Seven levels of Angels: No fanfare at the start
Tempe, Ariz. • In the first inning of a professional baseball game, 5-year-old Brady Wise appears at the top row of Tempe Diablo Stadium and shouts a question to the pitching coach.
"Are you winning, Dad?"
From the third-base coaching box, manager Denny Hocking points to the scoreboard in right field and answers for Matt Wise. "Brady, see that big thing out there?"
And then Hocking turns his attention to the batter. Pro baseball is different at the entry level, where the Los Angeles Angels' prospects have gathered in the heat of the Arizona League.
Reaching the major leagues from here is not inconceivable All-Star Game starter Mike Trout launched his career in Tempe, as did Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick, among others. Yet beyond wearing the Angels' spring training uniforms and playing in the stadium where the big leaguers perform in March, there's nothing glamorous about it.
Just getting to the advanced-rookie level in Orem will be an achievement for some players. "When you're in Tempe, you're at the bottom," said Bobby Scales, the Angels' director of player development. "Basically, your entire season is like spring training."
The gates stand open with no ticket-takers; the concession booths that offer $9 beers during spring training games are shuttered.
The game just starts. There's no national anthem, no announcements of batters, no fanfare of any kind. Having practiced on the complex's adjacent fields, the Angels players carpool to the stadium and walk through the stands, carrying equipment bags. The fielders soon take their positions, the pitcher warms up and, in front of maybe a dozen fans, the first hitter steps to the plate.
It's pure baseball. In a sense, the lack of attendance is surprising, because the odds say that a few future major leaguers play in every Arizona League game. Yet a card collector wants autographs only from Hocking and Royals coach Willie Mays Aikens, each a former Salt Lake Triple-A player, and then he leaves before the first pitch.
The empty seats are evidence that all the promotional effort that goes into minor-league baseball at other levels is vital. Well, it also is 106 degrees down from 115 at game time the previous week.
"They call it the 'Fire League,' and that's accurate," said Salt Lake Bees outfielder Matt Long, who claims to have played on a 123 degree day in Arizona. "Everything after 110 kind of feels the same."
Hocking makes concessions to the heat, using indoor batting cages in extreme conditions. He also maintains a fairly casual atmosphere, with his 9-year-old son, Jarrod, serving as the team's batboy and Wise interacting with his four young children near the dugout.
"I think it creates a fun environment, a loose environment," Hocking said. "I don't want these guys tight, coming to the baseball field, thinking that it's the most important game that they're ever going to play. Hopefully, these are the least important games they play, to where they continue to climb the ladder."
He's continually teaching. While coaching third base, Hocking walks near the dugout and offers instruction. "If you give them six, seven things during the course of the game and they get two of them," he said, "then it's two things they didn't have beforehand. â¦ We're trying to give them bigger baseball IQs."
When baserunner Glen Beltran is thrown out trying to go from first to third, part of the Angels' mantra, Hocking tells him, "Good job."
Some of these players were low-drafted college seniors. Outfielder Natanael Delgado, 17, is a prized signee from the Dominican Republic. Francisco Santana, 20, pitched three seasons for the Angels' Dominican League team before coming to Tempe.
They're all hoping to travel through the system to the major leagues. They want to play in venues such as Chase Field, 9 miles away in downtown Phoenix. That's where, in the heat of July, the beer is cold and the roof is closed.
League • Arizona
Level • Rookie
Home • Tempe Diablo Stadium (9,558)
Average attendance • Not counted
Record • 13-8
Top hitters • OF Quinten Davis (.350), OF Natanael Delgado (.329)
Top pitcher • Francisco Santana (4-0, 2.37)
Utah ties • Angels first-year manager Denny Hocking (Twins affiliation era) and pitching coach Matt Wise (Angels era) played for Salt Lake's Triple-A team.
About the series
The Salt Lake Tribune's Kurt Kragthorpe spent early July on the road taking stock of the teams, players, fans and ballparks of the Los Angeles Angels and their minor league affiliates. His purpose: to ferret out great stories at each stop and, in the bigger scheme, connect the dots between what fans love about baseball especially the minor league version and the players toiling to make it to the bigs.
Friday • Tempe.
Saturday • Salt Lake City.