Fields of Dreams

Page 10 of 11

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.

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Robert Nelson