Why is baseball the only major sport to rely on a sprawling farm system?
Tonight at Salt River Fields, the stadium is so quiet you can hear the whiff of the bat missing a curveball. Rows of pro baseball scouts sit behind home plate, radar guns trained on the mound. They note the velocity, spin, and shape of the pitch. When the hitter connects with a fastball, they click stopwatches, timing his dash to first base. A couple hundred fans cheer from the vacant grandstands, a pack of kids prepare to chase the next foul ball, and scouts scribble notes on their clipboards, pausing to spit tobacco into plastic bottles.
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Here in the Arizona Fall League, far from the flashbulbs of the World Series, the future stars of Major League Baseball are trying to make the final leap to the big show. For 20 years, the AFL has served as an off-season "graduate school" for top prospects. In some ways, it feels like the culmination of an antiquated system: While football and basketball have relatively straightforward paths to the pros—paths that lead through the NCAA—baseball stands apart with its scaffolded leagues of minor-league farm teams. But spend some time with the players and scouts at the AFL, and you start to get a sense for how that grueling, long-odds system is uniquely suited for this grueling, long-odds sport.
"You have to pay a price to learn the game," says Roland Hemond, a three-time MLB "Executive of the Year" credited as the architect of the Arizona Fall League. A trim, white-haired 82-year-old, Hemond has been around baseball long enough to tell stories about the Milwaukee Braves and the early days of video. Folks at the park treat him like a national treasure. We sit on the third base line, watching the Surprise Saguaros, a blended squad of Cardinals, Mets, Rangers, Red Sox, and Royals prospects, play the Salt River Rafters, a team of Blue Jays, Diamond Backs, Nationals, Rockies, and White Sox up and comers. Peering at the field through glasses, Hemond is fond of elbowing you in the ribs to make sure you see when a player does well. "It's a badge of honor to be selected for this league," he says. "It's a vote of confidence from their club."
At the end of the regular season, every Major League organization sends seven top prospects to compete on one of six AFL squads. For a month and a half they wear their future Major League uniforms, roving the greater Phoenix area by bus, playing six days a week in the same stadiums where clubs hold their annual Cactus League spring training games. The goal is to give these players the extra at bats and innings pitched they need to refine specific aspects of their game—opposite field hitting, a pivot at second base, an off-speed pitch—and master the tools they need to succeed in the pros, often as soon as next April. In baseball, those extra chances to hone skills can make the difference between a call-up to the Major Leagues, and another year on the bus.
"You have to play the game on a regular basis to conquer it," Hemond says. "They don't play enough games in college." Unlike NCAA football, which can reasonably simulate the punishment of an NFL season, The NCAA's 14-week long baseball season is but a shadow of the seven-month Major League grind. Cold climates in northern schools also make it harder for those players to get regular competition and scouting attention, which is why top baseball programs tend to be concentrated in warmer climates like California, Texas and Florida. The use of aluminum bats in college ball gives players a boost in power, and even the best college players can need years of development afterward to adjust their game. And so while dozens of college baseball players are drafted each year, it's not unusual for them to spend five years of obscurity in the farm system, which is part of the reason why many elite high-school players sign contracts right after graduation to get a jumpstart on the long road to the majors.
Unlike the meteoric rise of some football and basketball stars, baseball prospects face a long and unglamorous climb. That's because baseball is a game of failure. Get a hit three out of every 10 times, and you're a star. Two out of 10, and you could still cut it in the pros. But getting those hits, or keeping batters from hitting your pitches, becomes harder as you rise through the farm system. Batters see more aggressive pitching and fielders with greater range who can rob what might have been a hit in the lower levels. Pitchers face stronger batters, the looming risk of injury, and arm surgeries that can set them back for months if not years. A player with fantastic stats in low-level ball might have to adjust his entire approach at the next level. "I sometimes think statistics can belie a player's ability," Hemond says. "Sometimes players are feasting on mediocrity." That's why the Arizona Fall League can be a breakthrough experience for so many prospects, giving them a chance to test their skills against some of the best talent across the farm system.
Unlike the meteoric rise of some football and basketball stars, baseball prospects face a long and unglamorous climb. That's because baseball is a game of failure.
Many of these players have been on the road since early February, away from family and friends, wives and children, and in some cases, living thousands of miles from their home country. This year, the AFL rosters list players from 11 countries, including Australia, Brazil, Taiwan and South Africa, as well as traditional baseball hot spots like Cuba, Venezuela, and Dominican Republic, where all 30 MLB teams now run development operations. For many international players, farm league baseball is as much about learning how to succeed off the field, mastering a new language and a new culture.