By: Chuck Johnson
With his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 6th, Mike Piazza became the first alumnus of the Arizona Fall League to receive membership in the sport’s most exclusive club.
Long regarded now as the ultimate proving ground for baseball’s top prospects, the Fall League began play in 1992 as a cost effective alternative to sending players to the Caribbean or South America. Piazza, who had begun his major league career during the season with the Dodgers, was assigned to the Sun City Solar Sox where his teammates included future major leaguers Rico Brogna and Jeromy Burnitz.
The Sox played in Sun City through the 1998 season before moving to Mesa, first at HoHoKam Stadium and for the past two seasons at the brand new Sloan Park. Sun City Stadium was unique in a number of ways, the most unusual having a drive up concourse where the neighboring Senior Community residents could drive their golf carts right up to the railing and watch the game. The Spring Training home of the Milwaukee Brewers from 1973-1985, the Stadium, located just north of Grand Avenue off 111th Avenue, is now the location of the Fountains Townhome Community. Part of the community was built onto the playing field, if you drive by today you can still see the field and outfield fence outlines.
Managed by former major leaguer Jerry Royster, the Solar Sox won the Northern Division title and would face the favored Phoenix Saguaros in the best of three championship series. Phoenix won the first game 8-1, and after two days off due to rain the teams would play a doubleheader (if necessary) at Phoenix Muni to decide the title. The Solar Sox won Game Two 2-0 forcing the deciding second game.
Phoenix jumped out to a 2-0 lead before Piazza hammered a game tying two run homer 430 feet to dead center. Each team would take the lead before Sun City scored two runs in the top of the eighth inning to win the title, earning Piazza and his teammates the first ever AFL Championship.
Piazza, who saw time in right field and first base in addition to his regular catching duties, hit .291 with three homers and 23 runs batted in during the season with the Solar Sox.
Piazza also began a tradition of Arizona Fall League alumni winning Major League Rookie of the Year honors, taking the National League Award in 1993 on the heels of a .318.35/112 season.
Piazza was part of the initial AFL Hall of Fame class in 2001 and was later chosen as the catcher on the 20th anniversary All-Time Team in 2012.
Piazza will soon be joined in Cooperstown by fellow Fall League alumni Derek Jeter and Albert Pujols, but there can only be one first one.