One Fan’s Case for Littell as USAToday Sports Minor League Player of the Year

I have happily come to learn that a favorite Minor League baseball player of mine is a nominee for the USA Today Minor Leaguer of the Year. Zack Littell, a pitcher for the Minnesota Twins AA affiliate Chattanooga Lookouts joins Ronald Acuna (OF, Atlanta Braves), Rafael Devers (3B, Red Sox), Jack Flaherty (SP, Cardinals) and Rhys Hoskins (1B/OF, Phillies) in the list of contenders.

usatodaymilbAny one of these guys could win it and every one of them are likely deserving; but since I’ve seen Littell pitch multiple times for one of my favorite teams, I want to make a case on his behalf.

Littell, who started the year with the NY Yankees in Tampa, pitched himself to a 9-1 record. He earned himself a promotion to the AA affiliate Trenton Thunder. This is where I first heard of the guy and wow, did he make an impression.

Posting a 5-0 record with the Thunder including two separate outings when he fired 10k’s each, this kid made me even more excited about the Yankees future than I already was. When you consider we have prospects like Gleyber Torres, Clint Frazier, and Chance Adams, we Yankee fans have a lot to look forward to. Littell made it even better.

Then, we traded him in the Jamie Garcia deal. He moves from Trenton, NJ to Chattanooga, TN and begins his tenure in the Twins system. I kept watching each start (or listening online), and in six starts earned 5 wins, no losses and one no decision.

Let’s do the math.

The dude is 19-1. That’s crazy. 19-1? 19-1!

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Zack Littell with Minnesota Twins AA affiliate Chattanooga Lookouts

I am no a scout. I’m not a pro. I have never been either and maybe I listen to too much NY Sports Talk radio. But 19-1 doesn’t just happen. That isn’t luck or doctoring a ball with a Blarney Stone. That takes something much more.

Yes, he has had some solid run support. The Thunder and Lookouts can hit and they are leading their respective divisions and they’ve scored some runs for him when he needed them. there is no denying it, but it has to be more than that.

It’s intellect.

You’d agree with me would you not, that the role of pitcher is more than fastballs, curves and off-speed stuff? it requires patience, cunning, a little risk taking and good judgement. These are important items in this thinking man’s game, right?

Littell has a good dose of that necessary brainpower and seems to be getting wiser with each start.

When I watch him pitch I don’t see him as the overpowering, I’m gonna shave your stubble with a 4-seam fastball intimidation approach type of pitcher. He thinks things through.

Does he think too much?

No idea. I’m not in his head.

Does he get rattled and if yes, is he too hard on himself when he does?

Still no idea. Still not in his head.

He probably does. I mean, we all do. But what I saw in person, and what I have watched on my computer screen, is the deliberate and thoughtful pitching approach of a ballplayer who knows his future is dependent on far more than a strong arm and a filthy curveball.

That’s what you don’t see or immediately assume in a 19-1 record.

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Zack Littell with the Trenton Thunder earlier this year

He makes mistakes of course. Ask the guys he’s plunked, there’s been like 14 of them (ha ha, sorry, just kidding) … but in his defense no one’s perfect. Besides, none of his mistakes have been overwhelming. None of them have been very costly. That doesn’t just happen either. That’s repeatedly using sound judgement in pitch selection and execution.

It is also being willing to make the mistakes he needs to, while simultaneously working to establish a balance of technique, strength and discernment. Clearly he has the raw talent to do well in baseball. His numbers support that beyond the W/L. He has an average of 8.2k’s per 9 innings pitched and 2.3bb/9 innings and a Strikeout to Walk ration of 3.63 to 1. He hasn’t lost since April 21. He is a pitcher who will outsmart hitters. Selfishly, those are my favorite pitchers in baseball.

So, my argument on behalf of Littell is this: to have wisdom at such a young age of 21, is good fortune. Maybe even a gift.   But to process it, use it knowingly and execute effectively as a result of it … well … that may be a bit of wisdom beyond his years.

Baseball is and will always be a thinking man’s game and I feel this should be taken into consideration when the panel votes for their USA Today MiLB Player of the Year.

Again, all five guys have a shot; all five guys can make a solid argument.

But when I look at his 19-1 record, it is clear he has learned from past starts,  is present and in the moment at game-time and he is carefully and methodically constructing a future as a big league ballplayer using more than his arm.

Sparkee – Baseball’s Hidden Therapeutic Gem?

Earlier this week I wrote about going to Minor League Baseball games and how it provides an affordable and enjoyable form of therapy for me.  Then I started to wonder, when going to therapy, do you need a therapist?

Now, before you say “Duh!” hear me out.

The blog post discussed how watching the game of baseball, live and in person, is therapy in and of itself.  Nine in the field, one at the plate and three umps…are these already my therapists?

Then I thought, don’t we need someone to guide us along? Someone brilliant?  Someone empathetic?

Enter, Sparkee.

For 20 years Sparkee has been one of the most recognizable faces of the Somerset Patriots.  Many would consider him the hardest working mascot of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.

But a therapist?

I don’t know.  That may be asking a lot.

So I decided to go online to find out what makes a good therapist.

Here is what I learned.  Listening skills, empathy, social skills and communication are key.  There is no doubt Sparkee is a great listener.  He is empathetic and understanding.  He has awe-inspiring social skills and when he communicates, he does so quietly but effectively.

I thought this was too easy.  So I chose to dig deeper.  Here is what I learned and I’ll let you be the judge.

Me and Sparkee

Putting his exceptional listening skills to work, Sparkee pays close attention to my concerns.

 

To be an effective therapist one must …

… possess a sophisticated set of interpersonal skills.

Well, this is easy.  That is the core of who he is.  You see, friends, with Sparkee, he says it all with his eyes.  One tilt of his head and one long look he can turn any mood we’re in into a good one.  Granted, the sheer size of his 18-inch eyes play an influential part, but that’s part of his charm.

… help you to feel you can trust them.

Trust is important.  I believe an infinite amount of patience and genuine kindness are important components to trust-building techniques   There is more to it of course but it’s a start.  I would contend that anyone who has watched Sparkee at work knows he is one patient pup.  He will interact with an endless stream of kids making sure he doesn’t miss a fist bump, a High-5, a paw shake, a family picture and so much more.

… be committed to developing a consistent and acceptable treatment plan.

How does 70 home games sound?  Even if it rains, we get another chance on another day.  Plus don’t forget playoff games! Now THAT is commitment!

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He is so good.  Just look at those eyes of his.  Engaged. Alert.  Focused.

 

… involves themselves in outside training and education.

“Crack!  It is high…it is far…it issssssssssss …. GONE!” a la John Sterling.

My boy knocks this one deep and over the TD Bank scoreboard!

Over the past 20 years Sparkee has traveled Central New Jersey making hundreds of appearances, meeting thousands of people, visiting schools, participating in fundraisers, educating kids on the detriments of bullying and so much more. That is some impressive stuff.

… be sensitive toward your cultural background.

Sparkee is a dog.  We are human.

That qualifies as differing cultural backgrounds, yes?

So does that mean he understands us humans?

You watched the video I posted above by now, right?  If not scroll up and watch.  I’ll wait.

OK.  Good.  What is Sparkee doing?

He is standing on top of the dugout and motioning for us to clap.

So what do we do?

We clap.

He claps faster.

We clap faster.

He claps louder.

We clap louder.

     (are you noticing a pattern here?)

Then, he uses his paws to pull his jersey forward, motioning to the name across his chest.  It reads Patriots.

What do we do?

Like a bunch of lemmings with hyena vocal chords we yell “PATRIOOOOOOOTS!!!!!!”

Then we do it again.

And again.

Meanwhile he has not uttered a single word.

Wow.  Just, wow.

He has us eating out of the palm of his paw.

Pavlov’s dog?  Pppptttthhhh, please.  Pavlov Schmavolv!

This isn’t a case of Pavlov’s Dog,  We’re “Sparkee’s Humans.”

He has trained US!

So, yeah.  Yeah, I think he can handle different cultures.

Sparkee Prescription-II

Fortunately for all of us, his heart is twice the size of Somerset County and he only uses his powers for good, not evil.  Or, more to the point, he – along with his best friends Slider and General Admission –  creates an environment of hope, inspiration and joy at every game.

So now, I leave it to you.  Would you hire Sparkee as your therapist?

I would.

Actually, I did.

After all, he has already written me a prescription for more live baseball.

If that is how he plans on treating what ails me, I hope I never get better.

*                             **                             **                             *

Below, a brief clip of our session together.

Baseball: Life’s Most Enjoyable and Affordable Form of Therapy

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Zack Zehner connects with one at Arm & Hammer Park

 

This summer marks the first in four years I haven’t needed to work a second job.

As a result, two wonderful things happened. First, I spent more nights and weekends with My Favorite than I have in years. Together Stacy and I spend time sitting on our back deck, reading, drinking wine, listening to music, taking our dog for long walks, catching up on some good television and simply being in each other’s company. It’s been the greatest gift I have received in years.

Second, I have also used this free time to go to a lot of minor league baseball games. This has proven to be more beneficial than I ever imagined it would. I thought it might be fun to see a few ballgames and my wallet not get gauged in the process. So, after finding myself seeing about 10 games of the Somerset Patriots and another 10 of the Trenton Thunder, I learned something about myself. I learned there is no better way to clear my mind that is more enjoyable, and more affordable, than minor league baseball.

I can tell you that years ago I used to see a therapist and she was tremendous. Through our sessions, I learned what I needed to do in order for it to be successful. I had to enter with a need, and then leave improved.

Often, I did.

I also learned going to the therapy is both expensive and brief. Costing anywhere from $75 to $150 an hour (more in the city), and lasting anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes, it seemed a bit expensive.

As it happens, I unwittingly found the answers to my concerns. I have found a new therapist! The rates are fantastic and there isn’t exactly a time limit. There are two offices I can choose from; both are huge and seat thousands at a time. They encourage yelling, screaming, cheering, dancing, singing, and even hugging a six-foot dog (Sparkee) or bird (Boomer) that spends the better part of his time inspiring others.  Of course you are at the mercy of their schedule and availability, but you can make an effort to make it work on your end.

It’s the ballpark.

For about 15 bucks I can get at least two, sometimes three, hours of therapy in one shot.

I have learned for it to work – and I mean really work – you have to look beyond running the bases and scoring runs.  You have to look beyond winning and losing.

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For me, it begins like many good things, standing at attention for the playing of our national anthem, our baseball cap pressed to our chest.

And then …

       – It’s looking over at the woman or man next to you, and you see them saluting. Veterans, you realize and a renewed appreciation for the anthem rings in your heart.
       – It’s the purity of that one moment between the end of the anthem and just before the Ump cries “PLAY BALL!.” If there is one solitary moment that I love most, it may be that one.
       – It’s watching a pitcher on the mound; his eyes focused below the brim of his cap.
       – It’s him shaking off a sign, and then nodding.
       – It’s wondering what he shook off.
       – It’s the wind up and delivery, the release and follow through of the pitch.
       – It’s the pop you hear from the catcher’s mitt, when a 95 MPH fastball is caught.
       – It’s the cracking sound the bat makes when it connects with a 95 MPH fastball.
       – It’s the home run that reached the upper deck.
       – It’s watching a professional ballplayer, in some cases just a kid, mature and learn life lessons on the diamond.
       – It’s that same kid dumbfounding seasoned ballplayers with his table dropping curveball.
       – It’s an Umpire who puts some Oomph in his calls and bellows an animated “Youuuuuuuu’re OUT!”.
       – It’s the childlike smile on the face of the 60-year-old “kid” who just caught a foul ball.
       – It’s hearing him tell his wife “this is the first one I ever caught.
       – It’s when the team mascot decides YOU are perfect person to join him or her in their next set of antics.
       –  It’s when the woman you love most in the world shudders when you follow the mascot.
       – It’s cracking open peanuts from their shell.
       – It’s when you notice how brilliantly white the bases are at the beginning of a game.
       – It’s the perfectly raked infield.
       – It’s white balls and red stitching.
       – It’s watching an outfielder track down a fly ball. Later he tells his teammate his glove is where triples go to die.
       – It’s grown men staying boys, imagining they are their heroes from years ago.
       – It’s rising to your feet when a ball is hit deep.
       – It’s a pitcher’s best friend – a 6-4-3 double play.
       – It’s that surprise breeze when it hits the sweat on your neck while basking in the sun.
       – It’s the familiar rallying cries you hear from stadium to stadium.
       – It’s the hand clapping and the foot stomping.
       – It’s the guy two sections over trying to bring back “the wave.”
       – It’s Cracker Jacks.
       – It’s standing up and stretching after the top half of the 7th and singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
       – It’s smiling when people sing “and I don’t care if I ever get back…” when you know it’s “never get back.”
       – It’s watching the runner on first getting a good jump to steal.
       – It’s the catcher throwing a frozen rope to the shortstop then putting the tag on the would-be base stealer.
       – It’s watching the umpire get excited when calling him out or safe.

It’s more than I can describe. If you love this game as I do, then we both know I have only scraped the surface.

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Atlantic League All-Star Game at TD Bank Ballpark

When I walk in the gates an hour before the first pitch, I hope to put my troubles behind me.

When it is time to leave, win or lose, I am always where I need to be. Relaxed. Happier. Kinder.

I entered with a need. I left with pure joy in my heart.  I would venture to guess that could qualify as “improved.”

Live minor league baseball – it has become my life’s greatest form of therapy.

Follow me on Twitter at @patrickkerrison

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Coming this Friday, August 25th … 

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Why Sparkee – The Somerset Patriots Mascot – Would Be the Perfect Therapist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

… And Now, Here Are Our Somerset Patriots

Since the first time I clipped a microphone to my lapel, I would tell anyone who’d listen that calling horse races was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on.

Last night, that same level of fun was mirrored when announcing the lineups for the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs and my Somerset Patriots.

Screenshot_20170806-084210Taking full advantage of their MyRewards program on the Somerset Patriots app I have collected over 2,300 points and have made great use of them.  Last night, I “spent” about 1,500 of those points.

The first 750 were on the opportunity to announce the line-ups.  I arrived at 6:30 p.m. as instructed and at about 10 minutes or so before 7:00 p.m. I was brought into the Press Box.  PA Announcer Paul Spychala introduced himself to me and I’m not gonna lie, I am pretty sure he had no idea he was about to have company.  

That, however, didn’t phase him in the slightest as he was more gracious and helpful than I could have asked for.  In a short period of time he assisted on many fronts.

  • He ensured I was comfortable with the pronunciation of each player and coach.
  • He had the wisdom to shut the mic off after I finished one team and went to the next.
  • After I caught my breath his prompt of “ … and now” was more appreciated than he may have realized and
  • Whether he meant it or was just being extraordinarily polite and gracious he seemed somewhat impressed with my performance.  After listening to this fella for years in my hometown stadium, that was a kind and thoughtful endorsement…and very much appreciated.

Here is the audio of my time in the booth.

Then the evening got even better.

If you know me by now you know I love mascot humor.  Sparkee and Slider bring absolute joy to my life every game I go to.

Remember around the holidays when you would see a kid notice Santa in a store for the first time and they really really think OMG THAT’S THE REAL SANTA?!?!?!?!?!  Remember how big their eyes got?

Yeah, well, that’s kinda sorta maybe how I am when I am with Sparkee and Slider.  I can’t help it.  They’re freaking adorable and their performers are just so darn good at their work.  They’re always a great deal of fun.

Well, after Sparkee made all our hearts melt by making the cutest little girl in the stadium happy, he waved his paw at me to come follow him.  Smartly, he encouraged me to leave my beer with Stacy and Chris.  

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This little girl sat in the row behind myself, Stacy and Chris.  We don’t know her but we all agreed she may, quite possibly, be the cutest little thing ever to see a baseball game.

Moving four rows to the front, beside the Patriot dugout Sparkee motioned to me that he was going to count me down.  Fortunately for me I speak mascot and asked “do you want me to holler SOMERSET, encouraging others to yell PATRIOTS?”  His magnificently massive head nodded in such a way as to assure me that was precisely what my six foot canine friend wanted me to do.

I could not let him down.   By golly, I would not let him down.

He counts me to three and I scream, at the very top of my lungs “SOMERSET!” and section 115 screams “PATRIOTS.”

The puppy seemed pleased.  We did it again.  It got louder.  Then we did it a third time, the response grew louder.  

We had something strong going here, this pup and I. 

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For those unsure, I am the one on the left.

Even though his eyes may have been sewn onto his head, I think I saw them get bigger.  He runs up the stairs and goes to the second tier of seats, jumps up onto the railing, looks at me and counts me down AGAIN!

I bellow as loud as I can “SOMERSET” and a well received “PATRIOTS” followed.

Sparkee is pleased.  Slider comes over and joins in the encouragement.  Oh yeah, this is a good night.  Sparkee then bounces over a couple of more sections and has me yelling again and again.

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Flanked by greatness, I stand between My Favorite and Slider

I think Slider may have seen or heard something in my voice give because after about seven or more screams of SOMERSET, they gave the thumbs up.  My work here was through.

Then, Sparkee meets me at the top of the stairs of section 115 and hugs the stuffin’ out of me.

Seven or eight innings later our boys lost 5-0 to Southern Maryland but all in all, it was the perfect night.

I announced the lineups and did it well.  I was part of Sparkee and Sliders rallying cry for our Patriots, and I got to sit next to Stacy along with our dear friend Chris for nine innings.  The people who introduced Stacy and I to each other – Brett and Michelle – came out to support me and as luck would have it, Brett caught a foul ball of his own.

As someone who believes what comes around goes around, and since so many things that evening were going so well, I’d be a fool if I wasted any time in paying it forward.  I went to Customer Service and used my remaining 750 reward points to get three official Atlantic League baseballs (all game used foul balls) and gave them to three kids sitting near me.

Granted, I didn’t know the kids but that was part of the fun.  I figure since the Patriots and my friends gave me the best evening in baseball I have ever had, why not try to assist in other kids like me (albeit 40-plus years my junior) have a great night, too?

I’ll tell you this: the Patriots may not have won, but I feel like I hit for the cycle.  What a night.

Thank you Somerset, for both the opportunity and more fun than $15 should ever provide.

Farmhands Shifted To Different Pastures 

Sigh. This is why you don’t let yourself get attached.

After seeing seven games this season of the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees AA affiliate, I got to see some of the young talent baseball pundits across the country have been talking about since the 2016 trade deadline.

Here we are, one year later and we let go of some of that talent, but in return the Yankees are stronger than they have been all season. With two months to go and leading the AL East, Yankee fans like me are very excited.

But truth be told, I started getting used to seeing some of these kids play and I found myself looking forward to seeing them again each time I buy a ticket.

But here is the thing: farm teams are not designed to win championships. Yes, it is great if they do. But the focus is on the development and education of the professional ballplayer.

In other words, don’t get too attached.

Now, that being said, the Thunder have won an average of better than two of every three games they’ve played, were the 2016 Eastern League Champs, and look to repeat in 2017.

But that’s with a whole new set of guys than last year. These arent the same lineups from last year. THAT is pretty darn strong.

And even though they had to let go of a handful of talented kids, the depth of Yankee farm teams are so solid, I am not 100% certain the Yankees are losing out.

Don’t read that the wrong way, though. That is NOT to discount the talent of those traded. We would not have gotten the seriously solid ballplayers we did by trading second rate men. These guys are going to be big leaguers for sure. I’d bet money on it.

But it IS a testament to how many good players we have waiting in the wings.

However, I AM going to miss some of these kids.

Zack Littell

First, Zack Littell was sent to the Twins. This was a bummer to me. He always looked to be having a great time, and was professional on the bump. But when I tell you this kids hammer is special, believe me

Dear Lord this guy’s curveball is FFFFFFFILTHY! I have seen him several times and each time I went and he pitched he got the win. I am not saying it was me….but baseball has been known to foster an environment where superstitious myths have their place …. I’m just wondering if I need to root for Chattanooga now 😆

Side note: 20 years ago the first minor league hat I ever bought? Chattanooga Lookouts.

Yefrey Ramirez

Next I hear Yefrey Ramirez was sent to Baltimore for some bonus something or other. Rats!!! That was a bummer because I liked watching this kid pitch too.

The day I saw him pitch I texted a couple of pics to friends saying remember this face….remember this name. They remembered when I told them he is now part of the Orioles organization.

Jorge Mateo’s first At Bat in AA

And of course, Jorge Mateo gets shipped to the A’ s farm team. I was at Trenton for his first game. Watched him get his first hit. Watched him get picked at second on his first SB attempt in AA and watched him use that glove like a magician at shortstop. Oh this kid is going to be good.

This April the Yankees entered the season with arguably the best or second best farm club in MLB. Today, they may be third.

Third, in my opinion, doesn’t suck, baseball fans. Not. At. All.

I see #28 closer than I have in years….but I will be rooting for Littell, Ramirez and Mateo along the way.