May 2006

You CAN go home again …

Lisa here …
I have been so derelict in my blogger duties I am almost embarrassed to show my cyberface here. I can only try to be a better blogger (or Better Blogger) in the future, if for no other reason than to keep Jonathan from giving me a (deserved) hard time for my inactivity.

Real spring-bordering-on-summer finally arrived in the Washington, D.C., area yesterday with warmth, humidity and weirdly sporadic downpours and sunshine, so now I know I can finally go to games and not be frozen by the seventh inning. Watch out world!

Tuesday I ventured down to what was once my second home, Richard Pfitzner Stadium (aka ?The Pfitz?), home of the Potomac Nationals. Except that when it was my second home, it wasn’t called Richard Pfitzner Stadium. And the team wasn’t called Potomac. Or the Nationals.

Back in the day, when I was just starting out my fledgling Minor League Baseball-writing career, it was just plain old Prince William County Stadium, home of the Prince William Cannons, Class A Carolina League farm team to the New York Yankees. I was the beat writer for the Cannons from 1989-1991 (and the first few weeks of the 1992 season as well) for the Potomac News in Woodbridge, Va.

I remember the first day on the beat, my second or third day in town, nervously driving into the stadium parking lot accompanied by my assistant editor, who had been covering the beat for the first few weeks of the season until I could move down from New York City to start my new job.

It was a rare early-season off day for the team but they’d been off to such a horrible start that their manager (Mark Wiedemaier, who is now an advance scout for the Los Angeles Dodgers) had them taking extra batting practice on a satellite field next to the stadium, and this is where I first met the players that I would get to know very well over the course of a long roller-coaster season.

By season’s end, they would have finished dead last in the first half, first in the second half, and would go on to upset the heavily favored Durham Bulls to win the Carolina League championship. Wiedemaier would be replaced at the helm in early summer by Stump Merrill, who would later go on to manage the Yankees.

I was a dedicated employee (I’d like to think my current bosses will not be surprised to hear that). I never missed a home game during the season and actually took a few road trips, sometimes on my own dime, to make sure I didn’t miss any big series. Of course, this was my last summer before motherhood and my husband worked nights so it wasn’t the hardship on my home or family that it might be if I tried to work every day now. Oh, that’s right, I do.

Anyway, before this becomes a column instead of a blog ? point being that I got to know just about every paint chip, ding in the dugout bench, divot in the infield at that park. I knew every nuance of the undeveloped stretch of back road that led up to the county complex where the stadium stood. I knew, and hated, the slippery metal stands with no banisters where I almost wiped out more than a few times after the perennial northern Virginia summer rainshowers. I could tell you what month it was by what bugs were in the air (and pitcher Frank Seminara could have too, since he once balked in the winning run when a moth flew into his mouth during his windup).

I left that job after three seasons, moving on to Baseball Weekly (which later added football and became Sports Weekly and then added NASCAR and eliminated its Minor League page and I came to MLB.com). Shortly thereafter I moved from Virginia to Maryland and found myself a half-hour from Frederick, which became my ?home Carolina League team? (something I could never have imagined when covering the Cannons, since the Keys and Cannons fans were bitter rivals – I don’t think the players could have cared less, but wow, those booster clubs hated each other).

I went back to Prince William once or twice, but the last time I’d been there was 1993. So to go back down there now, 13 years later, was ? well ? bizarre.

I am lucky I didn’t crash my car on the approach to the stadium, I was so busy looking around in awe and amazement. That back road, once nothing but scrub and trees, is now filled with shopping centers and high-end townhouses.

But you know what was even stranger? Once I drove into the parking lot, it was like time stood still. That walk up the path from parking lot to stadium? Nothing had changed. I walked into the stadium concourse and nothing had changed. I walked through the gate onto the field on the first base side and sat down on the bench in the dugout. Same benches, I swear. I sort of wished I had surreptitiously pulled a ?Kilroy was Here? kind of carving of my name on one of them back in 1989 so I could have double checked. Same cinderblock walls. Same tiny press box (though it looks like they’ve carpeted and laminated the desk part). I am pretty sure it’s the same seats.

Even the ladies room was the same (and the summer I was pregnant I saw a lot of that ladies room).

I assume the men’s room was too, but that was one corner of that stadium I never inspected. It did, indirectly, advance my career however: the team used to make copies of my game stories and features from the previous night and tape them up over the urinals. The Minor League editor at Baseball Weekly would come to games there and read my stories and was the one who encouraged me to apply for the job. So I guess you could say I got where I am because I had my name on men’s room walls.

Oh, I did notice one change. They painted this fuzzy green stuff on the stairs to make it less slippery. I wonder if someone did wipe out and threaten to sue?

In a way it was really neat to come in there and sit down in the dugout and look out at the field and feel like I was ? um ? young again (no, I am not giving away my age). And thin again (remember, summer pre-motherhood, my last hurrah as a svelte young thing).

I also, however, felt a little badly for the team. I know they have been fighting hard for a new stadium complex for awhile. And they see new stadiums being built all around them and attendance skyrocketing as a result.

Prince William ? oops, sorry, Potomac .. deserves a new stadium if that’s what they want. New stadium, spanking new clubhouses and nifty dugouts (with new benches), stands with banisters and non-slip surfaces. Seats with cupholders. A great press box for all my friends there where the home radio broadcaster and the visiting radio broadcaster can have separate booths, or at least a divider.

Maybe they’ll even name a urinal in my honor.

(Hey, is this the first time we’ve written the word “urinal” in a blog?)

Oklahoma update

A few random thoughts…

First, from back in Tulsa. I erroneously said that the Royals once had an affiliate in Tulsa. I have since been corrected that in the history of the Tulsa franchise, only the Texas Rangers and Colorado Rockies have had affiliates there (I was told Tulsa joined the league in 1978, but after doing some digging, it actually was 1977. See, sometimes I’m the one who is more thorough in resarching a topic). The KC Kid Zone, evidently, is sponsored by and paid for by the Kansas City Royals. I’ll guess they get the ball under the hat video game thing as well as part of the deal…so my apologies to all you Texas League enthusiasts out there. Now it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? The Kansas City Royals, a team that’s never had an association with Tulsa in any fashion, a team in a city 4 1/2 hours away, pay to sponsor a Kids Zone (and the video board game thing) in Tulsa’s park. Can you forgive me for being confused with the incongruity of it all.

Second, what’s the fascination with Toby Keith? There’s a restaurant here called Toby Keith’s I Love (it’s actually a heart — cute, no?) this Bar and Grill. I, for one, am not a fan. But I hear that if you prove you blindly support anything your country does without having any understanding of what it is you are supporting, you get to eat for free. That leaves me out, so I’ll let  the gun-toting, family values-spouting, ***-bashing, Bush-voting, wrap yourself in the flag crowd get seated first.

Oops, did I say that aloud? — Jonathan

Bricktown

I love being surprised by American cities. It’s not that I had low expecations for Oklahoma City — I had heard that Bricktown Park was beautiful (and indeed it is) —  but the surrounding area really was impressive.

The whole area surrounding the ballpark is called Bricktown…and it is built with red brick, which gives it a real nice look and feel. There’s a very vibrant stretch with restaurants and bars galore along a canal. You can even take a boat ride up and down said canal. Multimedia producer Joe Cronin likened it to the River Walk in San Antonio. I’ve never been, so I’ll have to take his word for it. But it made for a nice evening stroll despite the heat (it’s 97 here today).

That, of course, was after four games of Big 12 baseball action. The Big 12 conference tourney got underway with a quadrupleheader and there are several first-round potentials playing here. First guy I saw was Texas OF Drew Stubbs. He didn’t show all that much in the opener, but man can he run. Extremely graceful, scouts say he can be a Gold Glove CF in the bigs right now. He didn’t do anything with the bat on Day One, as opposing pitchers really jammed him inside all day.

The other guy really of note was Missouri LHP Nathan Culp (Nebraska lefty Tony Watson was a surprise reliever to one batter on Day One and boy was there a lot of scrambling behind home plate to see him. Alas, he only threw a couple of pitches). He started out awfully, allowing two runs in the first inning, leaving everything up. Everything Oklahoma State hit was hit extremely hard. But to his credit, Culp settled down, gave up a solo homer in the third and a single run in the eighth. He pitched into the ninth inning to tie a school record with his 11th win. He did give up 11 hits, but he didn’t walk anyone and struck out six. It’s not exactly the kind of performance that will vault him several spots higher, but it won’t hurt his stock any and he showed some toughness to settle down and pitch deep into the game without his best stuff early. I still see him as a sandwich pick or second rounder.

On a more serious note, we took time this morning to head over to the Oklahoma City bombing memorial. That tragedy, believe it or not, took place 11 years ago. The memorial was finished in 2000 and it is quite powerful in its simplicity. There is a brass chair with a glass bottom (that’s illuminated at night) for each of the 169 victims of the bombing. There’s also a stunning reflector pool between two gates. One gate has 9:01 etched in it, marking the time the minute before the blast. The other has 9:03, the minute after the explosion that changed everything. In addition, there’s a rescuer tree to thank all those who came to the scene to help in the aftermath. And to me, perhaps the most interesting thing of all was a wall of the original building that’s still standing with the names of all the survivors of the blast etched into it using original granite (the pathways have been made with granite from the original building as well). I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a memorial that also honored those who survived. I thought it was a very powerful way to show that despite the destruction and the life-changing effects of something like that, the resilience of those who lived through it is equally important to remember.

OK, back to baseball. We get to see Drew Stubbs one more time and then Nebraska ace Joba Chamberlain tonight before we head home. — Jonathan

Surrey with a fringe on top?

Hope everyone got that musical theater reference.

Here I am in lovely Tulsa, Oklahoma and let me tell you, it’s a hot time here. Literally. It was about 93 yesterday when we arrived here, but it had "cooled" to 89 at game time for the San Antonio Missions-Tulsa Drillers tilt. But don’t worry, it’s a dry heat.

Drillers Stadium is about 25 years old, and it doesn’t look a day over 20. The home for the Colorado Rockies Texas League affiliate doesn’t have the bells and whistles of some of the newer parks we’ve visited, but it’s certainly not run-down. Best little promotion would have to be a sign they have way above the left field fence, provided by a local car dealer. In the middle of that sign is a small target hole. If a player hits the ball through  that hole, and a Cobalt is won. The player doesn’t win the car, but a lucky fan does. No one’s hit the jackpot yet.

(One odd aside about the park: A while back, the Drillers were a Royals affiliate. Some of the KC stuff is still up in the park. There’s the KC Kid Zone and when they had the video scoreboard ball under the hat game, it was with KC hats. I wonder what the Rockies think about that…)

The way Troy Tulowitzki is raking right now, he might be the first to hit that target. He’s homered in two straight games, including a blast in a losing effort on Tuesday. The one he hit on Monday was a mammoth blast. He’s hitting .301 now with five homers and 21 RBs, while hitting leadoff. It’s only his first full year, but look for him in Denver before the year is over. Tulsa’s lineup is ridiculous, though they were held in check on Tuesday night. Everyone can hit, top to bottom. The only disappointment was that Ian Stewart was not in the lineup. He’s having trouble with that wrist again. The good news is that the MRI was negative, but it’s a little worrisome that it keeps coming up.

Make sure you check out the Around the Minors video show every Wednesday at 12 p.m. ET on Baseballchannel.TV and on MiLB.com. A week from today will be the show we shot from down here, with Ed Randall’s interview with Stewart, a feature on the Missions’ international flavor (their roster has representatives from seven countries and we spoke to Canadian Sebastien Boucher and Australian Travis Blackley about it), and Billy Sample’s trip down memory lane in a place he called home as a Minor Leaguer nearly three decades ago. We also spoke with Tulowitzki, but you’ll have to wait to see that until our draft shows.

OK, time to head to Oklahoma City for the Big 12 Tournament. I’ll have more from Bricktown Ballpark later on. So remember… O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A, Oklahoma’s OK!

Bloggers of the Week

I bet you thought we had forgotten you. Well, we hadn’t.

I wanted to let everyone in on a neat little segment we’ve started on our radio show, Around the Minors (ATM), which airs on MLB Radio Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 12-1 p.m. ET.

Each Tuesday, we’ve been bringing on a blogger who writes about the Minor Leagues, be it about the Minors in general or a specific team’s system. So far we’ve had three bloguests. Here they are, with audio links as well as links to their blogs. Take a listen, check out their blogs, and write in with your vote of who the best "Blogger of the Week" has been so far, based on the content on their blogs and the substance of their radio appearances.

1. Dan Quon. Quon on Minor League Baseball. Appearance on ATM: April 25.

2. Brian Oliver. Nationals Farm Authority. Appearance on ATM: May 2.

3. Seth Stohs. Seth Speaks. Appearance on ATM: May 9.

There you have it. Vote early and often. We’ll report the results on the air soon. Next show is Thursday at noon eastern. "See" you then. — Jonathan

 

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