So many wonderful aspects of the Arizona Fall League help make the two-month competition among the best and most cherished developmental experiences in professional baseball. Players, coaches and umpires not only hone their skills, they engage in true and sincere relationship-building.
I was fortunate to witness one of the unique traditions of the AFL during a pregame ceremony at Salt River Fields on Wednesday.
The league and its front-office personnel go out of their way to celebrate the championship team. During Spring Training every year, Steve Cobb, the passionate and deeply committed director of the AFL, places a priority on making absolutely certain the champions are well recognized and appreciated. Cobb's love for the league and his enthusiasm for everyone associated with the experience are contagious. The vibe is evident. And very, very positive.
Administrative personnel such as Cobb and the skillful Paul Jensen, who directs AFL communications, have helped create an environment in which winning a championship has tremendous meaning. Meaning beyond the ring and the accolades. The league helps prospects learn to play with an array of teammates from different clubs and blend together as a new, cohesive unit in a short period of time. It's a great learning experience.
Every spring Cobb travels to Florida and Arizona training camps to present championship rings to the winning team's players and coaches.
The most recent celebration honored the members of the Rockies who played on the 2014 Salt River Rafters club, which beat the Peoria Javelinas in November, 14-7, behind a 13-hit attack. The team included players from the Rockies, D-backs, Marlins, Twins and Astros.
As Cobb pointed out in his remarks before the ring ceremony, the result of the championship game should not have been a surprise, as the Rafters led the league with the lowest team ERA and the highest team batting average.
"Playing against such top talent allowed me to take my game to the next level," said Story, who was most impressed that the "guys in the AFL were pitchers and not throwers." He classified the league as "huge" for his personal development.
Casteel said he "had a blast" and that winning the championship was "special." When asked which pitcher gave him trouble, he said Tyrell Jenkins "gave me fits" because every pitch was moving and because he had a "wipeout" slider. (Jenkins now pitches for the Braves, but during the AFL he was a member of the Cardinals organization.)
The AFL has produced 25 Rookies of the Year in its 23-year existence. Nearly 2,400 AFL players have gone on to play in the Majors, with 222 of them making at least one All-Star team.
For young players deemed to be high-quality prospects capable of benefiting from playing under the warm Arizona sun in October and November, the experience of being surrounded by skilled and patient coaches can be a career-changing adventure. Players are guided by the principles of the league under the sound direction of Cobb and his very able staff and their predecessors.
The AFL sets a high standard when it comes to teaching fundamental baseball as well as promoting personal development, camaraderie and team-building for its players, coaches, umpires and front-office personnel.
The smiles on the faces of the Rockies who received championship rings attest to the value of facing great competition in the beautiful fall environment of the Arizona desert.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.