Fields of Dreams

Page 4 of 11

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.

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Robert Nelson