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The Fall Guys

Baseball in November. It's simply un-natural. Fortunately, the World Series didn't stretch past Halloween, but here in Arizona, we're lucky enough to get two months of bonus baseball every year. As well as Spring Training in March, where half of the major-league teams come to Arizona, we also get baseball at the end of the year, in the shape of the Arizona Fall League. This started in 1992, as a way to develop players, mostly from Double-A, and give scouts and executives an opportunity to scope out these prospects - both on their own team, and as possible trades with other franchises.

More than half the players (407) on Opening Day rosters this year passed through the AFL, so it is a huge reservoir of talent, with a round one hundred reaching the post-season. The league has also produced 4 MVP's, 3 Cy Young winners and no less than fourteen Rookies of the Year, as well as 23 of the 2007 All-Stars. Here's an "All-Star" Arizona Fall League team:

  • C Mike Piazza, 1992 Sun Cities Solar Sox
  • 1B Todd Helton, 1996 Peoria Javelinas
  • 2B Alfonso Soriano, 1998 Grand Canyon Rafters
  • SS Derek Jeter, 1994 Chandler Diamondbacks
  • 3B Albert Pujols, 2000 Scottsdale Scorpions
  • LF Matt Holliday, 2002 Mesa Solar Sox
  • CF Torii Hunter, 1998 Phoenix Desert Dogs
  • RF Jermaine Dye, 1995 Sun Cities Solar Sox
  • SP Brandon Webb, 2002 Scottsdale Scorpions
  • CL Troy Percival, 1992 Scottsdale Scorpions
  • Bench: Ryan Howard (2004), Nomar Garciaparra (1994), Jason Giambi (1994), Kevin Youkilis (2002), Garret Anderson (1993), Mark Teixeira (2002), Roy Halladay (1998)
  • Manager: Mike Scioscia, 1997 Peoria Javelinas

The majority of the Arizona Diamondbacks playoff roster were AFL alumni too. Mark Reynolds played here in 2006, Doug Slaten, Miguel Montero, Stephen Drew and Chris Young in 2005, while previous "classes" included Conor Jackson, Carlos Quentin (2004); Brandon Medders, Dustin Nippert, Chris Snyder (2003); plus Webb and Robby Hammock (2002). Eric Byrnes, Doug Davis, Jeff Cirillo, Tony Clark, Augie Ojeda and Jeff Salazar all also played fall ball, early in their careers. So, at the risk of stating the bleedin' obvious, it would certainly be worth paying attention to the 2007 class, since odds are, you'll be seeing most of them at Chase in due course.

Not only that, it's a phenomenally cheap night. Six bucks gets you in, and you can then take your pick of any seat you want. Attendance at most games is usually in the 200-300 range, so there's plenty of choice. Right behind home plate? No problem. Prefer to be behind the dugout? Have two! No ushers in Sedona Reich Red to insist you stay in ze zame zeat, so if you feel like wandering down the left-field line to see if you can snag a foul, be my guest. Oh, and did I mention Blue Moon beer at five bucks? You can even tailgate beforehand, not something possible - or, to be honest, desireable - at Chase, and that's what we did, courtesy of Shoewizard, who'd brought a propane grill, beers and folding chairs, so many thanks to him for that. No: you're definitely not in the major-leagues any more.

It was also a benefit night for the Pat Tillman Foundation, which had boosted the crowd to a season-high 712 at Phoenix Municipal; their average in the other games was 204. We arrived just in time to miss Eric Byrnes' speech on the topic, but did see him throw out the ceremonial first pitch. Let's just say, Augie Ojeda will not be replaced as the emergency mop-up man any time soon. There was also a silent auction of autographed jerseys from a host of players, from all times - many of them former AFL players. Opening bids started at $100, which is actually pretty good for even an unautographed jersey, but they clearly went up from there.

The rosters are mixed, with each major-league team sending seven players, and these are then combined into six teams: the Surprise Rafters, Mesa Solar Sox, Peoria Javelinas, Peoria Saguaros, Phoenix Desert Dogs and Scottsdale Scorpions. Though there is some seepage as necessary, players from one franchise will generally all play on the same team: this year, the Diamondbacks' prospects could be found in the Scottsdale Scorpions, along with players from the Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Giants and Mets.

One of our prospects, Greg Smith got the start for the Scorpions, and the results were pretty good. Four shutout innings, something of a rarity in the AFL, which is always been more of a happy hunting ground for hitters; Smith walked two and gave up two hits, striking out three. He also balked, while trying to pick a runner off first, but later managed the move successfully: he was locating his fastball fairly well, but seemed to have issues with control of his breaking pitches. Here's some video of him getting the final out of the fourth inning:

Another D-backs prospect, Aaron Cunningham, got the start in right-field, and was better with the glove than at the plate; particularly impressive was a laser thrown right into third-base on the fly. However, he was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts, dropping his league average to .207, so he'll likely be back to Mobile. He was acquired from the White Sox, in the trade for Danny Richar. We also got to see a former D-back, Sergio Santos, who went to Toronto along with Troy Glaus in the O-Dawg deal. This is his second stint in the AFL - he also played there in 2003, which goes to show just how he has struggled: since the trade, he has hit .250 at Double-A and only .231 at Triple-A, so no great loss, it seems. In this game, he did double, and scored Scottdale's first run, but also made an error at third.

We were hoping to see Max Scherzer, our first-round draft pick in 2006, but it was not to be. He teased up in the middle innings, by going down to the bullpen - however, he never got into the game, and pitched in Saturday's contest instead. He's had a good season in the AFL, allowing just four hits in nine innings, while striking out 13. Wouldn't be surprised to see him in Spring Training, though the jury is still out on whether he will be a reliever or a starter. And, probably inevitably, Superfan Susan was located right behind the Scorpions dugout, applauding wildly after every strike by our pitchers, and nodding approvingly too. Part of me is impressed by her dedication to the cause. Part of me fears her.

For an AFL game, this was a surprising pitcher's duel, with just the one run, in the Scorpions' favor, separating the two teams until the eight inning. There, Scottsdale added one on, but Phoenix came back to tie it with two of their own in the bottom of the inning. There was nothing in the ninth, so we headed in to bonus baseball - though, by this time, the crowd was thinning out, as the night turned decidedly chilly. [Anyone remember the last time you felt cold in Arizona? Seems like a very, very long time ago!] AFL rules, however, stop all games after eleven innings at most, regardless of the score, so we knew we wouldn't be there all night.

That didn't need to be invoked. In the bottom of the tenth, with a man on first, Phoenix DH Scott Baisley smacked what should have been an easy out to center. Scorpions' CF Ryan Patterson went back, then decided to come forward, and ended up butchering the play completely; the ball skidded past him, all the way to the outfield wall, and the runner on first motored round to score the winning run. We booed mightily - another good thing about AFL games is you know the players can hear when you heckle - as the players left the field. But it was still a thoroughly entertaining night; how many days is it until pitchers and catchers report?