Sunday, November 14, 2010


The Valley of the Sun, which is what Chamber of Commerce types like to call the Phoenix area, has four seasons like most other places, but they’re different from those elsewhere.

Early Summer is the March-April period, when daytime-high temperatures start in the 70s and end in the 90s. It’s our equivalent of spring. Real Summer begins in May and lasts through September. It starts hot and gets hotter, with the later months featuring uncomfortably high humidity (carried on southern winds) as well as daily triple-digit readings. Except for sun-deprived Northern Europeans, visitors generally stay away during these months, and Phoenicians who can head out.

Late Summer is October and November, during which daily highs fall from the 90s to the 70s—the opposite of Early Summer. Winter, as it were, is December, January and February-- highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s. It’s really cold at this time Up North, so it’s the main tourist season. You can spot the outlanders because they wear shorts and t-shirts, while the locals have their parkas on, zipped up.

Late Summer is my favorite season. The air is dry, the sky is blue and while it’s warm the sting has gone out of the heat. Better, it’s time for Arizona Fall League baseball. From early October until late-middle November, young professional players cavort in the spring-training ballparks around the area in a kind of pick-up league with nothing at stake except the day’s final score and (of course) their individual stats. It’s baseball at its purist, shorn of the hassle and hype that surround the diamond sport during regular-season hostilities.

If you follow this space you probably know the Fall League’s nuts and bolts, but I’ll zip through them anyway. Six teams, each with 35-man rosters, play 32-game schedules. Each of the 30 Major League clubs chips in seven promising players, mostly Class-A or –AAers but with a few AAAs and young Major Leaguers in need of innings added for good measure.

Tickets are cheap-- $6 for adults and $5 for seniors—and you can park right in front of the stadiums, free. Attendance usually runs between 200 and 300 people a game. This includes about 50 scouts, a dozen or so predatory baseball-card-autograph seekers and about the same number of players’ girl friends, who add charm to the proceedings. Most of the rest are retired guys like me, with nothing better to do.

It’s a great scene. You can sit where you want and spread out into adjoining seats and rows. If you’d like to share your opinions with the players, umpires and other fans, just raise your voice a notch. Indeed, the audience is part of the show, especially Superfan Susan, a solid, 50ish blonde who regularly sits behind the Scottsdale Scorpions’ dugout and, in a high-decibel baritone, pours praise upon the Scorps with cries like “UNBELIEVABLE!” “AWESOME!” “OUTSTANDING!” and “BEST IN THE UNIVERSE!”

She does the same thing during the regular season at Diamondbacks’ home games. Some people smirk at her antics, but I smile because she’s always upbeat and so obviously pleased with herself.

The real fun at Fall League games is talent-scouting, something most of us fans think we’re pretty good at. Most of the players are in the 21-to-24-year-old age range, and two or three years from the Bigs, but most seasons a few are such standouts that it doesn’t take a Paul Krichell to see that they’ll excel On High, and soon. In that category of late have been the Tampa Bay Rays’ third-baseman Evan Longoria, Atlanta Braves’ pitcher Tommy Hanson, Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Starlin Castro and Washington Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg.

This year the main focus of attention has been on Bryce Harper, the Nevadan who, as the top choice in last June’s draft, commanded a five-year, $9.9 million contract from the Nationals. At 18 years old he’s the second-youngest Fall Leaguer ever, and has done only part-time duty with the Scorpions, but I saw him play Wednesday afternoon in front of a larger-than-usual crowd in the Peoria ballpark. He went 2-for-5 at the plate, with the two hits being triples, one to right field and the other to left-center. Moreover, his cannon throw from deep right field to third base trying to catch a tagging runner drew oooohs even though its target slid in safely.

At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds Harper is a big boy, and has a powerful, left-handed batting swing. He’ll probably start next season at Class A and not be brought to the big club until 2012, earliest. Still, it’s easy to see what the Nats, et al, saw in him.

There are other good-looking prospects here, although none has shone as brightly as the young men listed above. Ben Revere is a little (5-9, 175) outfielder from the Minnesota Twins chain who can hit some and run a lot. Brandon Belt, a 6-foot-5 first-baseman belonging to the San Francisco Giants, hits for power and has a great baseball name.

The Chicago White Sox have a quick, switch-hitting Venezuelan shortstop named Eduardo Escobar who can do it all; he went 3-for-5 with a couple of doubles when I saw him the other day, and his two outs were hard hit. Brandon Barnes, an outfielder in the Houston Astros’ system, last week hit a home run that cleared a 30-foot-high centerfield backdrop 410 feet from home plate, a drive than had to measure at least 440 feet end to end. Yeah, the wind was blowing out, but the blast still was Mantlesque..

That’s the great thing about baseball-- you never know what you’ll see when you go to a game. Early Summer, Real Summer or Late Summer.

Monday, November 1, 2010


So much of the high-level sports competition we watch is extraordinary that we come to expect it and often don’t remark about it when it happens. That’s why I want to tip you off about a coming event that’s sure to produce something truly memorable.

I refer to the Breeders Cup Classic, the annual highlight of Saturday’s Breeders Cup card that’s regarded as the world’s championship of Thoroughbred horse racing. In the field will be Zenyatta, a 6-year-old bay mare who’ll be trying to repeat her winning performance in last year’s race. She’s undefeated in 19 career starts, an unprecedented achievement. Saturday’s outing is likely to be her last, and your last chance to see her in action. Better do it while you can.

A heads-up is necessary because, these days, horse racing gets about as much Sports Center time or sports-page ink as volleyball or water polo. ‘Twasn’t always so; in the first half of the last century the erstwhile Sport of Kings ranked with baseball and boxing as America’s favorite sporting interests.

You might be interested to know that this nation’s first sports superstar was equine, not human. Dan Patch, a record-setting pacer (a horse that pulls a buggy), wowed ‘em on the state-fair circuit in the first decade of the 1900s, regularly drawing paying crowds of upwards of 100,000 people for his races. Tens of thousands of folks would come just to watch him work out. Products were named after him, starting with things like animal feed and harness and branching into cigarettes, chewing tobacco, a soft drink and a washing machine, among other items. “The Great” Dan’s owners were said to have reaped some $13 million from him before he died in 1916, a barn-full of money in those days.

In today’s urban society, of course, one rarely encounters horses, and being a serious fan of their endeavors is the sort of scholarly pursuit that’s no longer in vogue. I’m a Saturday regular at the horse book at Turf Paradise race track in Phoenix, and, at 72, I think I bring down the average age of the clientele. It’s occurred to me that in 15 or so years just about all of us will be gone, and few replacements are in sight.

But you don’t have to be a Racing Form nerd to appreciate Zenyatta. For starts, her perfect record is unmatched in racing’s long history, the closest to it being Man o’ War’s 20 wins in 21 starts during his brief, long-ago career (1919-20). By contrast, Citation, another contender for greatest-ever honors, was 32 of 45, Secretariat was 16 of 21 and the late-blooming Seabiscuit was 33 of 88. Furthermore, 14 of Zenyatta’s wins have come at the Grade I level, the sports highest. That’s a record for fillies and mares (a filly becomes a mare, and a colt a horse, at age 5), as are her lifetime earnings of $6.4 million.

Zenyatta’s sex also plays a role in her singularity. Unlike in humans, physiological differences between male and female horses for purposes of running aren’t great, and, indeed, Zenyatta is both taller and heavier than was the famously muscular Secretariat. But while it’s not unheard of for a gal to beat the guys in horse-racing classics, it is highly unusual. For instance, only 39 fillies have started in the Kentucky Derby’s 136 runnings, and just three have won, the last being Winning Colors in 1988. Similarly, Zenyatta’s victory in last year’s Breeders Cup Classic was the first for her sex since the event was inaugurated in 1984.

Lastly, Zenyatta’s running style is the sort most people love to watch. She’ll trail the field most of the way, seemingly out of it, then charge down the home stretch to pass all and sundry. Her 2009 Breeders Cup win, against an otherwise all-male (and quite accomplished) field, fit this mold. Check it out on web video; I get a chill every time I see it.

It wouldn’t be a racing story without a screw-up element, and this one’s is large. Last year’s racing co-sensation was another freakishly fast female, the filly Rachel Alexandra. She beat top-flight colts several times en route to a triumphant season that culminated with her edging Zenyatta in Horse-of-the-Year voting. Rachel’s owners, however, ended her campaign before the Breeders Cup, so the two didn’t meet.

A Zenyatta-Rachel match race this year would have drawn a national and even worldwide spotlight racing sorely needs and rarely gets. Unfortunately, but typically, the doofusses who run the sport couldn’t or wouldn’t make it happen. Rachel returned to the track but never quite matched her 2009 form and wound up being retired in September, still never having faced Zenyatta..

So the best we can do is watch Zenyatta take on the boys again in Saturday’s Classic, with a total purse of $5 million at stake, but that’s okay. History will be made, and you should take the opportunity to be there, if only via TV.

Don’t wait for the movie.