Fields of Dreams

Page 8 of 11

"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.

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Robert Nelson