By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
For last year's Chandler All-Stars, their club ball schedule is preparation for junior high ball, which, in their case, is hopefully preparation for playing at Hamilton High School, which won last year's state 5A baseball championship; then college ball at ASU (where Barry Bonds played, incidentally), Grand Canyon University or any one of the area's two-year colleges, all of which regularly produce major league draft picks.
"These kids are now pretty much focused on the things they need to do to be able to play high school ball," Kem says. "These kids love baseball and are so immersed in the sport that they know the skills they need to pick up to play at the next level. There's a focus and an understanding of the game that we just never had as kids this age. It's really amazing to watch."
The ESPN commentators during last year's Little League World Series several times commented that the Chandler team was one of the most fundamentally sound teams they had seen in the tournament. They weren't weirdly big like many of the teams. They just made all the plays they needed to make.
"You're just seeing that level of play here at that age," Kem says. "With all the club ball and good coaching around, you've now got kids running around with the skills of good high school players. It's just a different world."
It is the night before New Year's Eve in the desert north of Phoenix. This night will end up killing many of the ficus trees in the Valley. The ficuses can handle the heat, but they can't handle a freeze.
It is the first round of the Super Series Winter Nationals baseball tournament here at the Victory Lane Sports Complex.
The players for the McDowell Mountain Yankees 11-and-under team huddle in the dugout around two propane heaters, rubbing their hands and rolling their bats near the heater's orange flame like hot dogs over a campfire. Aerospace-grade double-wall aluminum can handle high temperatures, but it loses its pop at below 60 degrees.
A dull thud emanates from the batter's box. Yet another hit against the California team that won this tournament last year.
The Yankees, the top 11U team in the state, end up winning the game, then marching through four other teams to the championship game. By that time, the California teams had been eliminated. The Yankees, made up of kids from Scottsdale, the Valley's longtime hotbed of club ball, as well as a Chandler boy who batted cleanup for the Chandler National 9-10 All-Stars, win the national championship by beating the Chandler Desert Blaze, the second-ranked team in the state, which includes two of the top hitters from the CNLL 9-10 All-Stars.
That same night, the Chandler Monsoon wins the 13U championship. In the first inning of that game, mop-headed Tim Fowler, also the cleanup hitter for the Chandler National 11-12 All-Stars, bounces an opposite field shot over an eight-foot-high fence 300 feet from home plate.
"I just got under it a little," Fowler says, as he returns to the bench after scoring.
It's not that great teams haven't emerged in the past from the desert. The Arizona Bulldogs, the Connie Mack teams of Ken Phelps, the Tucson Wildcats and several other squads all have made footprints on the national baseball scene in the last decade.
And year-round baseball is nothing new, either. Fall youth baseball in the Valley was born more than a decade ago, when hundreds of teams in the Valley would spend fall weekend days playing in the short-lived RBI Fall Baseball League in Scottsdale.
That league broke up in the mid-1990s when Little Leagues and other baseball organizations here, particularly in the East Valley, began starting fall ball leagues of their own.
It's just that now baseball is being played in the fall and winter months in leagues and tournaments across the Phoenix area. An estimated 30,000 Valley kids now play outside the traditional Little League season.
And now, you can go to a national tournament like this Super Series event and see several Arizona teams from every part of town in every age bracket contending for the championship.
With the Diamondbacks, 12 teams in the Cactus League (which set an attendance record again this year), the Arizona Fall League and the hundreds of club team tournaments each year in the Valley, baseball is a top tourism draw in the region.
Also, as civic and business leaders push harder to recruit top companies to the Valley, they are increasingly understanding the key role quality-of-life issues play in attracting firms.
One such issue that is continually cited by executives and their employees is youth sports. They want to move to a place where their kids can play their favorite sports as much as possible at the highest echelon possible.
"Having opportunities for kids to play at such a high level and high quality is now one of our top selling points," says Farrell Quinlan, a spokesman for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce. "We've just got to keep expanding on that. And I think that's what is happening."
Quinlan himself lives near the new Texas Rangers and Kansas City Royals spring training facility in booming Surprise, a facility that melds the best of baseball with progressive ideas about how a city's town center should look.