First step toward majors taken in Arizona League - East Valley Tribune: Sports

First step toward majors taken in Arizona League

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Posted: Sunday, July 6, 2003 3:10 am | Updated: 2:03 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Anybody who believes the typical pro athlete is an overpaid, under-appreciative boor ought to take in an Arizona League game this summer.

Players get up before 6 a.m. to start a day that includes drills and games played in 100-degree-plus heat.

They are rewarded to the tune of about $100 a week, after they pay for their apartments, which three or four players share.

They come away saying they are grateful for the opportunity.

The Arizona League is entry-level professional baseball.

Many players, who range in age from 17 to 23, were selected in last month's annual draft of amateur players. The foreign-born players — who comprise nearly half the league — were signed as free agents.

Those who succeed here generally will be assigned to Class A ball in a distant locale. Some will return for rookie ball next year.

All have the same goal of reaching the major leagues, while eyeing this prize from drastically different angles.

Take Brandon Wood and Felix Gamboa of the Mesa Angels, the Arizona League team fielded by the reigning World Series champions.

Wood, 18, is the team's highest-profile player, by far. He was the team's first-round draft pick and recently received a $1.3 million signing bonus. The team's new owner even watched him work out recently.

Though the process likely will take years, "We think he's a future big league star," says Brian Harper, the club's manager, whose own big league career spanned 12 years.

By contrast, foreign-born players such as Gamboa can attract signing bonuses that reach hundreds of thousands of dollars but more typically range from $5,000 to $20,000.

What's more, Wood is the team's only local player, having signed out of Horizon High School. So while other players are shuttled back and forth from their apartments in white vans, Wood drives to work himself from his family's Scottsdale home in his new GMC Denali.

Aware of his status, Wood seems conscientious about getting to know all of his teammates. He banters with a Spanish-speaking player and later says, "I'll know a word, or he'll know a word. You try to figure each other out."

Wood says he'd like to take a Spanish class in the offseason.

"You can learn from them," he says of his Spanish-speaking teammates. "But if you can't talk to them, you can't learn."

His teammates seem to like him. Edwin Reyes, a pitcher from the Dominican Republic who knows a limited amount of English, walks up to him before a game, points at him and says, playfully, "Him? Dollars!"

More seriously, Reyes calls Wood "a nice guy.”

“He's disciplined. He works hard."

And he appreciates the opportunity.

Says Wood, "I feel fortunate to wake up at 5:45 in the morning and be able to go play baseball."

Gamboa is a 17-year-old pitcher from Venezuela who already can throw in the 90s. With a 6-foot-5, 170-pound frame, the Angels figure he'll throw even harder as he matures and his body fills out.

"He's young and raw, but he's got all the makings of a major league pitcher," Harper says.

Gamboa feels he's held his own so far. But he acknowledges, through an interpreter, "It's not an easy adjustment. This baseball is so much better than what I've played.

"I'm learning and adapting every day."

Wood feels the same way. Compared to high school, "You're facing an ace (pitcher) every day. It's an adjustment."

LIFE IN ARIZONA LEAGUE

Every sports fan can recite tales of hard-living baseball players that date back a century. But you won't find many here, where violations of the 11 p.m. curfew (midnight preceding off days) are infrequent.

"Kids today are more focused and serious," Harper says.

"They know what's at stake. They need to work hard to get a shot at Double-A or Triple-A baseball."

And if they succeed there, of course, the big leagues. About five to 10 percent of the players on Arizona League rosters can be expected to make the big leagues (more than 160 have done so since the Arizona League started in 1988).

If they make it, they won't be unprepared.

Harper points out that the raging sports story in the Valley the past few weeks has been the “Baby ’Backs.” Those are the young players promoted from the minor leagues by the Diamondbacks who have saved the big league club's season.

Their success shouldn't be viewed as a shock, Harper argues.

Unlike basketball and football, where players can jump directly from college ball to the highest level of play, "In baseball, rookies who come to the big leagues are polished, professional players." That polishing process, which might take five years or more, starts here.

Vans leave the players' apartments near Superstition Springs Mall at 6:30 a.m. and 7 a.m. for the Gene Autry complex, named for the Angels' late owner, near Falcon Field in northeast Mesa.

Players start stretching at 7:45 a.m. Then they start a host of drills and batting practice, all to get ready for games that start at 10:30 a.m. (Later in the summer, games are played at night.)

Breakfast and lunch are provided. For road games, players receive $14 in meal money.

The games are played before a handful of buddies, girlfriends or family members. (They are not advertised or otherwise promoted to avoid competing with the Diamondbacks' fan base.)

After the games are finished, players might take extra work, or they'll hit the weights.

For Spanish-speaking players, their daily obligations aren't necessarily finished. Twice a week, they attend classes that teach them English and about life in America.

Here, they'll learn about how to use such appliances as washing machines and refrigerators. They'll be given tips about how to act in public.

For example, says Harper, letting out a wolf whistle in the direction of young women may be seen as giving a compliment in the Dominican Republic or Venezuela, "But that's taken as harassment here."

After all this, says hitting coach Bobby Magallanes, "If they go out at night, we're not doing our jobs." And that job, says Harper, is to "try to wear ’em out" with activities.

Indeed, Gamboa, asked to name his leisure activity of choice, replies, "Sleep."

Says Reyes, also speaking through an interpreter, "We don't go out. We stay home and watch TV."

Gamboa says he and his roommates chip in and purchase food such as pasta, rice, beans, chicken, bread and milk, then do their own cooking and cleaning.

Reyes, one of his roommates, offers a correction: "He doesn't cook anything. I cook everything."

If Gamboa wants to live it up, he might take a dip in the apartment complex's jacuzzi. Or if he really gets a wild hair, he'll find a ride to the mall (he doesn't have license to drive in the States) with his baseball buddies.

"We'll look around, and if we have money and we see something we like, we'll buy it." Gamboa says.

Just how seriously these players take their responsibilities was demonstrated in a game last week between the Angels and the Athletics.

An A's outfielder from the Dominican Republic named Javier Herrera crashed hard into the center-field fence while chasing a fly ball. He hurt his back and temporarily lost feeling in his legs.

A helicopter was summoned; it landed on the field and flew the player to a Phoenix hospital. In the end, his injuries were not as serious as originally feared.

With all this going on, the game stretched three-and-a-half hours.

Temperatures inched toward 110 degrees.

Under these conditions, even the gung-ho warriors of the Arizona League had their limits; they had a pronounced reluctance to slide, even when the situation demanded it, on the steamy brown infield dirt.

Wood had a tough day at the plate as the A's won the game handily, 12-2.

The next day, Wood took his usual spot at shortstop and hit in his familiar No. 2 spot in the order. Gamboa wasn't slated to pitch, so he was assigned to shag foul balls.

Early in the game, Wood launched a towering shot that sailed over the left fielder's head toward the fence. In a park where you usually have to hit the ball more than 400 feet for a home run, this monstrous hit was merely a double.

"A homer any place but here," Harper muttered.

Wood then appeared to be picked off second. But he ran so quickly to third that — after a slightly high throw by the pitcher — he was able to slide under the tag.

Wood demonstrated his baseball savvy when the Angels took the field.

The opposing team, an affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, loaded the bases with one out. The batter lined a one-hop single to left.

The runner on third scored, while the runner on second rounded third and saw the base coach flashing the stop sign, while the third baseman cut off the throw to the plate near the bag.

Meanwhile, Wood snuck behind the runner to the third-base bag. The third baseman recognized the opportunity and flipped the ball about 10 feet to Wood.

The surprised runner dived back toward the bag, but it was too late. Wood tagged him out.

"Big league play!" someone in the dugout shouted.

Indeed, this was a play Wood's team would need. It prevented a big inning; at least it saved a run or two.

Later, in the ninth inning, Wood doubled again, bringing in the tying run and setting up a game-winning single as the Angels scored three runs to pull out a 7-6 win.

It's all in a day's work in the starting blocks of the slow lane to glory.

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