Fields of Dreams

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.

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.

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.

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.

Garciaparra's body is the jewel of Athletes' Performance and its founder, Mark Verstegen. As a college ballplayer at Georgia Tech, Garciaparra was brilliantly athletic but miserably undersized and underpowered. At 155 pounds, he was an agile fielder and competent slap hitter, but possessed none of the power of major league superstars.

Verstegen began working with Garciaparra while a strength and conditioning trainer at Tech. The stars of the two men have risen together. While Garciaparra gained 35 pounds of lean, explosive mass and became one of the game's great hitters and fielders, Verstegen built a big-name clientele and, finally, in 2000, his dream facility, widely considered the best of its kind in the world.

Now, besides drawing top male and female athletes from most every sport, Athletes' Performance has lured whole major league baseball squads to the Valley for training.

This has had a profound trickle-down effect in the Valley.

Top prospects for the Kansas City Royals began training with Verstegen a few years ago. Last year, the Royals moved their spring training to nearby Surprise, which now allows prospects easier access to their workouts with Verstegen.

All of a sudden, even with a bottom-tier budget, the Royals were considered contenders in their division. And that has other clubs wondering how to match the Royals' success.

Matt Kata, Robby Hammock, Shea Hillenbrand and Alomar of the Diamondbacks train at Athletes' Performance. Note Hammock: a skinny, 170-pounder with the physicality to be a major league catcher, a position typically occupied by pit bulls.

Curt Schilling, who played at Shadow Mountain High School, and Garciaparra are workout partners.

Indeed, with the names of members on their lockers, Athletes' Performance's locker room takes on the rarefied air of the back rooms of Augusta National.

Which, when sitting in this room lacing up his workout shoes, just motivated Andy Lane even more to be the best athlete he could be.

Like Garciaparra, Lane was undersized by pro standards. Unlike Garciaparra, though, no major league scouts were looking at Lane as a prospect.

Out of high school, only Division II Grand Canyon University took a chance on the 130-pound Ahwatukee shortstop.

Once he headed off to college, Lane's grandmother offered to buy the kid a decent car.

Instead of the ride, Lane asked if he could use the money to buy a few months of training at Athletes' Performance.

For the last two off-seasons, Lane has spent $500 a month to be able to work out with Verstegen and his staff. That's the reduced rate for local high school and college athletes. Pros like Alomar pay $50,000 a year.

Lane is now 180 pounds of lean, agile muscle. He is now batting above .300 with power and with the ability as a fielder to reach balls he never before could reach.

Of course, Andy passes on what he's learned to his 11-year-old brother, who passes on what he's learned to his club ball teammates, who pass on what they've learned to the Little Leaguers they know, who pass it on to their coaches, who pass it on to other coaches. So on and so on.

Indeed, you can now find coaches and ballplayers of all ages in the Valley espousing the virtues of "functional strength training" and building the "pillar muscles."

Last month, while watching one of Andy Lane's games, his dad, Jeff, noticed a familiar face in the stands.

Jeff Lane realized how he knew the young man: The guy had come out and helped the pitchers on his 11-year-old son's club ball team, the Ahwatukee Dodgers.

The young man, a scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers, had come and helped the youth club team because his boss, Tom Thomas, the Western Region Scouting Coordinator for the Dodgers, was the team's co-head coach.

"It turned out he was out at the Grand Canyon game looking at Andy," Jeff Lane says. "It's weird how small the world of baseball around here can be."

Lane is now also being scouted by the Baltimore Orioles and perhaps a few other teams. He found that out from his longtime hitting coach, Lou Klimchock, who also is the head of the Major League Alumni Association in Arizona, who also coaches a club team of 11-year-olds.

"Andy is ready, and people are seeing that," Klimchock says. "He has worked so hard to improve his skills and his body. If anybody deserves it, it's him."

Several other top Arizona baseball prospects, including first-round pick Brandon Wood, train at Athletes' Performance.

"It's just an amazing environment," Andy Lane says. "You're there working with these absolute studs and all the time learning all kinds of stuff from them."

For him, the high-tech training facility has been just one part of an amazing support system.

"Look at the coaching I've been able to have living and playing here," he says. "It's just amazing the level of baseball knowledge you can tap here. And with so much great help, you're even more motivated. You want to be like the guys who have given so much to help you along."

Arecent posting on the Chandler National Little League Internet guestbook:

"My dad and brother were playing baseball at Bogle baseball fields and walking by comes Trent Hardenburg (one of the 12-year-old CNLL players) with his friend, Chris. My brother who is eight, knows Trent and Chris and my brother said 'hey' and they said 'hey' back. Oh my God!!!" -- Britney


"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

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.

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.

Surprise has already built a new library near the stadiums. The city's new town hall will soon be there, as well as numerous other civic amenities within walking distance of each other.

"It's going to be an amazing place for the residents of the city to come and get out and get involved with all kinds of activities," he says. "It's going to be a genuine town core. And right there in the middle of it is baseball."

Indeed, with the new Cardinals and Coyotes stadiums getting added to the plethora of state-of-the-art pro baseball facilities, the West Valley, perhaps more than any swath of suburbia in the nation, is being built on a foundation of sports.

Though the promise has not become a reality, note that Bank One Ballpark and the birth of the Diamondbacks was sold to taxpayers as the key to revitalizing the urban core of Phoenix.

Scottsdale's baseball stadium, spring home of the San Francisco Giants, was also designed to be an integral part of that city's downtown experience.

"What brings people together in the Valley?" asks Van Le, a Harvard researcher who is a consultant for the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority. "It's sports -- whether you're watching pros or playing or watching your kids play. What that means is that sports needs to be part of any planning to build a more livable city and city core."

Here's the perspective from Harvard University:

Too many Arizona kids are fat.

Obesity is one of the leading causes of health problems in the United States.

Researchers blame much of the increase in child obesity on video games, cable television, computers and the increasing inability of most children to stray and play far from home.

While suburban Phoenix may be drenched in sun, it also is inhospitable to foot or bike travel. It is a city built on the car. Here, kids need a ride most anywhere they might think of going.

One way to make fat kids thin is to make sports part of their lives. To do that, you need to build sports facilities and, more important, establish organizations that promote and organize those activities at the facilities you build.

Two top researchers in the field of youth obesity and youth sports are Greg Johnson and Van Le of the Sports Philanthropy Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an offshoot project of Harvard.

One of their most exciting and innovative programs, they say, comes from their partnership with the Arizona Tourism and Sports Authority. Their job: to figure out the most productive way to spend the Authority's $1 million to $2 million a year of taxpayer money that's earmarked for youth sports.

"You aren't going to change the world on one or two million dollars a year," Le says. "But with some smart planning, you can make that money go a lot farther toward the goal of helping youth sports in the Valley."

Le approaches the task from the community health perspective. Arizona spends $752 million a year on obesity-related illnesses, he says. His goal, then, is to attack childhood obesity with expanded recreational facilities and activities. And to make the TSA's limited money go much farther, he is enlisting the help of communities and health-related businesses and philanthropy groups to create partnerships that aim toward giving Valley kids more alternatives to video games.

"We've designed physical activity out of our communities," Le says. "Our goal is to design them back in. To do that, we've got to partner with everyone with a stake in the issue, everyone from hospital leaders to health-care providers to city parks-and-rec people. Then we've got to build more than just a park. We've got to build the organization around that park to make it a vibrant part of the community."

The TSA will soon complete development of a massive database of all existing recreational facilities in the Valley. Le and others hope to use that information to better target areas of the community that need the most help. That database will also help area coaches who need to find a field.

In February, the TSA gave out $1.32 million to 13 projects, many of which are renovations of existing public school rec facilities. In most cases, the TSA was providing a fraction of the total cost of the project, with cities, businesses and philanthropies adding matching funds and services.

In addition to the TSA efforts, the Diamondbacks' "Diamonds Back" program has built or refurbished 13 more baseball fields around Arizona since 2000. Nine of the fields are in the Valley.

But even with the TSA, Diamondbacks and individual cities working to upgrade and increase the number of ball fields in the Valley, area coaches say that most parts of the Valley are still far from having enough fields for all the emerging leagues and club teams.

"The only thing holding a lot of us back is the field issue," says Tom Kingery, one of the coaches of the Ahwatukee Cardinals, a 10-and-under club team that will be traveling to Japan this summer as part of Phoenix's Sister City program. "Sometimes it's just a nightmare trying to get a place to practice or play."

Kingery lamented the lack of playing areas one recent morning as he stood near first base of Randy Johnson Field in downtown Phoenix watching Mayor Phil Gordon announce that the Cardinals would be heading to Japan to represent Phoenix.

The Cardinals coaches had originally contacted Phoenix city government about the need for more baseball fields in the Ahwatukee area. They didn't get the fields. But they did get a trip to Japan (which the team is paying for with fund raisers).

"I'm sure they will represent us well," Gordon announced.

Kingery leaned toward the reporter standing next to him and whispered.

"Yeah, if we can find a place to practice."

A decade ago, baseball players showed up to spring training to get in shape.

Within the last few years, that mentality changed; the typical major leaguer works out for the six weeks before spring training so that he shows up to camp in shape.

Now, an increasing group of players is taking the next step. They begin training in the weeks following the end of the major league season in October.

Last October, for example, about 15 major leaguers showed up at Athletes' Performance to begin their off-season training.

Most of them bought houses or apartments in the Valley, mostly in north Scottsdale, to be able to train here.

"It's the next step in training for baseball," says Craig Friedman, a performance specialist with Athletes' Performance who works mainly with baseball players. "And Arizona is the center of this evolution."

Friedman says the players he trains "are falling in love with the place." In addition to the golf and the affordable nice housing, they typically live in the same neighborhood as their buddies. Some of them have taken a liking to the Scottsdale club scene.

Friedman is expecting a larger wave of players this October. From all indications, he says, the Valley can expect dozens more major leaguers to begin calling Arizona home in the next few years.

"Everything they want and need is here now," Friedman says. "It's the perfect home if you're a baseball guy.

"I think you're just going to see this keep growing and growing and getting better and better," he says. "And that's just going to feed and feed off what's going on across the Valley. It's just going to keep growing as this amazing place to be a baseball lover."

Trivia question: Name the first teenager in the major leagues to hit a home run off a fellow teenager.

Answer: Lou Klimchock, Kansas City Athletics, off Stover McIlwain, September 1958.

Stover McIlwain died in a car accident the winter after giving up that homer to Klimchock on the last day of the 1958 season.

Klimchock went on to play 12 seasons in the major leagues.

After managing in the minors for two years, Klimchock gave up baseball and became a marketing executive with Coors.

He moved to the East Valley in the early 1990s. By the time he arrived, he hadn't swung a baseball bat in 14 years.

By March of 2004, Klimchock was pitching batting practice to the kids trying out for the 2004 Chandler National Little League draft.

In the decade between, Klimchock became a key fixture in Arizona's emerging world of baseball.

For starters, he became president of the Arizona Chapter of the Major League Alumni Association. In his time with the group, membership has risen from about 200 to more than 310 and has become increasingly involved with youth baseball in the Valley.

Klimchock helped start the Arizona Fall League, the developmental league for the top prospects of major league baseball that continues to acquaint many of baseball's top players with the Valley.

He's been at the heart of numerous corporate or Major League Baseball programs or events aimed at improving facilities in the Valley or the skills of young people.

Between all that, like dozens of other former major league stars here, he's been out giving one-on-one instruction to kids. To date, he's given hitting instruction to about 350 Valley kids, several of whom went on to become top college players and pro prospects.

On this sweltering April afternoon, he is standing along the third base line of a field at Snedigar Park, the former Brewers spring training facility in south Chandler, coaching his grandson and a dozen other 11-year-olds on the Arizona Giants. The game is part of a weekend league Klimchock and his Major League Alumni Association helped create for the club teams for 11-year-olds of the East Valley.

The league is an affordable way for teams to get games against top competition.

This day, the Giants are battling the Desert Blaze and the Ahwatukee Dodgers. All three teams are ranked in the top 10 in Arizona Baseball Network polls.

Klimchock's mission is to get top baseball instruction, and top baseball opportunities, for as many Valley kids as possible at the most affordable price possible.

This weekend league, for example, costs parents about $3 per game. Tournaments, by comparison, can cost as much as $20 a game. All the league money goes to securing fields and paying umpires.

Besides that, the kids on the Giants get all that major league instruction for free.

"These club teams can become a real burden for parents," Klimchock says. "The idea is to get the kids out playing and learning and having a great time without breaking the parents' pocketbook."

In a few weeks, Klimchock will invite some fellow former major leaguers out for a free clinic for the teams in the league. That clinic is one of dozens the Alumni Association will conduct in the Valley for area kids.

In the next year, Klimchock hopes to start another league. This time, he wants to target freshmen and sophomores in high school who, because of the intense competition and large number of ballplayers in the Valley, weren't selected to play on their high school teams.

"The competition has gotten so intense that there are hundreds of kids who love the game who all of a sudden have nowhere to play and improve their skills," he says. "It's just not fair to those kids. You've got this gap between club ball and high school ball where a lot of kids get lost."

The kids Klimchock's Giants are playing this day, the Ahwatukee Dodgers, already know how difficult it is to get on the baseball team of a big high school. A few months earlier, Kevin Young, the powerful cleanup hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates before his knees went bad in the last few years, came out to a Dodger practice and talked to the kids about keeping your dreams alive when others tell you they're dead.

Young, who lives in Ahwatukee, told the kids the story of how he didn't make his high school team either.

"It's tough to keep believing in yourself," Young told the Ahwatukee kids at a south Phoenix field bordering I-10. "But you've got to. You've just got to keep working on your skills and believing in yourself. That's all you can do."

Young was invited to talk to the team by his golfing buddy, Jackie Tucker, a former Cardinals prospect who coaches the Dodgers with that team's scouting coordinator Tom Thomas, a former pro himself.

Tucker also golfs with major leaguers and Ahwatukee residents Jay Bell and Tony Womack, who also have promised to come out and help the Dodgers.

"Yeah, we've got guys all over Ahwatukee now," Klimchock says of his Major League Alumni membership. "We've seen a lot of current and former players moving there and to Scottsdale and to here in Chandler."

Klimchock gives several reasons for the influx:

So many more players, scouts and coaches are spending time in the Valley because 12 teams now have their spring training here.

Several dozen more major leaguers come to participate in the Arizona Fall League.

With training facilities such as Athletes' Performance, the Valley is increasingly seen by professional players as a top place to live and train in the off-season.

It also doesn't hurt that most of these guys like to golf.

And with the increase in player salaries, it is now more feasible for a former professional player to retire or semi-retire wherever he chooses. In Klimchock's day, for example, the vast majority of former players had to find jobs wherever they could immediately after their playing days were over.

"A lot of these guys just have more money than we did in our day," he says.

And that money can go farther in Arizona than it can in California or Florida. Thanks to sprawl and seemingly endless cheap land, half a million dollars can buy you a very nice new house next to a golf course in Arizona. In California, that much money gets you a pretty average house on a pretty average street.

And at some point during the migration, the Valley becomes attractive to baseball players simply because there are a lot of fellow baseball players already here.

"It's seen as a baseball town now," Klimchock says. "That's attractive if your whole life has centered on baseball."

Ken Phelps, a major leaguer for 11 years and now the radio color commentator for the Diamondbacks, agrees with Klimchock. Phelps has been watching baseball grow in the Valley since he moved here in 1973 to play at ASU.

"You've got more and more baseball players living here and more teams training here and more individual guys training here," Phelps says. "That just feeds itself. It's becoming the place to be if you love baseball."

Then there's the psychology of the sport itself.

Unlike other major U.S. sports, baseball is steeped in lore both at the highest professional levels and at the youth level. The vast majority of professional players played in youth rec ball as kids. The Little League World Series has been a big deal for more than half a century. In baseball, more than any other professional sports, those involved seemed much more aware that they're participating in what is basically a glorified child's game.

Just compare a Diamondbacks game to other professional sports. There's always some youth organization getting highlighted in the stands. Kids get to announce the batters. You have a "bat boy." You have gleefully childish side shows like clowns and racing condiments.

Have you ever seen a baseball movie that didn't have kids in it?

Despite the high salaries, baseball players come across as more humble -- more blue-collar -- than other pro athletes. Several former pros blamed this humility on the long, grueling and often humiliating maturation process in the minor leagues. Most players describe their minor league experience as a lengthy, sobering attack on the ego. It can make a guy long for the days when he was the star of his Little League team.

And unlike basketball or football stars, most baseball guys were lucky to have more than a hundred fans watching one of their high school or college games.

Which all might explain why all the former pro ballplayers now in the Valley seem so willing to go run around the local hardpan multipurpose field with any group of kids and dads who ask them for a little advice.

"The guys you see out there are just regular guys who love being around kids and the game they love," Klimchock says. "It's pretty simple when you get down to it."

Like many pros in the Valley, Phelps, who has coached many of Arizona's top youth and high school teams since he retired in 1991, got involved with youth baseball because of his own children. He has stayed involved because he loves the process of developing kids into strong high school and college players.

Several of Phelps' teams made it into the top levels of national competition. They fell just a little short when facing teams from heavily populated regions of California or Florida or Texas.

Over the last decade or so, he says, the Valley was just a player or two short of offering up the best team in the country. Had some of those teams been able to add kids from the Tucson area (Connie Mack rules don't allow such a merger; for most club teams, it's just logistically impossible), Arizona teams probably would have been winning national tournaments consistently for many years.

"I think it has ended up being just an issue of population," he says. "In Southern California, the teams have pulled from such a giant pool of talent. We've had the talent, and probably more talent per capita than most areas because of the quality of ball here, but you always have come up against the numbers."

But he believes the gap may have disappeared because of the continued influx of so many people and, more important, baseball professionals here.

"That one or two more great kids you've always needed are starting to show up," he says. "There's no reason not to believe the teams from here are just going to get stronger and stronger.

"That's what was fun about the Chandler National run. They broke through that California barrier. I'm just guessing that's going to become more common in the future."

It is a warm winter afternoon on the baseball practice field at Mountain Pointe High School.

The high school kids have yet to begin their season. So the 11-year-olds on the Ahwatukee Dodgers are allowed to use the field this day.

Not surprising since one of Mountain Pointe's baseball coaches, Thorton Kipper, who also pitched for three years with the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s, has a grandson on the team.

The boy's dad, Bruce, a Mountain Pointe assistant principal, played Triple A ball and continues to be involved with player development for the Seattle Mariners.

Bruce and Thorton are here along with Jackie Tucker, who played in the Cardinals organization, as well as Tom Thomas, the Dodgers scouting coordinator who also managed and played pro ball, as well as Chris Cron, a former Triple A player and former manager of the Colorado Rockies Triple A team who now manages in the Chicago White Sox organization.

There has been a mix-up this day. Both Tucker and Thomas have brought buddies who are former pros out to work with the kids. Usually, Tucker and Thomas try to platoon their special guests.

Which on this day creates a scene bordering on the absurd. Because a few players could not make the practice, there are eight 11-year-olds receiving free instruction from eight former pro players, four of whom now work for major league clubs.

At times during the practice, the pros look like wallflowers at a school dance, loitering along the baseline while scanning for a lone kid who could use a tip.

Luckily, Tucker's golf buddies Kevin Young, Tony Womack or Jay Bell didn't show up, too. They wouldn't have had any kids left to instruct.

In the bullpen, Thorton Kipper, with 55 years of playing and coaching experience, stands next to a boy pitching to an 11-year-old catcher who is getting tips from scouts from both the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees.

As the 11-year-old pitcher walks back to the dugout after the session, he is stopped by his father, who has no college or professional baseball experience.

"Do you realize how cool this is? You've got more baseball knowledge around you in one day than most kids will see in their whole lives."

Oblivious to his father's point, the boy says, "They were saying I need to follow through more to help me locate down in the zone. I'll get torched if I keep leaving the ball up like I do."

"Whatever. Sounds good," the dad says. "Whatever they say, I'd go with it."

"Yeah," the boy says, "they seem to know what they're talking about."

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-744-6549.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Nelson