Young Guns

I find myself on the couch excited about watching the last few innings of an Arizona Diamondbacks game. I haven't felt this way since the postseason run in 2001. What the hell is going on here? I'm supposed to be mowing.

My 10-year-old son joins me. I look at him, look at the new Diamondbacks second baseman on the screen, look back at my son, then look back at the second baseman.

I swear my fourth-grader looks older than the big leaguer on the television.

I call Sandy Johnson, assistant general manager for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and offer to send my kid down to the park to give shaving lessons to Sandy's new roster.

Nine players have been called up from the Diamondbacks' minor league teams in the last two months to fill in for injured veterans. As old stars went down and the team languished far below .500, sportswriters from around the country declared that the Diamondbacks juggernaut was finally dead.

Conventional wisdom: The old guys were dropping into retirement, and saddled with the debt of paying for those old guys, the D-Backs didn't have the money or the trade prospects to go shop for developed young talent. So the D-Backs were forced to turn to unproven kids in their own minor league system, a system that, for the last five years, has been either denigrated or ignored by the nation's baseball writers for its lack of top prospects.

One 12-game winning streak later, this train wreck of broken old bones and prepubescent nobodies is back in the pennant race.

"You guys must just be dancing around over there like a bunch of giddy schoolgirls," I told Johnson, imagining Jerry Colangelo frolicking in a tutu. "These kids have been absolutely freakin' great. And everywhere I go, people are gushing about the Babybacks. You go around to Little League all-star tournaments and everybody has their radio on. And my damn brother-in-law keeps calling up screaming Papa Grande!' I'm thinking about getting a restraining order. Are you guys dancing around or what?"

"No, you learn not to dance in this business," Johnson says. "But yes, we're quietly very excited and very happy and feeling a little bit vindicated. We knew we had good people coming up, we knew we had good people developing them. Now it's showing. It's an exciting, fun time. But we also know how long a season is."

Oh yes, the long season, six months for big leaguers, year-round for some Arizona kids and their parents. I get a call from my 10-year-old's club team baseball coach. He's asking if Andrew can play in a tournament up in Flagstaff the coming weekend. "It'll be 30 degrees cooler," he reminds me. Sounds great. So I call home and tell Andrew about the tournament and explain to him that a baseball travels much farther at high altitudes. Fat bats, thin air, long balls. He's in.

I call back Andrew's coach to tell him we'll go. I mention the Diamondbacks' streak, and the coach coldly offers the same familiar line as Johnson:

"It's a long season," he says.

But it is more ominous coming from Andrew's coach, Tom Thomas. You sometimes forget volunteer coaches have day jobs. Tom's years of playing and coaching landed him the choice assignment of western U.S. scouting coordinator for the Los Angeles Dodgers, where it's his mission to make the season feel as long as possible for the Arizona Diamondbacks and their fans like me and my son.

"Oh, man," I say. "You're the enemy in this deal. You guys are scrambling around building a book on these kids, aren't you?"

"Hopefully, we'll get these kids figured out pretty soon," Tom says. "We'll see how things look in September. We'll see how these guys hold up once everybody knows their weaknesses."

"You are such a jerk," I say. "Hey, what hotel are we staying in?"

I talked to sportswriter Roger Angell this spring about baseball in the Valley. The legendary baseball author comes to Scottsdale for spring training every year for his now annual New Yorker piece on the subject. We talk about the Valley's emergence as the nation's premier spring-training ground. As we talk about spring trainings of the past, we make jokes about the freaky baseball-themed modernist architecture out at Francisco Grande, where the Giants used to train and where a little Barry Bonds used to splash around in the hotel's bat-shaped swimming pool.

In the course of the conversation, I start trying to explain why I'm enjoying life here.

"I think baseball is a big part of it," I told him.

If you love baseball, you can find great baseball everywhere around you here, I told him. You've got the D-Backs, the only team here that seems to want to win, but then you've got all these major leaguers floating around and just being good guys and helping out with your kids. "I mean, my kid has a bunch of major leaguers patting his back and giving him tips, and we're both sort of in awe about it," I told him. "It's just exciting to be able to be so close to the real thing."

Angell told me, "You've got so many guys retiring down here who spent their life with the game. It would be a fun place to be a kid who loves baseball. It must be a fun place to be a dad with a son who loves baseball."

It would be more fun if Andrew's pitching coach would let him throw a splitter. Andrew has long fingers, but his coach worries that stretching his index and middle finger across the ball at such a young age will put stress on his tendons and growth plate. Maybe when he's 12. The curve will come even later than that.

Pitching arms are like tires. They have a finite tread life. But they will wear out more slowly if you keep them balanced and avoid burning rubber.

For anyone who gets serious about the game, baseball is a battle of youth against life's planned obsolescence. Each player is a society of cells programmed to die to make room for their offspring down in Triple A.

You see this cycle spinning along every evening at Little League fields throughout the Valley. Guys with whatever sort of blown arm teaching eager kids what they can no longer do. It's beautiful.

Andrew doesn't completely listen to this coach. Like steroids, ball movement is a tantalizing Faustian bargain to a young ballplayer. He's seeing his opponents in club ball throwing all kinds of junk. He sees Curt Schilling's splitter drop off the table, he sees All-Stars swinging at the thing like blindfolded kindergartners taking their turn at the piñata.

And worse yet, he's seeing all these new "Babybacks" up from Tucson who look as old as him, guys like Brandon Webb, John Patterson, Andrew Good, Oscar Villarreal and Jose "Papa Grande" Valverde, who all appear to be throwing great junk with prepubescent growth plates. Andrew throws the splitter occasionally on an 0-2 count. When it works, it makes for a gleefully embarrassing strikeout.

But Andrew also saw his coach after the Tommy John surgery last year. Armando Reynoso, still on the Diamondbacks' active roster at the time, showed up at practice in a neck brace with a Band-Aid over his larynx. The surgeons in Birmingham go through the front of your neck to get to a ruptured disk. For the kids, Armando was like one of those graphic MADD posters showing the carnage of drunken driving. Kids, see what can happen when you spend 30 years of your life engaged in the unnatural act of throwing overhand?

Baseball is for young bodies.

Armando retired this spring. His arm wasn't coming back as quickly as planned, he had four kids who hadn't had a dad around in more than a decade of long summers, and he could see the writing on the walls of Tucson Electric Park. The Diamondbacks needed to develop youth, not rehab veterans.

Sandy Johnson admits that was a huge priority.

It was time for Armando to enter that next stage in life, a segment that comes early for ballplayers, and he entered it with the grace of a mature man at peace with the cycle of life.

So now he's handing the ball to the next generation -- developing youth, not rehabbing a veteran. Like Sandy Johnson and Tom Thomas, Armando is out at the Little League fields getting a kick out of teaching those good mechanics that allow kids to enjoy the game for as long as humanly possible.

"It's fun to watch them grow, isn't it?" Armando said as we watched our kids play. "It's fun to be a part of it all."

At the Tempe Sportsplex, 12-year-old Tim Fowler of Chandler National All-Stars hits four towering shots in a row far over the left field fence in a pre-tournament home-run derby. "They look like Luis Gonzalez hits," Andrew says as we and a few hundred others gasp with each swing. "It's like he could be playing with the Diamondbacks right now or something."

Heck, this supercharged man-boy does look as old as Robby Hammock or Matt Kata. Seriously.

Watching the show, I begin to see the equation for this ground swell of excitement for the greenhorn Diamondbacks. It's the joy of emergence. It's one thing to watch greatness repeat itself, it's another to witness the surprising emergence of greatness.

And all of a sudden, with youth bounding onto the D-Backs, youth with names as obscure as Tim Fowler or Andrew Nelson, the big leagues seem accessible. Tangible. It may be only a few miles from Tempe to Bank One Ballpark, but, until now, that distance had seemed immeasurable.

Probably every single kid out here is all of a sudden seeing Matt Kata in himself. This no-name bunch of big leaguer kids is selling because they make the dream seem more real than it is. God bless them. What fun.

For every retired major leaguer in the Valley, there are 10 guys who entered the minor leagues with a big league dream and left with the reality of big league baseball calculus.

For Tom Thomas, the reality was Kirby Puckett. Thomas got himself on all sorts of minor league all-star teams, but he was never going to replace the Minnesota Twins' star.

When he started in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, Sandy Johnson was a better hitter than one of his rookie classmates, Willie Stargell.

"You just never know how guys will develop or how the chips will fall," Johnson says. "He's a Hall of Famer, I didn't make it. We figure maybe 5 percent of guys coming in are big league players. But you can never pick that 5 percent out of the gate. It's something that just happens."

Reality, reality, reality. Baseball shouldn't have so much reality.

Here's another reality: These Babybacks have never played a full big league season. "They've probably never played in September," Thomas says. Some players show fatigue, some don't.

Some adjust once guys like Thomas have a book on them, some don't.

A few will continue on, most won't.

Those few will hopefully bag a few nice contracts before their body revolts against the abuse.

Then, if they're good guys, they too will coach. And we'll see them out on the Little League fields of Arizona with the rest of us regular guys.

But for now, they are kids like our kids, fighting each day for the World Series as hundreds of Arizona kids try once again to make it to the Little League World Series. Anything feels possible right now.

Especially for the Diamondbacks. As my buddy Tom starts angering me with his doses of reality, I have to toss a little bit of reality back at him.

"Okay, okay, maybe youth isn't all it's cracked up to be," I tell him.

"So a couple of these kids fizzle out. I guess they'll just have to replace them with some grizzled old bastards like Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson."

"All of a sudden, we're feeling pretty loaded up," Sandy Johnson says.

And I'm feeling in love with Arizona baseball again, from the fields of Little League dreams crawling with big league mentors to the singular big league field full of a fun bunch of young punks who don't realize they shouldn't be there.

In what has become this baseball mecca, I just can't wait for the next game with its next emerging star.

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Robert Nelson