Young Guns

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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.

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Robert Nelson