Sunday, November 15, 2015


              I’ve written it before but I think it’s worth repeating: the best months to visit Arizona are October and November. The weather then is warm but not hot, breezes are mild, skies usually are a breathtakingly deep blue and the snowbirds have yet to arrive in such numbers as to make traffic difficult. It’s my favorite time of year, a main reason I signed up to live here.
          The icing on the cake (cherry on the sundae? cream cheese on the bagel?) is the Arizona Fall League, whose six-week season runs from early October through middle November, this year ending on Thursday. It’s Major League Baseball’s annual finishing school for young prospects, generally Class A or AA players between the ages of 20 and 24. Each of the 30 big-league teams assigns seven players who are grouped in six teams of 35 players each that play a 32-game schedule. They wear their parent-team’s uniforms and AFL-team caps, making for a colorful show.
           It’s baseball at its purest and spectating at its easiest. The teams play mostly day games in some of the fine spring-training ballparks in the Phoenix area, with none of the expense and hassle that spring training has come to entail. Tickets are $8 ($6 for seniors) and parking is free and close.  Attendance usually runs between 300 and 500 people a game meaning you can sit where you want, and if your voice carries you easily can share your opinions with players, umps and fellow fans. That’s not always a good thing.
           We who are AFL regulars fancy ourselves scouts, and while we lack credentials it’s a game anyone can play. If you recall my previous blogs and website articles on the league you may have been introduced through me to such recent young stars as STARLIN CASTRO, NOLAN ARENADO and GREG BIRD. I also told you about some players who didn’t pan out so well, but let’s not dwell on that.
             My overall impression of the current AFL season is that the pitchers are beating the hitters, continuing the recent trend of the sport as a whole. A decade or so ago most of the young hurlers here could throw heat but not much else.  Now most have an array of pitches, and fastball temps continue to rise. On Wednesday I was at a game at Scottsdale Stadium, which broadcasts speed-gun results, and it seemed that every pitcher who was used could hit 95 mph, Bob Feller-like velocity. Anyone who doubts evolution should take note.
            That said, position players are easier to scout here than pitchers. Each team has 20 or so of those and aside from the starters, who usually go from three to five innings, they’re typically used for an inning an outing, not much to go on. The most-impressive pitcher I saw was NICK BURDI, a tall, skinny 22-year-old chattel of the Minnesota Twins, who pitched two perfect relief innings while I was watching, striking out four. His overall AFL card as of Friday showed no runs, two hits and seven K’s in six IPs, so he also was good at other times. But what can you tell from such scant exposure?
            The best position prospect I saw was GARY SANCHEZ, a 23-year-old catcher in the New York Yankees’ organization. Big (6-3, 230) and solidly built, he’s already a six-year pro, having been signed as a teen in the Dominican Republic, and played at the AA and AAA levels in the just-concluded regular season. As of Friday he led the AFL in home runs (7) and RBIs (19), while batting more than .300, and fielded his position well.  With Brian McCann the Yanks are well set at catcher for at least next season, but Sanchez will play for someone some time.
             High draft choices naturally get the most AFL attention and I think it’s instructive to compare the two highest on this year’s rosters. BUBBA STARLING was the fifth overall choice in the 2011 draft, by the Kansas City Royals, CLINT FRAZIER went fifth in 2013, to the Cleveland Indians, both out of high school.  Both are outfielders. Starling is 23 years old, Frazier is 21, and Starling has had 3 ½ minor-league seasons to Frazier’s 2 ½, meaning he should have an edge by both measures. But while the two have similar AFL stats, Frazier looks to me to be much the better prospect. A flaming redhead with a tightly wound physique, he’s faster afoot than Starling, and when he hits the ball solidly his bat gives off a distinctive ring that bespeaks extraordinary strength. The two previous AFLers whose knocks registered similarly with me were Bryce Harper and Javier Baez, and they’ve been hitting ‘em pretty far.

 Frazier strikes out a lot but, I guess, that comes with the territory these days. Both he and Starling will play in the Majors someday, if only to affirm their drafters’ judgement, but only he looks special. The Indians’ keen young shortstop Francisco Lindor was my top AFL prospect last year, and the team seems to have scored again.

Sometimes a player makes you look twice at your program. DOMINIC SMITH is such a one. He’s listed at 6-feet, 185 pounds but looks bigger, and hits bigger, too. The first baseman was the 11th player picked in the 2013 draft, by the L.A. Dodgers. He’s only 20 years old, so he’s probably a few years short of the Bigs, but the talent is there if he can overcome tendencies to not always run out ground balls and roll his eyes after called strikes.

My team, the Chicago Cubs, has been sending its top young hopefuls through the AFL in recent seasons. This year was supposed to be an exception, but the showings of a couple of their less-heralded ones here indicate that their farm system is deeper than I thought. JEIMER CANDELARIA is a 22-year-old infielder from the Dominican Republic who is unprepossessing physically but got hits every time I saw him, including four in one game. The Cubs are loaded with young infielders but he ought to be worth something in trade if he can’t elbow past some of them.

WILLSON CONTRERAS is a 23-year-old catcher from Venezuela who is small for his position (about 6-0, 175) but led the AA Southern League in batting last season (at .333).  He never was in the lineup when I watched his team play, but his AFL stats were good. No team has too many catchers so Theo Epstein must be smiling.

A few others impressed me in passing. TYLER AUSTIN is a 24-year-old first baseman who has spent six years in the Yankees’ system as a low (13th-round) draft pick. He hit two home runs while I was present and could play somewhere. ADAM BRETT WALKER II is a big guy in the Twins system who hits the ball far when he hits it. DANIEL PALKA is an outfield prospect for the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have plenty of outfielders, but he looks like a big-leaguer anyway. 

As I said, the AFL ends Thursday. This will make me unhappy but I’m consoled by the thought that it will reopen in less than 11 months.


Sunday, November 1, 2015


              They say it takes one to know one, but while I’ve been a Chicago Cubs’ fans for, lo, these last 70 years, I’m having a hard time recognizing my fellow fans these days.  They are smiling and their eyes are uncharacteristically bright. They’re pleasantly sated from the champagne they consumed after their favorites put away the archrival Cardinals in the QFs of the late World Series tournament.  When they look ahead they see nothin’ but blue skies.
              It makes me very uneasy.

              I know, I’m a killjoy, as I’ve been told repeatedly, but I can’t shake my innate skepticism or the lessons I’ve learned in my seven decades of fruitless baseball rooting. Further, while I don’t believe in curses, jinxes, hexes or any other otherworldly influences in human affairs, I do believe in psychology, and I’ve concluded that Cubs’ fans’ fecklessness has contributed to the team’s record of futility  (no “world” championships since 1908 or league pennants since 1945) that is unmatched in sporting annals. Unless we shape up we’ll only get more of the same.

              I understand fully the reasons for the current giddiness. In the just-concluded regular season the Cubs upped their victory total over the year before by 24 games (to 97), got through a playoff round (1 ½ if you include the one-game wild-card win over Pittsburgh) and gathered a growing list of individual awards, all with an eight-man lineup that often included five sterling rookies or near-rookies (Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, Jorge Soler and Javier Baez), none of whom are older than 23. As we were constantly reminded by our journalistic mentors, they “became relevant” and “exceeded expectations.”  Who could ask for more, right?

              Truth is, though, they haven’t won anything yet, baseball awarding no bronze medals, and in the round in which they might have made a mark were brushed aside, four games to zip, by a New York Mets team that outplayed them thoroughly. That series revealed weaknesses not only in short-term hitting but also in the lack of pitching and defense that have plagued the Cubs since time immemorial. Need I remind that since World War II Cubs’ management has been transfixed by the days when the wind blows out at Beautiful Wrigley Field and put its money on sluggers (Sauer, Banks, Williams, Santo, Kingman, Dawson, Sosa) while neglecting baseball’s other facets? During my fandom the team has had only two truly first-rate pitchers -- Fergie Jenkins and Greg Maddux-- and let both slip away while still possessing considerable tread. Theo Epstein has yet to successfully address this issue.

              The Cubs’ dismissal by the Mets recalled their two most-recent playoff ventures, when they were swept by the Dodgers (in 2008) and the Diamondbacks (in ’07).   Moreover, in their fourth trip to the semis since MLB instituted playoffs in 1969, they fared worse than in the other three, when they fell to the Padres in five games in 1984 after taking a two-games-to-none lead, to the Giants 4-1 in 1989 and to the Marlins in seven in 2003 after leading 3-1. That’s nobody’s definition of progress.

              Nonetheless, by most Cubs’ fans’ measurements, 2015 will go down as a “great” year, along with 1984 and 2003, but no team exemplifies their collective psyche better than the 1969 edition. That was the gang that, with four future Hall of Famers on its roster (Banks, Williams, Santo and Jenkins), sprinted to an eight-game mid-August lead in the newly formed National League East only to hit a September wall and finish eight games behind the Mets. A season that would have been judged a colossal bust in most precincts went down in Cubs’ lore as glorious. No stalwart of that crew ever again had to buy himself a drink in Chicago.

              Cubs’ fans’ love for their losers contrasts with the attitudes exhibited by the adherents of the team’s recurring tormentors, the Mets. Yes, New Yorkers came to be fond of Casey Stengel’s comically inept “Amazins” in the years immediately following the team’s expansion birth in 1962, but that didn’t last long.  Since then, the Mets have had to please their adherents in the usual way—by at least occasionally rewarding them with victories. Their log includes two World Series championships (in 1969 and ’86) and two more pennants (in 2000 and this year). That’s two and four more, respectively, than the Cubs have won in that span.

              Both the Cubs and Mets endured losing-season dry spells from 2010 until their resurgences this season, and it’s instructive to compare their fans’ reactions. While the Mets were losing many of their supporters withheld patronage, with annual season attendance at their new (2009) Citi Field home barely exceeding two million for those five annums. Cubs’ fans, despite their team’s worse records than the Mets’ and in a half-as-big metro area, continued to drink the Kool Aid, topping the 2.5 million figure annually and three million in 2010. It’s no stretch to conclude that Cubs’ fans high tolerance for failure is one reason the team has done so poorly for so long. Why should management strive to serve steak when people will pay equally for bologna?

              Cubs’ fans are saying this year’s team is different because of the promise of its gifted young players. They’ll be champs for years, they proclaim. Chicagoans said the same thing after the 1985 Bears dominated the NFL with a young lineup, but fell short thereafter because of injuries and a clash of locker-room egos, not the least of which belonged to their coach, Mike Ditka. The same thing could happen to the Cubs.

              As the 1990s basketball Bulls and the current hockey Blackhawks have shown, Chicago is not a losers’ town, but it takes more than talent to win sports’ biggest prizes. The Bulls won their six NBA titles because of Michael Jordan’s superlative skills but also because he kicked his teammates’ butts when they didn’t perform to his expectations. Jonathan Toews seems to perform the same function for the Hawks in a quieter way. The Cubs will need a similar leader to succeed.

And meantime, it wouldn’t hurt to let them buy their own drinks until they’ve made some additions to the city’s trophy case.