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.

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"I don't know what to think of some of the CNLL boys. I don't know if I should like Matt [Potter] and Cory [Bernard] so much anymore, they just don't seem to love their fans as much as most people would. . . . I need to decide what's going on right now and I need to decide where I stand when it comes to CNLL." -- Alisha


Top: The CNLL AA Cardinals give a cheer to their opponents after a tough loss. Above: Temperatures touch 100 degrees during a recent weekend game in the East Valley.
Top: The CNLL AA Cardinals give a cheer to their opponents after a tough loss. Above: Temperatures touch 100 degrees during a recent weekend game in the East Valley.

Mark Verstegen has invited last year's Chandler National All-Stars out for a tour of his Athletes' Performance facility.

The guys accepted the invite. They're excited about tapping Verstegen's brain on how they can become stronger athletes.

But other than that, the All-Stars have severely limited their appearances. They can't hit all the American Legion or Rotary meetings. They can't do all the parades. They've got schoolwork and club ball tournaments, for goodness' sake, besides all the date requests.

"It was very cool for them in the beginning," says Kem, whose son, Tyler, played on the team. "But then it got pretty overwhelming. At some point, they had to get back and get caught up with school and get on with their lives."

Which have changed dramatically in the last year.

Which was the last year before they became teenagers.

Which may explain much of the fascination, and intense focus, placed on them.

In sports, there is no celebration of the end of childhood like the Little League World Series.

It is a showcase primarily of 12-year-olds in their last year of Little League eligibility, typically their last year of elementary school, their last year without pituitary issues, their last year, basically, of being cute.

It is the pinnacle and final hurrah of youth baseball, the level of ball at which most of the nation's men stopped playing and, therefore, the only level of ball with which most Americans can fully identify.

Along this line, the Chandler National team was such a hit because they were a bunch of adorable kids making a baseball-crazy state proud by succeeding at a much-idealized age in a showcase event of a much-idealized sport.

Now, the Chandler National All-Stars are teenagers in every awful sense of the word.

Most of the team showed up for this year's Chandler National opening-day ceremonies with long, moppish 1970s hair. It's the style again.

They towered over this year's 11- and 12-year-old boys. They were cool, reserved, baritone-voiced and unshaven.

The transformation occurred quickly, Kem says. In the Arizona tournament, they were monomaniacally focused on baseball. In California, they began noticing girls were wearing bathing suits in the pool. By Williamsport, they were telling the coaches they were going to watch other games when, in fact, they were walking around "being seen."

"It's been amazing watching the hormones kick in over the last year," Kem says. "With that, you get the attitude and the language. It creates all new challenges as a parent and a coach."

The success of the Chandler National team is more a product of Arizona's burgeoning club ball scene than anything else. In fact, most of last year's team had spent the years before honing their skills on year-round competitive teams. A month before Chandler National made its run, many of the team's players were in Cooperstown, New York, winning a major national tournament as members of the Chandler Express club team.

Many of the All-Stars spent the last year playing for the club team Kem helps coach, the Chandler Monsoon, which also includes three top players from the northwest Valley. The Monsoon, which recently beat California's top 13U club team and has lost only a few times in more than 90 games, is arguably the best 13U club team in the western United States.

The Monsoon would very likely trounce the Chandler National All-Star team, if such a game were possible.

And that's pretty typical. The best club teams in Arizona are generally a step ahead of the state's best Little League all-star teams.

But that gap is closing, primarily because it is once again cool for club ball kids to play Little League in the spring.

In the East Valley, participation in recreational baseball leagues such as Little League, Matt Williams and Chandler Youth Baseball is up about 30 percent.

Most of the top club ball interest, though, is focused on the top division of Little League. That's where the All-Stars come from. That's where the most public and media interest in youth baseball is focused.

In this year's Chandler National Little League, for example, players from nine different top club teams have interrupted their club ball schedule to play in the league's Majors Division.

Most of the league's coaches also have coached club ball teams.

Many of the club players in CNLL continue to play with their club teams every other weekend at the same fields in an East Valley club league sponsored by Klimchock and the Major League Alumni Association.

The same migration from club ball to Little League is happening in other Valley cities, including Ahwatukee, Scottsdale and Glendale.

And after Little League, most players will return to their club teams, playing in relative obscurity as they hone their skills for the next levels.

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