SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—The spring training home of the San Francisco Giants, Scottsdale Stadium isn't the biggest or nicest in the Phoenix metro area. In many ways, though, it's the hub of the Arizona Fall League.
I'm probably biased, because when the AFL launched in 1992, my older brother bought me a fitted Scottsdale Scorpions hat. It was pretty snazzy and unique back in the early '90s.
I also hold the "franchise" in high regard because it is one of two AFL teams that have not changed names. Only the Peoria Javelinas also remain unchanged in the 21-year AFL history. The Javelinas get extra credit for making me think of The Pixies. Yes, The Pixies spelled it differently, and yes, I'm stuck in the '80s and '90s.
Scottsdale Stadium also serves as home of the AFL Hall of Fame, with plaques of honored players, managers and executives lining the concourse of the ballpark. It's a testament to the staying power of the league founded by Roland Hemond, the former general manager who remains involved with the AFL.
We owe Hemond a debt for making the idea of a domestic fall/winter league, a finishing school for prospects, a reality. It seems like many 21st Century baseball fans take the Fall League for granted, when we really should realize just how cool it is.
Today's social-media, instant-gratification culture makes fans obsessive, much to Baseball America's delight. Some baseball fans aren't ready for the season to end when the World Series is over, and the AFL is there for them.
The league got more exposure in 2013 and appeared to benefit from it. MLB Network planned on broadcasting three games as it has the last few years—the AFL's all-star game, now cleverly renamed the Fall Stars Game; the military appreciation game, which coincides with playing baseball on Veteran's Day; and the championship game (which incidentally was won 2-0 by Surprise over Mesa).
But MLB's plan for expanded instant replay needed a test, and the AFL is MLB's favorite guinea pig. So MLB Network was dispatched to cover four extra games with six cameras.
I was lucky to be part of those broadcasts, along with play-by-play man Paul Severino and ex-big leaguer Joe Magrane as analyst. After my research was done, I had more fun than I think I'm allowed to have, especially compared to the players. It's wonderful for us as fans to still have baseball in November, but as one AFL manager told me, "My players are totally gassed. Some of the college guys started their games in February. It's a long season for all of us.
"All I know is, I went to the ballpark in the afternoon yesterday and went to the mall after, and there were Christmas decorations up. I've never had a game and then seen Christmas decorations afterward."
For those of us who don't play, nothing sounds better.
Path To The Bigs
Hemond stood like a proud papa before an early November game as Fall League executive vice president Steve Cobb inducted Athletics manager Bob Melvin into the Concourse, er, Hall. Melvin spoke of how managing the Maryvale Saguaros in 1999 was his first managerial experience, and how it prepared him for managing a big league club.
It's a path others have followed, most recently Dodgers manager Don Mattingly and new Nationals skipper Matt Williams. Piloting an AFL team, where parent organizations have control over your roster, playing time and even where hitters slot into a lineup, obviously isn't the same as managing in the majors. But shepherding a clubhouse of players from five different organizations and keeping them on the same page for six weeks is the kind of challenge that trains managers well.
The Fall League also trains players. For some, such as Giants righthander Kyle Crick and Twins righty Alex Meyer, it's a chance for extra innings after missing time in the regular season. This is the true purpose of the AFL, a more competitive, higher-level instructional league. Crick and Meyer matched up on a Friday night in Scottsdale Stadium and dazzled in an MLB Network game, both firing mid-90s fastballs.
But it's also a place for players such as Diamondbacks righty Bo Schultz, a former submariner in the Athletics system who found more velocity with a higher arm slot in independent ball. He missed leading the league in strikeouts by one and now looks on the cusp of the big leagues. So is Yankees lefthander Freddy Lewis, a 26-year-old lefty out of NAIA Tennessee Wesleyan who did a fine Phil Coke impersonation in Arizona.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of Michael Jordan's AFL stint, the only time large crowds consistently came out to AFL games. It doesn't appear that Arizonans will ever fill up massive spring training complexes such as Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, or the upcoming new Cubs' digs in Mesa, or even old Scottsdale Stadium for Fall League games.
But the rest of us get it. The Fall League is one of the coolest parts of the pro game. It's a Futures Game every day and a tremendous way to end the domestic baseball season.
Thank you, Roland Hemond.