Young Guns

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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