While the NFL, NBA and NHL dominate major news outlets headlines during the fall months, a diamond in the rough sits in the Arizona desert: the Arizona Fall League. Some of baseball’s best players have competed in the league for the past 30 years.
The AFL was the brainchild of Roland Hemond, the longtime baseball executive who died two years ago this week. It began in 1992, primarily so U.S. players didn’t have to play winter ball internationally.
“It was his concept of creating a domestic development league primarily for U.S.-born players,” former AFL director Steve Cobb said.
Little did Hemond know what a crystal ball for success the league would become, like Max Scherzer striking out the side in a 2007 AFL Rising Stars Game. It would also provide some unexpected moments, including the surprise announcement in 1994 that NBA star Michael Jordan would don a Scottsdale Scorpions uniform.
It was also a place for players to self-reflect.
“I think when I was playing through it, I wouldn’t necessarily say I was having fun, or that it was great, because I just remember making a lot of outs and struggling,” said former White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko, a member of the 1996 Sun Cities Solar Sox. “Having hindsight of it now, it was obviously a great league in a great time, and it really got me ready for the big leagues.”
Six teams compete in the AFL. Each is composed of prospects from five major league organizations. Each club selects seven players — four pitchers and three position players — to compete for the month.
How teams decide who participates in the AFL has changed drastically.
“The first two or three years, the emphasis of the league was getting the players that were just on the edge,” Cobb said. “The players that were major league ready, coming in from the minor leagues. Your very best prospects from Double-A and Triple-A.”
Now, you see teams invite prospects for many reasons.
“The AFL has always favored hitters, because clubs prefer to shut arms down towards this time of year,” an AFL spokesperson said. “For some players, it’s to put them in the finishing school of unique environments and get them ready to compete for a 40-man spot.”
In other cases, injuries derailed a player’s season, so the AFL is a good spot for extra reps. Chicago White Sox top prospect Colson Montgomery, a shortstop, only played 64 regular-season games due to a back injury. The top-ranked prospect competing in Arizona, MiLB’s No. 17 overall, played an additional 20 games for the Glendale Desert Dogs.
Players who dominated in the 1990s and 2000s frequently played in Arizona before starting their big-league careers.
In total, AFL alumni have amassed 355 All-Star appearances, 34 Rookie of the Year awards, 22 Most Valuable Player awards, 20 batting titles and eight Cy Young Awards, said an AFL spokesperson.
Six of those All-Star appearances came from Konerko, who made his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1997 — one season after competing in the AFL. Konerko played in 17 more MLB seasons, 16 of which for the White Sox.
In total, Konerko played in six MLB All-Star games and won the 2005 World Series for Chicago.
The AFL founded its Hall of Fame in 2001. Players must earn five years of MLB service time and two major awards to qualify for eligibility. Konerko earned Hall of Fame status in 2011 while still competing with the White Sox.
“It’s kind of bizarre, because as a player, when you get drafted, and you become aware of these places (Double-A, Triple-A and the Arizona Fall League), your thoughts are, ‘Man, I hope I’m good enough to be in that league at all,’” Konerko said. “Then, you go on and play, have a career, and then years later, they’re asking you to come back into their Hall of Fame.
“It’s like, when you were a freshman in high school, you look up to the seniors, and you can’t imagine yourself being a senior on the varsity team. And then, you know, when you’re later in life, 25-30 years old, you look back at being a senior as not a big deal.”
Konerko is one of many stars to compete on the AFL stage. First-ballot Hall of Fame shortstop Derek Jeter, Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza, future first-ballot Hall of Fame first baseman Albert Pujols and former MVPs Dustin Pedroia and Andrew McCutchen are among a long list of stars to compete in the AFL.
The list doesn’t end there.
An array of talent
Some of the best current MLB players battled in the Arizona sun, before performing at the highest level on the game’s biggest stage. Mike Trout, Aaron Judge, Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts all competed in the AFL. All four players have etched their names in MLB history. The four players combined for seven MVP awards, and will be locked to enter the Hall of Fame after retiring.
In fact, Trout and Harper played in the same outfield for the 2011 Scottsdale Scorpions. The team finished with the worst record in the league, despite having two future MLB superstars.
Out of the countless superstars to compete in the AFL, one stands out among the rest and he isn’t a baseball player.
Jordan played for the Scottsdale Scorpions in 1994 – when baseball was at its lowest point, and he just finished one of the most successful stretches in NBA history.
In 1994, MLB went on strike, and the AFL was the baseball epicenter in the United States. Fans showed up in droves to see Jordan, who had just come off three consecutive NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls.
“We had 10 games on TV – on a regional sports network,” Cobb said. “Every one of them involved Michael Jordan that year.”
Thousands of fans would walk up to buy tickets at the stadium where he was playing each night. Cobb says the Jordan era at the AFL was one of his career highlights.
“He was a sports icon way before social media,” Cobb said. “If we add social media into it, it would have been off the charts. It was really crazy. It was a lot of fun.”
Player development is important at the AFL, but some of the best future umpires, managers and general managers are selected to compete in Arizona.
“I had seven guys work for me that went on to become major league general managers,” Cobb said. “There’s probably five or six or so right now that are assistant GMs, (and) at least half of those guys will probably become a general manager.”
Dusty Baker, Terry Francona, Bob Melvin and Mike Scioscia all managed teams in Arizona during the 1990s. Ron Washington, who just became the manager for the Los Angeles Angels, was a hitting coach in the first two AFL seasons.
Cobb says development is key for all levels of baseball. Future players, umpires and managers develop together at the AFL.
In 2023, each team played 30 games in the Arizona heat from Oct. 2-Nov. 9. Players meet athletes and coaches from different organizations; a culmination of the minor league experience.
“Every day I’ve gotten to be out here with these guys has been enough for me to savor this and have it be a fun experience,” Philadelphia Phillies outfield prospect Gabriel Rincones Jr. said. “Being out here with guys from different organizations, this team’s really fun for me.”
Rincones Jr. continued his stellar play at the AFL. He moved up two lower minor league levels during the 2023 season and performed even better during his 22 fall games.
New York Yankees outfield prospect Caleb Durbin took the league by storm, combining his incredible bat-to-ball skills with impressive speed. Durbin stole 21 bases in 23 games for the Mesa Solar Sox, which is tied for the second-most in AFL history.
Both Durbin and Rincones Jr. competed in the Fall Stars — the AFL’s All-Star Game, which also includes a home run derby.
“(Playing in the Fall Stars Game is) probably one of my favorite moments in my entire career,” Durbin said. “It’s such a cool experience. They really made it a cool experience for us with the red carpet, BP and the game itself. It was a lot of fun.”
By Tyler Bednar, Cronkite News www.themesatribune.com
2024-01-06 07:00:00 , www.themesatribune.com – Vivrr Local Results in sports of type article