I managed to get away this past weekend and take a little road trip to Phoenix to catch a couple of Arizona Fall League games before it wraps up this week. I had an idea of what to expect going in, but the whole experience far superseded my already high expectations. Everything from the atmosphere of the games to the affordability of the city made for a truly delightful weekend. Here’s a little recap on everything that is wonderful about this fall baseball league.
The AFL 101
There are several reasons a team can decide to send a player to Arizona for this prestigious league. The Blue Jays sent seven players this year; three position players and four pitchers. These players were making up for lost playing time due to injury in the regular season (Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Nate Pearson and Shawn Morimando), getting reps at a different position to improve their versatility (Cavan Biggio and Santiago Espinal), or continuing their development (Zach Jackson and Jackson McClelland).
The games took place at the Spring Training ballparks for the major league teams. The Peoria Javelinas played at the shared home of the San Diego Padres and the Seattle Mariners, and the Surprise Saguaros played in the split ballpark between the Kansas City Royals and the Texas Rangers. All the ballparks were very close together, largely within a half hour drive of each other. Parking was also free at each complex.
The Arizona Fall League is to Spring Training what Spring Training is to the Major Leagues. That is, an even more casual and less expensive option. Tickets for each game cost a whopping $9 for adults, and $7 for youth and seniors. The tickets could only be purchased on the day of one hour prior to first pitch at the ballpark’s box office. Furthermore, each ticket was general admission, meaning you could sit wherever you wanted. The crowds were far from significant, so you had your pick of premium seating. I found myself moving around quite a bit, depending on whether I was focused on seeing a pitcher or a hitter, or simply wanted a different vantage point. Similar to most other Spring Training ballparks, you could stand above the bullpen and watch the relievers warm up as well.
Due to the sporadic crowds and causal setting, many who were seeking autographs were able to easily obtain them. I didn’t notice any player in particular who didn’t stop at some point to sign a baseball or take a photo. Some were a little harder than others as Vlad caused a frenzy every time he walked within arms reach of the crowd, but in general, a truly intimate experience for fans.
The one downside to planning a trip to see a team of which only one fifth are players from your team’s farm system is that you truly have no idea how many you’ll see on any given day. Over the two games, I saw 4 out of 7 Blue Jays prospects play: Guerrero Jr and Jackson on Friday, and Espinal and Morimando on Saturday. Jackson McClelland was meant to pitch on Saturday, but for some reason it didn’t happen. Refreshing Twitter in the week leading up to my trip was nerve wracking as I was afraid to spy news that someone had gotten injured or been pulled early. Lo and behold, Vlad was pulled early one day after I left.
It was very enjoyable to see prospects from different teams as well. Cole Tucker of the Pirates was particularly fun to watch, as was Keston Hiura of the Padres, and Christian Pache of the Braves. It was also neat to see former Blue Jay Conner Greene who was sent to the Cardinals in the Randal Grichuk trade. Greene had a pretty rough outing on the Friday night game, giving up three earned runs on two hits and two walks while only getting two outs.
How’d the Baby Jays Do?
Performance wise, the Blue Jays players did fairly well despite Surprise dropping both games to Peoria (the fifth and sixth straight against this team). The playoff bound Javelinas contain prospects from three of Fangraphs’ top five farm systems, so they were definitely a tough opponent.
- Guerrero Jr had an infield hit on a high chopper, and of course a high exit velo ground out. For a guy who only had 38 strikeouts in 95 games this year, he shockingly struck out twice on Friday night. He also started a nice double play
Vlad Jr has his first hit of the night. Two out single #BlueJays pic.twitter.com/1MdVdlHDrl— Kate Stanwick (@OhKStan) November 10, 2018
- Zach Jackson got two quick outs in relief, then walked two and gave up an earned run on a single to tie the game 1-1
- Shawn Morimando gave up two earned runs (one homer, the only one I saw over the two games) in a four inning start on Saturday
- Shortstop Santiago Espinal, who the Blue Jays received in the Steve Pearce trade, had a good game on Saturday playing in center field. He legged out an infield single as well, and walked and scored in the bottom of the 9th
The Vlad Hype Was Real
The scoreboard at Friday night’s game boasted an attendance of 1,841 (although I am skeptical of that), and there were far more Blue Jays fans than I expected. The one player anyone wanted to see was Vlad. Almost every kid on Friday night was camped out beside the dugout, calling out to him for an autograph, or a bat, or a wave. Guerrero Jr did stop to sign autographs, but he was intentional about who he chose. He would make his way down the fence and pick out certain people he wanted to sign for. They were mostly small kids, but I noticed he stopped to take a photo with an older couple. If a small child stood quietly by the dugout long enough, he would sneak over, grab their item, discretely sign it, and hand it back.
One other thing I noticed about Vlad was how much fun he was having with his teammates. He was almost always in the immediate vicinity of Royals’ pitcher Arnando Hernandez, and the two of them were chatting and laughing frequently. In the game he didn’t play on Saturday, Guerrero Jr took up residence on the top step of the dugout, and was fully invested in what was happening. At one point he leapt out onto the field to snag a foul ball as if he were actively playing on the infield. When a teammate exited the dugout past him, he often gave them a encouraging backside tap.
Royals’ Arnaldo Hernandez having a little fun in the dugout pic.twitter.com/Rzvu6ZVk7X— Kate Stanwick (@OhKStan) November 10, 2018
The Arizona Fall League captures completely what I believe some would argue is missing in major league baseball these days: the affordability, the family friendly environment, the intimate and electric atmosphere - plus the opportunity to see some exciting young talent up close and personal before they become big leaguers. Furthermore, the greater Phoenix area has a lot to offer as the area boasts stunning hikes, a zoo, an old western town, botanical gardens, a couple of museums, restaurants along a pretty water canal and plenty of shopping. All in all, the Arizona Fall League is a delightful experience, and I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone who is able to make their way there.