Saturday, November 19, 2005

the boys of indian summer

Watching Juan Uribe hammering the nails into the Astros’ coffin with his magical glove work during the later portion of Game 4 of the 2005 World Series, I realized that another sweep was about to mark the premature beginning of winter in my corner of the world. I was going to have to get creative in order to squeeze a final few drops of baseball out of the season before the snow began to fly. But how, where, and WHEN? Cheating Old Man Winter was going to take a serious plan.

Perhaps a trip to the Dominican Republic was in order. Unfortunately not, but hopefully that will be the topic of a future post. Instead, I loaded up the Jeep and set out across the desert towards the Valley of the Sun. The plan that had been hatched was to try to catch the final days of the 2005 Arizona Fall League season.

Thursday, November 3

Although a flight to Phoenix from the Duke City only takes about an hour, it usually proves more adventurous to drive. Late autumn is a terrific time to bop along the Purple Heart Trail (Interstate 40) and take in the changing colors of leaves as trees prepare themselves for their annual hibernation against a backdrop of black lava flows and outcrops of red sandstone- all under a stunningly blue sky. Dilapidated structures dotting the remnants of the nearby alignment of historic Route 66 serve as stark reminders that there isn’t always a “next year.”

As always, I must recommend spending at least one night at the La Posada Hotel in Winslow, Arizona if you can manage the time during any leg of your travels through that area. After enjoying a couple of drinks and a fine meal in the Turquoise Room at the historic Harvey House, one could easily drift off to sleep while sitting in front of the large crackling fire in the ballroom and wondering about which big league ballplayers might have visited the grand hotel during its heyday. I, of course, opted to make a beeline back to the room in order to watch a fantastic fresh episode of Smallville.

Friday, November 4

Barreling down the Black Canyon Freeway (Interstate 17), the thought occurred to me that most people probably don’t have the slightest notion of what that the Arizona Fall League (AFL) is all about. Major League Baseball (MLB) created the AFL several years ago in order to have a place in the states where a goodly number of the better minor league prospects can play organized ball as an alternative to participating in winter baseball outside the US. The AFL includes six teams made up of the six best Double- and Triple-A players from each of the Major League teams, or a total of 180 players. Games are played at various Spring Training stadiums located throughout the Phoenix area over a six-week period beginning in early October. I tend to think of the AFL as an extended minor league All-Star tournament.

Intentionally skipping the Deer Valley Rock Art Center since I was relatively certain that they wouldn’t have any new petroglyphs to look at, my first stop was Surprise Stadium to catch an evening game between the Peoria Saguaros and the Surprise (formerly Scottsdale) Scorpions. The Saguaros include players from the Blue Jays, Nationals, Pirates, Red Sox and White Sox organizations. The Scorpions roster includes prospects sent by the Angels, Astros, Cardinals, Phillies and Royals.

Last time I was in Surprise, Arizona, the only sights were a lazy jackrabbit and a couple handfuls of Hohokam pottery strewn across the desert surface. I knew that a stadium had been constructed to lure the Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals from their Spring Training facilities in Florida, but I had not been to a game there. Imagine if you can, my shock as I discovered that the surrounding area has been completely developed as the Phoenix metropolis stretches its dry tentacles "out Wickenburg way." Hotels, sports bars, restaurants, shopping centers, gas stations and housing had seemingly burst forth from the ground like wild flowers following a light spring rain. They all pale in comparison to the ballpark.

The AFL provides more game experience for managers, coaches, and even umpires hoping to advance to the majors. In fact, I recognized two dudes in blue (Angel Campos and Todd Tichenor) who had worked a number of Albuquerque Isotopes games during the summer. Other Pacific Coast League umpires I would see in action before the end of the trip included Shawn Rakos and Kevin Sweeney. Scouts and players’ family members make up the lion’s share of the AFL’s official attendance (reportedly 581 at this game). Actually, the only other people who show up in any sort of force are the seasoned autograph collectors. Major League Baseball does a miserable job of marketing the AFL to fans. Ironically, it is probably this lack of publicity that makes the AFL one of the best possible venues for fans. A $6 ticket allows you to sit virtually anywhere you want (except in the outfield berm areas), and provides close contact with the players.

I got a couple of dozen cards autographed by players (Brian Bass, Brendan Harris, Howie Kendrick, Corwin Malone, Brandon Moss, David Murphy, Neil Walker and Jered Weaver) before the game. I also chatted briefly with a few autograph collectors from Albuquerque before settling back in my seat to enjoy a leisurely game that ended dramatically with the Scorpions coming from behind to win 4-3 in the bottom of the 9th. I got Astros outfielder Josh Anderson to sign his cards soon after he scored the winning run by colliding with Blue Jays catcher Guillermo Quiroz and forcing him to drop the ball. Never mind that three of the game’s five errors were committed in the bottom of the 9th inning, it was still very exciting. I enjoy watching a play unfold, then listen as the manager and coaches explain to the players how they would be better off taking a different approach the next time they find themselves in a similar situation. Obviously, this is something you can’t do when you are in a ballpark with 10,000 fans and commercials are being played between innings.

Traffic after the game was much lighter than before, making the remainder of the drive into downtown Phoenix a breeze.

Saturday, November 5

This day proved to be a baseball extravaganza. First I visited Tempe Camera and rented a Nikkor 80-200 mm zoom lens for my Nikon D70. I found renting the lens at a rate comparable to the average cost of a box of Topps Total baseball cards per day preferable to purchasing one for around $1,400. From downtown Tempe it was off to the Peoria Sports Complex to watch the Mesa Solar Sox (Cubs, Giants, Indians, Reds and Tigers) take on the Peoria Javelinas (Brewers, Mariners, Orioles, Padres and Rockies).

Interestingly, the distance between the Peoria Sports Complex and Surprise Stadium is only about six miles. But considering that the straight line between the two facilities takes you directly through the pacemaker of Sun City, I wonder if walking it wouldn’t prove a wise decision.

I have been to a number of games at the Peoria Sports Complex before, including the inaugural 1994 Spring Training game featuring the San Diego Padres vs. the Seattle Mariners. The last time I was at that ballpark was when Garth Brooks was “playing” for the Padres in an exhibition that I am extremely thankful has finally begun to fade from my memory. They have a great facility in Peoria, with easy access off the Loop 101 freeway.

I played my trump card at Peoria- flashing my media credentials to gain access to the field before the game. The day was absolutely gorgeous, with temperatures reaching into the mid 80s. Perfect for baseball! A total of 539 fans apparently agreed. The Javelinas pounded the Solar Sox pitching staff, and held on to win by a final of 10-6. A couple of plays that were burned into my brain included a BOMB launched by Brewers infielder Corey Hart in the bottom of the 5th. I suspect some kid playing in his yard in Flagstaff likely ended up with that souvenir. I also enjoyed the hustle displayed by Mariners outfielder Gary Harris with two outs that same inning as he stretched a solid double into an impressive triple. Harris went on to score on Alcides Escobar’s infield single that followed a lengthy conference on the mound. If there’s one talent the AFL showcases above all others, it's hustle! Maybe that’s due to the presence of all the scouts, or perhaps the players simply want to finish the game and take off in search of trouble. I have difficulty finding the words to describe how exciting it is to be in a dugout when a team is in the process of scoring five runs in an inning.

The only downside to using media credentials is not being allowed to ask players for autographs. I suppose I could have hung around the stadium after the game, but time was running short, and there were tasks to complete before it was time to head over to Phoenix Municipal Stadium for the showdown between the Peoria Saguaros and the Phoenix Desert Dogs (As, Braves, Devil Rays, Diamondbacks and Dodgers). As it turned out, I had plenty of time to travel back to a buddy’s house and download my photos, clear my 1 GB CompactFlash card and enjoy a frosty beverage.

Phoenix Muni is unquestionably the “best” ballpark within the current AFL configuration. Access to players is considerably more challenging, but I find the overall atmosphere to be more conducive for watching a ballgame at this park. Possibly it is because Phoenix Muni offers the best beer prices in the entire AFL. I’m not sure why they weren’t playing any games at Scottsdale Stadium, although I did hear rumors that they are in the middle of some major remodeling, and might be using that facility again in 2006.

Phoenix Muni was relatively packed (with the official attendance at 1,016). I honestly have no idea why so many people were on hand for that game. Possibly many attended to watch Diamondbacks super fan Susan Price in action. Price is definitely one of the many reasons to go to Fall League games. Apparently some sort of retired music industry guru from LA, Price seems to know as much about all the players on the Desert Dogs roster as the coaches do. Her unique voice is powerful enough to carry across any ballpark, and I suspect opposing players find her quite unnerving. One thing is certain, after seeing her at a single Fall League game, you will be able to pick her out at any regular season Diamondbacks game even if it is standing room only.

Sunday, November 6

There were no baseball games on Sunday, which seemed to defy all logic. In the “good old days” of the AFL, they used to play doubleheaders on Sundays, and take Mondays off. Now I understand that they don’t play on Sunday so the players can watch football. sigh…

Monday, November 7

Next on my agenda was the Monday afternoon contest between the Peoria Javelinas and the Grand Canyon Rafters (Marlins, Mets, Rangers, Twins and the “evil ones”). I was particularly interested to catch at least one Rafters game in order to see Isotopes shortstop Josh Wilson play second base. Unfortunately, Josh didn’t play at all that game. He did coach first base for an inning, and handled himself with such poise that I believe he would have made Reggie Jefferson proud. The rest of the game Josh hung around in the dugout and entertained his teammates.

The mood in the dugout was pretty light as the Rafters handled the Javelinas with relative ease. I think I would be willing to believe that there actually were 116 people in the ballpark as reported, if someone from the AFL admitted that all players, coaches, grounds crew, office personnel and both vendors had entered through the turnstiles along with the handful of fans. Nevertheless, those who were present, witnessed catcher Mike Nickeas (Rangers) lead the offensive charge, going 3 for 4 with a three-run homer off ex-Isotopes pitcher Mike Flannery in the 8th. Although the Javelinas managed to put a few runs up on the scoreboard, they never really challenged the Rafters. Another powerful Corey Hart dinger to center went largely unnoticed as Grand Canyon won 8-3.

A person has an opportunity to hear many interesting things in a dugout during a baseball game, even one that lasts only 2 hours and 20 minutes. For instance, I overheard Rangers’ infielder Drew Meyer's recipe for a “great drink” that consists of Crown Royal and Cherry Coke. While some players pass the time quietly by fidgeting on the bench, others are content to entertain themselves by flicking sunflower and pumpkin seeds at photographers. Some players spit, a few pace to and fro in search of the perfect location to watch the game from, and others simply fondle their balls and bats hoping the manager will call on them to perform. Almost all of them can be spotted now and again discussing pitches and approaches to facing certain pitchers. But telling jokes and playing practical jokes on each other seems to be the dominant form of dugout entertainment.

Other Marlins prospects Reggie Abbercrombie, Robert Andino, and Logan Kensing played, and played well. Outfielder Abbercrombie scored two runs while infielder Andino went 2 for 4 on the afternoon. Kensing also turned in a solid performance by striking out three batters through two innings in his no-hit relief appearance.

Tuesday, November 8

Originally, I had planned to return to Phoenix Muni for one last game on Tuesday before leaving town. However, I changed my mind after learning that the Solar Sox would be playing two games against the Rafters that afternoon, and returned to Surprise Stadium.

The first game of the doubleheader was the conclusion of a game that had previously been suspended under the terms of the AFL’s (Frank) Robinson Rule. In a nutshell, the Robinson Rule was designed and implemented to protect pitching staffs by suspending games tied after 11 innings. You have to keep in mind that many of these pitchers are working on limited pitch counts set by the parent clubs since they have already put in a full season, and they don’t want their arms to fall off.

They picked up the game in the top of the 12th tied 1-1. Still in the hunt for the AFL post-season, the Solar Sox quickly added three runs and appeared ready to take the game. Already eliminated from the post-season, the Rafters showed up ready to take on the oft-underrated role of spoiler. Mets outfield prospect Lastings Milledge pulled the Rafters to within a single run by driving in Twins outfielder Denard Span with a two-run shot to left center. Electricity flooded the Rafters dugout as they managed to get two of the next four batters on base. With two out, Mets infielder Chase Lambin doubled to defeat the Solar Sox. Abbercrombie scored the winning run. It was one of those miracle moments that make baseball so enjoyable (unless you were pulling for the Solar Sox).

Also under the terms of the Robinson Rule, the second game was scheduled to last only 7 innings. The game got started after a 25-minute break to allow the players a chance to regroup, and the 122 fans to grab a hotdog and a beer. This second game took only an hour and 45 minutes to complete. Once again the Rafters displayed an amazing ability to come from behind. After the dust had settled, it became clear that the Mesa Solar Sox had been eliminated from any post-season play as well. Grand Canyon heroics included a grand slam by Twins infielder Garrett Jones in the bottom of the 5th, and a game-winning 2-RBI double by Josh Wilson in the bottom of the 7th. Marlins prospects Abbercrombie, Andino and Wilson combined to go 3 for 7, with three runs scored in the game. I am hopeful that some of these Marlins prospects will be sent from Carolina to Albuquerque next season.

With the sun setting in the rearview mirror as I headed back towards Albuquerque, I realized how fortunate I had been- catching six games within a span of less than 92 hours including a day/night twin bill in two different ballparks, and the afternoon doubleheader for desert. Everyone should be so lucky to get to taste the Arizona Fall League at least once. It is a MUST for baseball purists since mascots aren’t allowed in the ballparks, and commercials are practically just as scarce. One would also be hard pressed to find any location where it is easier to literally bump into former and current big leaguers.

Watching the milepost markers on the edge of the pavement descend one by one as I neared the Arizona-New Mexico border, I prepared my mind for the inevitable countdowns to Spring Training and Opening Day in 2006.

I was talking to a buddy afterwards, and he asked what the KOOLEST thing was that happened during the trip. Without question, it had to be when a handful of players gave me their email addresses and asked if I would send them copies of the photos I took of them. I guess I now have all winter to figure out the best way to convince the baseball card companies to take a look at some of my shots.