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."