Single A Ball in the Lowcountry

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On vacation in South Carolina, I got to see the Yankees Single A affiliate Charleston Riverdogs play the Mets’ Single A team the Columbia Fireflies.

In an effort of full disclosure, I initially was drawn to purchase tickets because Tim Tebow was playing LF for the Fireflies.  I found us great seats because I bought them in May, Section 119, Row 1, seats 18 – 21.  These four seats are immediately in front of the left fielder.  Tim Tebow plays left field for the Fireflies, or, rather he used to.  As luck would have it, he was promoted a couple of weeks back to St. Lucie High A and was nowhere to be found last Friday night in Charleston.

The absence of Tebow did not dampen our spirits though.  A beautiful night for baseball as met with a 7-1 win, and the good fortune of getting a foul ball!!!

It is funny to me that in all my years of going to baseball games the only two foul balls I ever got were at The Joe, in S.C.  Both tossed to me by players of the opposing team, I am now the proud owner of TWO Official South Atlantic League baseballs.  In fact, once in found its way into my glove the other night my future father in law asked me if I was going to give it to a kid…I still laugh when I think of him asking.

Part of the fun were two boys from Jersey representing the Garden State in Charleston for our Yankees – Brandon Wagner and Ben Ruta.

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Brandon Wagner, Princeton, NJ

Wagner, 21, was drafted in 2015 in the sixth round.  After spending the remainder of the 2015 season in High A, he spent all of 2016 in Rookie ball before his promotion to Charleston this spring.  He had a great night Friday, going 3 for 4 while hitting his 12th, 13th and 14th double of the season.  In the process of doing so, he drove in three of the Riverdogs’ seven runs.

For the season (as of this writing) he is having his best year since becoming a professional baseball player.  Batting .292 with 70 hits, 14 2B, 3HR, 34RBI and 30BB he still has some work to do before we see him in Trenton, I believe … he has struck out 80 times so far…but this is why he is in A Ball – for now.  I will not be surprised if the Princeton, NJ native is playing closer to home next summer.

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Ben Ruta, West Windsor, NJ

Ben Ruta, a 23-year-old native of West Windsor, NJ, is in his first season with the Riverdogs.  Drafted in 2016’s 30th round, he split time last year with the Pulaski Yankees and the Staten Island Yankees.  So far, he has put in a solid season, batting .290 in 155 at bats, drawing 13 walks and driving in 13 runs.  On Friday, Ruta went 1 for 4 with a run scored.

Minor league baseball just does not get old for me.  I love it and I love seeing baseball talent develop over the years.  Sometimes we forget that big hitters like Mike Trout and Bryce Harper once were kids trying to learn how to hit Big League pitching.

Wagner and Ruta – although they may not be Trout or Harper – are taking on those same challenges now.  I hope both fair very well.  I hope to see both in Trenton next season, too.  Their family and friends would love it!

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Talkin’ (re: Reading) Baseball

Ever since I heard of its release, I have wanted to read Molina: The Story of the Father Who Raised an Unlikely Baseball Dynasty.  In fact, there are tons of baseball books I want to read but I never make the time to do so.

The 2017 season will be different.

Since I was laid up for a week after knee surgery on May 23, I have torn through four books and am two-thirds of the way through a fifth.  I began with Molina, visited the animals at The Bronx Zoo, cringed at the Yips of a Phenom and rode the busses for a year with Baseball Gospels.  Currently I am avoiding bar fights with David Wells.

First I need to talk about Molina.

molinaTremendous.  Absolutely, positively tremendous.  A book where the heart of baseball, and how baseball was the heart of a lovely family, are beautifully intertwined.

Well written and difficult to put down, Molina’s book is a delightful, and at times emotional, story.  And although our pastime seemed like it was the center of it all, it wasn’t.  A love story, in fact, was.  It was one I felt I could relate to but on a significantly smaller scale.

Bengie, his Dad, his Mom, his brothers, his girls.  It’s a love story of a family in Puerto Rico.  It’s a love story on a workhorse of a baseball diamond, across the street from house he grew up in.  This is not a breakdown of game after game in his career.  In fact, one thing that impressed the heck out of me was the part about winning his first World Series.  Sure it was there, but it didn’t seem much more than a footnote.  Probably because as amazing an experience that was for him, his family was always #1 with him.  I loved that.  I loved that winning the WS was no more than three pages.  But dealing with significant lessons in life regarding his father?  So very many.  I will be forever happy Molina allowed us into his heart, the dugout and his life and equally as happy I finally took the time to read it.  I  hope every baseball fan I know, who appreciates the game and family, follows suit.

Lyle_editedI followed up with The Bronx Zoo and reminisced about my childhood Yankee teams that won the ’77 and ’78 World Series’.  So much fun.  I can see how this was a groundbreaking book in its time.  Plus, when you consider its author and Cy Young Award winner Sparky Lyle was a childhood favorite of mine and a bit of a local hero (Somerset Patriots), how could I not?

Next up, The Phenomenon: Pressure, the Yips, and the Pitch that Changed My Life by pitcher-turn-centerfielder Rick Ankeil.  I listened to this audiobook.  That may not have been the best approach but let me begin with the positives.  I was a fan of Ankeil when he came up and followed his first year closely (he was on my fantasy team).

ankeilWhen Game 1 of the playoffs against the Braves saw him throw five wild pitches in one inning, the baseball world witnessed something it does not normally see … especially from such a young kid with an expectedly amazing career on the mound.  The guy got the yips and in short, ended his pitching career.

But the reason I bought the book was not because of that day against the Braves.  It is because I have always been fascinated and in awe of Ankeil’s resilience to make it back to the Bigs.  It is an amazing story, one worth having a book written about it.  I am glad he is letting baseball fans like me know the depth of his difficulties with the yips, the monster, the thing and make it back to a successful baseball career.  But if I am being honest, the writing lacked some and although Rick has a cannon for an arm and a nice swing of the bat, that doesn’t translate to an enjoyable and/or engaging audio narration.  But damn, what a story.

haystackThen, I took a friend’s recommendation of Dirk Hayhurst’s books of life in the minors.  I picked up The Bullpen Gospels: Major League Dreams of a Minor League Veteran and laughed from start to finish.  I tore through it.  It was, by far, the single funniest baseball book I have ever read.  Even funnier than Jay Johnstone’s Temporary Insanity … and that was damn funny!  Hayhurst has written three more books since then and I am sure I will read them too; I just have a few other books in front of it.

One of which is Perfect I’m Not: Boomer on Beer, Brawls, Backaches, and Baseball by David Wells.

WellsTwo thirds of the way through it and I will tell you this.  Imagine yourself in a bar, throwing back mugs of beer and shots and sitting at a table with Wells.  He tells you one baseball story after another not giving a damn who is listening.  That is this book.  It has its fair share of mundane descriptions of some games, et al.  That said, it is hard to read a baseball book without it (although Molina did an exceptional job of that).

Next on the nightstand after Boomer?

Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball by John Feinstein and The 33-Year-Old Rookie: How I Finally Made it to the Big Leagues After Eleven Years in the Minors by Chris Coste

I do love this game. Can ya tell?

This is For the Birds…

For those who prefer to listen, than read, I offer this:

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As a Catholic, it is a big no-no to have any other Gods before me. I get that and I should be clear that I don’t have any. I don’t have any before me, behind me, beside me or any others. So I would then respectfully request you not misinterpret what I am about to write as taking the Lord, His name or His church in vain.

Hell, I love me some Jesus just as much as the next Christian does. I pray and I talk to Him every day. Am I a good Catholic? Mmm. No. No. But, my faith is important to me and it is a big part of my life.

That being said, you can believe me when I tell you there are few places on earth where my spirit will rise to the heavens like it does when I am inside a cathedral that houses the church of baseball.

Someone, I don’t know who, once said “90 feet between bases is the closest man has come to perfection.”

They’re right.

Last Saturday, a church opened its doors to me; a cathedral I’ve longed to visit. Clad in vestments of orange and black, their opponents in gray and navy, there was a  congregation of 38,000 strong readying themselves for a religious experience. I grant you there may not have been any laying of the hands, or kumbaya’s, but there was a warm sun and no there was no threat of rain.

The service begins as it usually does, with a hymn and a prayer. In our case the hymn was the Star Spangled Banner, the benediction was a cry from the pulpit behind home plate, letting the the boys know it was time to “Play Ball.”

For communion I had a soft pretzel, a hot dog, a bag of peanuts, four pints of Miller Lite … don’t judge me, I was at a game. And all of this was complimented by the Baltimore faithful singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

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Me and Stacy

 

Three-plus hours later, and in spite of a 5-4 loss, my heart was singing Hallelujah and Praised be to Jesus … and at the risk of full-blown blasphemy, Praise be to Cal Ripken, Jr. and the house he built too.

For the first time since Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened 25 years ago, I stepped through its gates. Immediately I was impressed. Inside the stadium and out, its cleanliness was eye opening. The concession staff greeted patrons with smiles, even late in the game when they were tired. Lest I forget the kindness of Baltimore baseball fans. Holy cow.  One thing was for sure, I was not in the South Bronx.

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I mean, come on. Look at that face? How can you not love it?

As a kid, as I am now, I was and am a Yankee fan.  But the Orioles have always my “second team.”  Quietly, my second team.  To explain this would deserve its own blog post at some point.  Just not here and now.  Nevertheless, it began when I was a kid.  It may have been the colors, or it may have been their logo.  I will tell you, to this day, The Oriole Bird is my all-time favorite logo in sports.

But win or lose, on this day it didn’t matter. It was spending an afternoon in the sun at Camden Yards, right next to my girl, and a handful of her friends from college, all making for a great day at the ballpark; a great day of baseball.

After I wrote that last line it reminded me of something a friend of mine once told me close to 30 years ago.

Every day is a great day for baseball, Patrick. It’s just some are better than others.

Amen, brother. Amen.

 

CORRECTION:  In the audio I mistakenly said 23 years ago … it is 25 years ago.

Just the Book I Needed …

From March 21, 2016

If I am being honest, the book took me by surprise. I didn’t realize how much I would like it. To me baseball books are all the same. Don’t get me wrong, I like them and the fact that they’re all the same doesn’t really bother me too much. When you love the game, it’s perfectly acceptable. But what threw me for a shock was how this book made me feel like I felt when I was 11 years old.

calicojoe.jpgIt put me back on my old little league field, the old benches in the dugout with fresh paint, the dirt and gum wrappers on the floor. When I would stand on the mound, my weakling little arm feeling like rubber, six innings in with pitch counts not to be considered for another 25 years or so. Letting up hit after hit and that rare feeling of amazement when I struck someone out. I may not have been all that good at the game, but the game was always faithful, true and honest with me. She was the love of my young life.

I think if I could rate books in terms of baseballs and not stars I would give it five baseballs … this way those who are like me – men and women who still daydream about playing every spring and summer day of their life – would know this is a baseball book worth reading. Because it is.

But to the rest of the world, I’m not so sure. You can call it a Father-Son book if you want. You wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But we all take different things from books, don’t we?

It allowed me to have flashbacks of a wonderful childhood when baseball meant everything. It was all that mattered. Batting averages and RBIs, extra base hits and ground balls with eyes; dying quails and drives in the gap. The perfume mixture of a leather baseball glove, Red Man chewing tobacco and pine tar. Oh dear God, I swear to you, if they could bottle that mixture and make it a perfume it would save marriages.

Just the feel of the ball hitting the sweet spot of the bat. When you know you’ve hit safely in the gap, your confidence as you round first, just like the big leaguer’s on television and that slight chance you can stretch it into a double. My God it’s so romantic. I just don’t know anything else like it.

All of this, and so much more, were the images I conjured up when reading this little story.

Do you love the game? Are you a nerd and daydream about breaking up double plays and unsuspectingly drag bunting a ball down the line when the corners are playing you deep? If you are and if you do, read Calico Joe. It won’t take you long to get through, but the memory of it will last for a long time.