their regular habitats. It’s nice here then—except for the summers it usually is—but that’s not my favorite time in my adopted home area. If I were coming I’d pick October or November.

Unlike in winter, it almost never rains here during those months, and while early-October temperatures regularly top 90 degrees the business about “dry” heat actually is true and makes conditions far more pleasant than with similar readings elsewhere. By November average highs have dropped into the 70s, perfect by any standard. The sunshine, light air, gentle breezes and deep-blue desert sky conspire to create a Chamber of Commerce dream.

Best of all, October and November are when the Arizona Fall League holds forth in the Valley of the Sun. The AFL is baseball’s—and Arizona’s—best-kept secret, and persists in that distinction even though it’s regularly advertised as such in the local news outlets. That’s fine with me because I like it just the way it is.

The AFL consists of six teams of 35 players each, seven from each of the 30 Major League clubs. It’s a minor-league finishing school for the top Class A and AA prospects in each team’s farm system, with a few AAA players and an occasional young Major Leaguer in need of additional innings thrown in for leavening.

The teams play 38-game schedules, this year beginning Oct. 7 and ending next Saturday, Nov. 22, with daily bills usually consisting of two day games and one at night. The venues are the nicest little ballparks you’ll ever see—the spring-training homes of the Cubs (in Mesa), Giants (Scottsdale), A’s (Phoenix), Padres and Mariners (Peoria) and Rangers and Royals (Surprise). Admission is cheap: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and kids.

Spring training baseball in Arizona has come to mean crowds, traffic jams and ticket scalpers. Not the Fall League. The parks each seat between 8,000 and 10,000 people but daily attendance rarely tops 300, including the scouts hunched behind home plate aiming their radar guns. That means you can sit just about anywhere, with extra seats for elbow room and foot-propping.

You can park for free right in front of the stadiums, rarely more than a few yards from the gates. Your chances of taking home a foul ball are good, especially if you’re willing to leave your seat to pick one up. If you’re proud of your opinions about the action on the field, you can share them with the players, coaches, umpires and fellow fans merely by raising your voice.

The baseball isn’t Major League, but it isn’t far behind. Much of the fun is in watching the 21-to-24-year-olds play and guessing which will be starring in the Bigs, and when. Sometimes, this isn’t difficult: it didn’t take a Tony Lucadello to pick out the likes of Ryan Howard (AFL 2004), Ryan Braun (2006) or Evan Longoria (2007). Usually, though, the players are two or three years short of bloom, so you can puff your chest a bit if you’re eventually right.

The hitters have it all over the pitchers this season but the best-looking prospect I’ve seen is a pitcher. He’s 22-year-old Tommy Hanson, the property of the Atlanta Braves. The 6-foot-6 right hander throws fastballs and breakers the other kids can’t handle. In 23 2/3 AFL innings he’s allowed 9 hits and 2 earned runs while striking out 39. He’s Kevin Millwood a dozen years younger.

At age 21, first-baseman Logan Morrison, a Florida Marlins chattel, already is a man among boys, hitting .448 with 28 RBI in 21 games. Colorado Rockies’ prospect Eric Young Jr., the 23-year-old son of the ex-Big League second baseman, gets on base and then steals some. Hanson has a prospective battery mate in Tyler Flowers, a big guy (6-4, 245) with home run power to match.

The Cubs have a couple of pretty good middle-infield prospects in Darwin Barney and Nate Spears, but they’re both about the size of Mike Fontenot. The White Sox’s Aaron Poreda, 22, is a 6-foot-6 left hander who throws hard and throws strikes, at least while I’m watching. You can’t tell much from seeing a player once but the one time I saw shortstop Gordon Beckham, the Sox’s 2008 No. 1 draft choice, he went 5-for-5 with 2 home runs and 7 RBI. He’s supposed to be a good polo player besides.

Come on down and check it out for yourself. There’s still a week left.

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