In Summer 2007, I drove from San Diego to Cooperstown for Tony Gwynn’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. This is Part 6 of a nine-part series covering the first day of my journey.
Welcome to the Arizona League: home of stealth baseball.
The league represents the absolute lowest level of affiliated baseball. Most of these kids had been playing high school ball just a few months earlier. It’s hard to imagine a more low-key environment than this. There are two teams worth of players and coaches, a smattering of scouts, and a girlfriend or two (hopefully attached to different players, although that also could be interesting).
Temporary aluminum bleachers rest underneath a canopy directly behind home plate. Maybe 100 people could squeeze in here if they were motivated.
There are no public address announcers, no concession stands, no mascots. A port-a-potty is stationed just outside the fence along the first-base side. Everyone uses it — players, coaches, umpires, scouts, fans, maintenance guys who ride around in a golf cart. There is no fourth wall here, no distinction between performers and observers.
I planted myself low on the bleachers, and before long, players from both sides had surrounded me. Some operate the scoreboard using a device that plugs into an outlet in full view of everyone. Some spit sunflower seeds. Some speak English, some Spanish. Some attempt to communicate with each other in languages they haven’t mastered, which usually ends in laughter. Everyone listens when the pitching coach steps out of the dugout between innings, opens a metal gate, and addresses them in the bleachers before returning to his rightful place.
Two umpires work the game — one behind the plate, one in the field. Kansas City’s second-round pick, right-hander Sam Runion, is on the mound for the home team. I first saw Runion, out of Asheville, N.C., pitch in the Aflac All-American Classic at Tony Gwynn Stadium in 2006. That afternoon I had chatted with his mother, who was nervous for him but very friendly. I’ve made it a point to follow Runion’s progress since.
As was the case the first time I saw Runion pitch, he struggled. He needed 24 pitches to negotiate the first inning, allowing three runs in the process. (The scoreboard operator, a teammate, originally gave the A’s credit for four but eventually got it right.) Runion settled down to work a quick second inning, but I made a mental note to myself to keep tabs on him from afar and not watch him in person, lest I jinx him further — it’s not just the players that are superstitious, you see.
Part of what makes the Arizona League such a unique environment is that you’ll hear and see details that are almost impossible to pick up elsewhere. At one point, for example, a batter for the A’s approached home plate without his helmet. Just as he reached the batter’s box, he realized his mistake and bolted back toward the dugout, where he was greeted by several unsympathetic teammates.
After the player put on his helmet, he returned to the plate and apologized to the umpire for delaying the game. The umpire had a clearer grasp of the situation:
“Hey, it’s not a problem for me.”