(Originally posted on Squeezebunt.com in 1998.)
Last Wednesday (Nov. 4) I arrived in Phoenix for a week-long look at the Arizona Fall League (AFL). As we were heading west, the rental-car bus driver pointed out Bank One Ballpark on the horizon. He proudly mentioned that the Diamondbacks won 70 games as a first-year expansion team. Actually, they were 65-97, but compared with the first year of the Mets when they went 40-120, that is pretty good. We'll see how long Arizona will be content with 65 wins. It seems like Phoenix should be a good baseball town since there is plenty of opportunity to see the sport. Seven teams have their spring training in the metro area, and they have something else pretty interesting with the AFL every year in October and November.
It was a great week and I learned a lot, including a clue to, as the title says, What Life is Really About. Answer: Getting Free Stuff. More on that later. That first evening, I took in the game between Maryvale and Scottsdale. After three innings, I thought, "These guys are really good. At times." Eight games later, that impression remained. The players have major league talent but minor league experience. If history is an indicator, 60 percent of the AFL players will continue to move up the minor league ladder and make it to the major leagues. I don't claim to be a judge of baseball talent, but a few players did catch my eye:
Defensive play of the week: Scottsdale center fielder Jason Conti (Diamondbacks property) did his best Willie Mays impression in that first game, turning what appeared to be a three-run triple into a long sacrifice fly with an over-the-shoulder catch.
Defensive player of the week: I saw Sun Cities second baseman Marlon Anderson (Phillies) make a whole bunch of slick defensive plays. (Note: Anderson later was named AFL playoff MVP.)
Offensive game of the week: Peoria's J.D. Drew (Cardinals) with a homer, double and two singles. No one would be surprised if this guy turns out to be a major star.
Offensive player of the week: Scottsdale's Tony Mota (Dodgers), son of Manny Mota. I saw him have two three-hit games, and each of the hits was solidly struck.
Pitcher of the week: This is difficult to select because the pitchers usually went just a few innings and I don't recall seeing anyone more than once. Grand Canyon's Roy Halladay (Blue Jays) pitched five strong innings in a shutout. Sun Cities' left-hander Anthony Shumaker made a different kind of impression by getting three pickoffs (resulting in two outs) in one appearance.
Quote of the week: Peoria coach Leon Durham (Angels). A fan told Leon that he was a forgiving Cubs fan, referring I guess to an error back in '84, and he was glad Leon was back in the game. "I've been back for five years," said Leon. Thanks for noticing.
So anyway, that first night at Scottsdale Stadium, if you didn't come away with a free baseball, you weren't really trying. In addition to all the foul balls, they gave away 100 baseballs autographed by Diamondbacks rookie center fielder David Dellucci. He led the National League with 12 triples, or so I'm told. I honestly had never heard of him before that night. We don't get a lot of Arizona games on the East Coast.
My lucky number came up in the third inning and I got to shake hands with Dellucci and get a free autographed ball. After sitting down, I noticed a nearby family (dad, son about 8, daughter about 5) wasn't so fortunate. Their number wasn't called, so the kids tried to get Dellucci to autograph some batting gloves. They came up empty as they weren't as assertive as some of the other kids, who literally chased Dellucci out of the stadium when he left for the evening.
After the little girl realized that Dellucci was gone, she began reconsidering her options and noticed the baseball in my hand. "Do you want that?"
Suddenly, my entire future was at stake. If you don't give the kid the ball, you spend the next 50 years on this earth contemplating what a heartless bastard you are. So I gave the kid the ball. Her father was very grateful. A few minutes later, her brother caught a foul ball. Somehow it all worked out and they went home with free stuff.
I didn't regret giving the ball away, but I was sort of expecting God would reward me by letting me win one of 100 Joe Morgan autographed baseballs a few nights later. (No such luck.) Eventually I retrieved a foul ball off the bat of Phoenix's Mark Quinn (Royals). So I got my free baseball (not to mention a whole bunch of photos) and the trip could be declared a success.