Kiwanis Recreation Center
We give extra props to this outdoor facility because of everything around it — tennis and volleyball courts and shaded picnic areas. But it's all about taking some hacks, working out the kinks (no small task), and getting some rips in before facing the real deal, whether it's a guy throwing gas in a baseball or fast-pitch game, or someone lofting a yellow ball toward the plate in a slow-pitch game. We prefer the quick stuff: the ball getting on you in a jiffy and that good old hand-eye coordination having to kick in, or else. Good challenge here, as the machines generally throw strikes (a good thing) and the friendly employees are quick to remedy things when they don't. When you're done for the day, you can sit under a tree in the park and mull over how you're going to rake like Ichiro Suzuki as someone tries to throw it by you at the next city league game.
Goodyear Ballpark
Goodyear's sparkling $108 million ballpark may not have the glitz of the other new-in-2008 Cactus League ballpark, Glendale's Camelback Ranch, but it's really grown on us. While the Glendale stadium, which has similarly modern brushed-steel styling, hosts two of the Cactus League's most prominent teams, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, Goodyear's park pairs smaller-market teams with a more natural affiliation: the two Ohio franchises, the Cleveland Indians and Cincinnati Reds. The spirit of cross-state cooperation, along with tons of family-friendly amenities, including a Wiffleball field, to entertain the children, give Goodyear's park a more homey, lived-in feel than other increasingly sterile stadiums. Buckeye State natives no doubt get off on hearing the state's official rock song, "Hang On Sloopy," played between innings and playfully teasing each other about their equally woeful NFL franchises, but there's a little something for everybody at this park. Even for West Valley folks, it's a haul to get there, but the folksy atmosphere is well worth it. Dare we say it's a throwback to the Cactus League's fondly remembered good old days?
We are suckers for a sharpshooter, and senior guard Corey Hawkins more than lured us into the fold. The dude's range is remarkable, and he frees himself for open jump shots by driving the lane with abandon. Corey simply was the best boy's basketball player in Arizona last season, and set an all-time Arizona scoring record for his four-year career, topping current NBA pro Mike Bibby's previous mark (set at Phoenix Shadow Mountain). Like Bibby, Corey is the son of an NBA great, Hersey Hawkins, who served as an assistant coach at Goodyear Estrella before taking a gig last season as director of player development with the Portland Trail Blazers. He sure developed his son as a very good one, as ASU fans will learn in the upcoming season when Corey dons a Sun Devils uniform as an incoming freshman.
You lose your best player and team nucleus to the first round of the NBA Draft. Then, your four-year starter and team leader gets picked early in the second round. Left behind is a crew of unproven underclassmen. Season over before it begins? Not when Herb Sendek coaches your squad. After the NBA scooped up James Harden (the number-three overall pick in the 2009 draft) and Jeff Pendergraph, preseason prognosticators pegged the 2009-10 Sun Devils to finish at or near the bottom of the Pacific 10 conference. Instead, Sendek led ASU to within a game of the conference crown, a close-but-no-cigar run at the NCAA tournament, and another win over rival UofA. Sendek's job well done was so amazing that he won this year's Pac-10 Coach of the Year.
Everything was topsy-turvy when the ASU Sun Devils baseball team took the field in January for its first regular season game. School honchos unceremoniously had dumped the team's longtime, highly successful coach, the fascinating (we do miss the guy!) Pat Murphy, and asked longtime assistant Tim Esmay to stop the bleeding on an interim basis. We know Coach Esmay, who is blessed with a calm temperament and a terrific squad of sluggers and scrappers who broke hard from the starting gate and never stopped until they were knocked out of the NCAA baseball tournament in the first round. The Devils were ranked as one of the best college teams in the nation for much of the season and struck fear in the hearts of every team they played. Congrats!
Phoenix College has dominated the state and national women's junior college fast-pitch softball scene for so long that the other local schools seem to be an afterthought. To put it kindly, the South Mountain C.C. Cougars never had been a factor in the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference until this season. Coming out of nowhere, the Cougars upset number-one seed Mesa C.C. to win the regional championship and a coveted berth in the national championships in Normal, Illinois, where they knocked out in the first round. Scrappy utility player Wo-Wo Vasquez, out of Phoenix North High, was one of several keys to the team's surprise success. Led by head coach Kristina Graham Schmallen, the unheralded South Mountain team did themselves and their community proud.
First of all, we don't consider baseball players real athletes. They're in a skill sport that doesn't require a lot of running and jumping. (We said "a lot.") Hitters in the sport are more like golfers than basketball players — hand-to-eye coordination being the mark of excellence. So, Justin Upton is no Steve Nash. But he is the best professional baseball player in town — a superhero in his sport — and he's destined (yeah, we'll predict this) for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. That is, he's becoming among the greats at seeing and hitting a major-league fastball. Upton was an All-Star last season, and he didn't make that cut this year — he's not on pace to repeat the .300 batting average, 26 homers, and 86 runs batted in he racked up in 2009. But the Arizona Diamondbacks have sucked in 2010, and Upton's prone to frustration during a long season on such a bad team. But his stats are still respectable (a .273 average, 17 home runs, and 69 RBI at press time), and he still bats in the best hitter/power-hitter spot in the lineup (third). Once the D-Backs improve — and they will, next season, now that they've gotten rid of their ridiculously incompetent general manager and manager — look for Upton to return to All-Star form and become one of the best hitters in the game. He was promising from the start: When the former Virginia high school star, was called up to the D-Backs in August 2007, he was the youngest player in the majors at 19. In 2008, Upton hit a 484-foot round-tripper that was the second-longest in Chase Field history. Baseball's in his genes: His brother B.J.'s a star for Tampa Bay. Justin's the nucleus of the team, somebody to build around. It's not his fault that this year's D-Backs, well, sucked snake.
Last year at this time, we were mystified as to what the hell happened to Chris Young. We couldn't help wondering whether the Diamondbacks center fielder was another in the steroid era who had hit the big leagues with a boom — as in a first-full-year Diamondbacks' record 32 home runs and 27 stolen bases in 2007 (only the eighth rookie in the Majors to go at least 20 and 20 in the categories) — only to fizzle inexplicably over the next couple of seasons. It got so bad in 2009 that Young was demoted to minor-league Reno, Nevada. When he came back up, he had a slight resurgence, but he still finished the season batting .212 (the lowest average in the bigs for a player who had appeared in so many games), 15 stolen bases, and 42 runs batted in. Contrast that to this season, when Young was named to the National League All-Star Team, and was batting .260, with 26 homers and 88 runs batted in at press time. Along with teammates Adam LaRoche (96 RBI) and Mark Reynolds (84), Young was among the scoring leaders in the National League. Whatever Young did to get back to superhero status, he should keep doing it. With the prowess of Young and a few others offensively, plus a revamped pitching staff, the Snakes could challenge in the National League West next season.
It will be difficult for Diamondbacks third baseman Mark Reynolds to equal milestones he set last season. He hit 44 home runs, fourth in the National League, and he struck out 223 times, the most in major-league baseball. At press time, Reynolds had a team-leading 32 home runs and was again leading the majors in strikeouts, this time with 206. We're just happy that this year's dismal D-Backs lead their sport in something. But don't hold it too much against Reynolds. Some of the greatest hitters in baseball history whiffed much of the time — the great Reggie Jackson (dubbed "Mr. October," because of his World Series prowess with the New York Yankees) is the all-time strikeout leader among batters with 2,597 in 21 seasons. Reggie also hit a career 563 homers. Reynolds is in his fourth major-league season and has a career 121 homers and 762 strikeouts. That is, he's got almost a third of Jackson's whiffs already, and he's on a pace to strike out more than a whopping 3,560 times if he lasts as long as Jackson did. But, look on the bright side: Reynolds is on a pace to hit 570-plus round-trippers if he lasts 17 more seasons. We're saying, despite the strikeouts, Mark's a keeper for the D-Backs. If the team could just get some stellar pitching — and he could strike out half as much (which would still be a hell of a lot) — he might someday (dare to dream) be Mr. October/November himself. (Unless there's a sweep this year, the series will go into November for the second time in history.)
If ever there were a superhero-looking (and -acting) baseball manager, it would square-jawed, stubble-faced Kirk Gibson. He's the man's man who makes going bald as an onion cool. Women find him sexy as hell, guys have a man-crush on him. When the camera pans over to the Arizona Diamondbacks dugout and Gibby, you can see it on his rugged face: He hates to freakin' lose! And the Snakes have lost lots this season (they have a firm hold on last place in the National League West) — though not as often since he took over the team when manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Josh Byrnes were canned finally. That mighty face beneath the red D-Backs cap could almost make you believe the massive losing will stop now. Almost. There's the matter of the improved-through-trades-but-still-mediocre pitching staff. But if Gibson could chew nails and make it happen, he would. He did close to that when he was a player with the Detroit Tigers and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He led the Tigers to their 1984 World Series victory, but he's best known for a homer he hit for the Dodgers in the first game of the 1988 Series against the Oakland A's. With injuries to both legs and battling stomach flu, Gibson wasn't expected to play. But the Dodgers were trailing 4-3 with two outs in the ninth inning. With one guy on base, manager Tommy Lasorda needed to at least get a run home to tie the game. Gibson was sent to the plate and immediately fell behind 0-2. He laid off a couple of balls, and the count was 2-2. Then — in one of the greatest moments in sports history — he hit the ball over the right-field fence to give the Dodgers a 5-4 victory. He hobbled around the bases and pumped his fist to the crowd; it was a scene that fans who saw it will never forget. Always known as an intense player, he had become the Dodgers' team leader, literally willing one of the most mediocre teams ever to play in a World Series to an eventual 4-1 victory over the superior A's. We'd like to see what this balls-out guy could do over a whole season with the Snakes. Sometimes great players make lousy managers, but we're thinking Gibson could be the exception.

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