CATCHING UP (or trying to)

Sitting at a Starbucks on July 4 right outside of Modesto (with a great psychic barista named Clarence who makes killer iced raspberry mocha venti frappucinos) with my T Mobile Hot Spot happening, it seems like a good time to try to catch up on my blogging …

Let’s see, where have I been?

Midwest League All-Star Game in Kane County … Elfstrom Stadium in Geneva, less than an hour from Chicago (except when you’re heading back to O’Hare in rush hour traffic) is another gem. I’ve been really blown away this summer so far by all the new stadiums I’ve gotten to see, each being nicer than the next … it’s no surprise that the Minors as a whole is seeing such a boom time. The parks are so welcoming and upscale, while still maintaining the firm eye on Baseball as Fun for the Family, that a night at a game seems the perfect outing, with something for everyone and always affordable.

Anyway, after iffy weather the evening before the big event, and threats of those ugly midwestern thunderstorms messing with the game, the day-of dawned sunny and gorgeous (unlike, sadly, Jonathan’s simultaneous trek to Rome).

The game itself was, I confess, less than memorable though I do think a good time was had by all … the league selected a crazy-big number of players initially (34 per team including 18 pitches per staff) with, I guess, concerns about the usually inevitable attrition and unavailable pitchers. But few players were promoted or injured so almost everyone showed up and as a result the dugouts were more than a little crowded and it was hard to tell the players without a scorecard (and I didn’t envy the managers trying to get everyone into the game).

The Cougars decided to dare to be different, always admirable, by veering away from the usual pre-game Home Run Derby and instead having the players compete in the events that are usually run between innings with the fans participating … lawnmower driving, whiffle golf (I think thats what it was called), slingshot tosses, etc. It was a really cute idea but in actuality it didn’t  work as well as one might have hoped because it was rushed and no one really knew what was going on.

Texas League All Star Game in Corpus Christi. … OK, I’m pushing a half century here and I finally learned the true meaning of a term I’ve heard all my life: "It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity." Despite being located on the Gulf Coast, Corpus Christi is HUMID. You walk out the door and feel like you’ve been dumped with a bucket of warm water. But it is a cool (you know what I mean) city and I have heard nothing but raves about it (pitcher Marcus McBeth told me last fall that of everyplace he’s been on the road in his career, Corpus Christi is his favorite, both for the park and the city).

Whataburger Field is right near the water and the bridge by the bay runs right behind right field. You can’t help but think one huge home run blast might take out a passing car’s windshield but I suspect that may be an exaggeration.

The Texas League went back to the "old way" of doing the Home Run Derby, running the whole thing before the game (in the last two years, they would have the two finalists face off after the third inning of the game itself) but they may have regretted the decision in the long run … despite a brisk wind blowing in from right field which pretty much negated the left-handed sluggers from the get-go, a few participants were absolutely crushing the ball, notably Midland RockHounds catcher Landon Powell (who I have to add has lost weight since Arizona Fall League and is in fantastic shape), and surprise slugger Sean Rodriguez, the Arkansas Travelers’ infielder.

That pair had 14 home runs apiece in the opening round and it looked as if they would be the ones to beat in the four-man finals. However, as the event was running late (they were heading into the semifinal round AFTER the scheduled time for the first pitch of the game), rules were tweaked a few times with the number of allotted outs reduced.

In the semifinals, Texas League home run leader German Duran just barely snuck in with a lare flurry in the opening round and still needed two rounds of sudden death to edge hometown favorite Noochie Varner for the last slot. He beat out his own teammate, catcher Kevin Richardson, for that spot as well, at which point Richardson took over as Duran’s personal pitcher for the finals (each player was allowed to pick his own pitcher).

And with just three outs in the finals, the first three participants — Powell, Rodriguez and Springfield’s Juan Richardson — came up empty, leaving Duran to step up for dramatic heroics. He crushed HIS Richardson’s first offering over the center field wall for the win (and promised to give Richardson a piece of his $5000 prize as well).

The game was no less dramatic, with the lead changing hands a few times before going to extra innings. A weird little-known rule, made a few years ago during another tie, revealed that if the game DID end tied after 10 innings, the winning team would be determined by whose player had won the Home Run Derby (the South). But the host South still got a shot to try to win it "legitimately" in the bottom of the 10th and did so when Corpus Christi’s own Jonny Ash scorched a game-winning hit for the 5-4 win.

Now I’m here in northern California in anticipation of the upcoming Futures Game on Sunday as well as the Fanfest and other events leading up to it. I head to San Francisco tomorrow to meet up with my MiLB.com and MLB.com cohorts but first get to attend my first ever regular-season California League games!

Last night I was out at Stockton seeing some old friends and watching some fun young players. Eric Young Jr. ("Little EY"), whose dad was one of my alltime favorite players and who I actually covered when HE was in college (go Scarlet Knights!) got his first five-hit game in his career (and yes, I had him in Beat the Streak! Do I get extra credit for a five-hit game, guys?)

It was also awesome to see Stockton’s hitting coach, Tim Garland. A longtime favorite of mine, I had the pleasure of being the beat writer for the Prince William Cannons back when he himself was an up-and-coming Class A outfielder. I hope the Stockton players know how lucky they are to have him as their coach … a good teacher and an even better person.

Tonight i head over to Modesto to see the Nuts again, this time against the San Jose Giants … and then head back up to the Bay Area to dive into all Futures, all the time for the next few days. And yes I PROMISE to blog more frequently from SF …

You can especially look forward to stories about Friday, when Jonathan and I will spend the day with Bay Area native Chuck Lofgren as he (and his dad) give us a video tour of his favorite tourist spots in San Francisco. To say I am stoked for that would be an understatement.

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