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.

Answer: Mike Benjamin, 14 hits, San Francisco Giants, 1995.

Trivia question: Name the most recent player to hit three home runs in one game in the Little League World Series.

Answer: Cory Bernard, Chandler National Little League, 2003.

Top left: Ken Phelps, longtime pro and club-ball coach, is now the radio color commentator for the Diamondbacks. Top right: Mark Verstegen founded Athletes' Performance.  Above: Diamondback Matt Kata (right) works out with trainer Craig Friedman at Athletes' Performance in Tempe.
Top left: Ken Phelps, longtime pro and club-ball coach, is now the radio color commentator for the Diamondbacks. Top right: Mark Verstegen founded Athletes' Performance. Above: Diamondback Matt Kata (right) works out with trainer Craig Friedman at Athletes' Performance in Tempe.
The Yankees of the CNLL coach pitch league prepare to bat during a recent game.
The Yankees of the CNLL coach pitch league prepare to bat during a recent game.

Details

Photographs by Jackie Mercandetti


The Chandler National Little League All-Stars' march to the semifinals of the Little League World Series last August was deemed the top story of the year by three East Valley newspapers.

Meaning it was considered the top story in a region encompassing about a million people.

Slow news year?

For sure. But to many longtime Valley baseball junkies, the mass excitement generated by a bunch of 12-year-olds playing a game speaks to some truth about the Phoenix metro area.

Ours is a sports-crazed populace with very little to be sports-crazy about except baseball.

For example, the Cardinals, Coyotes and Suns combined to give Phoenix what would have been one of the worst professional sports records of any major metropolitan area in the last decade if not for the Diamondbacks' winning record.

Only the Diamondbacks have been consistent winners. Only the Diamondbacks have given the city a major sports championship. Only the Diamondbacks seem interested in winning again any time soon.

"Ten or 15 years ago, every kid here wanted to be like Charles Barkley," says former major leaguer and club ball coach Lou Klimchock. "Now, all you hear out of the kids is baseball, baseball, baseball. The Diamondbacks are the only game in town, and that fact is shaping how a generation of kids from this city view sports."

Youth baseball coaches citywide say they saw a major bump in interest following the Diamondbacks' 2001 World Series run.

"I think you're seeing kids growing up with a long-term interest in that team," Klimchock says.

By last August, though, even the Diamondbacks were fading.

Yet at the same time, out in San Bernardino, California, an Arizona Little League team was beating the cleats off the rest of the western United States in regional pool play.

Not only were the kids from Chandler competing, they were dominating. For the first time in decades, an Arizona team was actually favored to win the tournament once pool play was finished.

Local Chandler-area papers began reporting about the team. Then the East Valley Tribune. Then the Arizona Republic. By the Regional finals, the Valley's television stations were broadcasting from Chandler bars and pizzerias where parents and others congregated to watch the games.

But it was the win over Southern California in the regional finals that took the team from curiosity to stardom. Arizona had had a long string of almosts in the regional tournaments. The year before, Arrowhead Little League was within an out of advancing to the Little League World Series. But somehow, whether it was talent or always having the home-field advantage, a California team had always stopped the dream in the Western Regionals.

But here was an Arizona team shutting out a Southern California team in front of 8,000 rabid Southern California Little League fans.

"I don't think the kids had any idea what a big deal that win was to people back in Arizona," says the team's assistant coach, Mark Kem. "You know, I guess none of us did. It was absolutely stunning the reception they got when they returned to Arizona."

They returned after going 4-0 in World Series pool play, then losing a close game in the semifinals to a Florida team and its ace flame-thrower, Michael Broad.

Governor Janet Napolitano came out for the parade in Chandler. D-Backs slugger Luis Gonzalez had the kids to his restaurant. The Arizona Legislature unanimously approved a "Chandler National Little League Day." The Diamondbacks invited the kids out to be honored during a game.

And through the Valley, thousands of kids got jealous. Hey, how do I get to be on television like those guys?

"My son was just enamored by the whole thing," says Jackie Tucker, head coach of the Ahwatukee Dodgers, one of the state's top 11-and-under club teams. "He wanted to know how he could get that kind of attention for playing baseball.

"'Well, you play in Little League,' I told him. So that's what he's doing -- he's playing in Little League this year."


You turn down Athletes Lane in Tempe and drive into the parking lot of the 30,000-square-foot Athletes' Performance training facility. Oops. Don't park there. That's Red Sox superstar Nomar Garciaparra's spot. You find an open space just past the spot marked "Alomar."

Inside, the expansive workout rooms are surprisingly spare. Amid chic industrial architecture, only a few workout machines sit amid a sprawl of open space. But what machines they are. Several hydraulic Keiser Functional Trainers, which look more like Mars probes than weight machines, await the world's top athletes. They feel like nothing else on this Earth. The lift is smooth, the intent is explosiveness.

Beyond the Keisers, the facility gets decidedly low-tech. For baseball players, much of the time is spent in the outdoor gym, bouncing medicine balls off a cinder-block wall and jumping up and down off benches.

The philosophy here is simple yet compelling. Here you get intense sports-specific training, a workout aimed at building the strength and explosiveness of the small core muscles that drive the human body through three-dimensional space. Garciaparra at shortstop and Robbie Alomar at second base don't need to bench 300 pounds. They need a quicker first step, a ninja's balance, more explosive hip rotation, a rotator cuff that can withstand 162 days and nights of unnatural overhand whip.

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