June 2008

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.