MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Fall League established as industry powerhouse

Once a humble circuit, league now key to player development

Fall League established as industry powerhouse

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The final professional baseball game of the year in the United States is the Arizona Fall League Championship Game, falling each year on the Saturday prior to Thanksgiving.

It is a hidden jewel in the desert played at Scottsdale Stadium -- the most iconic of spring ballparks in the Cactus League -- for the 10th year in a row. And under another glistening, clear blue sky, the Scottsdale Scorpions defeated the Surprise Saguaros, 6-4, to decide this year's title.

Game time temperature: 81 degrees. Just perfect.

Engel wins AFL MVP, batting title

"When I came here for the first time in 1993 this was the first spring ballpark I saw," said Steve Cobb, the longtime director of the league, on the field before the game. "I fell in love with it. I have a special place in my heart for Scottsdale Stadium. I think it reflects baseball the way it should be played."

It might be said that Scottsdale Stadium and the AFL have grown up together. Both had their roots in 1992 when the Cactus League was a just a sleepy little circuit. The Fall League was a gleam in the eye of Roland Hemond, the ageless baseball executive who sold the owners on the concept of having a U.S.-based alternative to Latin-American winter ball.

Top defense in AFL Championship

The ballpark, spring home to the San Francisco Giants, was opened March 12, 1992, as a replacement for the rickety, old wooden edifice that had its own birth 60 years ago this weekend. It's just a stroll from the shops and restaurants of Old Town Scottsdale and set right in the middle of the neighborhood flanked by a library on one side and homes to another. Osborn Road runs along the first-base side.

It was the first of its kind and as the Cactus League grew to 15 Major League teams, every architect copied elements of Scottsdale Stadium and did much better.

This championship game could easily be played at Talking Stick in North Scottsdale or Sloan Park in Mesa. Both are much newer, and are fabulous facilities. But there's a sweetness to playing the game here that marks the evolution of the Fall League's humble beginnings to the powerhouse it is today.

"There's tradition to it," Cobb said. "The league played here in 1992, our first year. Dusty Baker managed the Scorpions. So there it is. There's a lot of history. I would never say never about going someplace else, but we're very, very happy here."

Cobb, once an executive in the Cincinnati Reds organization, replaced Mike Port as director in 1993 and has remained in the job ever since. He has seen the AFL evolve from a place where baseball teams were reluctant to send their top prospects to one where they wouldn't think about doing anything else.

The AFL opens in mid-October and is a showcase for fans, scouts and baseball executives, featuring the best and brightest seven prospects from each of the 30 big league teams.

Rays discuss AFL

"It's continuing to evolve," Cobb said. "But I do think it's found its way to being embraced by the industry -- particularly after the World Series is over -- that this is where baseball's being played. Right here in Arizona."

The numbers certainly substantiate that claim. This year's two league MVPs -- Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson -- both had their time in the league as well as just about every one of the other award winners. Over 2,500 Major Leaguers have played in the Fall League, which also has an impressive hall of fame. If that's not the mark of incredible success, nothing is.

"We proved that we could work cooperatively, that was the first thing," Cobb said. "And then over time to have the number of players we've had in the Major Leagues, that only happens because, in fact, the organizations send their best prospects. You could have this league and not have those numbers. But baseball executives have embraced it.

"Now it's become an integral part of the player-development process. The better players come here. So 24 seasons later, we have something that has become an event in the industry, particularly our championship game. We think we're on the right track."

It wasn't too long ago that the AFL had a mini best-of-three-game tourney to decide the championship. That was scrapped in 2001 for the current format, which has become such a success the game each year is highlighted by live video coverage on MLB Network, with blanket content from MLB.com.

It also wasn't too long ago, Cobb said, that the winning team in the championship game was awarded with a jacket rather than a ring.

"And I didn't have the guts to present them," Cobb said.

Now the rings are the thing.

"We present them during Spring Training," Cobb said. "That not only gives us a chance to award the winning team, but to educate the Minor League players from each organization. They learn about the Fall League and maybe that gives them the inclination to aspire to make it on these fields."

Make it, many of them do, launching careers in a league where Michael Jordan once played. The AFL is the gem of the desert and perhaps its championship game not such a hidden gem any longer.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.