April 2006

Oh Captains, my Captains

Jonathan here. I spent the day in Eastlake, Ohio on Wednesday and wanted to let everyone know about my experience.

Captain First off, you’re not going to find a better park in the South Atlantic League than the Lake County Captains’ Classic Park (I haven’t been to West Virginia yet, so I suppose I should reserve judgement, but that’s the beauty of blogs, no?). Built in 2003, I hope the players — many of whom are just starting out in pro ball — realize how good they’ve got it by calling that brand-spanking new facility home. There isn’t a bad seat in the house, it can seat over 7,000 (large for the SAL) and they’ve got the usual assortment of entertainment for the kids, etc. It will be the site for the 2006 SAL All-Star Game in June.

One of the things I like is that they don’t overdo it there. The temptation is to load up so much on the between-innings promotions and games/rides that the actual game of baseball or the beauty of the park becomes almost secondary. This is a new park, but there is a retro feel to it. As much I like Dayton’s ballpark, it’s almost too modern for a Midwest League park, what with the outfield fence-video board thing. Classic Park in Eastlake looks new, but there’s an homage to the old-style Sally parks, in my opinion.

They’ve got two mascots for the Captains these days. One is a green, fuzzy dude named "Skipper." He’s a relative of the Indians’ Slider, a nondescript monster that has noting to do with the team logo. Still, they’ll be able to market him to kids and I’m sure eventually, they’ll have a Mrs. Skipper and the wedding will be a huge promotion. This year, they’ve also added a 9-foot inflatable Captain (they have this whole nautical thing going because of the proximity to the South Atlantic….ok, maybe not. But it is less than a mile from Lake Erie).

The level of play is, well, first year pro ball style. Some greatness, some sloppiness. Remember, guys at this level are just learning how to play the game. The Captains don’t have any super prospects, though I will be writing about their second baseman, Matt Fornasiere, who won’t wow anyone with tools, but just goes out and gets the job done.

On the other side, the Lexington Legends were in town. I was a little disappointed that Brian Bogusevic didn’t pitch and even more so that Eli Iorg (Garth’s son) wasn’t in the lineup. But I did get a good look at Koby Clemens, Roger’s kid. Obviously self-assured, he is devoid of any kind of entitlement attitude. He knows he needs to earn his way up the ladder and that it won’t be given to him because of his last name. It was refreshing to see that. As for his play, he looked like a teenager just getting started in a lot of ways, but he looked like a seasoned vet when he went the other way for an RBI single during the Legends’ victory.

All in all, a very productive trip (helped greatly by the Captains’ staff, one of the friendliest and most helpful I’ve seen), and keep an eye out for an "Around the Minors" video show based on the visit on MiLB.com soon.

Why I Love To Blog

Hi everyone … Lisa here …
I think it?s safe to say I was born to blog.

For whatever reason, wherever I go, whatever I do, I always seem to have an internal running commentary on it. All too often, though, I let that stream of consciousness flow out of my mouth for lack of an alternate receptacle.

As a result, as you might guess, there are people who think I am a blaaaaaaaabbermouth.

But blogging is awesome because it gives me an opportunity to write about the things I see, hear, think. And if you think it?s interesting, great! And if you don?t, you can go on to the next blog without being forced to listen to me with your eyes glazing over.

Unless you?re my daughter, in which case you?re stuck, because you?re probably in the passenger seat while I?m driving and blabbing.

So one of the many perks of my amazing new job is that I not only get to blog, it is one of my job requirements! (Please don?t tell my bosses that I would pay THEM to get to blog. Thanks.).

Last week I hit the Frederick Keys game against the Salem Avalanche on Monday night (and, sadly, missed their game the following Wednesday afternoon, when Radhames Liz combined with three other Keys pitchers for a no-hitter. You can read me whine about that in my Baseball Perspectives column).

I actually remember when Harry Grove Stadium in Frederick was built (don?t I sound ancient when I say that?). I covered the Prince William Cannons (now the Potomac Nationals) in the Carolina League for a little over three years, and that first year, 1989, they were just building Grove and the Keys, in their first season, played their home games at McCurdy Field, an American Legion stadium.

Grove was among the first of the new minor league stadiums that went new and modern but with a sort of old-fashioned feel. They also added a carousel in right field (which their sister stadium, Prince George?s, in Bowie also has), which made it a little more palatable for my daughter when I dragged her along to work with me.

In fact, those two stadiums, with shared ownership and a shared parent affiliate in the Baltimore Orioles, have a lot in common.

Including, apparently, an obsession with dental hygiene.

One of the ?featured characters? at Bowie is Mr. Bristles, a big walking toothbrush that roams the stands. Frederick, meanwhile, has a character that is either Mr. Molar or Ms. Molar (there was a press box debate on this subject since it goes by the name of Mr. Molar but has eye makeup and long eye lashes), an oversized tooth.

Apparently the two teams? front office staffs are planning a softball game at some point this season. I can only hope that they will feature some sort of showdown between the two characters, perhaps during the seventh inning stretch (or is it a fifth-inning stretch during a softball game?), maybe a race around the bases or, better yet, a bubble-blowing contest!

You can?t make this stuff up, folks.

Another local stadium that holds a lot of memories for me is Hagerstown. Built in 1931, it is technically the oldest park in the league and it looks it. Not that it is without its charm. Far from it. But it definitely has that feel of an American Legion field rather than a big-money professional stadium. The press box is tiny and wooden and looks like it would sway in a hard wind and have a maximum capacity of about six people.

There has long been talk of getting a new ballpark there and I hope it works out, because the Suns club deserves it. They always have had creative promotions, knowledgeable and enthusiastic fans and great ballpark food.

In fact, the first time I went there was back in 1990 when they were a Double-A affiliate of the Orioles in the Eastern League. I was pregnant that summer which means it was the one time in my life where I could eat whatever I want with no guilt (I am a member of the Our Lady of Perpetual Diet faith). The Suns had an outdoor griddle where they made fresh funnel cakes. I ate two. It may have been the highlight of my pregnancy, apart of course from that whole birth thing.

Plus, there are few areas more beautiful than that region of Maryland surrounding Hagerstown, mountainous and green. Oh, and did I mention a terrific outlet mall one exit up the highway?

(By the way, just in case you were wondering, this blog-love works both ways. I LOVE to read other people?s blogs. I have a whole folder bookmarked with blogs of people I?ve never met — and a few I have — that I read regularly, some baseball, some pop culture, some by local Washington, D.C.-area bloggers, particularly those that write about the local music scene.)

Bad day for Dopirak

Cubs first base prospect Brian Dopirak managed to get screwed twice in Chicago on Tuesday, literally and figuratively.

Dopirak1The first screw went into his foot. Dopirak broke it on Opening Day with Double-A West Tennessee in a season many felt was pivotal for him. Back in 2004, the slugging first baseman had a monster year, hitting 39 homers, driving in 120 runs and hitting .307 en route to the Midwest League MVP award. Last year, though, was an unmitigated disaster. Dopirak hit just .235 with 16 homers and 76 RBIs. How he bounced back from that, many thought, would go a long way in showing what kind of future Dopirak has. Now we’ll have to wait to try to answer that question. With the screw inserted in his foot, the 22-year-old faces 4-6 weeks of recovery time, assuming everything goes well. He’s been a slow starter in the past (in 2004, he obviously bounced back; in 2005, not so much). Now, if he struggles early, it’ll be late May and he won’t have that much time to right himself. Hopefully, he won’t press like he did a year ago.

Not that it matters now, as far as his Cubs future is concerned. That’s where the second "screw" comes into play, courtesy of the Cubs organization. You have to wonder if Dopirak was in the middle of his medical procedure when Chicago announced they had signed Derrek Lee to an extension through 2010. The deal has a no-trade clause in it and Lee will be 35 by the time the last year of the contract comes up. Listen, I can’t say I blame the Cubs, not after the year Lee had last year and the start he’s off to now. D-Lee is a tremendous player, an upstanding citizen and a bona fide leader. But this isn’t about him.

This is about Dopirak and the fact he clearly doesn’t figure into the Cubs’ plans anymore. And it’s not because of this injury. The Cubs have claimed in the past that they are still high on Dopirak, that they were actually pleased with how he dealt mentally with the adversity he faced on the field last year. Some think he’s got the most power potential in the organization. But it’s obvious now that he won’t get a chance to show it in Wrigley Field unless he’s visiting with another team.

I don’t know if Brian Dopirak is the guy from 2004 or the guy from 2005 or a guy who falls somewhere in the middle. But now Dopirak needs to change his focus a little when he gets back from injury. Instead of trying to impress the Cubs brass for a possible job in 2008, he’s going to have the eyes of 29 other organizations on him. I can’t imagine the Cubs not dealing him, especially if he comes back and resembles the 2004 version. This won’t be a Ryan Howard situation, mostly because I don’t think Derrek Lee requires Jim Thome-like insurance. So here’s hoping Dopirak comes back from the DL on fire, the Cubs get a nice deal for him and Dopirak has a clear path to someone’s big league lineup in ’08. — Jonathan

Introducing Mr. Smith

Kevin Czerwinski continues to pinch-hit for He Said, She Said from Fort Wayne.

Well,
I wrapped up the Fort Wayne portion of my trip today by watching Daryl Jones put
on a clinic at Memorial Stadium. The slugging first baseman/designated hitter
went 4-for-4 today with a long homer and five RBIs. At 19, he?s still young and
raw and the Padres aren?t quite sure how quickly he?ll be able to put all
aspects of his game together or whether he was even ready to take on the
challenges of the Midwest League this season. So far, though, he hasn?t had any
problems, going 7-for-11 with two homers and six RBIs. The homer he hit on
Sunday was a titanic shot that landed some 450 away from home plate, bouncing
through traffic on Coliseum Boulevard before coming to rest on the far side of
the four-lane highway. This kid has awesome potential and it would be nice to
see him continue to play well all season.

The
one thing I?ll take from my stay in Fort Wayne, aside from the rude people in
the neighboring hotel room who woke me up at 1 a.m. Sunday, was how the press
box was infested with ladybugs. Not that I minded, ladybugs are after all,
ladybugs and they?re friendly and fun. But the place was crawling with them,
literally. One stadium official seemed very concern, saying that they pay so
much attention to keeping the field in shape they lose sight that the rest of
the building needs care as well. To that end, he predicted an exterminator would
visit before the next Wizard homestand.

Well,
it?s off to Toledo in the morning and my first look at the Mud Hens? beautiful
park. The Triple-A All-Star game will be played there this season and the folks
in Toledo are already gearing up for it. See you tomorrow from the town that Max
Klinger put on the map.

Maryland, My Maryland

Hey there everyone. Lisa here.
While my new co-workers wandered far afield to take in their minor league Opening Day games, with Jonathan in New Orleans and Kevin in Dayton, Ohio, all I had to do was hop on the Capital Beltway and drive 35 miles to Bowie, Maryland.

And while I love to pile up my Marriott Miles and Hilton Honors points as much as the next person, I also love the fact that I am lucky enough to live an hour or so away from four different minor leagues (Eastern, Carolina, South Atlantic and New York-Penn) and a relatively easy shot down I-95 from a fifth (International), Capital Beltway ?mixing bowl? traffic willing.

The Washington, D.C. metro area is a well-kept secret when it comes to being a miniature hotbed (maybe you could call it a ?warm bed?) for minor league baseball.

When I put together my initial summer schedule of minor league games to which I could drive, watch a nine-inning game and still be home in time to crash into bed for the 11 o?clock news, I found I could spend an entire summer without taking a night off (not that I actually plan to do that, of course, but I could!)

This year I headed out to Bowie for their season opener against the Reading Phillies.

When I looked at the boxscores the next morning from games around the minors, it seemed like overall the pitching was ahead of the hitting early on and this game was no exception.

Fans were treated to a good pitching duel between Bowie?s James ?J.J.? Johnson, last year?s Carolina League Pitcher of the Year, and Reading?s Scott Mathieson, who was coming off a spot in the World Baseball Classic for Team Canada. Neither was particulat overpowering per se, but both were more than impressive, as Bowie edged Reading, 3-1.

Given the fact that the temperature started at brrrrrrrrr and dipped quickly, I was really pleased by how quickly they both worked I figure that Mathieson, coming from Canada, is used to pitching in a lot colder weather than this. I am admittedly a wuss.

I was also very relieved when both players that I interviewed beforehand had good games. As I?m sure you?ve heard, ballplayers tend to be rather superstitious types (I cannot believe I am the only person who remembers when a pre-teen Prince Fielder starred in a TV commercial with his dad for Major League Baseball where they talked about ?the lucky gravy? It was my favorite ad ? when he got drafted, I was like, ?Oh my gosh, it?s the lucky gravy kid!?).

Anyway, before I digress anymore, I?m always a little nervous when I interview a player before a game that he will go and strike out four times or make a bunch of errors or give up five runs in an inning and then never talk to me again. Like I?m a big walking Sports Illustrated cover jinx or something.

So I definitely breathed a few sighs of relief with the impressive performances turned in by Reading leadoff hitter and center fielder Michael Bourn and Bowie leadoff hitter and left fielder Jeff Fiorentino.

Bourn, who you will read more about in our inaugural ?Faces on the Field? package this Tuesday, went 2-for-5 with a stolen base and had there been a highlight reel of defensive plays, he would have been on it with his diving catch in the third inning to rob Tony Alvarez of an extra-base hit.

Fiorentino hit what proved to be the game-winning home run off of Mathieson, a two-run line drive shot to right field in the third. He is also the most energetic, effervescent, ebullient player I?ve talked to in ages. He may be even more talkative than I am. I was actually exhausted (but exhiliarated) after the interview. You can read more about Fiorentino on Friday in my first Baseball Perspectives column for MLB.com. (This paragraph was brought to you by the letter E).

I kind of wish I could click my heels together three times and fast forward to, say, mid-May when the temps will hover closer to 70 degrees as the game heads into the late innings but I know those days will be here before I know it.

Until then, I?ll just pull out the extra sweater, the packets of Swiss Miss and climb back into Penny, my reliable Honda Odyssey, and hit the roads of Maryland once more.

Ft. Wayne, Here I Come

Kevin Czerwinski continues to pinch-hit for He Said, She Said from Dayton, Ohio, before making the trip to Fort Wayne.

Well, before I leave Dayton I had the chance to speak with South Bend
pitcher Ryan Doherty. For those of you who don’t know Doherty, he’s hard to
miss. At 7-foot-1, he’s believed to be the biggest pitcher ever to take the
mound but you know how those "biggest, smallest, angriest" whatever monikers
work. It’s a great deal of supposition and never much fact to substantiate the
claim.
 
In any event, as I shook his hand [which was the size of both my hands put
together] I was reminded of a day earlier in my career when I worked for The
Reporter Dispatch
, which is what the Gannett newspaper based in White
Plains, NY used to be called. It seems like a lifetime ago but back then I
covered some NBA and had the chance to interview Manute Bol. And as big Doherty
is, he’s go nuthin’ on old Manute, whose leg was bigger than my entire body.136428
 
Until something changes, my plan is to write about Doherty for our Faces on
the Field section which will run every Tuesday, beginning next week. Check it
out if you get the chance.
 
I leave for Fort Wayne in the morning and I can’t help but think of one of
my favorite television characters every time Fort Wayne is mentioned. I am a
child of the Seventies and watched M*A*S*H religiously on network television and
still do in reruns. So, it’s no wonder that I know Frank Burns is from Fort
Wayne, Indiana, a fact which has been making my smile for the last several days.
 
Am I a geek? Sure. But when I got off the plane in Toledo on Wednesday I
half expected to see a statue of Corporal Klinger or at least drive down Jamie
Farr Memorial Highway somewhere. I actually got to meet Larry Linville, who
played Burns, before he succumbed to cancer a few years back. My wife, Wendy,
was his agent and we got to see him perform a few times in local theater
productions.
 
So here’s to you ferret face. Fort Wayne here I come.
See you over the weekend.

Summing up New Orleans

It’s something a lot easier said than done. I’ve experienced so much in my time here, it’s hard to know really where to begin. From meeting the Zephyrs staff who have worked tirelessly to bring baseball back to a city that so desperately needed an escape, to wandering the French Quarter, to be sure quieter than usual, but still full of life, good music and great food.

There was the tour of areas like the  9th Ward, which I’m not sure I’ll ever truly be able to grasp. The scope of the damage isn’t anything you can comprehend on TV. Miles and miles of destroyed, gutted, abandoned houses. The sight of search dogs still in the 9th Ward seven months after Katrina is something that won’t leave me soon.

And oh yeah, there was baseball (Astros prospect Jason Hirsh pitched pretty well, by the way). Tonight was Opening Night here and around the Minors, something I almost forgot with all of the surrounding stories we covered. And it was a terrific opener. Zephyr Field was jam-packed, a sellout. The new scoreboard worked and everyone was entertained by both the game and the usual on-field promotions. A good time was had by all when a good time was really needed by all.

And that’s what I leave New Orleans with. Certainly not with rose-colored glasses because what I saw on that tour will constantly remind me of the suffering people have gone through, how much needs to be done and how not enough has been done by important people to this point. But the combination of the commitment of the Zephyrs to stay here and to work endlessly to get things ready for this community, the resilience of the people who came out in droves to simply watch a game, and the vibrance of a great city, albeit muted, that still tries to get out fills me with something I haven’t felt when thinking about this region in quite some time: hope.

Day one from the Big Easy

The first full day here in New Orleans was certainly eventful. I headed to Zephyr Field and did the first in-season version of Around the Minors. In case you didn’t get the memo, we’re four days a week now, 12-1 ET, every day but Wednesday. So we’ll be on tomorrow as well, me from Zephyr Field again, Lisa from Bowie’s media day. I promise a good time will be had by all.

I’ve only been to New Orleans once before, a few years back when the Winter Meetings was here. The French Quarter is a different animal for sure. The strange thing after wandering around the last day is how desolate it is. I don’t want to paint a bleak picture because the Quarter is one area that wasn’t hit hard by the hurricane and there’s been a lot done in the city to get it back to close to where it once was. But the fact of the matter is there aren’t that many people around. A lot of places, landmarks in some cases are closed up or not open as regularly as they used to be. I did find good coffee (with chickory, of course) this morning and good food is still easy to find.

That’s what makes what the Zephyrs are doing that much more impressive and important. The fact that they committed to staying here, and right from the get-go, should really be commended. They worked their tale off to get the stadium ready for Opening Day (check out the story soon on MiLB.com). And the city should come out in full force to support the lone professional team to play here all season long. I’ll have more on the Zephyrs over the next couple of days, especially when I accompany them on a tour of the city on Wednesday morning.

I also made it over to the renovation project at the Boys&Girls Club (read about the project   and then donate to it here). It was simply amazing to see not only the Magical Builders’ plan being put into action, but seeing all these volunteers using every ounce of energy to try to make this place usable for the 250+ kids it will service this summer (By the way, Hands On Networking is one heckuva organization. They’re providing 15 volunteers every day for this project and do this all the time in the Gulf Coast and around the country.). To be around people truly making a difference, with no real benefit to them, is truly inspiring. And that’s rare in today’s day and age.

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