Perfect Weather and Baseball: Is that Something You Might be Interested In?
Is perfect weather and baseball something you might be interested in? Yes? Well then welcome to the Arizona Fall League!
I must confess that I didn’t know much about the AFL (now in its 17th season) until many of my baseball friends on Twitter started tweeting about it. And it sounded fantastic – top prospects, great weather, small spring training ballparks and cheap tickets. How could you go wrong? Short answer: you can’t.
Last week, when I had a chance to extend my trip to Phoenix an extra day, I decided to spend it in Mesa for the Phoenix Desert Dogs at Mesa Solar Sox. Yes, I know that the Yankees prospects were in Surprise, but that was just too far to drive. Mesa is just 20 minutes from downtown Phoenix (without traffic). Guess I’ll have to come back next year.
Scouting on Twitter
I didn’t know much about the teams I was going to see or the players (except Washington Nationals’ #1 draft pick Desert Dogs pitcher Stephen Strasburg), so I reached out to the baseball experts on Twitter. I learned that the Solar Sox had the Twins, Red Sox, Cubs, Angels and Marlins players, and included top prospects Starlin Castro (Cubs) and Jose Iglesias (Red Sox). The Desert Dogs, the top team in the AFL, had prospects from the Nationals, A’s, Orioles, Rays and Bluejays, and included Josh Bell (Orioles) and Grant Desme (A’s).
I arrived at Hohokam Park at around 11:45 a.m. for a 12:35 pm start. Hohokam is the spring training facility of the Chicago Cubs, and Cubs’ logos are everywhere. The first of many retirees greeted me at the box office and I paid $6 for my ticket. $6! Just like Yankee Stadium. I stopped by the gift shop to pick up my lineup ($1), program ($2) and media guide ($12). Again, just like the major leagues. Armed with all the information I needed, I headed into the park and staked out a prime spot in the sun in the first row behind the Desert Dogs’ dugout. Again, just like Yankee Stadium.
Let’s Play Ball!
I wandered around the park a bit, took a lot of photos of the Solar Sox warming up (you can check out all my pictures from the day at the game on Flickr) and then settled in for baseball. I’m not going to get into any details about the game itself (Phoenix crushed Mesa, 11-1, to advance to the AFL Championship game) or detailed scouting reports on the players I saw. I just wanted to write about the experience of being there. And I loved it. With the announced attendance of 316 (yes, 316 people) in the house, it just felt small and intimate, in a good way. I felt like I was experiencing a pure form of baseball, where it really was about the game and the hope of success. A far cry from the big leagues.
Up Close and Personal
With my seats behind the Desert Dogs’ dugout, I could hear the manager and pitching coach talking. Players hung out at the railing. The snap of the ball in the catcher’s mitt. The crack of the bat, all right there. It didn’t hurt that the weather was absolutely perfect and the sun was beating down (my right arm got sunburned, and I did not mind at all). Ah, the sun. It will be a
while before we see you again in New York City. But I digress. Every player for the Desert Dogs was on deck just feet from where I sat. I love seeing the players in the on deck circle. It’s fun to see their routines and, of course, as a female I can’t really complain either. If you know what I mean. And I think that you do.
Ok. Fine. A Few Player Notes
I know I said just a few paragraphs ago that I wouldn’t provide a scouting report, but a few guys definitely caught my eye. From a baseball perspective, of course.
Let’s start with Josh Bell, the third base prospect for the Baltimore Orioles. I admit that it was Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com who first tipped me off to Bell, but even if I hadn’t received the inside info, I could tell this kid is going to be special.
He’s big, strong and plays a solid third base. The Orioles are going to have a good third baseman for a long time with this guy. He also absolutely crushed a pitch for a deep 3-run home run to right field that had everybody oohing and aahing in wonder.
He made such an impression that I actually did some research (gasp!) on him. And found out that he was a top third base prospect for the Dodgers, who dealt him to the Orioles in the George Sherrill deal. According to one of my Twitter followers, Jacob Larsen, the Dodgers thought so highly of Bell that his nickname was Matt Kemp Jr. And you know how much I love me some Matt Kemp.
Another player that stood out (and whom I had heard about from my Nationals’ fan friends – yes they do exist), was Danny Espinosa. He was the Desert Dogs player of the game, going 3 for 4 with a triple, 4 RBIs and a run scored. Rays’ prospect pitcher Mitch Talbot went to 3-0. He allowed just 1 unearned run on 3 hits with 2 Ks and 3 walks in 4 innings pitched.
I also have to admit that I am really rooting for Bluejays’ OF/1B prospect Adam Loewen. Hey, isn’t that name familiar? Wasn’t Adam Loewen a pitcher for Team Canada and the Baltimore Orioles? Why yes, yes he was!
After a stress fracture in his elbow forced him to give up pitching, he’s reinventing himself as a OF/1B, and signed with the Bluejays. Sort of like Rick Ankiel, only without the nervous breakdown and meltdown on national television. I really hope he makes it, since I like a good comeback story. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s Canadian and fairly adorable. For more on the Adorableness Quotient and its importance, check out my friend Sarah of Oh It’s THOSE Girls.
A few more quick observations about my experience at the game. First, the entire park is run by retirees. Is this a retiree baseball mafia? Every single person working there had to be at least 65 years
old. Including the ball women. Yes, they have ball women. Women who pick up the balls and retrieve the bats. There was one classic moment I overheard from the Desert Dogs’ dugout after a foul ball landed between home plate and the backstop, closer to the dugout. The pitching coach turned to one of the other guys in the dugout and said, “Hey, why don’t you get that ball. Don’t make that lady run out there to get it.”
Also, I met several people there who go every year and know each other from Arizona Fall League games. These were not professional scouts and MLB personnel guys, but fans. Fans who love the atmosphere. Fans who love to say, “Hey, I saw that player when.” Fans who make this an annual pilgrimage. Fans who just love baseball and their teams.
After one game, count me among those fans. I’m definitely interested and can’t wait for next year. Will I see you there?