Basically, I spent a fun-filled afternoon eavesdropping and listening very carefully to everything possible for this column in late November 2004 for the Arizona Daily Sun.
By Ed Odeven
MESA – If your autumn days and nights are consumed by football, football and more football, here’s what you’ve missed over the last several weeks: Arizona Fall League baseball.
It’s this writer’s notion that the AFL is Arizona’s hidden sports gem, spring training without the long lines. No split-squad games. No sellout crowds. No annoying throng of autograph-demanding fans.
The AFL, which wrapped up its 13th season last week, gives top prospects a chance to hone their skills after the regular season ends. It’s a six-team league, with games played at spring training stadiums around the Valley. Each of the big leagues’ 30 clubs provides players for the league.
On a recent weekday afternoon, I traveled to Mesa’s HoHoKam Park to take in the sights and sounds of the Peoria Javelinas-Mesa Solar Sox game. Keeping score was optional, taking notes wasn’t.
On this cool, breezy day, 100 or so spectators scattered around the comfortable ballpark, mostly in groups of two or three. Retirees, scouts with radar guns, players’ wives, girlfriends and kids all show up for the game.
Two vacationing middle-age fellows Chicago strike up a conversation in the first inning.
“Are there any good prospects out there?” one guys says.
“Just watch,” the other answers.
They’ll soon find out.
In the third inning, a fan wearing a blue pull-over gazes at the pitcher, then stares at the batter. Seconds later, a line drive heads in his direction. The foul ball nearly took his head off. No one’s within shouting distance to warn him to look out.
An inning later, Solar Sox first baseman Brian Dopirak, a Chicago Cubs prospect who played for Class-A Lansing in ’04, steps into the batter’s box.
“Is this guy any good?” the fan asks.
His pal doesn’t answer. Doesn’t need to.
Dopirak smacks a home run to straightaway center field.
“He sure got that one,” the older fan says.
Later on, they’ll clap again after Dopirak crushes a two-run shot to right.
They look satisfied, tossing peanut shells in all directions and conversing about the Cubbies’ next big bat while taking sips of beer.
There are no gimmicks here, just baseball and the always-pleasing sights and sounds of the game.
Without a standing-room-only crowd, which is the norm during the spring for Cubs, Giants and just about every other Cactus League team, this day’s baseball fans are treated to behind-the-scenes access without realizing it.
They hear every note being belted out of the blaring organ from upstairs. They hear every foul ball clanging off the bleacher seats, every fastball pelting the catcher’s glove, every proclamation of “strike” or “ball” from the home-plate ump.
And, naturally, that’s not all.
All-out hustle is the norm, not an occasional display of intensity.
This is evident in the fifth when Solar Sox shortstop Pedro Lopez (White Sox) charges a slow-rolling ground ball and throws out the baserunner at first to end the inning.
After the grounds crew, which includes several kids, touches up the field after the fifth inning, the fans give it a rousing applause. And why not? The field looks immaculate — that is, until the game begins.
Spectacular fielding occurs above the ground, too.
Solar Sox center field Adam Greenberg (Cubs) showcases his talents by leaping up and snatching away a home run from the Javelinas’ Paul McAnulty on the first pitch of the sixth.
In the seventh, Javelinas second baseman Josh Barfield (Padres) takes his warm-up hacks and then slaps a homer over the right-center field fence.
Javelinas skipper Mike Goff, manning the third-base coach’s box, lets all in attendance hear about what just happened.
“Nice swing, Josh!” he shouts.
If there was any doubt, that doubt was erased by Goff’s remarks. The quick, compact swing that knocked the ball out of the ballyard was textbook.
Heck, even the fans cooperate in the festivities (and not in the way they did by getting involved in last week’s brouhaha in Motown).
Solar Sox third baseman Corey Slavik, a Rockies prospect, dashes down the line to try to catch a foul ball. One fans sits in the bleachers to Slavik’s left as he approaches the railing.
“You’ve got room, Slavik. You’ve got room,” the fan declares.
Actually, he doesn’t. The ball drops into the seats four rows up.
But it’s the fan’s action that isn’t an everyday sight, that’s one of the delights of this fun afternoon. How often do we see one guy with space all around him — and a chance to catch a souvenir ball — offering his navigation skills to a ballplayer?
That’s baseball, friends.
Is it Opening Day yet?