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November 6, 2012

Western Front

Three Days in the Desert, Part 1

by Geoff Young

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I try to visit the Arizona Fall League at least once every year. I don't always succeed, but it's a treat when I do. On my first trip to the desert, in 2001, I saw such future big-leaguers as Hank Blalock and Michael Cuddyer. In the 2004 championship game, it was Ryan Howard and Huston Street (who went on to be named NL and AL Rookie of the Year in 2005). The next November I convinced myself that Lastings Milledge would be a star. My last visit, in 2010, featured Jason Kipnis.

There were many other players that I didn't see or don't remember seeing. The point is that, much like spring training, the AFL provides an opportunity to watch players that most baseball fans haven't heard of yet but likely will in a few years (or sooner). For some people, this is cool in itself, in an “I saw them before they signed with Geffen” kind of way. For others, it's fun to watch a Cuddyer or a Howard on a larger stage now and be transported back in time, to memories accumulated in a given autumn.

This year, I attended the fourth annual SABR AFL Conference, which took place November 1-3 in Scottsdale, Arizona. The conference included four games in four ballparks featuring all six teams (culminating in Saturday night's Rising Stars Game, which showcased the crème de la crème), dinner at local institution Don and Charlie's, a ballpark cookout with former big-league third baseman and current Salt River Rafters manager Matt Williams, and a meeting of the Flame Delhi Chapter of SABR.

Oh, and the most important thing: Great people. Folks who love baseball and who know a lot about the game and are willing to share what they know. Rodney Johnson coordinated the event like an expert, making sure everything ran smoothly and going out of his way to make attendees feel at home. It drew locals, as well as fans from all over the country and beyond (one gentleman came down from Edmonton, Canada). At the end of three days surrounded by like-minded baseball fanatics, my only thought was: I don't want to go home.

Thursday, November 1
I arrive from San Diego just in time to catch a ride from Scottsdale to Mesa's HoHoKam Stadium, where our first game would pit the Mesa Solar Sox (Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, Orioles, Tigers) against the Peoria Javelinas (Mariners, Padres, Phillies, Reds, Twins). The gentleman who volunteers to drive us, Brian, is a local who has an unfortunate affinity for the Miami Marlins (Mike Redmond's hiring as their new manager comes up in conversation, as does everyone's favorite art dealer, Jeffrey Loria). Our other two passengers, John and Pat, hail from Atlanta and are Braves fans.

At the park, we sit in the second deck behind home plate and, importantly, in the shade. There is no assigned seating here. The ballpark holds 12,500 people. The announced attendance is 317. That's 2.5 percent capacity. Brian the Marlins fan feels right at home with such a “crowd.”

HoHoKam Stadium, Mesa, Arizona

I stupidly don't buy a stats sheet for $1 (swear I wasn't being cheap, just thought I didn't need one more piece of paper; it's a mistake I won't repeat), figuring the media guide that came as part of the conference registration package will suffice. I spend more time than is necessary trying to figure out who is who out on the field. The fact that everyone wears the uniform of their parent organization doesn't help. (Deep thought: If they aren't uniform, are they really uniforms?)

The game itself is enjoyable, if a bit slow. It seems like every time we look up the bases are loaded and nobody scores. The final is 7-3, so this isn't literally true, but let's just say that the pitchers could have thrown more strikes and we all would have been okay with that.

On the Peoria side, Twins outfielder Nate Roberts leads off and goes 4-for-5 with a double. The 23-year-old, who leads the league in batting average and OBP, steals third in the first inning and then is picked off said base while Phillies outfielder Zach Collier (age 22) strikes out swinging for the good ol' K-5 double play.

Collier goes 0-for-5 but impresses with his speed down the line. I don't have a stopwatch, but he makes a routine grounder to second interesting and later beats the return throw on what would have been an inning-ending double play to drive home a run.

Padres right-hander Matt Stites (age 22) gives one of the few memorable pitching performances, putting out a fire in the fifth en route to earning the victory. His final line: 1.2 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 3 K.

For the hometown Solar Sox, Cubs center fielder Matt Szczur goes 3-for-5. The 23-year-old leads off the bottom of the third with a homer just to the left of the 390-foot sign in left-center. In the fifth, he makes a nice throw to home plate. An inning later he badly misreads a fly ball—he comes in, it goes over his head—off the bat of the Twins’ Evan Bigley (age 25), who is credited with a triple.

Astros 21-year-old first baseman Jonathan Singleton goes 1-for-5, with the one hit being a loud double against Twins left-hander Logan Darnell (a 23-year-old whose name confuses this Padres fan accustomed to Logan Forsythe and James Darnell). The lefty-swinging Singleton also strikes out three times, including once chasing ball four against Stites with the bases loaded in the fifth and once on three straight called strikes (at least of one which was an actual strike) to end the contest. He makes a couple of nice defensive plays at first, which I wasn't expecting.

The other Mesa player who makes an impression, although I'm not sure what kind, is Astros third baseman Bobby Borchering. The 22-year-old singles and doubles in his first two trips to the plate, but he has a horrible at-bat in the eighth. With his team down four runs and fellow Houston farmhand George Springer (age 23) having just drawn a bases-loaded walk, Borchering swings at three straight pitches down and out of the zone. He also belly-flops into second base on a wild pitch that doesn't draw a throw and circumnavigates a pop foul in back of third base while it drops harmlessly somewhere in the vicinity of where he was.

Missing in action: Robbie Erlin, Billy Hamilton, Casey Kelly, Rymer Liriano, Cory Spangenberg. Disappointing? Yes. But baseball.

Afterward we return to the hotel, where I take a brief nap (I am still recovering from the early morning drive from Yuma). Then we head to Don and Charlie's for dinner. The place is packed with sports memorabilia—it's practically a museum—including hand-drawn caricatures on the walls. One of the caricatures is of former big-league executive and “architect” of the AFL, Roland Hemond, who happens to be joining us for dinner this evening.

He isn't at our table of eight, but we find a way to amuse ourselves anyway. We talk about baseball books and the history of statistics in the game. Harry Chadwick, that sort of thing. There is an unidentified Mariners “17” jersey on one of the walls. With a bit of detective work, we figure that it must have belonged to Glenn Abbott. And get a kick out of the fact that we all remember Abbott.

We eat and talk. Then we talk and eat. This continues until... I have no idea, really. One loses track of time doing such things.

On our way out, John the Braves fan flags down Hemond and thanks him for his work for the team back in the '50s. They start talking about Eddie Mathews and Hank Aaron. I get chills. I'm not ready to leave, but that's how it goes.

Friday, November 2
We have two games today. The first is at Phoenix Municipal Stadium and features the Surprise Saguaros (Cardinals, Mets, Rangers, Red Sox, Royals) and the Phoenix Desert Dogs (Athletics, Braves, Brewers, Marlins, Rays).

Phoenix Municipal Stadium, Phoenix, Arizona

I sit with our host, Rodney, and a mother-son combination from Kansas City for this game. We spend an agreeable afternoon talking about our favorite minor-league ballparks (including Warren Ballpark in Bisbee, Arizona, the oldest in the United States), among other topics.

While watching the action, Rodney mentions that The Who played in this stadium in 1968 (with San Francisco's Quicksilver Messenger Service opening). The first hit here was a triple by Willie McCovey, while Willie Mays knocked the first home run. So, there's a bit of history in this place.

As for the game, a few guys leave impressions. On the Surprise side, Rangers shortstop Luis Sardinas goes 3-for-4 (he hits everything on the ground) and displays a strong arm in the field. He also is picked off first base in the sixth and kicks a ball hit to his left in the seventh. At age 19, Sardinas is by far the youngest player in the league, so these things will happen. I like what I see, and so does veteran scout Bernie Pleskoff, who later compares him to Alcides Escobar.

Cardinals catcher Cody Stanley (age 24) homers to right-center in the fourth. Another Cardinals farmhand, right fielder Colin Walsh (age 23), makes a nice throw in the seventh.

For Phoenix, which wins the game 3-1, Braves shortstop Nick Ahmed (age 22) homers to left-center in his first at-bat. He just gets under another one in the fifth, driving it to the warning track in dead center.

Tim Beckham (Rays, age 22), the first pick overall in 2008, is the DH today. He singles to center in the first and swipes second. He walks in the third. But what sticks with me is his final at-bat, in the eighth. He is late on several fastballs before lunging at a breaking ball to strike out. It isn't pretty, and Pleskoff is concerned.

The A's Grant Green, playing second base, grounds out twice before launching a homer to left-center in the seventh. This is the hardest-hit ball I've seen or heard on the trip. As I noted at the time, “that sounded great off the bat.” It's cliché but true. I was scribbling in my notebook when I heard the bat crack. Figured I'd better look up before I missed something special. At age 25, Green is a bit old for the circuit, but he is here to get some work in the infield after having spent most of 2012 playing left and center field at Sacramento.

Richie Shaffer, the Rays’ first-round pick this past June, starts at first base and has a rough day in the field. Listed as a third baseman, the 21-year-old out of Clemson drops a pop foul in the fourth and olés a grounder the next inning. After the second error (and only one charged), someone in the crowd yells, “Roger Dorn!”

Missing in action: Christian Yelich.

* * *

The evening contest is at Scottsdale Stadium and features the hometown Scorpions (Angels, Giants, Indians, Pirates, Yankees) against the Salt River Rafters (Blue Jays, Diamondbacks, Nationals, Rockies, White Sox). Before the game, we are treated to a buffet dinner and a question-and-answer session with Matt Williams and Rays scout Jason Grey.

Both speakers are engaging and informative. Williams opines that more 0-2 pitches are hit hard nowadays than before because guys are worried about pitch counts and don't want to waste any. Of managing in the AFL, he notes that the hardest part is not knowing the players. Williams emphasizes the importance of player development here as opposed to being concerned about wins and losses, as he would be in any other league.

The most interesting question concerns Barry Bonds, and Williams reveals that Bonds is one of his favorite teammates. He notes that as a teammate, neighbor, and friend, he saw sides of Bonds that the public never did.

Grey talks about the nature of the AFL, with each game pitting top prospect versus top prospect. He mentions the importance of age and the impossibility of doing “performance scouting” in this league. Context must be considered, and it's more useful to know how a player achieves his results than what the results themselves are. Is a pitcher throwing the ball past hitters because he has great stuff or because he has a trick that might get exposed against better competition? What do a hitter's hands look like when he swings the bat, and how well do his lower and upper body work together?

While this is happening, Mark Teixeira is out on the field being inducted into the AFL Hall of Fame. We miss the ceremony, but with all due respect to Teixeira, I'm perfectly happy to hear Williams and Grey speak.

Scottsdale Stadium, Scottsdale, Arizona

As for the game, Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar (age 23) leads off for Salt River with a ground single to right. He goes 2-for-4, swipes second and third, and hits a ball hard in the eighth but just gets under it.

White Sox third baseman Carlos Sanchez (age 21, playing second base tonight) doesn't do anything at the plate but makes a nice turn on a double play in the eighth. It looks like he throws the ball before he gets the feed from shortstop. This is physically impossible, of course, but it's an athletic play.

Rockies right fielder Kent Matthes (age 25) makes a nice throw home in the fourth—strong but a tad up the line. At the plate he goes 0-for-3 with a walk and three strikeouts. He seems to be having trouble with curveballs.

Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon (age 22) triples off the wall in right-center (center field is 430 feet from home plate in this ballpark). He “singles” to right in the seventh, but the first baseman should have made the play.

The Rockies Jose Gonzalez (age 25) has a rough night behind the dish. He allows four stolen bases, most without a throw because he has trouble making the transfer. He also is charged with a passed ball. From my notes: “Dropped a lot of balls.”

On the Scottsdale side, Giants shortstop Joe Panik (age 22) homers in his first at-bat. He works the count full, fouls off a couple of pitches, then drives one out to right-center. Panik hit just seven home runs in the California League during the regular season.

Pirates second baseman Adalberto Santos has a nice approach at the plate and goes 2-for-4 with a walk, but is 25 years old. Angels right fielder Randal Grichuk (age 21), whom they took one pick ahead of Mike Trout in the 2009 draft, goes 0-for-2 with a walk and a hit-by-pitch (on an 0-2 count). He also steals a base.

After the contest, we compare notes while walking back to the hotel. Then it's time to rest up for a big Saturday that will begin with Pleskoff speaking at the morning's SABR meeting and end with Hamilton running like crazy, blowing our collective minds.

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