The Atlantic: Inside the Arizona Fall League

From Chris Arnold at The Atlantic on November 6, 2012, with mention of SABR member Roland Hemond:

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.

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.”

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Related link: For complete coverage of the 2012 SABR AFL Conference, visit

Originally published: November 7, 2012. Last Updated: November 7, 2012.