Fields of Dreams

Think your kid could be the next Shea Hillenbrand or Curt Schilling? Hook him up with the major leaguers in metro Phoenix youth baseball.

The argument is simple enough: Metro Phoenix is the world's new baseball mecca.

If you love baseball, this is the best place on Earth to visit. If you're a kid with dreams of being a big league star, this is the best place on Earth to call home.

Supporting such a theory, though, gets as complicated as a double cut three.

Lou Klimchock, who played 12 years in the majors, 
coaches a club baseball team that includes his grandson, 
Mitchell Nay. Klimchock is also director of the 300-
member Arizona Major League Alumni Association.
Lou Klimchock, who played 12 years in the majors, coaches a club baseball team that includes his grandson, Mitchell Nay. Klimchock is also director of the 300- member Arizona Major League Alumni Association.
Former Diamondbacks and now Red Sox pitching great 
Curt Schilling played at Shadow Mountain High School.
Former Diamondbacks and now Red Sox pitching great Curt Schilling played at Shadow Mountain High School.

Details

Photographs by Jackie Mercandetti

Do you start with the statewide stir created when a group of 12-year-old boys from Chandler National Little League made it to the 2003 Little League World Series, the first team from the Valley in 40 years to pull off that feat?

Or with future Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar giving up $2 million just to be able to play, train and live here?

Or do you look to club ball, where the number of teams has doubled to more than 200 in the last decade, and Arizona teams like the McDowell Mountain Yankees and the Chandler Monsoon are all of a sudden beating up on the best from California?

You could start with Jerry Colangelo, Nomar Garciaparra, Lou Klimchock, Mark Verstegen, the RBI Fall Baseball League, the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority, the growing Cactus League, the Arizona Fall League, the 140 local kids like Curt Schilling now playing professional baseball or the Luis Gonzalez flare that won the 2001 World Series.

Or the fact that the Suns, Coyotes and Cardinals all suck.

Or the fact that Valley coaches say they're all of a sudden picking up new players whose parents moved to the Valley primarily to give their children more baseball opportunities.

What about starting with former pipsqueak Andy Lane, who is leading his team in runs and hits at Grand Canyon University and getting looks from Orioles and Dodgers area scouts, both of whom, by the way, live in town?

Or with Mesa native and D-Backs star Shea Hillenbrand tossing medicine balls for hours on end with kids like Lane at Athletes' Performance's new high-tech training facility in Tempe?

In the end, it probably doesn't matter where you start because the argument doesn't start in one place in the Valley. It starts all over the place, anywhere a pro moves into the Valley for professional reasons and starts coaching kids for personal reasons, anywhere a new field is built for civic reasons, a new club team pops up for yet another reason or a little boy and thousands more like him get jazzed on the dream of being a Little League star like the kids from Chandler National or a big league star like the guys from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

So maybe the best place to begin making such an argument is out in the cheap housing, year-round sun and explosive sprawl of suburban Phoenix, where hundreds of new young families, many of them with extensive baseball backgrounds, set up house each month.

Like here on a bumpy patch of baking hardpan dirt outside San Tan Middle School in extreme south Chandler.

Where on one sunny spring day, the Valley's amazing new baseball synergy spins up like a dust devil as . . .


The coach of the Southwest Sidewinders, Anthony Rodriguez, a former college baseball star in California, is finishing up a two-hour session with his group of 10-year-olds, who practice three times a week every week of the year. It's the schedule a young team must keep to have any chance of winning in the increasingly competitive Arizona club ball tournaments.

Over in the parking lot, Mike Benjamin, former San Francisco Giants and Pittsburgh Pirates star, coach of last year's Chandler National Little League All-Stars and manager of this year's CNLL All-Stars, is unloading baseball equipment from his car.

Another Chandler National coach is talking to Rodriguez along the third base line. The coach is there to commandeer the field for his team's practice before another coach like Benjamin can lay claim to the dirt.

With so many baseball teams and so few fields in the Valley, it's a dirty little game trying to lock up a field for your team.

As it turns out, Benjamin isn't gunning for a field. He instead heads for the batting cage, where he gives a half-hour hitting lesson to one of his new Little League players who is having a little trouble with the 70 mph fastballs he's seeing in the league from the likes of Michael Benjamin Jr. and at least five other 12-year-old flame-throwers.

At home plate, Rodriguez's son, Ozzie, named after Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, is standing next to a boy with the name "Sheffield" written across the back of his jersey.

Ozzie turns to the other boy and says:

"Hey, Gary, want to take some cuts?"

Overhearing the comment, the Chandler National coach smiles and says to Coach Rodriguez:

"That's so cute. Ozzie calling the kid Gary. The kid must really love Gary Sheffield."

And why not? Sheffield's one of the top hitters in baseball.

Rodriguez pauses, seemingly looking for a diplomatic answer.

"Uh, well, that's his name," he says. "That's Gary Sheffield's son. He joined our team last week."

Trivia question: Name the player who holds the record for the most hits in three consecutive major league games.

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