Blowin’ In the Wind

OK, I’ve been a lazy slug. This I freely admit: I’ve been more than lax in not updating my blog in well over a month. But as I sit here in the press box at the AT&T Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, a couple of hours before the 2008 Bricktown Showdown will bring down the curtain on another season of minor league ball, I figured I might as well finally post an update.

It’s been a good year and I’ve enjoyed covering it. From that frigid opener in Syracuse to this last hurrah on a beautiful day in OKC, it’s been a fantastic ride, this 2008 Minor League Season.

Since my last post, I’ve:

  1.  visited Fenway Park for the Futures at Fenway doubleheader (always a good time in Beantown)
  2. headed to Troy (the New York version, not the home of Paris & Hector) for the NY-Penn League All-Star Game
  3. was in Pittsburgh to help with a live test of the MLB Instant Replay system (PNC Park is one of my favorite big league parks)
  4. went to Charleston, West Virginia for the opening game of the South Atlantic League playoffs
  5. headed to Florida for the entirety of the Florida State League Championship Series, which entailed visiting West Palm Beach (for the finale of the East Division series), then going to Fort Myers before finishing up in Daytona Beach.
  6. jetted off to Dallas for the end of the Texas League playoffs
  7. and ended up here in Oklahoma City for the Triple-A title game

Taking them in order, the Fenway trip is always a good one. The players are always excited at the opportunity to take the field in a major league ballpark and their enthusiasm is met in full measure by the legions of Sox fans who show up to root for the Boston farmhands. One thing I noticed this year – there were a lot of kids in the stands (it’s a doubleheader on a Saturday in August, with beautiful weather). One large contingent in the left field corner reminded me of the seagulls in “Finding Nemo” – whenever a foul ball would go down the third base line, they’d all chant “Right here! Right here!” waving their arms for the ball much as the seagulls chanted “Mine! Mine!” for any fish coming venturing into their area.

The New York-Penn League All-Star game was next. This is an interesting concept – an All-Star game in a league where the season doesn’t even begin until the end of June. Still, many good players have participated in that game since it started including current big leaguers such as Boston’s Jed Lowrie and Philly’s Kyle Kendrick. In fact, we counted six alums of the first game (played in Brooklyn back in 2005) who are in the big leagues now. We did a feature on Staten Island Yankee pitcher Pat Venditte, who not only pitches with either hand, he is very effective with either hand. We also featured Jeremy Farrell, the son of Red Sox pitching coach John Farrell, who was drafted by the Pirates in this June’s draft and is playing for State College.

The Pittsburgh trip was a one afternoon thing, a demonstration of the brand-new instant replay system for the media. It’s very slick and even though the umpires get it right nearly every time, having instant replay as a backup is a great idea.

Once the playoffs began, Jonathan & I were off to Charleston for the start of the Sally League playoffs between Lake County and West Virginia. Visiting Appalachian Power Park means getting a eye – and ear – full of the “Toastman.” If you haven’t ever seen Rod Blackstone (aka Toastman) in action and have a chance to stop by and see the Power play, don’t pass it up. Blackstone brings heckling to a whole new level, researching each opposing player and coming up with creative, but not cruel, taunts for them. His trademark, a stack of toast he toasts right in his seat and then throws into the crowd following a strikeout when he leads his fellow fans in chanting “Toast! Toast! Toast! You… are… toast!” is pretty funny. Unfortunately for Toastman, his Power lost that opener to Lake County. The Power did go on to win the series before ultimately falling to Augusta in a sweep in the league finals. Jonathan & I did a feature on outfielder Caleb Gindl, which you can view here.

Just one day after getting home from West Virginia, I headed to Florida to meet up with Lisa for the FSL playoffs. After landing in Orlando, we began a long tour of the state of Florida in a rented Kia Sorrento. We started with the finale of the Palm Beach-Daytona series (won by Daytona) before heading to Fort Myers for the start of the best-of-five Championship Series. After two games there (both won by Daytona) we headed to Daytona Beach. The series went four games, with Daytona finally winning before an ecstatic home crowd in game four. Lisa got a little too close to the celebration and ended up getting a light shower of champagne, but we did several post game interviews. We also produced a pair of features, one on Daytona second baseman (and Finals MVP) Tony Thomas and one on Fort Myers outfielder Rene Tosoni.

As if that weren’t enough, Lisa & I flew from Orlando to Dallas on September 11 for the back-end of the Texas League finals. The matchup between Frisco and Arkansas was tied at 1-1 when we arrived. On paper, the series should have been won by Frisco, which won both halves of the season in their division while first-half champ Arkansas finished at 16 games under .500 for the season. But that, as they say, is why they play the games. Arkansas ended up winning in five games. The Frisco ballpark is one of my personal faves – it’s fairly unique architecturally, but the press box is a little on the umm.. small side. Still, everyone there was incredibly helpful and we’re producing features on Elvis Andrus of Frisco and Hank Conger of Arkansas. Those should be hitting the site in a day or two, so keep an eye out for them.

Now to explain the title. Obviously the weather has been in the news a lot lately. When I headed to Florida, the talk was about Hannah, which ended up missing the Sunshine State, though it did rain out a game before it headed north to drop a ton of rain on the East Coast. After Hannah came Ike. Though I was in Dallas when the storm came through, it was little more than an annoyance – especially when contrasted with what it did in Galveston and Houston. To cap off a windy week or so, a wind storm back home in Ohio knocked out the power (and some trees) at my home. At the moment, it’s still off and my wife & kids are living with the in-laws. Still, looking at Galveston & Houston, we can’t really complain.

All-Star Grand Tour Stops 4 & 5

Well, most of the “All-Star season” is finished now – in the last few days we’ve had the Futures Game, the Southern League, Major League, Eastern League and Triple-A All-Star games. It’d be impossible for someone to visit all of ‘em since they overlap and cover a span of four days, so you’re forced to pick & choose (or in my case, be told which ones to cover).

The pair I attended – the Futures Game and Triple-A All-Star game are both top-level events. Obviously the Futures Game (the 2008 edition was the eighth I’ve attended having missed the first two due to basically working for the NBA at the time) is the biggest and most prestigious of the group. After all, it’s played at the site of the MLB All-Star game, it includes players from virtually all of the full-season minor leagues and is reserved for players that are considered to be the big leaguers of the future (hence the name).

This year’s Futures Game had the added cachet of being in Yankee Stadium. Many of the players had never set foot in the hallowed edifice, let alone been on the field. My Futures Game experience was essentially operating a camera for MLB.com’s Pregame Show and in-game between-innings dugout interviews (conducted by Lisa Winston). One thing about Yankee Stadium – the dugouts are not large. Compared to the locales of the other seven Futures Games I’ve attended, the dugouts at Yankee Stadium are tiny. Part of being an 85 year old ballpark (even one that was renovated) I suppose. With us in the USA dugout were Erin Andrews and her ESPN producer and cameraman, a trio from XM Satellite Radio, MLB.com’s dugout blogger, and an assortment of non-field personnel from Team USA. It was cramped, which led to us being told to leave about halfway through the game. It turned out that I ended up staying there for the rest of the game anyway, because the ESPN folks (and Lisa and producer Kyle Casey) all headed over to the World Dugout, easing the congestion (which was roughly equivalent to riding the D train at rush hour).

It was a novel experience to say the least, capped by my getting a nice sunburn during pregame media availability where we did a handful of interviews.

From New York, Lisa, Jonathan Mayo and I all headed to Louisville for the Triple-A All-Star Game festivities. It was my first visit to Kentucky’s largest city, which sits on the southern bank of the Ohio River across from Indiana. To me, Louisville called to mind several things: Muhammad Ali, bourbon and the Kentucky Derby. I also found out that 90% of all the disco balls in the country come from Louisville. So the next time you’re getting jiggy with it on the dance floor, think about where that mirrored ball over your head originated. That’s right: Louisville, Disco Ball Capital of the USA.

The Triple-A version of the Home Run Derby was on Monday. I have a confession to make: I think the HR derby’s a waste of time. Whew… there: got that off my chest and confession is good for the soul. I’ve seen a ton of ‘em from the big leagues down to the NY-Penn League, so maybe I’m just jaded. Regardless of my personal feelings, it seems like every All-Star game in the minors is required to have two things: a HR Derby and postgame fireworks (which generally wreak havoc with the MVP interview we’re trying to finish on the field after the game).

The Derby here in Louisville wasn’t as impressive as the one going on concurrently in the Bronx. We didn’t have Josh Hamilton channeling Mickey Mantle and bouncing baseballs off the back wall behind the bleachers (for one thing there isn’t a back wall behind the bleachers at Louisville Slugger Field). The derby here was one by Jamie D’Antona of Tucson, who hit, I think about 14 homers in three rounds (including several tie-breaking “swing-offs”) of the contest. Jamie’s a terrific interview – you should definitely check out his HR Derby interview with Lisa.

Tuesday was All-Star Gala night at the Louisville Slugger Museum. That was pretty cool. We walked around and saw bats being made (apparently they can really churn those suckers out), I got to make a fool of myself in the batting cage (proving that unlike riding a bicycle, hitting a baseball is something you can forget pretty easily) and sample the “official All-Star cocktail” a concoction based on Kentucky bourbon (natch) and featuring orange juice, lemonade and a cherry (which promptly sinks to the bottom of the glass). It was good, but I had only one lest I make a fool out of myself in more embarrassing ways than I did swinging good Louisville lumber poorly in the batting cage. The museum is nice and has a lot of interesting exhibits (mostly related, as you’d expect, to bats) and I recommend it if you’re ever in the Disco Ball Capital of the USA.

Last night was the game itself. Jonathan got to do sideline work for ESPN which included riding the carousel behind right field and interviewing Jake the Diamond Dog. People have done far worse to get on TV, so you can’t hold it against the guy. Lisa & I worked on our feature on Indianapolis Indians outfielder (and top Pirates prospect) Andrew McCutchen – which is coming soon to a computer near you – and eventually, after the teams combined for nine runs in the ninth, we did an interview with PCL player of the game Matt Brown which is on MiLB.com right now.

Today it’s back to Ohio. Having been gone for a week, I’m really looking forward to seeing my wife & kids. I also hope that 1986 edition of Pursue the Pennant I won on Ebay has appeared on my doorstep. I heard from Mike Cieslinski, the game’s creator and we traded a few emails about Dynasty League Baseball, which is the updated version of PtP and Mike is coming out with an online version, which looks promising.

Weekend in New York

I’m here in the Big Apple for what I guess you’d call the “front-half” of the All-Star festivities. Once the Futures Game wraps up later today, I’ll be packing up and heading to Louisville for the Triple-A All-Star activities.

Coming back to NYC is really like going home. On Friday we did something I’d never done, despite living in the NY metropolitan area for most of my life: ride an open-top tour bus around the city. The tour was set up as part of a feature we were doing with Scott Campbell and Luke Hughes, two Futures Gamers who had never before been to New York. The tour was interesting and we even took a ride on the Staten Island Ferry (something I had done before, but not within the last twenty years or so). The feature turned out well, and can be seen on either MLB.com or MiLB.com.

It had been about 18 months since I was last here, and even longer since I’d been to Yankee Stadium. I spent about eight hours at the House That Ruth Built yesterday, setting up for today’s Futures Game where I will be manning a camera for between-inning interviews. Realizing that this trip probably represents the last time I’ll be in the grand old ballpark brings back some memories.

The first major league game I ever attended was at Yankee Stadium. It was August of 1979, I was ten years old and my brother eight when my parents took us to a game between the Yanks and Twins – I’m pretty sure it was this game. This was shortly after the tragic death of Thurman Munson. I don’t remember all that much about the game specifically. We sat in the upper deck, my brother and I got yearbooks and ate hot dogs and pretzels. The things that stuck with me most were that the Yankee catcher was Brad Gulden (“just like the mustard!” I told my parents) and just the sheer size of the ballpark itself.

The ballpark is still impressive in size and even though I’ve been there scores of times as working media now – doing interviews in the Yankee clubhouse and in then-manager Joe Torre’s office when I was producing “The State of the Yankees” for MLB.com several years ago – I still get a sense of awe when I’m there. As a big baseball history buff, the Stadium represents the place where Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Berra, Ford, etc, etc all created their legends.

Later in the day we heard about Bobby Murcer’s death. Bobby played in that game in August of 1979, having just rejoined the Yanks in June after being traded for Bobby Bonds back in 1975. I thought about that when I heard the news, that Murcer played center for the Yanks in my first Yankee game. He was a great guy and he’ll be sorely missed.

The Man Behind the Curtain

No, that title isn’t a reference to Joseph Stalin. The curtain isn’t Iron and this isn’t a Cold War reference. Nor is it in any way a reference to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense, with all due respect to those who proudly wave the Terrible Towel. Nope, neither of those is appropriate. The reference is actually to The Wizard of Oz.

What – you might ask – does a film almost 70 years old have to do with baseball?

Well, nothing really. But the role portrayed by Frank Morgan in that film, the Wizard himself (aka the ‘Man Behind the Curtain’) represents to me the feeling I get when I am enjoying my main hobby: simulation baseball.

Yep, I’ve decided to step back from my normal ruminations on my job (cool as it may be) to my main passion away from the camera & editing suite, the aforementioned hobby of simulation baseball (and football, hockey, occasionally basketball – you get the drift).

There is a sizeable portion of the baseball-loving population, being of a certain age (say born before the late 70s), that remember playing baseball simulation board games like Strat-o-Matic, APBA, and the like. That was my introduction to the hobby: the old “toss the dice and look at the cards – or charts” world of Strat, APBA or my personal favorite: Pursue the Pennant (or PtP to partisans such as myself). Yeah, it was – and is – geeky, but it was fun. PtP had a field (one with grass, one with turf – it was the 80s after all), and outfield wall strips for each ballpark. You’d put the field and wall strip into the box top and it created a sort of ballpark for you to roll your dice in. Simple, but brilliant design and it added to the feel of the game.

The arrival of computerized versions of these games changed things. No longer was it necessary to meticulously play out each game, pen in hand, keeping score just like I would at Yankee Stadium and then calculating the batting averages, ERAs and so forth. I fondly remember doing just that with a 1988 edition of PtP, seeing if the Orioles would lose 20 straight (they didn’t, but they weren’t good either), how the Mets and Yankees would do (the Mets were very good; the Yanks? not so much) and so on. I remember Orel Hershiser and David Cone being ridiculously good, Canseco being a 40-40 guy and so on. It made the tedium of life in the military (I was in the Air Force at the time) somewhat more bearable.

Computer versions changed things, made it much easier to do replays, draft leagues and eventually, with the internet, have online leagues that let you compete against folks from all over the world. I was with the NBA when I ran my first league as commissioner. It was a basketball league, of course, using a fairly simple DOS-based program, and the participants were all co-workers. I branched out into a net-based hockey league where my competition included a couple of published hockey historians (one Canadian, the other Swedish) and even a guy from Hong Kong (who knew a whole lot about the game despite being a native of HK and only seeing the NHL on tape-delayed satellite broadcasts).

Naturally, the big thing for me was baseball. And eventually I participated in – and then “commished” – online baseball sim leagues. My sims of choice were Diamond Mind Baseball, which started life as the computer version of my beloved PtP and bore that moniker for several years before PtP folded up (in 1994, I think it was), and the other was Out of the Park Baseball. DMB is now on version 9 and is a rock-solid and accurate “replay” style game. That means you can realistically expect players to produce “lifelike” results for the given season. Each season is seperate, and the players are meticulously rated to keep their performance as close to life as possible. OOTP – also now in version 9 – is a little different. It has gradually evolved into a monster sim which is capable (though not with DMB’s meticulously researched, hand-crafted seasons) of doing very solid replays, but also has a career mode, where a player’s career shape can change over time based on usage, injuries and so on.

Currently, over on my personal, sim-sport-devoted website, I have two baseball “projects” going on: an OOTP league which is going to play out baseball history with fictional players and a replay I’ve just begun of the 1908 season. The latter is inspired by Cait Murphy’s book “Crazy ’08″ which describes the 1908 season in detail (the book is tremendous, I highly recommend it to anyone who loves baseball).

It’s been 100 years since that wild season, probably best remembered as the most-recent (if that term can even be applied) Championship season for the Chicago Cubs, but also famous among baseball historians for the wild pennant races in both leagues – especially the NL’s between the Cubs, Giants and Pirates which turned decisively one day in September when Giants’ first baseman Fred Merkle earned an ignominous (and pretty much undeserved) place in baseball history.

The reason I decided to write this particular post is due to my five-year-old son. He’s a fan of numbers – the first kid I’ve met who can be entertained by simply handing him a calculator. He loves NASCAR – the cars all have numbers on them, and most products or companies he’s heard of – and he will sit there and watch on TV if I put a race on. Now, I was never much of a fan of motor sports, but it does grow on you. Someday I’ll take him to a race. Sorry for the big digression there – the point is that one of the things I always loved about baseball was the numbers – stats. I love stats.

It occurred to me that my son, with his love for numbers, might grow to love baseball through numbers. So I found that though PtP is gone, there are two successors available. One: Dynasty League Baseball is produced by the guy (his name’s Mike Cieslinski) who created Pursue the Pennant. There’s also a free evolution of the original PtP called Internet League Baseball. So I fired up the old printer, found some dice and introduced my son to my old love – the baseball tabletop game. And, though he can’t read the charts or anything (good thing I can), he enjoyed it – we played Yanks vs Red Sox, so he knew some of the players. After our first game, he took the scoresheet and ran to put it in his drawer with his drawings and art supplies.

Then we went outside and, with my 7-year-old daughter (who’s becoming quite a good hitter – she’s a lefty, like yours truly), played a little tee-ball.

And on Saturday, I won an Ebay auction on a 1986 edition of Pursue the Pennant. Time to introduce the kids to Mookie, Billy Buck and the rest of the gang.

All-Star Grand Tour, Stop 3

Well, I must confess that I’ve been falling down on the job lately. I mean, the California-Carolina All-Star Game was almost two weeks ago and I didn’t blog on it. I meant to… really, I did. Stuff came up, you know how it is.

Part of why I never got around to it was that Tim Beckham (that #1 overall pick guy I blogged on a few weeks back on Draft Day), made his debut at Princeton of the Rookie-level Appalachian League on Thursday 6/26. Jonathan blogged extensively (every at-bat I believe) on that game, so there’s probably not too much I can add. I spent the game under the stands capturing video on my laptop between Beckham’s at-bats. The feature is on the Rays’ website if you want to check it out. My impressions of that night – Beckham was amped up (who could blame him?), his team won the game, and the bugs were out in force.

Skipping back a bit, the California-Carolina League All-Star Game (how’s that for a mouthful?) was played on a hot & humid night (Tuesday 6/24 to be exact) in Myrtle Beach. The ballpark there is nice, and being in Myrtle Beach is certainly a plus. Lisa & I stayed at a Courtyard by Marriott literally two doors down from the park, which was very convenient. Myrtle Beach native Vanna White was on hand to toss out the first pitch. It wasn’t a perfect pitch, but I’ve seen worse. The place was packed, which says something when you’re competing with everything else that the Myrtle Beach area has to offer.

We did a video feature on Pablo Sandoval, the San Jose Giants’ catcher who was promoted to Double-A Connecticut after the game (though he – and we – found out beforehand). He was also recently added to the World Team for the upcoming Futures Game, so things are looking rosy for the Giants’ presumptive backstop of the future. We also interviewed both starting pitchers: Sandoval’s team mate Ben Snyder (little brother of Brad Snyder, the Indians’ OF prospect) – who also moved up to Connecticut after the game; and Frederick hurler Jake Arrieta, who has a solid shot at being on the U.S. Olympic Team next month after having himself a very nice first half. The video stuff for Pablo & Ben can be seen over on the SF Giants’ site, while Arrieta’s can be found on the Orioles site.

I’ll try to post some images from the video I shot, including one of the lovely Vanna tossing out the first pitch in Myrtle Beach as soon as I get my drive back next week in New York, which is – of course – the next stop on my whirlwind All-Star tour.

All-Star Grand Tour, Stop 2

The second stop on my All-Star tour for 2008 was the Midwest League All-Star game in Midland, Michigan. First, let me say that Dow Diamond (home of the Great Lakes Loons) – where Jonathan & I stopped last year just after Opening Day – is among my favorites of the new minor league parks. Not quite on the level of the new Lehigh Valley park, which is outstanding but considering this is A-ball, it’s phenomenal.

Midland’s the home of Dow Chemicals (hence the name of the Loons’ home park), but it also sports one of the best burger joints we’ve come across in our journeys. I know Jonathan is going to mention it in his blog, so I won’t duplicate his stuff since (since we feel the same way about the place). It’s called Daddy-O’s Diner and is on Main Street a couple of blocks from the ballpark. If you’re in Midland for a Loons game and have a hankering for a good burger and/or shake, definitely check it out.

mwl_parker_tm.jpgAs in Florida, our mission in Michigan was to grab a few of the top players for the feature/interview treatment. With five first-rounders on hand, the pickings were prime. We decided to start with a feature on South Bend pitcher Jarrod Parker, who was the ninth overall pick last June by the Diamondbacks. He had thrown recently and wouldn’t be pitching in the game, but we shot him at the Fan Fest, signing prodigious amounts of autographs, as well as during BP, during the team photo, opening ceremonies and wired him up during the game itself. Look for this feature next week, it’ll be a good one.

mwl_tall_short.jpg One of the more amusing sights to be seen was Beloit’s All-Star duo of Loek Van Mil and Chris Cates. Van Mil, a pitcher from the Netherlands, stands at 7-1 while team mate Cates, an infielder from Florida, measures 5-3. Seeing them standing side-by-side during warmups made for an interesting contrast. Cates appeared in the game first, pinch-hitting in the top of the sixth after a 30-minute rain delay and struck out. Van Mil came on in the bottom half to pitch for the West. I can only imagine what he must look like to a batter in the box – all arms and legs, and releasing the ball right on top of the hitter. He did strike out the first batter he faced before giving up a single. He then went to the, ahem… stretch, showing a nice compact delivery for a man so tall. When he finished his one inning of work, he had allowed one hit, one walk and one strikeout, and escaped with no runs allowed.

mwl_ahrens.jpgIn addition to the feature on Parker, we grabbed three of the other first rounders for interviews. Kevin Ahrens, the switch-hitting third baseman for the Lansing Lugnuts, was the 16th overall pick last June for the Toronto Blue Jays. Seems the Jays are going away from their usual m.o. of drafting college players – Ahrens was drafted out of high school, where he played mainly shortstop, but seems to be making the transition to third without too much trouble

mwl_kozma.jpgPete Kozma, who was drafted by the Cardinals just two picks after Ahrens – and like Ahrens a high school shortstop – was the second in our trio of interviews. Kozma played in the Gulf Coast, Appalachian and NY-Penn leagues last season and, judging by his inclusion on the Midwest League All-Star team, is doing pretty well in full-season ball this year.

mwl_revere.jpgThe other interviewee was Ben Revere, the center fielder for the Beloit Snappers who was the 28th overall pick of the first round by the Twins last season. Revere has been hitting the cover off the ball this season, bringing a snazzy .413 average with him to the All-Star game. Though somewhat small of stature (listed at 5’9), Revere’s 13 doubles and 9 triples had him leading the loop in slugging and his OPS is a very impressive 1.028. During the interview, Revere came off as thoughtful, hard-working and honest. Definitely someone to keep an eye on as he climbs the ladder through the Minnesota system.

Though the game went into extra innings – and there was a rain delay thrown in for good measure (which I spent watching the Celtics finish off the Lakers in the NBA Finals), we had a successful trip to Midland. I survived the five hour drive each way by listening to a book on CD – my new favorite remedy for the boredom of long solo car trips. This trip’s selection (which I started in Florida for the drive from Orlando to Viera) was Imperium by Robert Harris. Good stuff if you’re like me and love historical fiction (it’s about the Roman senator Cicero).

My next trip, a scant few days from now, is to the Carolina/California League All-Star game. It’s in Myrtle Beach, always a nice place to visit, which takes some of the sting out of the triple-header effect of doing the FSL, Midwest and Carolina/California back-to-back-to-back.

Look for the Midwest League video stuff next week.

All-Star Grand Tour, Stop 1

OK, it’s that time of year again – All-Star time. Usually I end up hitting six or so of the “Midsummer Classics” around baseball, and the first of the bunch is pretty much always the Florida State League All-Star game.

This year, the FSL game was at Brevard County’s Space Coast Stadium in Viera. The ballpark’s the spring training home of the Washington Nationals and Brevard County’s a Brewers farm club, so that’s a tad strange (the elevators have huge Nationals logos on them for example), but it works, so who’s complaining?

As usual, there were several mascots on hand for the festivities. And this, plus the presence of my camera, meant there was a great opportunity for mascot hijinks. With Manny the Manatee (naturally) on hand, as well as fellow FSL mascots Squeeze (Vero Beach) and Phinley (Clearwater), it was impossible for Lisa to do her standup solo. And Phinley also made sure he got some mic time as well (though true to mascot tradition, it was all silent).

We’re trying something a little different this year in our minor league All-Star video coverage. In years past we would head to a game, do a game feature, which usually involved putting a microphone on a HR Derby participant, interviewing the derby winner and game MVP, talking about the game itself, etc, etc. This year we’re going to focus more on the players in the game itself. Jay Bruce and Cameron Maybin both played in the FSL All-Star game last season, but no one’s going to remember which team won the game. I have to admit – I don’t remember and I did a video feature on it – but I will remember Maybin flying around the bases in the Skills Competition (something they did not do this year) and Bruce banging a double off the wall, but the final score? Nah. (I did, however, look it up and the East – the team with Maybin, Bruce and game MVP Allen Craig won 8-4).

So, this year we went in with an eye towards doing a feature on Brevard third baseman Taylor Green. He’s from British Columbia, was drafted in the twenty-something-eth round a couple years ago and starting last season in the Sally league, has been raking pretty good. Seems the Brewers are good at drafting & developing good hitting third basemen (see: Braun, Ryan and Gamel, Mat for examples). The Green feature is done (finished it last night) and will hit the website on Thursday, so keep an eye out.

We also did interviews with Rick Porcello and J.P. Arencibia, a pair of first-rounders from the ’07 draft. Porcello – a fellow Jersey guy (I told you we stick together) – has been very impressive in his pro debut with the Lakeland Flying Tigers after being drafted out of high school last June. He talked about his love for fly-fishing (something Jerseyans are not known for, but yes, there are streams, forests and other natural beauties in New Jersey – it’s not all oil refineries and chemical plants). That interview will also hit the website on Thursday.

As for Arencibia – he was so hot for the Dunedin Blue Jays the first half of the season that he earned himself a promotion to Double-A New Hampshire after the game. He started at catcher for the East and went two-for-three. The interview went very well – he gave thoughtful answers and like Porcello,  was excited at being an all-star and looking forward to playing – and in his case – catching some of the game’s brightest prospects. Look for the Arencibia interview to also appear on milb.com on Thursday.

The Derby was won by Vero Beach’s J.T. Hall, who was hitting monster bombs far over the right field wall. Green ended up in the finals against Hall, but Arencibia didn’t make it out of the first round. In the game itself, the East came away with another victory, with Drew Stubbs of Sarasota earning the MVP nod.

Part 2 of my All-Star whirlwind tour will bring me to Midland, Michigan for the Midwest League game. Dow Diamond’s one of the best new ballparks in the minors, so I’m looking forward to the trip, even if it does come just a couple of short days after the FSL game.

Bashin’ It Like Beckham

I had a surprise this week as I went from having a non-travel week to being sent to cover Tim Beckham’s draft-day party in Griffin, Georgia. Things got interesting on Wednesday as it became more likely that Beckham would be the first overall pick, causing MLB to have Dave Winfield give the prep shortstop a call in hopes of enticing him to head to the Milk House in Orlando for the Draft festivities.

But Beckham’s family and friends had set up a big shindig of their own at the GTO Event Center in Griffin. (My first thought on learning of the location of the Beckham Bash was wondering what GTO stands for, calling to my mind the Pontiac muscle car). Once it became obvious that Beckham would not be attending in Orlando, I jumped on an early flight from Cleveland to Atlanta, picked up a rental car and headed thirty-ish miles south to Griffin.

There was a good turnout for Tim’s big day at the GTO. I’d estimate over a hundred friends, team mates (not mutually exclusive of course), family and a handful of media members were on hand. The event even had a sponsor (a local bank) and an emcee.

beckham_intv.jpgAs the clock closed in on zero hour (2pm, the start of the Draft broadcast), the energy in the place grew. Tim had said that he had heard from R.J. Harrison that morning, and that the call from the Rays’ Scouting Director had him “wanting to do backflips in my bedroom.” So, the expectation was that Tim was about to become the first overall pick. When Beckham’s name was mentioned by Peter Gammons as being the player with the most upside in the Draft, the room erupted with applause. Moments later, when ESPN broke for commercial, there were groans as the room realized they’d have to wait a little longer to hear Tim’s name called.

The emcee introduced Tim and his family, I guess for the benefit of those of us who were not friends or family. Tim’s father, Jimmy Beckham, he introduced as the “Earl Woods of Griffin.” He followed that with, “Of course, Earl only had Tiger, but Jimmy has two: Tim and Jeremy.” Jeremy is Tim’s older brother, a senior second baseman at Georgia Southern and a draft hopeful as well. There’s a third Beckham, Steven, who may end up being drafted in two years himself.

beckham_hug_jeremy.jpgWhen the big moment came, and Commissioner Bud Selig called Tim’s name, the room erupted, pinning the audio monitor on my camera with the sheer volume of the noise. Tim jumped up, hugged first Jeremy, then his father, mother Ella and Steven. He quickly donned a Rays’ jersey with his name and number 1 on the back, then did an interview with a local TV station and finally, with MLB.com.

beckhamr_rtv.jpgI found myself wondering what that must feel like: you’re a high school senior and you hear your name called as the first pick, ahead of literally thousands of other players. The joy was obvious on his face. It was also obvious that Tim does not lack for confidence. One of the reporters asked him what his goals were. His response: “First to make the big leagues. Then to be an All-Star, and finally, to be a Hall-of-Famer.” Lofty goals for an 18-year-old, but in that moment, I can certainly understand Tim’s feeling that way.

As for Jeremy, he was also drafted – and by the Rays as well – on day two of the draft (502 picks after his brother – college seniors don’t have much leverage, it’s not like they can stay in school another year). I can just imagine the Beckham brothers, themselves imagining forming a double-play combo for the Rays in a couple of years.

I look forward to catching up with Tim, and maybe Jeremy too, sometime in the not-too-distant future, on a minor league field somewhere. The Draft dream has been realized, now they get to work on achieving that Major League dream.

Pittsburgh… of the South, Part Deux

Well, still in Birmingham. I haven’t spent this many consecutive days in Alabama since I left Auburn almost fifteen years ago.

The SEC Tourney wrapped up Sunday with LSU downing Ole Miss to take the crown. Our main feature subject, Mr. Pedro Alvarez and his Vanderbilt Commodores, were bumped from the tournament on Saturday night. They had defeated the Ole Miss Rebels in the first game of what turned out to be a triple-header (the pair of Vandy-Ole Miss tilts sandwiching a game between LSU & Alabama; LSU won that middle game to advance to the Final, much to the consternation of the swarm of Crimson Tide fans in attendance and to the relief of many of the media members who didn’t want to stick around for a quadruple-header).

We entered the park Saturday morning at around, oh, 9:30 am or so, having just eaten breakfast back at the hotel. Greeting us at the gate were a group of young ladies wearing Chick-Fil-A t-shirts, giving away free chicken strips and coupons. Naturally, I took a free chicken strip, adhering to my policy of “If it’s free, it’s me.” Jonathan looked at me like I was crazy, but hey, free chicken is free chicken. And yeah, despite being full of eggs & sausage, I ate that sucker when we got to the press box.

The media gift for the tourney was kind of interesting. It was a bag, and a pretty flimsy one at that. Jonathan’s take was “What am I gonna do with this?” But we both took ‘em anyway. Maybe I’ll let my kids store their crayons in it or something. Last year’s gift, an SEC business card holder, ended up being my daughter’s money holder for her school lunch (until we got her something a little more appropriate for a 7-year-old girl).

The SEC feature turned out pretty well, so be sure to check it out during the MLB.com Draft Preview show on June 2nd.

Lisa arrived Sunday afternoon and Jonathan headed back to that Pittsburgh of the North (you know… Pittsburgh) on Monday morning. So I swapped my college feature hat for my more regular minor league feature hat.

With Clayton Kershaw now a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the target for our feature shifted to Ivan DeJesus Jr., the promising 21-year-old shortstop who became the youngest player on his team when the 20-year-old Kershaw got his call-up. Monday was interview day, as we talked to Ivan, his manager John Shoemaker and pitcher James McDonald (that’ll be a seperate video piece). Look for the feature on Ivan and the JMac interview sometime next week on milb.com or dodgers.com.

I would’ve shot some b-roll of Ivan yesterday (Monday), except that I had a dead hard drive on my hands and needed to get that SEC Tournament feature sent back to the NY office, so it was off to Best Buy for a replacement drive instead of sticking around for the game. If it hadn’t been a holiday, the store would’ve stayed open later and I might have been able to get a couple of at-bats from DeJesus. Oh well, it wasn’t meant to be.

But we’re back here at Regions Park for Day Five of my “Birmingham Bonanza” and if it stops raining, we’ll be in business. Not too long ago it was pouring, but it’s been gradually slackening, giving me hope that we’ll start on time.

Pittsburgh… of the South

This week’s trip was a dual purpose jaunt to the “Pittsburgh of the South” – Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham earned that moniker as the top steel city south of the Mason-Dixon Line, home of the mighty Sloss Steel Works. Funny thing is, Jonathan, who’s here with me, lives in the Pittsburgh of the North… that’d be, um, Pittsburgh.

The dual purposes of our trip? First and foremost is the SEC Tournament to put together a feature on the conference which provided last year’s top pick (David Price) and has a guy who is probably going to go in the top 2 or 3 this year (Pedro Alvarez – also a Vanderbilt guy). The other purpose was to do something on Jacksonville pitcher Clayton Kershaw. Unfortunately (for us, but definitely not for him), it looks like Mr. Kershaw will be making his next appearance in a Dodgers’ game, so we’ll adjust our target accordingly.

The SEC is near and dear to my heart as an Auburn alum. Alas, the Tigers were not good enough to make the tourney either last year (when we were here to do a feature on Price – among others) or this year. Hope springs eternal, though. I’d be curious to see what the turnout would be like were Auburn to make an appearance. Throngs of Alabama fans show up (Tuscaloosa’s less than an hour away) and though Auburn’s farther away, I’m sure a good crowd would show up in blue & orange to yell “War Eagle!” and root the boys on. My days down on the Plains were just after the glory days of Bo Jackson, Gregg Olson and Frank Thomas. Seems like it was a long time ago (and I guess it was).

sec_sign.jpgObviously, the baseball’s pretty darn good in the Southeastern Conference. They have the backs of the dugouts pasted with a sign reading “The Best College Baseball in the Country” – a sentiment that’d definitely be opposed by a couple of other conferences’ adherents. Here at Regions Park though, you’d be hard pressed to find a dissenting vote.

alvarez.jpgAs for Alvarez, he hit a bomb yesterday in Vandy’s win over South Carolina, then made a nice defensive play and almost started a triple play today against Ole Miss, showing he can play both sides of the ball. So yeah; he’s the goods and will make whichever club drafts him on June 5th very happy indeed.

I’ll have more on the action here at Regions Park soon.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.