PEORIA, Ariz.—A baseball family with two baseball-starved teenage boys, the Heid family expected a baseball bonanza when it moved from cloudy, rainy Washington state to warm, sunny Arizona.
But the family was stunned to learn that the amateur baseball infrastructure in Arizona was in its nascent stages, even though the Cactus League was established decades prior.
“Summer youth baseball is really well-developed in the Seattle area,” said Ted Heid, the father of the family. “Then we came down here and we couldn't even find a team for our sons to play on. So we had to beg an older league to them play. But they played 14 games and the season was over. My sons, Tyler and Trevor, were like, ‘Why did I move down here?’ We thought there would be so much baseball.”
So the family took action and began the Arizona Fall Classic in 1995. What started as a small, eight-team tournament for a single age group of Arizona youngsters has become one of the largest and premier series of tournaments in the country for college coaches, pro scouts and amateur players from many different states and countries.
Every weekend in October, the 13-field Peoria Sports Complex, spring training home of the Padres and Mariners, hosts a tournament featuring a different graduating high school class. Last month, over 200 teams competed in Arizona Fall Classic events. The 67-team Senior Fall Classic, featuring players in the upcoming draft class, annually draws pro scouts from every major league organization and nearly 500 college coaches from more than 200 schools.
“Some of these guys might not play college ball, but we want to make sure that they have every opportunity to,” Ted Heid said. “That is really the driving force for this whole thing because we really believe that there is a match—especially if you take care of your business in the classroom, you are going to play somewhere.”
The Senior Fall Classic features a unique event that has become a key destination for college coaches, the All-Academic game. The event is exclusively for players in the graduating class that do not have a college commitment, possess a GPA of 3.7 or higher without test scores or a 3.5 GPA with appropriate test scores, an ACT of 27 (87th percentile) or higher or SAT of 1,700 or higher.
Applicants go through batting practice, infield/outfield and other workouts in front of coaches from more than 100 premier academic schools. The players are then chosen to play in the prime-time game under the bright lights of the main stadium.
“One of the first years we did the academic game there were a handful of coaches,” Ted Heid said. “These guys would call the other coaches in their conference and say, ‘Hey, I am sitting here in Peoria, Arizona, and I have 85 kids that are academically eligible to come to my school. Where are you right now?’ Then we had guys that flew out the next day.”
“It is probably the greatest event in the country for what you pay for it,” said Nate Trosky, founder of the California-based travel program Trosky Baseball. “To have 150 colleges on one field watching you play a game with a workout beforehand—that is the greatest bargain in the amateur baseball.”
With many of the elite academic institutions in attendance, including numerous Ivy League schools, an estimated 60 percent of the players in the All-Academic game receive scholarships.
A key aspect of the Senior Fall Classic is its timing within the recruiting calendar, as it provides under-the-radar players with a final opportunity to be seen by college coaches just weeks before the early signing period begins. Six players from the Royals Scout Team, for example, received scholarship offers over the course of the four-day Senior Fall Classic.
“Some guys might not get seen because on the field next to him is the prototypical 6-foot-4 pro prospect who can hit bombs about 460 feet,” Ted Heid said. “But there were four legitimate arms that nobody knew about on that field except for those eight college coaches that were just bearing down thinking, 'I am really liking this guy.' That is the payday for us. Every single field has at least five to 10 coaches or scouts, and it provides these kids with some good opportunities.”
Yet the events also offer front-line talent that draws a strong presence from the pro scouting community to watch potential first-round selections like Jacob Gatewood, Alex Jackson and Alex Verdugo, to name a few.
Another beneficial aspect of the Classic is that it gathers the top players from tough-to-reach locales like Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho and Montana, among others.
“Pro scouting directors tell me every year by bringing Hawaii to this tournament that it saves them thousands of dollars annually,” Ted Heid said. “And it saves valuable time. For a crosschecker or scouting director to travel there in the spring, he is going to miss being able to see four guys stateside.”
“Everybody wants to play Hawaii,” Tracy Heid said. “After the game they give gifts and pineapples for the umpires and gift bags for the opponents.”
The Fall Classic events also have a strong international flavor, as they have hosted teams from six countries including Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand and Australia. Canada also supplies a strong contingent of teams every year. This is one of the biggest reasons why many colleges and junior colleges in the Southwest region have a surprising number of Canadians on their rosters.
This large-scale operation is handled entirely by the Heids, with Tracy leading the way. Tracy is the founder of the Arizona Fall Classic company and the only full-time employee. Without her, there would be no Classic. Onlookers marvel at her tireless work ethic and unrelenting focus on providing opportunities for amateur players. The whole operation is enabled by the Heid’s extended family and friends, who help out throughout October.
“The Heid family has a very strong work ethic, so nobody was afraid to put in the hours and it wasn't about the return,” Ted Heid said. “So any struggles, we ended up just working harder. The bottom line is why are we doing this? It’s putting baseball players in front of college coaches.”
The family has a strong core of supporters that help ensure the event runs smoothly every year including Matt Spring, who has caught in the Rays and Red Sox systems since 2004 and is Trevor’s best friend, and Karl Pagel, who played in the major leagues over parts of five seasons. Each event requires around 25 people to play supporting roles, as all 13 fields are used for more 12 hours a day.
“I don't know if there is an extended family member that has not worked at one of these events throughout the years,” said Trevor Heid.
Trevor, currently a doctor who played in the Mariners system for three years, rearranges his schedule to give up the majority of his October. Yet sometimes, the Heids' day jobs take precedence.
“One year I get a call in the middle of the event and it is from Chuck Armstrong, the president of the Mariners, saying that Ichiro won’t sign with the Mariners unless Ted is there,” said Ted, who is the Mariners' special projects international coordinator and was one of the signing scouts for Ichiro Suzuki. “I was the scout over in Japan. So I am on the next United flight out of here in the morning. And these guys had to pick up all the pieces.”
The event is constantly evolving and adding different elements to accommodate scouts and coaches. It hosts multiple junior-college all-star games in the main stadium during the Senior Fall Classic.
With the recruiting calendar pushing toward younger players every year, the Junior and Sophomore Fall Classics have grown in scope and importance for college coaches. And this year’s Senior Fall Classic was the largest and best-attended event yet.