Legends of the Fall Leagueby Frank Jackson
October 09, 2013
The contrast could hardly be more stark. In October, the best major league teams are playing in stadiums jam-packed with fans, while millions more are witnessing the action on television. While this is going on, another Major League Baseball production features professional ballplayers performing before much smaller crowds in much smaller venues with no television coverage.
Unlike the major league postseason, you can safely predict months in advance where these low-profile contests will take place: In Arizona, where they have happened every year since 1992, when MLB inaugurated the Arizona Fall League to enhance player development.
Of course, the major league postseason is all about winning. The normal pressures to win during the 162-game season take on a do-or-die intensity. The Arizona Fall League, on the other hand, is all about developing players who will one day help their teams to advance to that postseason pressure cooker.
That doesn’t mean the AFL players are dogging it. They are playing to win (the Phoenix Desert Dogs were something of a dynasty, winning championships from 2004 through 2008), but the games are managed to develop players; winning is more of a byproduct. In that respect, it is like a continuation of the affiliated minor league season, but in the format of a series of minor league all-star games.
Typically, the Arizona Fall League kicks off a few days after the regular major league season ends. Yesterday was Opening Day. Since most players are selected from the ranks of Double-A or Triple-A ball, they have about a month to get ready after their regular season ends on Labor Day weekend, unless they are involved in minor league postseasons or added to the big club roster after Sept. 1.
Running from early October to mid-November, the AFL season is the final lap in the nine-month baseball marathon in metropolitan Phoenix. It starts in mid-February when pitchers and catchers report for spring training, flows into the regular season with the Diamondbacks at Chase Field, and thence to the Arizona Fall League.
Despite the heat, the traffic, and the air pollution, metro Phoenix is the perfect location for the baseball junkie. If all the pro offerings aren’t enough, you also have big-time college baseball at Arizona State. Small wonder SABR chose to re-locate its headquarters to Phoenix.
There are other fall and winter leagues, but the AFL is definitely the Cadillac of the fleet. I wouldn’t say every player out there has been tagged “can’t miss,” but they all are heavy-duty prospects who have cleared all the hurdles before them in the low minors, and the parent club thinks they have what it takes—not just to make it to the majors but to excel there. The league’s track record bears out their judgment. In 2011, for example, the major league All-Star Game featured 41 AFL alumni.
Though all the teams play in metro Phoenix (often referred to by the more colorful phrase “Valley of the Sun”), there are two divisions, one for the east side, one for the west side. As is the case with spring training in Arizona, the proximity of the parks not only minimizes travel time for players but makes it easy for fans to sample a variety of ballparks.
Currently, the ballparks and their teams are:
Mesa Hohokam Park, Solar Sox
Salt River Fields at Talking Stick (Scottsdale), Salt City Rafters
Scottsdale Stadium, Scorpions
Peoria Sports Complex, Javelinas
Camelback Ranch-Glendale, Desert Dogs
Surprise Stadium, Saguaros
This fall the Javelinas will be playing their home games at Surprise, since the complex at Peoria is being renovated for spring training 2014. When the Cubs open their new spring training park in Mesa next year, the Solar Sox may play there instead of Hohokam Park. But Hohokam is going to be taken over by the A’s in 2015, so it may remain in use for future Fall League seasons. In years past, Sun City, Tempe, Phoenix, Chandler and even Tucson have hosted AFL teams.
In 2013, the major league teams affiliated with each AFL team are:
Solar Sox: Cubs (home park), Tigers, Angels, Athletics, Nationals
Salt River Rafters: Diamondbacks and Rockies (home park), Cardinals, Rays, Blue Jays
Scorpions: Giants (home park), Braves, Mets, Yankees, Pirates
Desert Dogs: Dodgers, White Sox (home park), Reds, Marlins, Twins
Javelinas: Mariners and Padres (home park), Astros, Royals, Phillies
Saguaros: Rangers (home park), Orioles, Red Sox, Indians, Brewers
Since the Royals train in Surprise with the Rangers, they would normally be affiliated with the Saguaros, but for whatever reason, they are linked with the Javelinas this season. Not that it makes much difference, since they will be playing all their home games in Surprise anyway due to the Peoria renovation.
One unique aspect of the AFL is that the uniforms are not uniform: all players wear the uniform of their major league affiliates. This is helpful to the casual fan. If you find one player particularly impressive, there’s no need to check the program to find out his affiliation. You can tell at a glance. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a Solar Sox game-worn jersey, you are out of luck. Each AFL team has its own cap, however. In any event, the choices at souvenir (and concession) stands are much fewer than at spring training games.
Every August, the six teams are stocked by way of a draft involving all 30 major league organizations. Each team has a roster of 35 players, seven apiece from each of its five major league affiliates. The draft focuses on Double-A and Triple-A players, but a few spots are set aside for Single-A players and foreign players whose home countries do not have winter leagues. Having already played major league ball does not automatically disqualify a player, so long as his tenure at the big league level was brief.
The AFL is often referred to as a finishing school for prospects. While most players are there to polish their skills, some are there because they sustained injuries during the regular minor league season and need to get in more playing time. Others are there to work on specific aspects of their game or to learn a new position. For whatever reason he is there, chances are the player will appear on a major league roster the following season. Since each major league team is limited to seven players, there is no room in the AFL for long shots.
The AFL also provides an opportunity for coaches, managers, trainers (all supplied by the applicable major league teams) and umpires to develop skills in low-profile contests. Even interns from the front office pick up valuable experience.
Typically, three games are played every day, Monday through Saturday. Most are day games but there are also night games, so it is possible to see more than one game per day. Tickets are cheap—in fact, cheaper than they are at most minor league games—$6-7, depending on your age. Crowds are small (but a lot of scouts and front-office types are on hand) and seating is open—often wide open. The one year I attended AFL games, even the championship game drew only 2,000 or so.
Given the fact that the AFL is run by MLB, it’s not surprising that in some ways it mirrors same. There's even a Hall of Fame, instituted in 2001, with 32 members. None of the honorees has hit Cooperstown yet, but it’s just a matter of time. The inaugural class included Derek Jeter, Mike Piazza, Dusty Baker and Nomar Garciaparra. Surely the first two names will make it to Cooperstown. Todd Helton and Albert Pujols, subsequently enshrined in the AFL Hall, are also heavy favorites. The most recent honorees are Dustin Pedroia, Bob Melvin and Darin Erstad.
To be eligible for the AFL Hall of Fame, it’s not enough to jus play well. At the major league level, one must have won an MVP award, the Rookie of the Year award, a Gold Glove or Silver Slugger, or appeared on an All-Star roster. Consequently, Hall members are all “name” players.
Starting in 2002, the AFL has had its own MVP award, but the honorees are not quite so elite. The earliest winners (e.g., Ken Harvey, Jason Dubois, Chris Shelton) never lived up to expectations in the majors. More recent winners (Dustin Ackley, Nolan Arenado and Chris McGuinness) may fare better.
I’m not sure Major League Baseball has anything quite like the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award, inaugurated in 2004 in honor of a Reds farmhand who was killed in a carjacking during the 2003 AFL season. Unselfishness, hard work, leadership, perseverance and humility are among the criteria considered by AFL managers and coaches who vote for the candidates.
Despite all these traditions and trappings, the AFL, unlike spring training, hasn’t been heavily promoted to tourists. This year minor league ball (MiLB) is actually working to create some awareness of the AFL among fans of various minor league teams. I’m not sure why MLB doesn’t make a bigger deal out of it. Perhaps it doesn't want to distract people from the major league postseason.
Perhaps the best thing about the AFL is the weather. It is, more or less, the flip side of spring training weather: warm, sunny days and cool, clear evenings. If your idea of the perfect fall vacation involves leaves turning color and feeding a fireplace, you’d best look elsewhere, but if you hate to see the baseball season end and you aren’t ready to pack away the T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, then the Arizona Fall League is for you.
A number of visitors at spring training marvel at the more relaxed vibe of spring training versus the regular season. At AFL games, you can’t help but note that the relaxation vibe is as far from spring training as spring training is from the regular season.
If you’re into autographs, obtaining same from these players will never be easier or cheaper. Also, it is a good opportunity to get autographs from old-timers serving as coaches and managers. This year’s group includes Tim Worrell, Rich Gedman and Tom Browning. And sometimes the “big names” are there, such as Bryce Harper in 2011 and Michael Jordan in 1994.
Certainly, many of the players on display this fall will be big names, perhaps as soon as the 2014 season. It is a tad Ironic that so many players in the springtime of their professional careers embark on the final stage of their prep work during autumn.
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.