Fields of Dreams

Page 6 of 11

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."

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Robert Nelson