The Arizona Fall League, the most prestigious development league in all of sports, celebrates its 25th Anniversary season in 2016, with the Bowman Hitting Challenge kicking things off on Saturday, October 8th. Regular season play commences on October 11th with day games in Phoenix and Surprise and a night game at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
The brainchild of long-time MLB Executive Roland Hemond, the league, began play in 1992 after several years of salesmanship to his peers around baseball. Hemond’s main selling points were a “finishing school” of sorts where top prospects could play a six-week season in a centralized geographical area. A resident of Phoenix, Hemond knew the field locations were reasonably close where scouts, managers, and front office personnel could easily navigate to see their players.
Other benefits Hemond eventually sold to the other general managers and team owners were avoiding the high cost of securing limited roster spots in foreign Winter Leagues in places such as Venezuela. Additional factors he presented was the AFL would save the cost of travel and insurance in getting players in and out of the U.S. and the lack of control over things like nutrition and security.
Given the go-ahead for the AFL at the Winter Meetings in Miami in 1991, Hemond quickly put together a leadership team headed by former California Angels General Manager Mike Port who was named President. League play began in October 1992 with five franchises in the Phoenix metro area and one in Tucson.
All six franchises now operate within the Phoenix area with games being played at Major League Spring Training facilities. The current set-up has three making up the East Division with two in Scottsdale (Scottsdale Stadium and Salt River Fields) and one playing at the brand new Sloan Park in Mesa, home of the Chicago Cubs. The West Division has their three teams playing in Surprise, Glendale, and Peoria.
One of the primary reasons for the League being in Arizona as opposed to Florida is the driving distance between field locations. While it’s pretty common in Florida to drive two or more hours to reach your destination, the longest drive in the AFL is the 41 miles between Surprise and Mesa. With most of the games beginning at 12:35 pm local time and a few night games scattered around the schedule, it’s easy to see two games in the same day on opposite sides of the Valley.
Can’t do that in Florida.
The League still operates today with six teams and has five MLB franchises supplying seven players each to make up the 35 man rosters. The League also continues to play a six-week schedule with Opening Day usually falling on the first or second Tuesday in October and concludes with a winner take all Championship Game the Saturday before Thanksgiving.
The League isn’t just for the development of players; while just over sixty percent of players have reached the major leagues the AFL serves as a proving ground for front office personnel, umpires and even medical and training staff.
As if the League needed any further justification for its existence, this past July Mike Piazza became the first Fall League alum to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Piazza will have company over the next few years as Derek Jeter, and Albert Pujols will continue to add to what is now a permanent legacy.
Since 1993, when Piazza was named National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers, the AFL has continued on a yearly basis to produce Award Winners and All-Stars. Among the notable players who cut their teeth in the AFL are Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko, Dustin Pedroia, Mark Teixeira and Andrew McCutchen. Dusty Baker, Mike Scioscia, and Terry Francona began their managerial careers in the Desert as well.
For those of us fortunate to live here, the AFL is a highlight of the year. For those who don’t, both the MLB Network and mlb.com televise selected games throughout the season, including the Rising Stars and Championship Games.