Fields of Dreams

Page 9 of 11

"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.

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Robert Nelson