11/23/2002 9:17 pm ET
Fall League blossoms in desert
By Steve Gilbert / MLB.com
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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Like a proud father, Roland Hemond watched Scottsdale Stadium fill up Saturday afternoon for the Arizona Fall League's 11th Championship Game.
It was Hemond, a former big-league GM and a current executive with the White Sox, who suggested at the GM meetings in 1990 that baseball start its own winter development league in Arizona.
Hemond, the Orioles' GM at the time, got support from then-Giants GM Al Rosen, but the idea didn't take hold until a year later, when he suggested it again. This time, a committee was formed, and in 1992, the AFL played its first season.
Designed as a finishing school for the game's top prospects, the league has been just that. This past season, almost 400 players who saw time in the big leagues played in the AFL.
"I thought it was an ideal way to accelerate the progress of young players, where top prospects would play against other top prospects, so that their progress toward the Major Leagues would be enhanced tremendously," Hemond said. "If they perform here, they can perform in the Major Leagues the next year or the one after. It helps them make that jump."
The list of Major Leaguers who have played in the AFL includes Mike Piazza, Nomar Garciaparra, Jason Giambi and Derek Jeter. While crowds are generally small for the games, the stands are filled with scouts.
"You can tell the value of the league by the number of scouts in attendance," Hemond said. "It's easier to evaluate them here, rather than the minor leagues, because they're playing against equal talent. It also helps the small-market clubs that may not have as many scouts as other teams. It's inexpensive for them to cover this league, and that's how trades are made."
White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who was in attendance Saturday, said the AFL has been a success.
"It gives these guys a chance to play against real good competition," Reinsdorf said. "Even at the Triple-A level, you're playing with a handful of prospects on your team and the other team. Here, you're playing against all top prospects."
Some of the game's better-known prospects, like Hee Seop Choi and Mark Teixeira, played in the AFL this past season. Both were named to the league's All-Prospect team. Choi, a top prospect for the Cubs, hit .345 with eight homers, while the Rangers' Teixiera, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2001 First-Year Player Draft, hit .333 with seven homers and 23 RBIs
Royals prospect Ken Harvey won the Joe Black Arizona Fall League Most Valuable Player Award this year. The 24-year-old slugger hit .479 with a .752 slugging percentage and a .537 on-base percentage.
"I've seen some games this season, and I really like the level of talent this year," said Ron Schueler, former GM of the White Sox and a candidate for GM openings with the Red Sox and Orioles.
As White Sox GM, Schueler was responsible for drafting Saturday's winning pitcher, Peoria's Josh Stewart, who finished the season with a league-best 0.81 ERA.
"I just left the White Sox, but it's good to see their kids in the championship game," Schueler said. "There's a little bit of pride there."
The AFL has not only become a source for players, but also for managers. Cubs manager Dusty Baker, Pittsburgh's Lloyd McClendon and White Sox skipper Jerry Manuel are among those who have parlayed a managing stint in the AFL into a big-league gig.
"It's a good way to show your communication skills, because you have to put a team together in such a short amount of time," said Scottsdale manager Al Pedrique, a Triple-A manager for the Diamondbacks. "You can show how much you're able to help the kids improve. I think it shows how you can keep guys motivated to keep playing hard every day after a long summer."
"It also has been great for giving minorities opportunities to manage and coach," Hemond said. "Dusty Baker's only managerial experience was here the first year of the league, and now he has 10 years in the Major Leagues and three manager of the year Awards. It's been an unqualified success. Everyone connected with it is so proud of it, because it's incredible the type of players that have played here."
For Schueler, who has a strong scouting background, the AFL is nirvana.
"They're the ones who are fun to talk about," Schueler said of the prospects. "The scouting part is the fun. Steal one of these guys from another team and put them in the big leagues -- that's what you're looking to do."
And if the AFL is looking for a way to draw some more attention, Schueler has a suggestion.
"The thing I would like to see, and I'm going to push for [it], is more exposure," he said. "I would like to see a "Wednesday Night at the Fall League" game televised [on ESPN] every week in between the World Series and Thanksgiving. Get a guy like [ESPN anchor] Dan Patrick, who loves baseball, involved and get people talking about baseball for another month."
Steve Gilbert is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.