Let's call it a statistical aberration.
Last Saturday night, more than 4,500 baseball fans crammed into a small stadium in Surprise, Arizona. Hmm. The World Series is over. The local Diamondbacks have been back with their families for well over a month. Most of the players on the field had unfamiliar names. But if history is any indication, a good many of them will spend at least part of 2010 on Major League teams.
This was the Arizona Fall League's Rising Stars Game.
Few people know about the AFL, now in its 18th year. It was created to serve as a final proving ground for baseball's top prospects. More than 1,700 former fall-leaguers have made it to the bigs. The league boasts 140 eventual Major League All-Stars (including 38 in last year's game alone), a half dozen MVPs and three Cy Young Award winners.
The AFL is, perhaps, Major League Baseball's best kept secret.
Back in 1994, a tiny group of 21 fantasy leaguers met at a small hotel in Mesa to check out this fledgling league. That group was the beginning of an annual conference called First Pitch Arizona that now draws 150 from across the continent to attend these games.
When this group passes through the turnstiles at most games, they effectively double the attendance.
The original AFL business model determined that ticket prices would need to be too expensive for the league to be self-sustaining. Instead, MLB decided to just finance the league themselves; the AFL's value to the player development process justified the expense.
With virtually no marketing budget, the fallout has been ridiculously sparse crowds, even with a ticket price that's less than a Starbucks' latte. And perhaps it was justified in the league's early years. It used to take several seasons for AFL alumni to start appearing in the Majors.
But that is changing.
In 2007, Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria went right from the AFL to the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Last year, AFL MVP Tommy Hanson moved right into the Atlanta rotation and is also a candidate for ROY honors. And Saturday night, the league saw its largest single game crowd ever.
I used to condemn MLB for its short-sightedness towards this treasure they've buried in the desert. How can you not promote something this exciting and genuine?
After 15 years of attending AFL games and scouting future members of our fantasy teams, First Pitch attendees cherish the small crowds. We can watch games from any seat in the house, rub elbows with scouts and hear every off-color comment emanating from the dugouts. We can be the first ones to see an unknown Albert Pujols rocket balls over the left field fence, marvel at the speed of Andrew McCutchen or pass judgment on the limited future of a Drew Henson.
For everyone who condemns fantasy leaguers, it appears that we are the only ones who have been committed to following this league for nearly two decades. We don't travel to Arizona to spout arcane statistics about future stars. The motto of First Pitch Arizona is, "if you don't go home with a foul ball, you just weren't paying attention." Suddenly, we are the purists.
Now I am worried that a crowd of 4,500 might get someone's attention. If MLB looks at game attendance, let's hope last Saturday night's number will be considered a statistical aberration.