“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.