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.