May 2007

OH SAY CAN YOU SEE?

I promised I’d come back and post about Frederick before leaving for my next road trip to Alabama, and since I’m leaving tomorrow, well, here I am!

I figured that just because a stadium/city is virtually in my backyard, that’s no reason to overlook them in our Travelblogue …

First, some background on my weirdly complicated relationship with Frederick and the Keys …

Way back in the paleolithic era when I started covering the Minor Leagues (1989 to be exact), I was the beat writer for the Prince William Cannons in the Carolina League (they were the Yankees then and have since gone through the White Sox, Cardinals, Reds and now are the Potomac Nationals). I covered the team from 1989 through the first month of 1992 …

1989 was also the first year of existence for the Frederick (Md.) Keys, who had moved down from Hagerstown. Harry Grove Stadium was still under construction so for that first year they played their games at McCurdy Field, an American Legion field … I don’t know the exact dimensions but I am not exaggerating that much when I say it was about 250 feet down the lines and the bleachers held maybe 2,000 people (which is why it was really interesting when they listed a capacity crowd of 8,000 when Orioles first-rounder Ben McDonald pitched there late in the season but that’s another story). Bandbox? Just ask Jack Voigt, the team’s outfielder that year who one night hit for what they called the "jumbo cycle" (they made it up on the spot) … double, triple, homer and grand slam. I think the only Cannons pitcher to get him out that night was Gerald Williams. Yeah, the outfielder.

Anyway, with the two teams both located in bedroom communities of DC off the Beltway, there was a huge rivalry between the two Booster Clubs. Not the teams themselves, I don’t think … I suspect the players had enough on their minds trying to work their way into the parent club’s plans not to really care about who they were playing. But the Booster Clubs HATED each other.

So when I moved from Virginia to Maryland in 1994, no longer covering the Cannons and certainly not wanting to deal with Beltway traffic at rush hour, I suddenly found myself with Frederick as my local team. And for a brief time I felt sort of disloyal and weird about it.

But I got over it.

You can’t help but get goosebumps when the National Anthem is sung there, since the team is named for Francis Scott Key who not only wrote the anthem (about a battle that took place in Baltimore), but is also buried in the cemetery you’ll see when you pull into the parking lot.

When Harry Grove Stadium opened in 1990, it was really state of the art in many ways. It was one of the first (if not THE first) to have the open concourse where fans could go up, buy a hot dog or a beer, and not miss any of the action. It had that big walkdown-bowl rather than steps up. It was more beige concrete than the old-time red brick which would become the next de rigeur "thing" in ballpark design, but it was very nice and clean and fan-friendly. It even had a carousel in right field for the kids! (And having a 4-year-old when we moved up there, that was a real plus).

Still, with new parks being built left and right in the last 17 years, and more being refurbished, Harry Grove was starting to look its age the last few years. There were field problems that dated back to construction that really took their toll last year when the field was such a muckslide during the Carolina League finals that the owners had to hire a helicopter to dry it out to make it playable, just hours before first pitch.

But this year things are definitely looking up … for one thing, they installed a completely new field that looks gorgeous! AND they installed new reserved seats between first and third base behind the box seats … where there were once uncomfortable benches, they now have royal blue seats with backs (we paleolithic types LOVE good back support) …

Thanks to new ownership group Comcast I have heard there are more improvements in the works (though we all know that bureaucracy and red tape takes time to cut through) … but it’s just that much nicer now to come out to Keys game and enjoy the on-field product and the off-field niceties.

In addition, the changes to Frederick itself have been many and all positive. The city has developed a great "Old Town" area downtown with wonderful restaurants, pubs, antique malls and other great shopping opportunities. Two of my personal favorites include a great vintage store, Venus on the Half Shell, where I could browse for hours (especially the vintage sweaters and prom dresses), and a store right nearby it that sells all sorts of British delicacies (though I wish they’d stock Mingles chocolates!)

The city also hosts all sorts of great concert series and craft fairs … there is never a lack for something to do (one of my favorite nights was getting to see one of my all-time favorite bands, NRBQ, at Baker Park FOR FREE in the first row! And another was bringing my daughter to see America at the Frederick Crafts Fair the week we moved there)

If you’re putting together an east coast road trip, definitely add Frederick to your itinerary … if you’re a history buff, it’s less than a half-hour to Gettysburg and 45 minutes to Washington DC and Baltimore.

KEVIN IN ROCHESTER

Well, it’s Friday night in Rochester and I’m sure if I thought about it, I could come up with a few other places I’d rather be. But tonight Kevin Slowey is pitching against Jeff Niemann so this figures to be a very interesting match-up. But that’s not why I’m blogging [the equivalent of asking me to drag a razor blade over my eyeball]. I just finished an hour-long discussion with Joe Altobelli, the radio of voice of the Red Wings. He’s an icon up here, both from his playing and managing days. I’m working on a story for our Cracked Bats series that will run some time in the next few weeks about the Altobelli-managed team that won the 1971 Junior World Series and we had a wonderful conversation about that year. But we also spent quite a bit of time talking about his career, the players he has managed and played with and I came away very impressed. Alto is a wonderful man with a great bunch of stories to tell. I hope the people in upstate New York realize how lucky they are to have him here. He’s adopted Rochester as his home city — he’s actually from Detroit — and spoke so glowingly about it I may have to come back. Probably the coolest part of the conversation was when my cell phone rang and I looked at the number. It was Don Baylor calling. I had touched base with him earlier in the day to talk about that ’71 team because he was on the club. I got to know Don when I was covering the Mets and he was the hitting/bench coach. He’s another great guy but that’s a blog for another day. Anyway, when I saw who was on the phone, I handed it to Alto and had him answer it. The two obviously hadn’t spoken in a while and it was great to know that I helped facilitate their little catching up session.
Anyway, that’s my blog. Rochester is underrated as a city and has changed my whole impression of the Rust Belt here in upstate New York. I had lunch at the famous local joint The Dinosaur Barbecue with the team’s media relations director Chuck Hinkel and its director of broadcasting Josh Whetzel. Nothing beats a good barbecue, especially on Memorial Day weekend. Have a nice holiday everyone.

ON THE ROAD AGAIN

My most recent road trip took me back to the Carolinas so, as you can imagine, definitely no complaints from me. The two days we spent in Charleston and Myrtle Beach, S.C., only reinforced my burning desire to eventually "retire" there … great weather (well, in theory), nice people, wonderful ambiance and Minor League baseball. What more do you need?

Unfortunately, I must have done something in this or another life to tick off the weather gods.

You know you are in trouble when you catch the Weather Channel on a TV at the ballpark and see Jim Cantore coming to you live from two miles from where you are at that very moment.

Who is Jim Cantore? Let me quote Wikipedia here: "When a major weather event has occurred or is imminent, Cantore provides live field reporting from that site. Clips of him reporting while braving hurricane winds are a staple of the channel. Jim has reported from so many hurricanes that residents along the coast have given him the nickname, "The Angel of Death".

Yeah. So. NOT good news to see good ol’ Jim live on the beach about a mile or two east of the ballpark in Charleston, I can tell you that. So we didn’t stick around for the whole game (not with a lot of expensive video equipment that would not have liked the first remnants of Audrey, the first named storm of the summer) but I saw enough to come away with a great impression of Joseph P. Riley Jr. Ballpark.

Located right on the river, it’s a beautiful setting for a park, in downtown Charleston which is such a gem in itself. I think my favorite part of the stadium was not actually within sight of the field, but rather on the outside concourse, where there is a row of white rocking chairs where you can relax and gaze out at the marshes (I think they’re marshes anyway).

Another great touch is at the bar behind third base (hey, I had just bought my souvenir T-shirt and was waiting for a co-worker and that’s where the Weather Channel was on TV!), the whole bar is laminated with really old Charleston Minor League baseball cards. I had a great time picking out old friends, including Mike Berger, currently a pro scout with the Blue Jays …

There is certainly never a dull moment in Charleston, which is co-owned by Mike Veeck who is known for showmanship, creativity and originality when it comes to promotions, on and off the field. In fact, they sell T-shirts there with his slogan FIG (Fun is Good!) …

The next morning, not knowing if Audrey was following us, we hit Route 17 north to Myrtle Beach, passing approximately 872 sweetgrass basket shops along the way. It was really strange, at one point we drove right into the heart of a storm so heavy we could barely see the front of the car (or the back of the truck right in front of us), but once we got past that cloud the skies turned sunny and blue. And, believe it or not, stayed that way for the rest of our Myrtle Beach stint.

The new stadium in Myrtle Beach is without any question the jewel of the Carolina League and you can bet I have already circled June 24, 2008, on my desk calendar when the Carolina-California League All-Star Game will be played there. GM North Johnson is one of the best in the business, not to mention one of the nicest guys around … we go way back to his Kinston days and my Carolina League beat writer days (and share a fondness for Buddy’s Barbecue in Grifton, N.C., right off Route 11).

Just a mile from the beach and right off the Grand Strand, the location can’t be beat nor can the first-class facilities, right down to the beach area in left field and the party deck in right field.

I almost felt bad for some of the players who come through town from cities with lesser facilities, They must be pretty jealous of the Braves Class A players.

And the team is as much fun to watch as the ballpark is to go to … from phenom shortstop Elvis Andrus who lives up to his hype, seemingly getting to every ball within his zip code, to hometown hero outfielder Quentin Davis (whose cousin is Orlando Hudson), who heads out to his position every night doing handsprings and flips. He’s the league’s most dangerous threat on the bases in the early going as well. On this night, we watched him steal third base … he was called out but we had a good seat right behind third base and from the video camera shot we got, he looked safe to us!

Pelicans manager Rocket Wheeler is also a hometown guy and a fan favorite for so many reasons. Wearing the No. 18 (as in 18-Wheeler), and helped out during BP by his son "Missile," he tosses bubble gum to the fans at the beginning of every game … in fact, his bobblehead doll last year had him holding the bucket of bubble gum!

We witnessed one great moment in the stands in particular. Sitting down in the front row just past the visiting dugout along the third base line was a family with a young son. There was another father and son sitting about three rows behind them across the aisle.

Potomac Nationals manager Randy Knorr flipped a ball to the boy in the front row and shortly thereafter Wheeler did the same thing. The boy, who could have easily gone home the proud owner of not one but two trophies for his shelf, took the second ball and went over and gave it to the other boy in the stands.

So my next trip will be taking me down to Alabama for the Rickwood Classic in Birmingham and then a Montgomery-Huntsville game in Huntsville … I’ll be back before then, though, to share my impressions from a recent trip to Frederick, Md., my "home stadium" where they have really spiffed up the place big time!

More Correspondents (ence?)

Time to give our readers/writers some more love here. Sorry for the delay in getting these posts up, but I’ve been buried in draft stuff (good times).

First, from ATM unofficial historian Phil Lowry, who clearly enjoys spending time researching, well, time and how it pertains to Minor League ball:

One hundred twenty-six (126) of the 470  baseball games finishing after 1:00 AM have taken place in the minor leagues. So  far this year, there haven’t been any yet. The last one was in the Mexican  League: 1:19 AM early in the morning of Aug 28, 2006 at Estadio Kulkucan,  in Merida, Mexico as the Monterrey Sultanes (Sultans) downed the hometown  Yucatan Leones (Lions) 2-1 in 14 innings.

Leagues experiencing the most are: Texas 20; International 15;   Eastern and
Florida State both 10; Mexican 8; Pacific Coast 7; California, South Atlantic, and Southern all 6. Everyone knows about the Granddaddy of all such
marathons: suspended after 32 innings at 4:07 AM at McCoy Stadium in  Pawtucket, RI early on Easter Morning Apr 19, 1981 and later  completed Jun 23 when the hometown Paw Sox beat the Rochester Red  Wings 3-2 in 33 innings.

Few fans though have ever heard  of four other great minor league games that ended after 3 AM: 3:53 AM  in Monterey, Mexico Jun 22, 2006 when the Laguna Vaqueros  (Cowboys) downed the hometown Sultanes (Sultans) 6-4 in 16  innings after a long rain delay at the start; 3:50 AM  in Nashville, TN for a Sep 7, 1990 playoff game as the Omaha  Royals downed the hometown Sounds 8-7 in 20 innings after a long  rain delay in the bottom of the 11th; 3:27 AM in Burlington, NC Jun 24,  1988 when the Bluefield Orioles downed the hometown Indians 3-2 in
27 innings;  and 3:01 AM in Danville, VA Aug 2, 2000 as  the Princeton Devil Rays downed the hometown Braves 6-3  in 17 innings in the nightcap of a 24-inning rain-delayed DH.

None  of these minor league games however comes close to the latest-finishing  baseball game of them all: 9:05 AM Nov 4, 2000 in Tempe, AZ. It was an age-38-and-over amateur tournament championship game, won by the Kansas City Monarchs over the San Jose All-Stars 2-1. Rain delayed the start of the game until 6:30 AM.

If you ever hear of a game ending after 1 AM, or lasting five or more hours or
20 or more innings, Phil would like to hear from you at plowry1176@aol.com so he can update the
records.

And this, from FSL correspondent Chris Trunno:

More hijinx from the Florida State League…
 

?Walk?Walk?Walk?Walk??

I don?t think Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were contemplating this
scenario when they came up with the opening chorus of their song ?Walk Like a
Man?, but it happened, and it issued by some of the finer talent in the Florida
State League.

The beautiful thing about baseball is no matter what the stats or odds
say, anything can happen on any given day.

When last place Jupiter hosted first place Brevard County
on a muggy Tuesday night in South Florida, it was more than a top notch pitching
matchup between the Manatees? Will Inman and the Hammerheads Aaron
Thompson. 

Both pitchers are high draft picks out of high school, as Inman entered
boasting the Florida State League lead in ERA (1.27) and strikeouts (49), and a
former third round pick in 2006.  Thompson is a Marlins first round pick from
2006, but hadn?t fared as well sporting a record of 1-2 and a 4.12 ERA this
season.

When the game ended and the result was told, the Hammerheads literally
walked off with a 3-2 win.

Telling Brewers officials that their advanced-A affiliate?s league
leading pitching staff just lost the game to the Hammerheads, who sport the
second lowest batting average in the league, would have most scratching their
heads.  What would send them through the roof was that
the Hammerheads didn?t need to take the bat off their shoulder to do
it.

With the game tied at 2-2 in the eighth inning, Manatees manager John
Tamargo went to the bullpen to bring in the league?s best stopper in Ben
Stanczyk.  Stanczyk did his normal job
by retiring the Hammerheads third and fourth hitters.

Hammerheads? closer Todd Doolittle escaped a lead-off pinch-hit double by
Mat Gamel to preserve the tie into the bottom of the ninth. Stanczyk started the ninth and yielded a
lead-off walk to J.T. Restko. The walk
was only Stanczyk?s seventh in 19 innings. He had three more left in him.

Kris Harvey bunted pinch-runner Colin Roberson to second, Jon Fulton was
walked and Carlos Piste popped out. Coming up was Lorenzo Scott, with a .183 average and
0-for-his-last-9. He walked to load the
bases. The 2-2 pitch Scott took inside
looked like a perfect breaking pitch by Stanczyk that just had to catch some
part of the plate, but home plate umpire Clint Fagan disagreed.

Augustin Septimo (.183) worked the count full, fouling off several
pitches. Tamargo had his outfield
shifted halfway into the visiting clubhouse in left field clubhouse with left
fielder Cole Gillespie on the line, centerfielder Lorenzo Cain in the
left-center gap and Charilie Fermaint in straight-away center. Maybe he wanted to give them a head
start? Septimo could have skied a ball
to right and won the game if he could pull it. He wouldn?t have to as Stanczyk issued his fourth walk of the inning and
Jupiter walked off with the win.

This wouldn?t be the first time this has happened in Roger Dean Stadium
history. In fact, almost a year ago, on
May 22, 2006, Lakeland?s Kevin Whelan walked four batters in the
ninth against Palm Beach, followed by Jeremy Johnson walking in the winning run
as the Cardinals defeated the Tigers 4-3 with three runs in the ninth
inning.

FSL correspondent

Chris Tunno checks in with this information about a future star:

It?s not every day you get to see greatness develop, which is what makes
the minor leagues so special.

Having been on vacation, I was able to stop and see the Daytona Cubs
hosting the Lakeland Tigers on Saturday night at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. The previous night, it took Lakeland 17
innings to knock off the Cubs 6-5 in a game that elapsed just under five
hours.

Over the years, Jackie Robinson Ballpark has undergone several
renovations, but none more obvious than the attempt to sell beer. On this particular Saturday night, with a
great crowd on hand for fireworks, beer lines went quick and fast as there must
have been 10 to 12 stands open in a 30-yard area. With 32 oz. cups going for $5.50, one can
only imagine what kind of party they?re going to throw when hosting the Florida
State League All-Star game on June 16th on what will probably be a
100-degree night in June.

Tigers upcoming pitching phenom Andrew Miller was slated to get the start
on Saturday. However, when a 6-foot-7 pitcher took the mound wearing No. 27 as
listed in the program, it was Andrew Kohn, not Andrew Miller.

That was all right because Cameron Maybin was playing centerfield and
batting third for Lakeland. Maybin is
the future centerfielder of the Tigers and, just by looking at him, a man among
boys out on the field. The kid runs like
a gazelle, has exploding arm action and carries himself with the presence of a
major leaguer.

In the first inning, with two outs, Maybin dropped a bunt and it wasn?t
even close. It was chasing a cheetah
shot out of a cannon. The Cubs looked
shocked when Maybin squared and Kyle Reynolds barely got off a late throw, if
anything, for effect. It wasn?t long
before he swiped second and came home on a hit. One batter later, Ryan Roberson launched a two-run home run last seen
heading toward Jacksonville and the Tigers led 3-0. That?s the kind of presence Maybin
brings. All it took was a bunt and a
little hustle and the Tigers busted open a 3-0 lead.

Granted, these Lakeland Flying Tigers aren?t particularly good at holding
a lead as Daytona stormed back to turn a 6-1 deficit into a 9-7 victory
thrilling the near sell out crowd on hand.

From what I saw, Mr. Maybin may well be on the fast track to
Detroit. The 20-year old Carolinian was
hitting .312 with four home runs 17 RBI and 11 stolen bases following the
game.

He can do it all, it?s just a matter of when, not if, when if comes to
promotion. I figure he?ll be exciting
the crowds in Erie once the weather warms up in the lake effect region of the
country.

ATM Correspondents

Two reports for today…Lucas Shaw is back with our very first blog preview (and he was savvy enough to even plug our products!):

Wednesday night’s match-up between the Tulsa Drillers and the Arkansas Travelers
features a top-prospect pitching duel between Greg
Reynolds
and Nick
Adenhart
, respectively.  Both pitchers are considered to be among the most
promising pitching prospects for their parent organizations. 

Adenhart
split the 2006 season between LA Angels affiliates Cedar Rapids Kernels of the
Midwest League and Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of the California League.  The
towering 6′ 7" Reynolds spent part of the 2006 season with the California
League’s Modesto Nuts. 

Both pitchers are starting the 2007 season
red-hot.  Adenhart is 3 -1, with a 1.70 ERA and 28 strikeouts over 37 innings. 
Reynolds, a Colorado Rockies prospect, is 2 -1 with a 1.91 ERA and 26 strikeouts
over 33 innings.

These right-handed hurlers square off at the new
Dickey-Stephens Park in Little Rock, Arkansas Wednesday night at 7:10 p.m. CST 
If you are lucky you can go to the game; the rest of us can listen to it live at
MiLB’s
Gameday Audio
.

This one comes from unofficial He Said, She Said historian Phil Lowry:

One hundred sixty-nine (169) of the 511 baseball games ever lasting five hours or longer have taken place in the minor leagues. So far this year, we’ve only seen two: 5:14 at Legends Field in Tampa  April 17 as the Clearwater Threshers defeated the hometown Yanks, 4-1, in 20 innings, and 5:26 at Whataburger Field in Corpus Christi April  26 when the hometown Hooks downed the Midland RockHounds, 7-6.

Leagues experiencing the most are: Texas 27; Florida State 15;  International 12;  Eastern, Pacific Coast, and Southern 11; South  Atlantic 10; California 9; Midwest 8; Mexican and New York-Penn both 6.  Everyone knows about the Granddaddy of all such marathons: 8:25 at McCoy  Stadium in Pawtucket, RI on April 18 and June 23, 1981, as the  hometown Paw Sox beat the Rochester Red Wings,3-2, in 33  innings.

Few fans have ever heard though of two other great minor league games that also took more than eight hours: 8:15 at Athletic Stadium in Burlington, NC June 24, 1988 when the Bluefield Orioles downed the hometown Indians  3-2 in 27 innings, and 8:07 at Greer Stadium in Nashville, TN May 5 and 6,  2006 when the New Orleans Zephyrs defeated the hometown Sounds 5-4 in  24 innings.

None of these minor league games however comes close to the longest  baseball game of them all: ten hours and no minutes at Piedras Negras, in the  state of Coahuila, Mexico July 18, 1926. It was an amateur game, won  by San Luisito (of Texas) over Piedras Negras (Black Rock)  Internationals (of Mexico) 29-19.

They started at 9 AM, and the game was called  after 5 1/2 innings at 7 PM. So it took 109.1 minutes per inning. This  famous game is very well documented, but why they took SOOOO long to play  it is still a mystery.

TRAVELBLOGUE: Eastlake and Erie

Better late than never, no? This one is going to be on the brief side. Not because I didn’t enjoy my visits to the Lake County Captains or the Erie SeaWolves. I just didn’t have time to explore either locale beyond the ballpark.

That being said, Classic Park in Eastlake is one of the nicest of the new Minor League parks out there. Talk to anyone on the low-A team knows they have it good — the other stadia in the South Atlantic League don’t measure up (though I haven’t seen all of them, to be fair). It’s not even bells and whistles, it’s just a great place to watch a ballgame. There’s no bad seat and there are more of them (seats) than in most parks at this level. If you’re heading to Cleveland, try to stop by — it’s only a stone’s throw away and well worth the trip.

Jerry Uht Park is a downtown stadium built back in 1995 and could very well be the model some of the newer downtown parks around the minors we’ve been seeing lately. In the end, it’s not a bad park, it’s not a great park. It was packed with kids, which was nice. The press box is slightly off-center, down the third base line, which made it feel a little bit like a football stadium. Even though it’s been open only since ’95, it felt more retro — maybe just in comparison to Classic Park — again, not a bad thing, not a good thing. I’d say it was OK overall.

Lisa will be with you later in the week with what I’m sure will be a much better travelblogue…

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