You’ll Miss It If You Aren’t There: Dispatches from the AFL

The sun glares down onto the Scottsdale desert, unobstructed by clouds. It feels warmer than the listed 62 degrees. Outfield flags remain still.

The intimacy of the six-week-long Arizona Fall League provides welcome respite from recent World Series bustle, which seems impossibly far from here. Less than a week after nearly 45,000 frenzied fans (plus millions more on TV) watched the Royals beat the Mets in New York to capture the crown, 613 relaxed onlookers bask in the dry desert air as the visiting Peoria Javelinas battle the Scottsdale Scorpions.

A guy sitting behind my right shoulder has attended the AFL, where top prospects go to hone their skills after established big-leaguers have returned home, every season since its inception in 1992. He has seen Jeter, Pujols, Trout, Harper (“the MVP; well, I assume he’s the MVP”), too many to mention. Names are blurred, just like the cleat-scuffed lines of the batter’s box a couple pitches into the game. It took a professional grounds crew hours to prepare the field, and others mere seconds to undo that work. Harder to create than destroy.

Teams here try to win, but in a sense, score doesn’t matter. It’s all about the prospects. Who will be the next Jeter, Pujols, or Trout? Who will you have seen before everyone else has even heard of him?

The guy’s friend is visiting from Buffalo. They travel around the country. Their favorite ballpark is Safeco Field in Seattle. We compare notes on the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Oregon coast, and agree that Three Capes Drive is well worth the time.

We had begun talking because of my Eugene Emeralds hat. It isn’t the conversation starter that my Portland Beavers hat is, but it connected us, the way baseball does.

The guy directly in front of me calls Sacramento home, though he is originally from the East Coast. A Red Sox fan, pre-bandwagon. He loves minor-league parks, and why not? They’re small, cozy, and full of chatter.

“The one you’ve got in Sacramento is nice.”

“It’s expensive.”

Barry Zito made a start there last May. After being a part of the River Cats’ rotation 15 years earlier, he returned to a warm welcome and tossed six scoreless innings.

A man down the row is from San Diego. He’s a high school baseball coach whose team faced Zito. “Our guys couldn’t touch him,” he says.

**

We’re talking about the Negro Leagues and vintage base ball: Buck O’Neil, Luis Tiant’s dad, the museum in Kansas City. Someone knows a guy who paints old baseball gloves by hand.

There’s a ballpark a couple hours south of here in Bisbee, near the border. Warren Ballpark lays claim to being the oldest in America, although Rickwood Field in Alabama does the same. It becomes a matter of debate, a point of contention, which is what baseball fans and other humans love.

Conversation turns to Mudcat Grant, who pitched for seven big-league teams from 1958 to 1971. The two-time All-Star and former 21-game winner is 80 years old, but still gets up and sings the blues.

Someone notes that earlier in the year, statues honoring Negro League legends were removed from Pittsburgh’s PNC Park. Although they were sold for a good cause, their absence creates a void, a gap in the knowledge of who we are. As one veteran sports writer notes, there is an “obligation for every team to recognize baseball and its history.” No one disagrees.

A woman calls the baseball season her “symphony of summer.” Although organ music may be disappearing from baseball, there are still plenty of other instruments to create a symphony. Oakland has its drummers in Section 149 that rise above the noise of the stadium. Here in the AFL, where crowds often number in the hundreds, there is no din to compete with, and individual voices can be heard.

One guy, a friend, says that “the ballpark is the only place I can truly relax.” Watching a group of grown men throw and hit a small round object around a large park full of grass and dirt has a soothing effect. The regularity of it can be almost hypnotic.

An umpire in the stands says he loves baseball because for as long as it has been played, there’s always the chance you’ll see something that’s never happened. Pay attention. There is always the occasional surprise that jolts us from our blissful state.

Sure enough, the next afternoon we see Glendale pitcher Ralston Cash and manager Bill Haselman get ejected in the ninth inning of a game that should be meaningless. Cash isn’t even playing.

With 461 fans in attendance, Haselman takes an improvised solo. His phrasing is impeccable, and his colorful word choices reverberate throughout the stadium. So do the cries of a lone voice from clear across the diamond that reminds the skipper, “There are kids here!”

That gets us talking about the time Wally Backman got tossed from a California League game before an on-field egg hunt on Easter Sunday. Half the people in the stands were kids. Their vocabulary was expanded that day.

**

We come from many places: Atlanta, Las Vegas, Canada, California, Minnesota, Denver, Milwaukee. We discuss ballparks in Everett, Washington, or in Stockton, California. We remember the old stadium in Eugene that stood for 77 years before being reduced to ash in June. Harder to create than destroy.

We talk old-timers: Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Minnie Minoso, Ted Lyons. The latter two have their numbers retired at Camelback Ranch, another reminder of our history.

We talk recent prospects who made it: Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant (AFL MVP in 2013), Stephen Strasburg. I recall the time I saw Correa launch balls out of Petco Park in batting practice before a high school showcase event (Joey Gallo hit the tenth-longest home run in Petco’s history during that game, against Lucas Sims, who is now pitching in the AFL). I lament that I saw Bryant only once in college even though his home games were played mere minutes from my house, and remember watching Strasburg pitch a no-hitter in his final start at San Diego State.

The chatter is constant. One guy asks trivia questions (“Which pitcher won the most consecutive Gold Gloves?”), and everyone jumps in with answers that are occasionally correct (Jim Kaat, not my defensible guess of Greg Maddux). Sometimes, when there’s a lull in the conversation, we even watch the action on the field.

Farewells are said, hands shaken, cards exchanged. We share a final laugh or smile. Some leave alone, others together, always with the promise of renewal: “See you next year!”

These brief encounters can lead to enduring friendships, or they can disappear like so many promising prospects who never quite make it. There is a certain melancholy in this impermanence, and yet it is perfect so long as baseball continues to exist.

The game is an ongoing conversation. It may get interrupted at times, or veer in unexpected directions, or say hello to new participants and goodbye to old ones, but it never ends.

We create, destroy, and create again. Chalk lines on the field are moments in a life, here and then gone, remaining only in our memories and our retelling of tales.

***

Geoff Young is a friend of words, craft beer enthusiast, road tripper, and hack guitarist. He writes for Padres Public and Baseball Prospectus. You should follow him on Twitter.

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