It is always unkind to gloat.
Sometimes, even a heartfelt expression of sympathy can seem more like rubbing it in.
I don’t mean this to be so. But the fact is, I feel sorry for our brothers and sisters in the rest of America, whose only option is to watch the World Series, while those of us who live in Arizona have the opportunity to see and to hear, up close, and to breath in, literally, authentic baseball.
It is called the Arizona Fall League.
Each year’s young prospects from Major League Baseball are sent to Arizona, divided into teams and, for roughly six weeks, play out a fantasy “season.” Much is on the line for the players, of course, and for their families. So the games are played with passion and intensity.
But the outcomes, in the long run anyway, are meaningless.
Which means that for fans like us this is baseball for baseball’s sake, played out on the finest spring training facilities during a beautiful time of the year before crowds small enough to make the facilities seem more like churches than ballparks.
Little League baseball all grown up
Fans sitting next to one another speak quietly, sometimes even in whispers, so as not to be heard by the players or umpires.
There is no military flyover prior to a fall-ball game, no celebrity in attendance to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, no pop diva available to sing the national anthem.
It’s the kind of baseball that, in another era, a person might have stumbled upon when passing a city park.
Admission is cheap and seating is open.
Fall ball is Little League baseball all grown up: fast and powerful, but uncomplicated, the way it’s supposed to be.
During an Arizona Fall League game you can hear the slight tick made when a batter fouls a pitch straight back, and then watch as a tiny plume of dust explodes from the netting behind home plate when the ball strikes it.
You can almost feel the swoosh made by a player sliding into second, and hear the slight ripping sound of spikes striking a base.
It’s not ‘Field of Dreams.’ It’s better
You’ll note the grunt of a catcher trying to throw out a runner.
There is no walk-up music as batters approach the plate, although their names and affiliations are announced.
There is no mad scramble for foul balls. During the most recent game I attended, at Camelback Ranch in Glendale, two boys of about 10 or 11 were the only spectators along the left field line. They took their time, and took turns, retrieving the few balls hit there.
I wouldn’t call fall-ball games a “Field of Dreams.” They’re better than that. And the best part might happen before the first pitch.
Most stadiums open about an hour before a game starts. If you get there around that time, and are lucky, the ground crew will still be at work, perhaps even hosing down the sand, silt and clay that make up a well-tended infield.
You’ll be able to walk down to the railing in front of the first row, and stop, and close your eyes, and breath in the aroma of dank earth and wet grass, and know that if anyone ever asked you what that smelled like you’d say, “Baseball.”
Reach Montini at email@example.com.
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