SCOTTSDALE, Az.—-The Arizona Fall League is picking up traction as it winds down its 20th season.
A league record 5,713 fans witnessed the 7th Annual Rising Stars Game last Saturday night at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick somewhere on the outskirts of Scottsdale. The game featured up and coming low level minor leaguers like the Reds Billy Hamilton, the Nationals Brian Goodwin and monster Padres prospect Rymer Liriano, the 2011 Midwest League MVP.
The Cubs 19-year-old phenom Javier Baez was to have played in the all-star contest but he fractured his right thumb while celebrating a win.
I don't care what Theo and Jed say, you cannot take the Cub out of a Cub.
I could watch baseball year round–except this year's Cubs.-and have spent winters traveling to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Colombia and Hawaii, where I saw Buster Posey play in the now-defunct Hawaiian Winter League……….
That league shut down after the 2008 season. It really was a companion piece to the Arizona Fall League (AFL).
I’ll go anywhere where the sun still shines after 2 p.m.
The AFL is operated by MLB (Major League Baseball) and it is more cost effective for teams to send young players to Arizona than Florida.
And it is often more safe to send young players to the Scottsdale-Phoenix area than winter leagues in the Dominican and Venezuela.
The 2012 AFL included players from 11 foreign countries, including Australia, Brazil, Cuba, the Netherlands, South Africa, South Korea and the forgotten baseball mecca of the territory of Puerto Rico.
Kim Ng (pronounced ang) is the senior vice president for baseball operations with Major League Baseball. She has advanced further in the upper ranks of baseball management than any woman in history. Ng has been an assistant general manager with the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers. In her 12 seasons as an assistant general manager, she reached the post season eight times and has has three World Series championship rings.
Ng was in Phoenix when I called her just before my weekend trip to see fall ball.
“I’m in charge of the scouting bureau,” she said. “To the extent that the commissioner’s office does player development, that’s mine as well as the scouting. That’s what the fall league falls under. We’re probably not as advanced as the NBA is in terms of (global) development and markets. Right now I’m focused on regulation. We’ve heard of the problems that exist in Latin America, particularly the Dominican Republic and Venezuela in terms of age and identity fraud. A lot of my time is spent in trying to make sure the contracts we’re approving are of players who are who they say they are. We are starting to get more involved in markets, where it is Latin America, Australia or Europe.”
The World Baseball Classic (WBC) also continues to be a vessel in which MLB is expanding its scope.
In late September Ng traveled to Regensburg, Germany to watch Canada advance in a series that included teams from Germany, Great Britain and the Czech Republic. The tournament was held in the 10,00 seat Armin-Wolf Arena, built in 1996 for baseball (bucket list!).
This year’s WBC single elimination championship round will be held March 17-19 at AT&T Park in San Francisco. “Colombia, Panama and especially Brazil is interesting,” Ng said. “We’re starting to dive in those markets.”
Ng championship celebration with Dodgers.
The AFL is a great antidote for anyone who has grown tired of the crowds at Arizona spring training games.
Average attendance is about 450 people a game and it seems like a third of the crowd consists of baseball scouts. The baseball geek factor is very high. Fans walk around with Baseball America prospect books and for $ 2 you can buy the same scouting reports baseball people use. Day games start at 12:45 p.m. There are no vendors and generally one concession stand is open. Tickets are $6 and there is open seating. Many players sign autographs before the game.
On Friday night I saw the Scottsdale Scorpions host the Salt River Rafters at the beautiful downtown Scottsdale Stadium. Before the game New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira was inducted into the Arizona Fall League Hall of Fame. He played for the 2002 Peoria (Az.) Javelinas. Teixeira was on hand for the induction and told the modest crowd, “This is baseball at its purist. There’s not a lot of media scrutiny…and everyone here has what it takes.”
I wanted to see future Cubs and of course that didn’t work out so well.
Baez got hurt. On Friday afternoon I saw host Peoria beat Mesa (which included Baez and Cubs center fielder Matt Szczur) 7-5. The highly touted Szczur went 0 for 4 in the leadoff spot and it seemed like the Cubs are having him take a lot of pitches. He went down twice on called third strikes. I saw Cubs 24-year-old pitching prospect Kevin Rhoderick get two outs and give up a run before he was suddenly removed from the game. With a trainer by his side.
That is never a good sign.
The Rising Stars game was worth the weekend trip to the Valley of the Sun.
According to MLB.com, 72.6 per cent of past participants have made it to the big leagues. That’s a better ratio than spring training.
The Reds Billy Hamilton is poised to be one of the fastest players in baseball history. Dividing his time between High Class A and AA ball this year, he stole 155 bases, breaking the professional single season mark set by Vince Coleman in 1983. The Reds are converting Hamilton from a shortstop to a center fielder which was the main reason he is in the AFL. Hamilton made a flat out horizontal catch to rob the Nationals Brian Goodwin of extra bases in the all-star game.
Cubs prospect Tony Zych was summoned to face Hamilton in the fifth inning.
A graduate of St. Rita in Chicago, Zych is intriguing. He throws a hard slider and his fastball has been clocked at 99 MPH. Zych has an oddball delivery from his side that can make the ball difficult to pick up, but also could cause stress on his arm.
A switch hitter, Hamilton drag bunted for a single. He recorded a 3.40 second time to first base, which was unprecedented according to Baseball America’s Peter Wardell. Hamilton sped all the way to third after the ball was thrown away by Astros first baseman Jonathan Singleton.
Former Cub prospect and rising Tampa Bay star Hak-Ju-Lee then singled in Hamilton to give the West a 4-3 lead. (The East scored six runs in the bottom half of the inning and won 9-4, making Zych the winning pitcher). Hamilton also stole second and third base in the first inning.
Hamilton doesn’t have a lot of time on his hands. And neither does Ng.
“I don’t have a ton of time, but I do read baseball books,” she said, unaware of my lame segue. “The best sports book I ever read was a book called ‘The Rivals’ about the rivlalry between Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert Lloyd. I come from a sports family and it was interesting in how it put the rivalry into context with what was going on in society at the time. Usually with sports books you get suspense and drama, work ethic and adversity, which is great. After a while some of them sound the same.”
Ng got her first assistant general manager job in 1997 when she was hired by the Yankees. At age 29 she was the youngest assistant GM in baseball.
She remains a role model for young women.
“What is interesting is that when I first became an assistant GM, a lot of the letters were from girls 9 to 12, written in their own handwriting,” Ng said. “It was really cute. Today a lot of the letters and calls I get are from young women who are in college or high school looking how to get in. We’ve seen that shift in dynamics. Before it was cute.
“Now it seems more real. I do think it will take a while for us to see some noticeable differences, but I feel better about where we are today then we were 15 years ago.”