by Thomas U. Tuttle
The sun has been shining daily out here in Phoenix, Arizona as yours truly enjoys high quality fall baseball courtesy of the remarkable Arizona Fall League, where Major League Baseball’s top prospects gather every year – since 1992.
Yes, that’s the year that legendary baseball man and long-term top executive Roland Hemond was able to convince baseball front-offices across the land that a developmental “short-season” from October into November would be of exceptional value to every franchise in MLB.
And boy was he right!
Out of the roughly 4,000 players who have played for one of the six PHX area squads (located in Mesa, Scottsdale, Peoria, Surprise, Glendale and “Salt River”) over 2,000 have seen time in the Major Leagues. That’s more than 50% of some of the best prospects in the game!
A number of the players baseball fans are given the opportunity to watch are going to be outstanding MLB’ers, too. How about Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez, who I watched crush one out of the park at the All-Star game in 2015? Or LA Dodger rookie sensation Cody Bellinger, who was tending first base for Glendale in the fall of 2016? The scouts (who attend games by the dozen and occasionally outnumber the fans) were in hog-heaven watching the former can’t-miss prospect.
Hey, 39 homers in his first Dodger season? Not too bad. In an interview after a Scottsdale game, the soft-spoken, powerful slugger revealed that he was originally from the area and had watched a lot of games in his youth out in Glendale – where he was part of a team that went to the Little League World Series in 2007. (He grew up watching and admiring Larry Fitzgerald Jr, wide-receiver son of GDG top-shelfer Larry Sr.)
A few other luminaries?
How about Mike Piazza (the first AFL’er in the Hall-of-Fame) or future HOF’ers Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols? The list goes on and on…
Max Scherzer, Kris Bryant, Mike Trout, Corey Seager and Aaron Judge, just to name a few of the young guys.
And all players you could watch for six bucks, in the AZ sunshine, munching popcorn, down at the local ballpark. Best deal in sports for my money – or my press pass!
How does it work? Well, without getting into TOO much detail, the AFL is a showcase league, kind of a “graduate school” for top prospects. So the players know what they are getting into, their performance becomes meaningful, with 50 or 60 (or more) MLB scouts watching their every move – and sharing evaluations with each other.
Think about it – you gather 200 high quality players in one negotiable city (Phoenix) and just about every day there are three games going on around town with top-notch ballplayers who are wise to show good energy and hustle. That adds up to quality observation, the very essence of scouting.
For the weathered baseball scout, there is no driving all over creation to file a report on Suspect A or Prospect B. Just drive around beautiful central Arizona in the fall, hanging out with other baseball men (General Managers, top brass and coaches, too) – not a bad gig if you can get it!
It’s efficient and provides consistent insight – as one MLB scout told me; “Once I’ve seen a guy six or seven times, it’s up to me to really know that player. That’s the advantage of seeing them on a regular schedule.”
And as former Phillies great Del Unser (head of their scouting system for years, World Series champ in 1980) told me, “you can’t scout a player when he’s riding on the bus. I’ve done a lot of runs from Little Rock to Midland (Texas League) and this really is efficient.”
Unser, by the way, one of the true gentlemen in the game, retired this week.
So, hats off to future Hall-of-Famer Roland Hemond, one of the greatest people to ever help run the Grand Old Game. The Arizona Fall League was a genius call, and not his only one. As GM of the White Sox, I saw his handiwork in person as a boy. Fellow GDG’er and Chicagoan Larry Fitzgerald (whose son is absolutely the #1 hero out here) remembers when Roland went and picked up Dick (don’t call me Richie) Allen after his run in Philadelphia. What a player and what an entertainer! The Go-Go Sox were awesome, and should have won it all!
Well, at least that’s the view from Scottsdale, in the warm and bright sunshine, where maybe the sun is getting to me…