April 2007

TRAVELBLOGUE: Scranton, Reading, PA

Sorry for the delay on this folks …

Last week’s road trip took me (Lisa) up to two old favorite parks that I had not visited in awhile, with a Tuesday trip to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and a Wednesday trek to Reading.

SCRANTON/WILKES-BARRE: I don’t think any re-affiliation has gotten the attention that Scranton’s switch from the Phillies to the Yankees got in the nearly 20 years I’ve been covering the Minor Leagues.

The park and the club have always been favorites of mine, due in large part to the people who run the team. PR guru Mike Cummings has been with the club for 18 years and is one of the best in the business … and he’s certainly earned a raise this season (hint hint) with what he’s been handed with the affiliation shuffle.

We’d been expecting to get to see Yankees uber-prospect Phil Hughes pitch that Tuesday (against the Ottawa Lynx, which just happens to be the Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate for 2007 before they move to nearby Allentown in ’08), but the announcement was made on Monday night that Hughes would be heading to the big leagues to start for the Yankees on Thursday.

When we got to the park, though, we discovered that a major press conference would be held IN THE DUGOUT two hours later where Hughes would meet with the media prior to heading to New York. NYC media types, along with the regular Scranton crew, were already en route.

Trust me, folks, when I tell you that press conferences of this magnitude don’t happen a lot in the Minors, not even at Triple-A. That told me even more than I already assumed about the new regime.

The new affiliation has been an absolute godsend for the folks in Scranton. Not that their 18 years with the Phillies had not been good. They had. But … well, the Yankees are the Yankees. And Pennsylvania postmark notwithstanding, Scranton is Yankees country (only about two hours from NYC).

The biggest change, of course, is the new field at PNC Field. Until this year, they’d played on Astroturf, to get rising Phillies ready for erstwhile Veteran Stadium. But as soon as the Yankees signed on, the turf got ripped up and now the stadium has a gorgeous new playing surface.

Couldn’t happen to a better group of folks. GM Jeremy Ruby is a homegrown Scranton kid, hailing from nearby Eynon, so he can truly appreciate how much the new affiliation has helped the community. And he’s also a guy who was born and bred with baseball in his blood — his dad, Gary, is the Pittsburgh Pirates Minor League pitching coordinator, a longtime guru and mentor to countless pitchers now in the Majors (with the Angels, Indians and Phillies before the Pirates) not to mention one of the absolutely nicest people I have ever met in my years covering this game.

One of the odder aspects of that evening was how the crowd was split between cheering for their new home team and the members of the Lynx, about two-thirds of whom had played at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre the previous season.

READING: Wednesday dawned … well, kind of crappy. Gray, drizzly and basically not baseball weather. But we forged ahead and caravaned across I-476 from Scranton to Reading in hopes that the skies would clear.

They didn’t.

But it was still fun to re-visit the park at Reading (and we would love to return there later this season when, hopefully, the weather will be better).

Reading is the perfect combination of the old and the new. Built originally in 1951, FirstEnergy Stadium underwent a major renovation a few years ago which entailed a sprucing up but still maintained its old-fashioned brick-based look … but now that "old-time baseball" mystique includes a multi-level swimming pool and party deck in the outfield. The park is also a gourmand’s delight, with a wonderful mini-mall enclosed area off of first base with several stands for all sorts of goodies. (Plus there is an awesome outlet mall right nearby … what more can you ask for?)

While we didn’t get to watch any baseball, since it was freezing and wet and just downright nasty, we did get to chat with Phillies third base prospect Mike Costanzo, and watch him record a birthday greeting for his mom to be played on the jumbotron in the outfield. Costanzo grew up an hour from the park and his parents come to every home game. Talk about a built-in fanbase!

With visiting Harrisburg in town, we also chatted with closer-heir-apparent for the Nationals Zech Zinicola, as well as Montreal Expos legend Tim Raines, now the hitting coach for the Senators. As a huge Expos fan myself back in the day, it was definitely a kick to get a chance to chat with Raines and an even bigger one to discover that he is truly a wonderful, thoughtful and insightful gentleman.

Because you can’t escape baseball talk … and, really, who would want to? … we grabbed some dinner that evening at the Macaroni Grill at a mall near the hotel (we stayed in Lancaster … no Marriotts in Reading!) and while chatting with our very personable waiter, found out that his dad had played semi-pro baseball in Malaysia. Now, we never even knew they HAD semi-pro baseball in Malaysia. Why are there no Minor Leaguers from there? But he said they had 24 teams in the league! One of my favorite things about this job … you truly do learn something new every day.

So my next road trip will be in Charleston and Myrtle Beach next week and I want to thank blog-reader Becca Hodges for her post cluing us into some restaurants to check out while we’re down there!

Meanwhile, our trip AFTER that will entail a few days in Jupiter, Fla., where we get to double-dip a pair of games at Roger Dean Stadium, catching a night game between the Jupiter Hammerheads and Brevard County Manatees, followed by a 10:30 a.m. game (yeah, you read that right) between the Palm Beach Cardinals and Vero Beach Dodgers. I am hoping to dip into my own pocket (don’t think per diem will cover this) to get some stone crab claws on that jaunt.

David Halberstam

I know this is a little off-topic, but when I saw the news of David Halberstam’s death in a car accident on Monday, I was stunned into silence. Then I felt the need to write something. So even though this isn’t Minor-Legaue related, I hope you’ll bear with me.

Halberstam was many things, an award-winning journalist, an historian, a social commentator, a baseball fan. He was often all of them at the same time. I had the honor to interview him on a couple of occasions in a previous lifetime when I worked at the New York Post. A man as accomplished as he was certainly could have had an air about him, a sense of intellectual superiority. Nothing could be further from the case. He was extremely accessible, both in terms of how easy it was to reach him and his language. One thing I always loved about his writing was how informative and complex it was, while being gripping and page-turning at the same time while dealing with some pretty heavy subject matter.

As a journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Vietnam War, he didn’t write like some academics do. And his sports books — particularly Summer of ’49 and October 1964 — combined sports and history in a way I’ve never seen before. In both books, his discussion of how the country was changing — especially in regards to race relations — and how it intertwined with the sports world is unparalleled.

I am the son of a history professor, so I always looked at Halberstam’s work as the ideal, combining two of my passions. He was, without him ever knowing it, a bit of a role model, perhaps an idol of sorts. He’s still what I want to be when I grow up.

There are several of his works I have yet to read. But here are the books I have read and I highly recommend them  to anyone. Feel free to weigh in with your favorite Halberstam work in the comments. Thanks for reading.

Summer of ’49
October 1964
The Fifties (not a sports book)
The Teammates

— Jonathan

PiTY PoTY

Yes, it’s time for our weekly "PiTY PoTY" … and there were so many choices this week it was a tough one to narrow down. Needless to say, within nanoseconds of my e-mailing my choices to Jonathan (it was my turn to choose) he teased me about not giving enough love to HIS choices for the week. But he teases because he cares, right? … Right?

So … for this week’s Player of the Week I went with Tucson Sidewinders (Diamondbacks) first baseman Chris Carter, who not only batted .577 in 26 at-bats but now has a 15-game hitting streak dating back to opening day … add to that his finishing the regular 2006 campaign 7-for-13 with hits in his last three games, and that gives him an active 18-gamer going …

On the season he’s hitting .444 (my lucky number) and his last six games have been multi-hit games … one thing that’s interesting though is he has no home runs and five RBIs so far, whereas last year he had 19-97. I’m sure the power will come …

On the pitching side, our Pitcher of the Week is Brett Smith of the Trenton Thunder (Yankees) in the Double-A Eastern League. This past Saturday, he tossed seven innings of no-hit ball to lead the team to the win over the Binghamton Mets to lower his season ERA to 1.56. In an earlier start this week he’d gone 5 1/3 innings of four-hit shutout ball with seven strikeouts.

A second-round pick in 2004, Smith reached his pitch limit after seven and had no problems with handing the ball over to the pen with the no-hitter on the line.

So tune into the show today and hear who the runners-up were!

And I’m off on the road again tomorrow, heading up to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre face the Ottawa Lynx (going to see Philip Hughes pitch tomorrow!) and then back down to Reading to see the R-Phils host the Harrisburg Senators.

Report from New Britain

This report comes from new ATM correspondent Doug, from Manchester, Conn. He writes:

I was at the Eastern League game Saturday between New Britain and Connecticut
(Norwich), and the top of the 1st inning featured three walks and four stolen
bases, including a straight steal of home.  Not a botched squeeze play, not a
delayed steal, just flat-out swiped it.  I imagine that doesn’t happen too
often, especially in Double-A.  The Defenders wound up with six total SB for the
game and won 10-0.  They had been having trouble scoring runs in their first few
games (had a 45-inning scoreless streak early last week), so some aggressive
managing on the base paths ended up working for them.

Here’s the play-by-play.  Note that
Requena walked to lead off the game and then stole himself all the way
around.

TOP OF THE 1st 
1  Alex Requena walks. 

2  With John
Bowker batting, Alex Requena steals (5) 2nd base. 
2  John Bowker flies out to right
fielder Matthew Allegra. 
3  Brian Horwitz walks. 
4  With Eddy Martinez-Esteve batting, Alex Requena steals (6)
3rd base. Brian Horwitz steals (2) 2nd base.
4  Eddy Martinez-Esteve
strikes out swinging. 
5  Carlos Sosa walks. 
6  With Stephen Holm batting, Alex Requena steals (7) home. 

6  Stephen Holm
strikes out swinging. 

Just thought I’d pass it along as "unusual."

TRAVELBLOGUE: Toledo, Midland

Amazing, I headed out to see two games in two days…and I ended up getting three! Much better than last trip for me, where I got one frozen game and one cancelled game. The best news is that on Day 2 here in Midland, home of the brand-spanking new Great Lakes Loons, it was sunny and relatively warm. In other words, it was actual, bona fide baseball weather.

But let’s start in Toledo. We weren’t there long enough to sample the local fare, but I was just happyFifththirdtoledo_1

to check out Fifth Third Field. We’ve written about the downtown Toledo stadium in the past, but it really is one of the gems of the International League (or any league). It’s not just the stadium, but how it’s supported by the community. To be fair, this was a morning game, a "School Day" — with local elementary schools filling the seats, so it wasn’t quite the same feel. I’d love to be there for an Opening Day or playoff game. But it was still a nice place to watch a ballgame. We got some good work done, too — with a feature on the a.m. game phenomenon in the Minors (playing at 10:30 a.m. is not easy for these guys) featuring Buffalo outfielder Ben Francisco. We also did a nice interview with Indians top pitching prospect Adam Miller. 

From there, it was the fairly lengthy drive to Midland, Michigan. Let me start with some information about the locale. Midland’s got about 40,000 people in it. The largest employer is Dow (thus the name of the park — Dow Diamond) and you can’t really separate Dow from Midland in many ways. Our first night here, we went to a local spot called Shirlene’s Cuisine. It kind of felt like we were in someone’s grandmother’s kitchen and it was fairly clear that most of the clientele were in that age bracket as well. There was a "wall of fame" with photos of "celebrities" when you first came in. The one legitimate celeb pic was of Ernie Harwell, who should’ve been on his own wall, in my opinion. The rest were b-listers, at best — Peabo Bryson, Melissa Manchester, you get the idea. That being said, the food was good in a down-home way, there was a ton of it, and the homemade pie (I had pecan) was quite tasty.

Perhaps the best thing about the restaurant is the take-out menu, which has a nice little history of Midland. Allow me to provide you with an excerpt.

…Midland became a thriving lumber camp in 1850 and reached its peak in 1880. During the spring, rivers became the chief means of transporting the logs that came from the many umber camps. It has been recorded that there was a lumber camp every four miles along the rivers…The American Fur Company established a trading post at the confluence of the Chippewa and Tittabawassee Rivers, and with this in mind Midland’s founding fathers considered the post site a wise place to construct a town…

I love that history stuff. Anyway, the next day we drove to downtown Midland. Yes, there is a downtown. It’s got a definite Anywhere small town U.S.A. feel to it, but there are some interesting things happening in terms of development. One is a Fifties-style diner called Daddy O’s (check here for a blog review of the place), where we ate lunch. Good burgers, fries, onion rings and outstanding malts. The owner got in at the perfect time, right before the Loons craze began. He’s the first in what’s going to be a lot of growth in the downtown area. There are huge renovations taking place in the Ashman Court Hotel right near the park, with plans for some upscale restaurants. And there’s plenty of room to add more businesses as the Loons take off (sorry, couldn’t resist that one).

Dowdiamond_1
Now, on to the park, Dow Diamond. Amazingly, it was built in one year. To say it’s beautiful doesn’t do it justice. I got to hand it to HOK, they know their stuff. There’s some cool stuff without trying too hard, like a fire pit in the lawn seating area for cold evenings, the main concourse can be enclosed when the weather gets bad and top-of-the-line facilities for the players (the Loons all seemed to appreciate how good they have it by playing home games here). Just a great place to watch a ballgame, though it doesn’t smell like baseball yet. It’s kind of like a new car smell, which is great in a new car…not so great in a ballpark. But they’ve only played a few games there, so that will change very soon.

Unfortunately, the Loons (am I the only one who keeps thinking about the movie, On Golden Pond?) haven’t been able to win a game yet in their beautiful new park. But they did finally hit their first home run in franchise history, courtesy of Eduardo Perez. And we got to see Dodgers 2006 first-round pick Clayton Kershaw pitch. Kid knows how to throw a little bit. It was a busy day for us there, as we toured the ballpark, talked to Preston Mattingly and Scott Van Slyke and also got to interview Kershaw after his start. On top of all that, the best part of the visit, was spending a few minutes with Cubs Hall of Famer — and Peoria Chiefs manager — Ryne Sandberg. Keep on checking out Around the Minors on The Bottom Line every day at 3:40 p.m. ET on BaseballChannel.TV

FSL Marathon, redux

This comes from unofficial ATM correspondent Phil Lowry:

The Clearwater Threshers’ 4-1 FSL 20-inning win over the Tampa Yanks lasted 5 hours 14  minutes, and was the 165th minor league game to ever last 5 or more  hours. Current minor leagues have experienced this many such games: Appy 1,  Cal 9, Carolina 3, Eastern 11, Florida State 15, International 12, Mexican 6,  Midwest 8, NY-Penn 6, Northwest 2, Pacific Coast 11, Sally 10, Southern 12,  Texas 26.

The Tuesday night game was also the 200th minor league game to  ever last 20 or more innings. Current minor leagues have experienced this  many: Appy 1, Cal 7, Carolina 2, Eastern 10, Florida State 11, International 11,  Mexican 5, Midwest 7, NY-Penn 5, Northwest 2, Pacific Coast 15, Sally 12,  Southern 10, Texas 17. The granddaddy of all such games of course was the  Pawtucket Paw Sox, 3-2, International League, 33-inning win over Rochester Red Wings in 1981, which took 8 hours 25 minutes. Elapsed time was 8 hours 55  minutes because of a 30-minute power failure delay at McCoy Stadium in  Pawtucket.

Pirates farm correspondent

As you see on the left, there’s a link to a Pirates farm system blog. It’s worth checking out. They’ve got a breakdown on what they think is wrong with Andrew McCutchen and a profile on Jamie Romak, the Minor Leaguer the Pirates got from the Braves in the Adam LaRoche deal. Even neater is an Indianapolis Indians photo gallery courtesy of Bill Gentry. Check it out and let us know here what you think…I’ll have more on my trip to Toledo and Midland, Michigan in a few days. — Jonathan

Report: FSL tilt goes extra…and then some

This comes from unofficial ATM correspondent Phil, on the Clearwater-Tampa game from last night (and early morning):

The Threshers’ 4-1 FSL win over the Yanks tonight in 20 innings was an historic game. It is the 507th game in the history of the sport to ever last 20 or more innings.

GAMES LASTING 20 INNINGS OR MORE (507):
131 won by home, 166 by visitor, 64 ties, 146 unknown or neutral site.

GAMES LASTING 20 INNINGS (207):
45 won by home, 67 by visitor, 26 ties, 69 unknown or neutral  site.

This is Clearwater’s third such game, and the 11th in the  history of the FSL:

20 innings ? Ed Smith Stadium, Sarasota ?  6/17/1993 ? Sarasota White Sox 3 Clearwater Phillies 2 in 4:47 ? 932 fans -  finished at 12:06 AM in the early morning of 6/18.

20 innings ?  Hammond Stadium, Fort Myers ? 4/13/2006 ? Clearwater Threshers
4 Fort Myers  Miracle 3 in 5:02 ? 1544 fans; 94 fans at end ? finished at
12:07 AM in the  early morning of 4/14.

20 innings ? Legends Field, Tampa ?  4/17/2007 ? Clearwater Threshers 4 Tampa Yankees 1 in 5:14 ? 706 fans ? ended at  12:14 AM in the early morning of 4/18.

Pie in the sky

It seems like the time has finally arrived for Felix Pie.

The Cubs outfield prospect is on his way to Chicago for his first taste of the big leagues. It was how long the 22-year-old center fielder would be up for, or what the call-up means in terms of Alfonso Soriano’s injury, but Pie will make his long-anticipated big league debut tonight against the Padres. He’ll be in center field and hitting lead off. If Soriano lands on the disabled list, it should be Pie who’ll play center field every day for the Cubs.

Pie has been with the Cubs organization since signing at age 16 back in 2001. He’s moved one rung at a time up the organizational ladder and carried a .294 career average, a .353 OBP and .459 SLG into this season. Repeating Triple-A again this year, Pie was off to a very hot start, going 16-for-36 (.444) over his first 11 games and had a 1.127 OPS.

Players of the Week (and then some)

Call it the Players of the first week and change…but here they are:

Player of the Week: Jamie D’Antona, Tucson Sidewinders.
The Diamondbacks third baseman (and occasional catcher) came to the organization in the same draft that brought you Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin, but D’Antona fell behind the other two, to the point of not being protected on the 40-man roster this offseason. If he keeps this up, though, he’ll find a spot. In his first 10 games, D’Antona leads Minor League Baseball with a .556 average. He also is slugging .917 which has led to a 1.512 OPS.

Pitcher of the Week: Chase Wright, Trenton Thunder.
Wright, the Florida State League Pitcher of the Year in 2006, just kept on dominating with a move up to the Eastern League. In two starts, the left-hander allowed no runs and only four hits in 14 innings. That’s a .085 batting average against and with only one walk, he’s got a ridiculous 0.37 WHIP for you fantasy fans. He’s also struck out 19 in that span. All of that led to a promotion up to the big leagues and he’ll start tonight’s game for the Yankees against the Cleveland Indians.

Don’t like our picks? Tell us who you would choose by leaving a comment! — Jonathan

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