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DNVR Exclusive: AFL East wins Fall Star Game in pinnacle event of the offseason

Patrick Lyons Avatar
November 14, 2021

If you’ve never attended the Arizona Fall League, you’re in good company.

What you’d be missing is the next generation of ballplayers, putting forth an additional five weeks of work to be ready for their major league debuts next season.

It was true of AFL start Pete Alonso in 2018 before slugging a rookie-record 53 home runs the next season en route to winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award. Cody Bellinger broke the NL-record for homers (39) by a rookie two years earlier after going yard in the Fall Stars Game. Countless others have used their time in the desert as a platform for making an impact on the big league level.

Saturday night’s contest at Salt River Fields was powered by home runs by JJ Bleday of the Miami Marlins (4th over pick in 2019 MLB Draft) and Hunter Bishop of the San Francisco Giants (10th overall pick in 2019) in the East’s 6-5 win over the West.

Featuring top 100 prospects such as the Toronto Blue Jays’ Gabriel Moreno, Tristan Casas of the Boston Red Sox and several others that will star in ballparks next year, the Fall Stars Game is second to only the Futures Game during the All-Star Weekend. 

The Rockies two position players – Ryan Vilade and Michael Toglia – got in on the action late in their home stadium. Though final of the team’s stars (Reagan Todd) had the night off, another Colorado product did factor. R.J. Dabovich of Pueblo West High School tossed a scoreless eighth-inning to earn a save in the East’s victory.

Hardcore At The Heart

Of the 99% of baseball fans hibernating for the winter and awaiting to emerge from a break occupied by college athletics and the three other major sports, there is but a small few who enjoy the final taste of professional baseball games played in the country until Spring Training exhibitions help usher in the following season.

Susan, an enthusiastic fan with season tickets to the AFL, is part of that minority.

She’s one of the few hundred who makes the trek to the far reaches of the league in the western valley like Glendale or Surprise in order to support the players of the Salt River Rafters, a team comprised of players from the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets.

“It’s fun to sit in the stands and have a beverage and enjoy the green grass and blue sky,” she said wistfully during a 12:35pm game in Scottsdale on a Wednesday. “The thing that’s nice about it is you know you can sit where you want and sit close or in the shade. And because of what it is, I don’t think it will ever be packed on it on a daily basis.”

Even in the leagues’ crown jewel event could only garner 3,575 on a Saturday night when the first pitch temperature was a cozy 84 degrees.

The AFL is not about superstars. At least not yet. It’s about the young men destined to become superstars. Bruce Banner. Dick Grayson. Peter Parker. Those types.

If that’s not intriguing to you, go back through any scorecard you kept over the years or dig through that drawer of mementos for a ticket stub and view the box score from that game. You may uncover something you didn’t even realize you witnessed. Like someone’s first base hit as a Major Leaguer. Or the final game of a random player who once gave you an autograph as a child.

What you see at the Arizona Fall League is the future of MLB. 

Nov 13, 2021; Salt River Pima-Maricopa, AZ, USA; The East team gathers in the third base dugout ahead of the 2021 Fall Star Game at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Lyons – DNVR Sports

The International Flair

A cursory glance at the rosters in the AFL show players from the typical locales. Florida, California and Texas make up a good portion. Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela are also represented somewhat commonly. The players between these countries make up over 90% of players on MLB rosters entering the 2021 season, according to Baseball America.

Of course, the AFL has its special group of players, all of whom were front-and-center at the Fall Stars Game. 

Curtis Mead, 21, of the Tampa Bay Rays hails from Australia; he played all nine innings as the designated hitter and drove home two runs. Brendan Donovan of the St. Louis Cardinals was born in Germany despite being raised in Alabama; a base on balls was all he could muster in a solitary plate appearance. And Ji-hwan Bae of the Pittsburgh Pirates is a product of South Korea; he singled and immediately stole second base. 

“I was excited because I was chosen among the best players,” Bae said through the use of an interpreter. 

Sporting a pearl necklace like that of Joc Pederson, Bae discussed the challenges of playing with the clock this season in the AFL. “I do feel a little bit rushed,” he admitted. “Especially when I run in from the outfield sometimes and if I’m leading off. That doesn’t give me a lot of time to get prepared. So that’s another factor in feeling rushed.”

Besides highlighting the stars of tomorrow, the league is also innovative. It was the first place instant replay made an appearance back in 2013. Same will be true with the AFL’s use of the ABS: the automated ball-strike system.

It is what’s coming, for better or worse.

“It’s one those moments where all your hard work paid off to get to the place where you’ve been dreaming about your whole life,” Vilade said of the honor to participate in another showcase game. “So it was very special for me and my family and everyone who helped me get here.”

For fans like Susan, the efforts of the players and the passion held for the AFL is most akin to a summer fling. A very, very late-summer fling.

“If it comes to me, I will absolutely pay attention to it,” she said of news next season about players for which she ardently rooted for over a month. “Will I go and seek it out? Probably not, not for lack of interest, but just because I have plenty of stuff to do.” 

For now, for at least the next week before Saturday’s AFL Championship Game, also held at Salt River Fields, there’s still one more game of our national pastime before the gates close and we wait for the four words that bring a smile to our collective faces.

Pitchers and catchers report. 

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