SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – The World Series had ended two days earlier, and that ultimate goal loomed large in the minds of players at Salt River Field. As the pitcher looked in for a sign, it wasn’t difficult to imagine these same young players, potential All-Stars and maybe a future Hall of Famer or two, reaching their sport’s biggest stage someday soon.
In fact, they are all wearing major league uniforms, save the obscure hats, giving this matchup between a soon-to-be Diamondbacks pitcher and Reds hitter a sheen of stars-in-waiting, of ... wait a minute, what’s all the commotion?
“Joyce! Joyce! We’re over here!” a booming voice bellowed from just behind the visitors dugout, breaking the silence and interrupting the concentration. The pitcher stepped off the rubber and glared while fielders relaxed a moment as two members of the night’s sparse crowd connected across the diamond. “And get some nachos!”
OK, where were we?
“Yeah, the surroundings are all big-league here,” laughed Jeff Smith, manager of the Glendale Desert Dogs. “But at the same time, you get reminders that you’re not there yet.”
No, but the Arizona Fall League, even with its unique combination of highly concentrated talent and laid-back atmosphere, can be a huge step in the right direction. For more than two decades, some of the best prospects in baseball — Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are among the alumni — have gathered in Phoenix each October to wear the uniforms of the Desert Dogs or the Saguaros or the Solar Sox, and extend their season by six weeks, an extra audition for those closest to the Show.
“It was designed to be sort of a finishing school for guys headed to the majors,” said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel, who fills notebooks with observations about players from behind home plate. “It was the last stop for a lot of guys. Like one final test against the closest thing you can find to major league competition.”
Yet competition isn’t really what it’s about, and that lack of intensity gives the AFL its odd mixture of pressurized significance and easygoing indifference. The 210 minor leaguers are here to play well and develop skills that will help them win — someday. But like spring training, winning each day’s game is more a byproduct than a goal.
“I don’t think anyone is looking at the standings, if that’s what you mean,” Radcliff said. “The stats, yeah. But not the standings.”
Those statistics are closely tracked, however, by the dozens of scouts — sometimes as many as 50 — who are already in their seats during batting practice, and who usually troop to two games a day, one of the afternoon games and the daily night game, a schedule designed to accommodate as much baseball viewing as possible.
“It’s really a scout’s dream,” said Twins General Manager Terry Ryan, who spends a week here each fall. “There’s no travel,” since all six teams are based in Phoenix-area spring camps, “all the guys you want to see are here, and the schedule makes it easy.”
Each AFL team is required to take batting and infield practice at least twice a week, all players start at least two games a week, and everyone gets Sunday off.
For the players, shortening their winter for some extra exposure is a trade-off they are happy to make. They are put up rent-free in condos near their home ballpark, absorb extra training from some new coaches, get regular days off, and even earn a little more than minor league salaries.
And more than that, “it’s just a real honor to be chosen,” said Max Kepler, the 20-year-old Twins outfield prospect from Germany. “It means they want you, they believe in you.”
Some players are sent to Arizona to work on new skills; Kepler, for instance, is learning to play first base to increase his versatility. Some are assigned here to get more work, such as righthander Alex Meyer, the Twins’ top pitching prospect, who missed nearly two months because of a sore shoulder. A few players go to Arizona to refine a skill, such as infielder Eddie Rosario and his footwork around second base, or righthander Trevor May, who is mastering a changeup. Some simply benefit from exposure to the high-quality level of play, such as relief prospect A.J. Achter.
The 30 major league teams send seven players apiece, with five organizations forming a team. There is an abundance of pitching, since innings are strictly limited after a full season, and at least five players from each organization must have played in Class AA or AAA. In forming the Glendale Desert Dogs along with the Reds, Dodgers, Marlins and White Sox, the Twins sent four pitchers — Meyer, May, Achter and Zach Jones — plus position players Kepler, Rosario and Byron Buxton, their highest-rated prospect who missed the AFL’s final eight games because of a shoulder strain.
“We wanted to challenge him, to force him to adapt to some better pitching,” Ryan said of Buxton, the 19-year-old Minor League Player of the Year, who hasn’t played above Class A yet. “I know it’s early for him, but we wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think he could handle it.”
Investing in the future
Buxton’s presence is a bonus for another class of AFL regulars: autograph hounds. Just as scouts flock to gather intelligence, professional memorabilia dealers converge to stockpile signatures of up-and-comers, and baselines are crammed before games with collectors.
“It’s like investing. I get [autographs] early, then put them away until they become stars,” said Dominic Manuel, a memorabilia dealer from Southern California who makes an annual pilgrimage to the Fall League to collect new inventory. “I’ve got a lot of Trout and Harper [auto]graphs that I haven’t touched yet.”
Like the scouts, Manuel carried a briefcase with him, but his was crammed with minor league cards and photos, including many obscure ones issued by the players’ teams, and some baseballs. He was interested in Buxton, of course — “It’s amazing what Buxton goes through with the autographs,” teammate Achter marveled — but said the Twins’ relative obscurity would hurt his value.
“I try to load up on Cubs and Yankees and Red Sox, because those [values] might really take off,” he said.
Then again, his bestselling AFL-gathered autographs ever were from a Milwaukee Brewers prospect: Prince Fielder. “Put a kid through a year of college with those,” Manual joked.
The games might be all business to scouts and collectors, but few others in the stands feel that way. When the AFL was founded in 1992, MLB had hopes of attracting spring-size crowds to the games, but the combination of midday starts and mostly unknown players made that unlikely. Most games draw a few hundred ticket-buyers (at $7 a ticket in most venues), a majority of them retirees. The games are largely played in jarring silence, save for the between-innings classic-rock standards.
“It’s a little weird to be in these big ballparks with nobody there, but I’m used to it,” Buxton said. “It reminds me of Instructional League — all you hear is the ball and the bat.”
And perhaps the roar of the World Series, just a few years away for some.