A pleasant incarceration

It seems like most Frontier League ballparks have two things in common. First, artificial turf field. Second, immediate proximity to interstate highways.

Joliet’s Route 66 Stadium swims against the current in the second respect, sitting at least a couple of miles from any interstate highway, but only about a hundred feet from an active railroad track. The ballpark is in downtown Joliet, Illinois, and a busy rail station hauling commuters to and from Chicago is right outside the front gate.

The team is named the Slammers, in homage to Joliet Prison built in 1858. The jail is a looming limestone structure on the north side of town. “The Blues Brothers” movie was filmed there in 1980. All of the prisoners were moved over to Stateville Penitentiary just a few miles north of town in 2002.

DSC_0017

It’s odd that the owners would name the team after a maximum security prison to promote family-friendly fun. But Route 66 stadium is all-in on the concept. The team store is named “The Clink”. The team logos are a watchtower surrounded by barbed wire and an angry bird wearing an old style prison cap carrying a baseball bat. I realize that the team was founded and named eight years ago before corrections reform was a hot topic. But I hope it’s just a matter of time before ownership changes the name to something a little  more welcoming. DSC_0016

In contrast, Slammers manager Jeff Isom is talkative, personable and friendly. He’s an Indiana guy, drafted out of Purdue by the Pirates in 1993. A left-handed pitcher, he bounced around in the affiliated minors until 1996, then played independent pro ball in the Northern and Frontier Leagues.

“I got released eight times, and it sucked every time, but something else always came up,” he said. “I think Fargo released me for like the third time, and (current Evansville manager) Andy McCauley told his manager that he knew me and thought they should bring me on.

“So that was my introduction to the Frontier League, and I got my ass kicked. It was like ground ball after ground ball going through the infield, and I didn’t pitch very well. So needless to say, the manager got fired, ‘cause I didn’t help him out. They hired Andy as the manager and after my second or third start I said, ‘You know what? I’m not helping you guys, I’m releasing myself.

“Andy asked me to be the pitching coach. So here I am, a left-hander who couldn’t get anybody out, and I’m the pitching coach for the rest of the season.”

After he quit playing he chose an unusual career path to managing.

“I spent a lot of time in Fargo, and they wanted me to keep playing. But I told them, ‘Look, I’m done. I hate the off-season, trying to get ready.

“And I got to coach for two years at Lafayette Central Catholic, and then I’d go up and help at Fargo. I think it was ‘99, and I went up there as a bullpen catcher. So here I am, a left-handed pitcher as the bullpen catcher. But I liked being around baseball, and I learned a lot from the manager.

“But that sucks,” he laughed. “A left-handed pitcher trying to catch sinkers and sliders from right-handed pitchers. That’s not fun. But I wanted to stay in pro ball any way I could.

“Actually, my baseball card from a couple years before that I put the (catcher’s) gear on. I just wanted somebody to shoot me behind the plate. Then two years later I’ve got the gear on trying to catch bullpens.”

Through all of his contacts, Isom got a job managing his first year off the field in Canton. In 2007 he got a job managing in the Brewers system, then in 2013 came to the Frontier League.

Like most of the managers in the league, Isom has to do his own scouting and player acquisition. He’s had success in finding players when released by other organizations, and he’s developed an extended web of former players and coaches to get referrals and background information on players. But he took one key piece for his approach from former Brewers manager Ken Macha.

“We were in a meeting in spring training with all of the minor league staff talking about who was going up. And Ken Macha said, ‘When I’m thinking about bringing a guy up, one question I’m going to ask is, can I trust him?’ And after he talked about it that made a lot of sense to me. So that’s a question I ask.

“Can I trust this guy? If we have a 6 AM bus, can I trust him to make it, or am I going to have to worry about where my shortstop is? If I put down a bunt sign, is he going to get that sign and be able to execute? If we need somebody to help out and load some stuff up, am I going to have to ask him five times or is he just going to go ahead and do it?”

I had noticed that the Joliet schedule featured a doubleheader for June 20. Double-headers are almost a thing of the past in baseball unless there are rainouts that require games to be made up. But in this case, the Slammers were playing a morning game in Joliet and an evening game against Windy City in the Chicago suburbs. Which isn’t much more than a 90 minute bus ride, but both teams had night games both the day before and the day after the twin bill. Four games in less than 30 hours. I asked Isom if this was a typical situation in the Frontier League.

Isom laughed. “For me it’s a new thing. We play here at 10 AM, and I’m sure that will end up an extra-inning game. Then we go up there and play a nine-inning game – hopefully. Then games the night before and night after. That’s a lot of baseball in 27 hours.”

Isom said the Slammers needed an early game that day and Windy City was trying to create an off-day for later in the season. I asked if he thought the arrangement would become a regular fixture in the schedule.

“I hope not,” he said. “But at least I’m not going to have to throw batting practice that day.

“Hopefully we’ll have some guys who are well-rested and we wont have to use too many pitchers in those games.”

On that evening, the Slammers were hosting the Lake Erie Crushers. Isom got some practice in juggling his relievers as the Crushers clubbed fifteen base hits, posting a 5-1 lead by the middle of the second inning. Starter Liam O’Sullivan gave up five runs on eight hits over just two innings, but got off the hook for the loss when his replacement gave up the deciding run.  

All of the pitching changes gave the fans a chance to visit the concession vendors without missing much of the action. The ballpark specialty is fried cheese curds, but that stand wasn’t open. I don’t know if management was expecting a small crowd, but the front office did ask me to get a ticket instead of just showing my pass at the gate so they could “count everybody in the park”. Their fears were well founded. At its peak around the fifth inning, there weren’t more than three hundred fans in seats.

DSC_0015

The ballpark itself has some unique features. A bar just above the seating bowl right behind home plate provides an outstanding view of the field. There’s also an old-timey sculpture of guys watching a ballgame on a building out behind the right field fence. All in all, it’s a comfortable place to watch baseball with a decent beer selection.

DSC_0020

 

Late in the game I wandered out to the grass area behind the outfield fence and found a lone high-backed chair that gave me a view over the right fielder’s shoulder. By that time fans numbered only a few dozen, and, when there were no trains rumbling by, I could clearly hear crickets and the US flag lanyard banging against the flagpole in the wind. It’s hard to imagine a more startling contrast to a jail. DSC_0025

  

 

Velcro me to a wall? Yes, please…

One way minor league and independent professional baseball clubs differ from MLB is in their willingness to commit to innovative (some might say goofy) in-game promotions. As much as I love the baseball at Frontier League games, it’s clearly not major-league caliber. In addition, the players would really rather not be here; their goal is to get to the show. And in the affiliated minor leagues, the primary team goal isn’t even to win (though I’m sure they all want to). The main focus is to develop players for the major league team.  

DSC_0140

All of which leads the sub-majors (defined here as minor league affiliates and independent pros like the Frontier League) to come up with ways to get fans in the gate and, once there, keep them entertained so they’ll come back.  The Freedom haven’t just committed to promotions; they’ve moved there and burned their passport.

I pulled into the parking lot of UC Health Stadium on a cloudy Friday night and looked up at the video billboard to find I’d chosen “Super Hero Night”, missing “Martial Arts Night” by a couple of days. The promotions schedule relies heavily on discounted booze, with “Thirsty Thursdays” (one dollar draft beers), “Taco Tuesdays” ($2 tacos and Mexican-style lagers), and “Whiskey Wednesdays” ($1 off bourbon cocktails). Like many other parks, UC Health has a bar area in one corner of the concourse. Unlike the others, there is an attached smoking area. Because Kentucky.

For several innings during this game, one lucky fan won the right to be attached with velcro to a billboard just outside the right field fence. Armed with a baseball glove, he was trying to catch a home run ball, in which case he’d win $8,110. Boone County sponsors the promotion to encourage home owners to call 811 before digging on their property and damaging utility lines. I guess they figured nobody would do it for $811. (But I would. Hell, I’d pay $811.)  

At one point between innings costumed characters (presumably interns clutching very short straws) raced around the infield. This is a common promotion in the majors, with racing presidents (Washington Nationals), sausages (Milwaukee Brewers), pierogies (Pittsburgh Pirates), etc., etc., etc.

But the Freedom chose to envelop the contestants in inflated eyeballs. The costumes were about four feet across and caused a lot of stumbling which was – of course – the point.

Later, all of the kids in the ballpark were gathered just outside the third base line and suddenly loosed to run across the field at the end of an inning. The interns were trying to herd them in one direction and get them back in the stands within thirty seconds. It was a valiant effort, but four-year-olds don’t have the sense of urgency required to accomplish the task, so the staff chased kids around the field for a minute or two as the pitcher warmed up.

The ballpark sits right next to interstate 75, the main north-south artery through Cincinnati, Ohio. You can hear the roar of traffic from anywhere inside. The stadium was neat and well-kept, with artificial carpet instead of real grass. The usual playground is located down the left field line, but a multi-story inflatable slide is added at game time.

The concession stands feature several Cincinnati-area staples, including Montgomery Inn Ribs, chili, Christian Moerlein beer, and – gulp – goetta sliders.  IMG_20180601_194147099

If you aren’t from Cincinnati, you probably don’t know what goetta is. Well over 90% of all U.S. goetta sales take place in and around the Queen City. I’ve tasted it before, and I’m not a fan. It’s basically sausage with steel cut oatmeal mixed in. I like sausage and I like oatmeal, but not together. It’s like mixing beer and maple syrup. They both need to stay in their own country.

Aaron Brodie serves as Director of Broadcasting and Media Relations for the Freedom, and he arranged several interviews for me.  We met on the concourse during batting practice, and he gave me his take on the team and players’ personalities. Two of the players scheduled for an interview were Xavier Turner and Jose Brizuela.

Both had successful college careers and were drafted by major league organizations. Turner was drafted out of high school but chose to play college baseball at Vanderbilt. After his sophomore season he was again drafted, and this time signed a contract with the Texas Rangers. He bounced around in A ball for two years, ending up on the disabled list three times. Then at the end of the 2016 season, the Rangers released him shortly after MLB mandated a 100-game suspension for failing a test for a “drug of abuse”.

A suspension of that length means that he failed drug tests at least three times. If any MLB organization signs him to a contract in the future, he’ll have to serve the suspension before playing  a single game.

Turner was out of baseball completely in 2017, working for his father at a baseball academy in their hometown of Sandusky, Ohio.

“I was depressed and didn’t know if I wanted to play baseball anymore,” he said. “I was going through a lot off the field. But then I entered the real world and found out how real it was.”  

Being out of the game and wondering what might have been convinced him to give professional baseball another shot. Florence manager Dennis Pelfrey contacted him after seeing some video posted by an amateur scout, and Turner signed with the Freedom in February of 2018.

Turner understands that the suspension is a big hurdle for affiliated teams to overcome. They’d have to sign him and then essentially wait for an entire season before seeing him on the field.

“It only takes one out of 32 teams to like you, but I know (the suspension is) playing a big part in how they feel about me. But all I can do is control what I can control, and do the right things on and off the field.”

Brizuela was also drafted out of high school but deferred signing until the Oakland Athletics drafted him after three years at Florida State. He played at the A level  for two years, never hitting above .270. Oakland released him during 2017 spring training, and he signed with the Freedom. In Florence he hit .321 with 13 homers and got a contract from the Dodgers. In sixteen games at the end of the 2017 season, he hit .353 with single-A Rancho Cucamonga, then was inexplicably released during the 2018 spring training.

DSC_0175

Brodie had warned me in an email that Brizuela was “media shy”. I asked him if Brizuela had ever mentioned why the Dodgers released him after he hit .350 in A ball. Brodie said that he wouldn’t really give an answer, just saying it was “one of those things”. He also told me that it was hard to get the player to even agree to promotional videos. I asked whether there was a language barrier since Brizuela was born in Venezuela, but that’s not an issue since he’d grown up in Miami.

Players have avoided or declined interviews with me before, and this sounded like what was going on. I assured Brodie that it wasn’t a big deal if I didn’t get to talk to him. A player (or anybody else, for that matter) who grudgingly gives up a few minutes to talk is unlikely to say anything interesting anyway. If you’re on deadline and a player affects the game in a significant way, you have no choice and have to press the issue. But I’ve never goaded anybody into good quotes. Maybe that’s a professional failing of mine, but in this context I can do without awkward interviews.

In a game they lost 5-4, the Freedom had a chance to take the lead in the eighth inning. Brizuela doubled with one out, bringing the go-ahead run to the plate. Andres Mercurio singled to right field, but Brizuela ran through the manager’s stop sign at third and was thrown out at home. Mercurio tried to take second on the play, but he was thrown out as well to end the scoring threat.

A few days after I left, Florence sold Brizuela’s contract to the New York Mets and he was assigned to their short-season A team in Brooklyn. For his part, Turner was activated from the disabled list and hit two home runs in his first six games back. It’s hard to imagine a team giving Turner another chance. But, like all pro sports, baseball is a bottom line game. And certainly stranger things have happened. Like attaching somebody to a wall with velcro.  DSC_0172

Sauget Wind

It’s a long way to heaven

It’s a short way to hell

Painkillers won’t help

When the weight’s not yourself

They’re poisoning the air

For personal wealth

It’s a long way to heaven

It’s a short way to hell”

       Sauget Wind –  Uncle Tupelo, 1991
One might be tempted to say that the Gateway Grizzlies play “just across the river” from the River City Rascals. But that would be misleading. O’Fallon does lie just west of St. Louis, and the Grizzlies play in Sauget, Illinois, which is on the eastern banks of the Great River. But it’s a 45-minute drive through downtown St. Louis to get to Sauget, and the difference is stark.

DSC_0135

While O’Fallon sits in a relatively prosperous suburb with rolling hills, Sauget….uh……does not. It’s not exactly urban, not really rural or even ex-urban. The ballpark is surrounded by interstates, warehouses and industries like chemical plants and the company that makes deodorant disks for urinals. It’s about fifteen minutes south of gritty East St. Louis, but I can’t imagine anybody feeling unsafe around the ballpark. Unless your idea of danger is an inability to get Starbucks or fill up your gas tank.

In addition to being home to the Gateway Grizzlies, Sauget (pronounced “So-zhay”) is also the Frontier League headquarters. Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler pointed out his office in a large building outside the left field fence. He told me that the league settled on the location because the commissioner was raised in the area.

Sauget was originally incorporated as the town of Monsanto, named after the chemical company. From the beginning, the city fathers spared no effort to lure business by allowing newcomers to do use the area as a chemical toilet. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the town as a Superfund clean-up site due to “three closed waste disposal areas …. a closed construction debris disposal area, a backfilled impoundment, an inactive borrow pit and about 3.5 miles of Dead Creek”.

But GSC Credit Union Ballpark, built in 2002, is an island of fun and innocence in the midst of all the industry, warehouses and interstate ramps. The field is artificial turf installed in 2012, but I’m starting to get used to that. The concession stand features “Baseball’s Best Burger”, which is a bacon cheeseburger with a Krispy Kreme doughnut serving as the bun. (Fun fact: Tahsler told me that former MLB All-Star Dmitri Young ate thirteen of them over a three-game series, establishing a modern-day record.) If you venture out to the right right field stands, “Country Bob’s Grill House” offers pulled pork or chicken, beef brisket and other barbecue favorites.

The Grizzlies’ radio guy Nate Gatter set me up with interviews with several of the players the afternoon of the game. The schedule was tight because the position players were having a “hitters meeting” before batting practice. At any level of baseball, meetings are never a good sign. Teams don’t have meetings when they’re winning.

As a result, I spent most of my time with pitchers (who, to be honest, are generally more interesting to talk to anyway). But one position player I met was Blake Brown.

Brown was drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates out of high school, but chose to play collegiately at Missouri. For his college career he hit .294 and was drafted in the fifth round by Atlanta after his junior year. For comparison, some of the other players drafted in that round in 2012 were current major leaguers Chris Taylor (2017 NLCS MVP), Max Muncy, Mallex Smith, Ty Blach and Rob Refsnyder. If you’re drafted as high as the fifth round, a lot of people expect you to play in the major leagues someday.

Brown bounced around the Atlanta minor leagues for three years with stops in Danville, VA, Rome, GA, and Lynchburg, VA, never rising above single-A and never hitting above .261 for a season. The Braves finally released him in 2015, so he signed with Gateway. This summer, he’ll turn 27 and exhaust his Frontier League eligibility after this season. I asked if he thinks he got a fair shot with Atlanta.

“I absolutely do,” he said without hesitation. “I played every day for two-and-a-half years, and, honestly, it was all on me. I lost my swing and tried to make the game too technical instead of just playing the game. Even my first year here, I had some success but I never got comfortable with my swing and my game until last year (.300 batting average with 18 home runs in 93 games).” So far this season, he’s hitting .309 with two homers and five steals over twenty games.

Brown told me that he was close to finishing his bachelor’s degree, and he isn’t entirely bereft of options outside baseball. According to his college bio, he participated in several national student leadership conferences in high school. I asked him if he was still trying to get picked up by an affiliated team.  

He shrugged. “I’ve pursued it, but there’s only so much you can do besides play. I’ve had friends who went overseas or to other leagues and they end up being fourth or fifth outfielders, so they don’t get seen anyway. I feel like this is a better place to showcase what I can do. I’m comfortable here.”

Other players have told me that sometimes getting drafted by the right team – one without a surfeit of players at a particular position – can help with advancement in the organization. I asked Brown if he thought that might have made a difference for him.

“The coaching you get is different everywhere, and you can hear the same thing a thousand times, but somebody just says it a little different and it clicks. Maybe I could have heard something a little differently. But I got plenty of instruction and plenty of opportunities, I just didn’t capitalize on it.”

During the game, I walked around the ballpark and sat in several different seats to get different perspectives. From the third base line, you see cars and trucks flashing by on I-255. Looking in from the outfield, it’s all green and brown carpet enclosed by the brick walls and concession stands. Finally, I climbed to the top row of bleacher seats down the first base line and looked west. Across the flat plains and industrial pipework of Sauget, you can clearly see the St. Louis arch, just a few blocks from the Cardinals’ Busch stadium. It occurred to me that there’s more than one kind of distance.DSC_0134

  

Next stop: O’Fallon, Missouri

I drove into O’Fallon, Missouri just west of St. Louis around noon on a Tuesday. My first Frontier League trip was starting with the River City Rascals.  It was a really hot day, and, deferring to my usual paranoia about being late for meetings, I was three hours early for the interviews I’d scheduled.

Carshield Field sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood, with left field abutting an apartment complex. The housing in the immediate vicinity looks to be upper-middle class, but manufactured housing and sketchy apartment complexes are  just a few blocks away.

IMG_20180522_201647927

The Rascals started Frontier League play in 1999, and the ballpark is clean and well-maintained. Like a lot of minor league facilities, CarShield features a play area to keep little kids occupied that also contains a full-sized adjustable basketball goal. The team installed artificial turf in 2017, which is a little off-putting (though consistent with most teams in the league). Not only is the grass part of the field replaced, but the dirt part is covered with dark brown carpet.

River City’s manager is Steve Brook, and he also serves as Director of Baseball Operations.

“All that means is that I make all the player decisions,” he said. “There are some managers in this league who only manage the team. They don’t have to worry about paying people or making transactions.

“It’s a burden, but it’s kinda fun, really. It’s like playing fantasy baseball with real people.”

We were talking in his cramped office in the clubhouse, which is a brick outbuilding beyond the right field fence. An overworked air conditioning unit labored to keep up with July-like heat outside. Brook sat at a desk making out a list for his clubhouse manager to make a run to Subway. I sat in a chair to his left while assistant coaches Josh Ludy and Alex Ferguson slumped on overstuffed couches just a couple feet away.

Ludy, a squat, bearded ex-catcher and current Rascals hitting instructor sat looking at his phone, his lower lip puffy with dip. Ludy played over 300 games for the Rascals between 2014 and 2017. We were talking about how Brook finds players to field his team. He said it’s an everyday process of talking to coaches in both pro and college programs and close monitoring of the waiver wire.

“I rely heavily on these two guys (Ludy and Ferguson), and all my former and current players. And a lot of it is just emailing people. For instance, if a high-A or double-A guy gets released who spent three years at Georgia Tech, I’ll email all the contacts I have at Georgia Tech and ask for the kid’s phone number.”

Ludy stirred from the depths of his couch. “Where’d you get my name from? I don’t think I ever asked you that.”

“You were with the Phillies?”

“Yeah.”

“Zack Sterner.”

Ludy stared at Brook. “I have no idea who that is.”

“He was a right-handed starter from the Phillies who played for me in 2011 and 2012.”

Ludy shook his head. “Had no idea.”

After managing in independent baseball for years, Brook demonstrates an encyclopedic recall of players in both his own league and affiliated baseball. It’s one result of nearly constant focus on finding, evaluating, and acquiring players each year.

“It’s non-stop,” he said. “It’s a burden that never goes away. I mean, Christmas morning I’m thinking, ‘Who do I have at short this year? Who do I have a at second? How am I gonna get this guy? How do I outbid all the other managers around the country doing the exact same thing when I have the second-smallest salary cap in all of independent baseball?’ Plus, we have organizational restrictions that are tighter than other teams in our own league.”

“But a lot of it is getting the right people who want to come and enjoy baseball and have a shot at getting picked up by an affiliated team.”

As game time approaches and the sun sets, the heat eases a bit as the ballpark starts to fill. Brook had mentioned that River City and Gateway are the two smallest ballparks in the league. There are no ushers, so seat selection is apparently on the honor system. I settle into a spot five rows from the field down the first base line in front of Raskie’s Bar and Grill, a brick building in right field that offers relief from heat and kids along with cocktails and beer.

Frontier League Deputy Commissioner Steve Tahsler had mentioned to me that each ballpark in the league developed its own unique concession menu. In addition to the usual fare of peanuts, popcorn and hot dogs, CarShield Field offers “The Boomstick” ( a 24” hot dog with cheese and jalapeno peppers), “The Catcher’s Mitt” (a huge soft pretzel that surrounds cheese, fruit, and candy), and other specialties that can feed small families or large fans.

Brook’s comment about the team’s frugality didn’t sound too much unlike what I’ve heard in triple A. But several times the PA announcer mentioned that anyone turning in a foul ball would get a coupon for a free haircut from Great Clips.

The play on the field was surprisingly energetic and competitive. Some of the players told me that there is a lot more focus on winning games in the Frontier League than in affiliated baseball. At the triple A level, you sometimes get the impression that players are mostly interested in getting their at bats or innings and not getting hurt. But in this contest against the Schaumburg Boomers, players were sliding on the hot turf to knock down grounders and crashing into outfield walls with abandon. The home team clobbered three home runs and held the Boomers scoreless on their way to a 10-0 win that came in under two-and-a-quarter hours. IMG_20180522_183804536

I think I’m going to like this league.

Roaming the Midwest looking for baseball

Sometime around 2005, I discovered that there was a Frontier League team in Richmond, Indiana. The Frontier League is an independent professional baseball league. (That is, the teams are not affiliated with any Major League Baseball franchises). The League started in 1992 and originally contained teams from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. Over 20 Frontier alumni have appeared in major league games, with Brendan Donnelly (Angels), Jason Simontacchi (Cardinals), and Brian Tollberg (Padres) among the more familiar names. Over the years, a number of teams have folded, been sold, and started.

TRHughesBallpark611

None of the original eight teams still exist. (At least not in the same city. Figuring out whether the same ownership group moved one of the teams elsewhere would require research. Which will happen at some point this season, but not yet.) I remember that the Richmond team was purchased a couple years after I noticed them and moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where they still play. I took Conor and Eamon to a couple of Richmond Roosters games, though I don’t remember much about the ballpark. What has stayed with me is the sight of their hideous green and orange uniforms.

But, sartorial objections aside, I started thinking about independent pro baseball again a few weeks ago. The Frontier League now numbers twelve teams with three in the Chicago area, two more close to St. Louis, and the farthest one from Indianapolis being just outside Cleveland. It’d be much easier to visit all of these teams over the course of one season than to try to make an MLB circuit. So, in order to write (definitely) and sell (pinkies crossed) several magazine articles, I’m planning to visit each ballpark between May and August.

The Frontier League office graciously sent me a “VIP” ballpark pass that will get me in to the games. I’m now in the process of coordinating visits with each team, hoping to interview players, coaches, fans and host families. I don’t see a book coming out of this, but you never know. Even if I don’t sell many articles, how many people can say they’ve seen every ballpark in the Frontier League?……Huh?…….Anybody?….OK, I’ll admit maybe there’s no widespread desire to want to say that, but, still…..   

My first trip will be to St. Louis because I want to interview the league officials early in the process. That’ll also allow me to see home games for the River City Rascals (O’Fallon, MO) and Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, IL).   

Rascals_Logo

I fully expect to see the same types of players I saw when I was covering AAA baseball. A number of hopeful, younger guys still chasing a dream of playing in the majors and older players giving this thing one last shot, rounded out with in-betweens who can’t say why they’re here; they’ve just played baseball every summer for their whole lives and don’t know how to quit.

But I hope I’ll find some interesting personal stories. One thing the last year has taught me is that in any group of 10-15 people, at least three have a history or a motivation that you can’t read on their faces or guess by their situations. So for the next few months of this blog will reflect those travels and games, with the occasional break from sports forced by whatever is occupying my thoughts at the time. Other than Hamilton lyrics. Because everybody I know is tired of hearing me talk about that.  

Lin-Manuel_Miranda_in_Hamilton

Baseball season fades into basketball

So it comes down to this. Final week of the baseball season, and we have the Houston Astros against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Serious. (For some reason I always think of the Astros as the Rastros. Evidence of my early and ongoing obsession with the Jetsons.)

Orbit_Houston_Astros_mascot_preseason_2014

I’m contractually obligated to root for the Dodgers since they’re a National League team, though the Astros are a great story. From 2011 to 2013, they lost 100 games in each season, but then built their team patiently and slowly. They have only the 18th largest payroll in MLB and many of their key players rose through the Houston farm system (including Correa and Altuve). They made key free agent deals this season only when it was obvious they could contend for the championship.

In contrast, Los Angeles has the highest payroll in baseball. The Dodgers are generally around middle of the pack in free agents. They’re not as much fun to watch since Vin Scully retired, and they enjoy a huge media market. All of which makes them a less compelling rooting interest.

But the pitchers bat. It says here, Dodgers in six.  

 1916WorldSeries

                                                               

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                                                         *****

I’ve been interviewing the head basketball coaches at Butler and Ball State in the run-up to the start of hoops season for magazine articles. Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of Butler. I’ve never had any real connection with the school, other than living in the same city.  

But over the past twenty years or so, Butler coaches have consistently won there without any hint of scandal, and then moved on to bigger jobs. Thad Matta to Xavier and Ohio State. Todd Lickliter to Iowa. Brad Stevens to the NBA. Chris Holtmann to Ohio State.  

After Holtmann left, Butler hired LaVall Jordan as head coach. Jordan played at Butler, then assisted at Butler, Iowa and Michigan before becoming head coach at Milwaukee. After a single season there, the Butler position came open and he won the job at his alma mater.

When I met with him in his office at Hinkle Fieldhouse, he acted like he had all day to talk. As usual, I’d asked his staff for 15-30 minutes, but Jordan didn’t seem to be watching the clock. He asked about my family, talked easily about the transition, and spent about 45 minutes with me.

The only time he seemed uneasy was when I asked him whether Butler’s playing style would change. Over the last fifteen seasons, kenpom has rated the Butler offensive tempo higher than 200th in the NCAA only once.

He shifted in his seat. “Well, what do you mean by style?”

“In terms of offensive tempo,” I said.

“Well, we’ve always been opportunistic here,” he said. “But valuing the basketball has been a staple. We’ve always been rated pretty highly in fewest turnovers, and that won’t change. If it does, we’ll have to have some conversations.

“And playing unselfishly has always been a staple, I don’t see the way we play changing that much.”

Which sounds like a “no” to me.

He was much more comfortable talking about the variety of experiences he’s had as an assistant, and giving credit for his development to other people.

“I’ve been fortunate with the type of people I’ve been around,” he said. “They’re all great human beings. With Barry Collier, it was instilling values and holding people accountable. Thad was an unbelievable motivator, who just had a gift for getting guys ready. Todd was terrific at team building…..he got lot of respect from the locker room because players knew he cared about them. Brad’s (Stephens) organizational skills are off the charts. Coach Beilein is a great tactician. I really learned how to run a program from him.

“I still lean on them all now. The nice thing is, they’re just a phone call away.”

Bulldogs_Basketball_tipoff_UW-GB

By the end of the interview, I was starting to warm up to Butler a bit. They play in a great venue (Hinkle Fieldhouse), and they’re a lot closer to my home than Bloomington. While it’s clear that Jordan has no intention of becoming Horace Broadnax (who still hasn’t returned my call), I still think I’ll try to catch a couple of games.

Par-three? I consider it par-six.

I haven’t played golf (or, as my Dad used to say, “shot golfs”) in about two years. I didn’t even start playing until my mid-thirties, and I rarely played more than a few times a year.

Old_Tom_Morris

This is no recipe for proficiency (or even adequacy), of course. I probably spent more time playing basketball in one month during high school than on golf for my lifetime. But basketball is no longer an option due to creaky knees, and exercise for its own sake is drudgery. I try to work out at least a few times a week (including referee duty), but I need some kind of distraction while I’m on an elliptical machine. Whether it’s podcasts, magazines, or listening to Jack speculate about the weight of other seniors, I have to have something else to think about. Something other than finding an excuse to get off the machine.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to get back into golf, but it seems there’s always a conflict whenever friends invite me to play. Last week I hit a bucket of balls to see how far my skills had atrophied. I wasn’t too disappointed with the results. I hit the ball square about half the time, and most of my drives were fairly straight. (At least, range straight. I’m easily deluded into thinking a ball would have been right down the middle of the fairway, as long as my shot doesn’t endanger golfers on my right.)

On Friday, I went alone to a par-3 course to see if I can avoid abject humiliation on the links. I was encouraged, though I have to say conditions were perfect. Empty course, cool, sunny weather, and low expectations. There were no holes-in-one, no 250-yard drives, and no thirty-foot putts. But I did chip one in with a pitching wedge, drive a couple of greens on short holes, and sink a couple of long-ish, bend-y putts.

I know I’ve said this before, but I may have figured out a couple of things about my swing. I think I’m ready to expose my game to the snarky comments of friends. It can’t be any worse than my poker game, right?

 

                                                                                *****

The first harbingers of fall arrived last week. First was the Fear and Loathing Athletic Club (FALAC) Fantasy Football League pre-draft meeting at Victory Field. Then on Friday we completed our 23rd fantasy football draft. (There’s been some loose talk about moving the 25th edition to Vegas. The usual crowd of degenerates is in favor of that plan. Including Gan, who isn’t even in the league.) I once again entered the evening determined to get running backs early and ended up with really good receivers. I didn’t even draft a quarterback until the ninth round, so we’ll see how that works out.

We also went to the last two Indianapolis Indians home games of the season. (We usually catch the last series of the year in Louisville, but for some reason the Indians finish up in Toledo for 2017.) We had our grandsons Sebastian and Liam with us for both games, and they had fun. (Meaning they liked playing in the grass berm and eating popcorn and ice cream.)

IMG_20170827_145417828

Every year I get more wistful at the end of summer. There are a lot of great things about autumn in the Midwest. Fall festivals, lower humidity, apples. And the approaching winter isn’t even as big of an issue for me anymore, since I don’t have to drive to work. But I guess pulling up zucchini vines and tomato plants reminds me of rapidly advancing old age.   

 

But that’s not to say that all baseball players are difficult…

Last week I wrote about awkward encounters with sports figures. But I met one of my all-time favorite players once, and it didn’t end in an avoiding-eye-contact contest.

Sean Casey is retired from baseball now, but he was a very good first baseman for several seasons with the Reds, making three All-Star teams. His career ended with brief stints at Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston. During his playing days he was known as “The Mayor” because he was so friendly and talkative when opponents reached first base.  

He was also very accommodating to the media. And not just to TV reporters, like some. Some players and managers are terse and uncooperative with print reporters, but as soon as the TV lights come on they’re elbowing guys out of the way to try to win Mr. Congeniality. I’ve seen managers angry, defensive and cursing print reporters, only to walk out of their office with a jaw-spraining smile, embracing a TV reporter gearing up for insipid, softball questions.  

As Casey came up through the minor league system, he spent parts of a few seasons with the Indianapolis Indians. I never interviewed him because I covered the opposing teams, but the Indians beat reporters loved him. He was always available and willing to talk, even after losses.

Baseball_first_baseman_2004

At one point, Casey had been optioned down to Indy from the Reds, and Indians beat writer Kim Rogers saw him walking through the parking lot to the club house. Kim told me that he approached him, acknowledging that it was a tough time, and asked if he could talk for a minute.

Casey said it was OK, and he wasn’t upset about the demotion. Then, before Kim could get a question in, Casey said he’d heard Kim’s Dad was sick and asked how he was doing.

It’s hard to overstate how surprising this is. First, how would a major league player even know about a reporter’s family in a minor league town? And, second, most players would be completely – and understandably – absorbed in their own problems.

In the spring of 2012, I was working in Pittsburgh during a Pirates home stand, so I naturally bought tickets to several games that week. My hotel was right across the street from the Consol Center (now the PPG Paints Arena), and one night Bruce Springsteen played a show there. The hotel was pretty full due to the location, and as I walked out the front door wearing my Clemente jersey and Pirates cap, I saw a familiar face sitting at the outdoor bar.

Casey was sitting there with another guy, guffawing at a joke and sipping a glass of wine. (Which threw me off. I figured him for a beer guy.)  I stopped and looked, debating whether to go over and introduce myself. I know famous people often don’t want to engage with strangers, but considering Casey’s reputation and the fact that he was out in the open, I decided to take a chance.

“Hey, it’s the Mayor!”, I said. Casey jumped up, stuck out his hand and practically shouted “Hey man, how ya doin’?”

As we shook hands, I said “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching you play.”

“Aw, thanks a lot, man. I really appreciate it. Hey – are you going to the Springsteen show?”

I said “Oh, no, I’m uh, headed to the Pirates game.”

His face fell. “Oh, that’s too bad, man. But hey, have a good time at the game, all right?” He was back to smiling and pumping my hand enthusiastically. As I walked away, I felt like he was disappointed we weren’t going to be hanging out backstage.

Sean_Casey-12

Casey is now an analyst on MLB Central, a baseball highlights show. Recently the host was sitting next to Casey on a couch and said “There’s something that’s been bothering me all week” as he pointed at the floor.

Casey said “Oh, I got it” and reached down. He came up with something in his fingers and said “It’s a toenail.”

Now, I’m sure that was set up, but it rings true for Sean Casey. And it’s really refreshing for a professional athlete to be approachable, funny, and human.    

 

 

Awkward sports celebrity encounters

Last week I mentioned my visit to Cincinnati to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Reds. I collect autographed baseballs, and I’m too cheap to pay $100 or so at a card show to get a signature on a twenty-dollar ball. So when I go to a major league game (especially if I’m by myself), I enter the ballpark as soon as the gates open and stand close to the dugout to try to get signatures. (I’m starting to re-think this. I’m often the only adult, and I feel a little silly standing there with a bunch of twelve to fifteen year old kids asking for autographs.)

At the D-backs game I got a ball signed by Archie Bradley. He’s a relief pitcher, but has good stuff and will probably be back in a rotation soon. He was friendly and gregarious, signing for everybody that asked, taking pictures with kids, and chatting amiably. He seemed to enjoy all the interaction, and jogged back to the clubhouse after signing dozens of balls, hats, cards, and random scraps of paper.

Shortly before game time, Zack Greinke came out of the dugout and slowly walked over to the crowd, eyes down. Greinke is one of the best pitchers in the game, but he has a reputation as something of an iconoclast. He rarely signs for fans and allegedly suffers from a personality disorder that includes fear of crowds. Somebody in the crowd behind me said they’d read that his current contract includes a requirement to sign autographs.

Zack Greinke looks on during batting practice.

He came to the line and moved toward me, slowly signing whatever was held out to him. He didn’t make eye contact with anybody, and ignored questions from kids. I didn’t see him look up at me, but as I held out a baseball and sharpie he skipped around me. After signing a total of less than ten autographs, he slowly walked back to the dugout.

I have no problem with a player signing only for kids. It’s reasonable to assume that an adult is getting a ball signed as an investment, and I can understand resenting somebody making a profit off your signature. And I can’t say I think players “owe it to the fans” to sign autographs. They’re paid to play baseball, and some of the same fans they sign for today will be booing them tomorrow if they go hitless.

But I started thinking about how hard it is for some people to interact with strangers. Hell, it’s hard for me, and I don’t have a bunch of people crowding around me whenever I’m in public.

One night when I was an usher at Victory Field in Indianapolis, Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean was seated in my section. I always liked Tom Crean. There are a lot of stories (several from my own kids) of him accommodating fans, helping regular students and generally being a good person. But there was always an awkward side to him. After IU clinched the Big Ten championship in a game at Michigan, he started yelling at a UM assistant coach in the post-game handshake line. The object of Crean’s ire had been at IU under Kelvin Sampson and was involved in recruiting violations that led to sanctions against the Hoosiers. But, ultimately, the misbehavior had resulted in IU hiring Crean. So why bring it up then? Who does that?  

As an IU fan, I recognized Crean at the ballpark immediately. I greeted him and he nodded at the ground, handing me the tickets for him and his son. After I wiped down the seat I said, “Good luck, Coach!” He silently handed me a nice tip and sat down. During the game, kids constantly came up to him and asked for signatures. He always obliged them, smiling, chatting, and taking selfies. He was clearly more comfortable with kids than adults. Or, at least, more comfortable with kids than with me.

Coach_Tom_Crean

Again, like I said, I get this. Sports fans – especially basketball fans in Indiana – are not an understanding bunch. The same hand patting your back tonight could well be typing a venomous diatribe about your 1-3-1 defense tomorrow. And I think Crean had it especially tough. He has some odd facial expressions, and he often wore pants pulled up to his sternum. Indiana fans probably set their expectations too high after Crean convinced Cody Zeller to come to Indiana in his second year. Last season after he was fired, it was hard to find many fans sorry to see him go. People would say “Sure, he’s a great guy, but…”.

A lot of people want to be famous. But I think some people are famous because they’ve focused on a particular talent with such intensity for such a long time that their social skills were neglected. Some of them started three lengths back in that respect anyway, which probably led to them focusing so intently on a particular task. It must be a special kind of hell to be really good at something you love that results in daily encounters with something you dread.

From now on, I’m just going to bite the bullet and pay for player signatures. If a guy is getting money to sit at a table and sign, I’m willing to encroach on his agoraphobia.    

 

Hating on the Cincinnati Reds

I have several perfectly good reasons for rooting against the Cincinnati Reds.

The continuing adulation of Pete Rose, for one. I’ve written before (quite artfully, I’d say, right here (https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2016/09/19/judging-pete-rose/) about all the reasons why he shouldn’t be allowed back in baseball. But you still see fans at Reds games sporting Rose jerseys and mounting passionate, ill-informed defenses of why it’s a travesty that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. It’s like some Indiana fans are about Bob Knight; let it go, for cryin’ out loud.

Then there’s the fact that I’m from Louisville. When I lived there, local TV broadcasters frequently referred to the Reds as “your Cincinnati Reds”. They weren’t my Reds. I didn’t live in Cincinnati. Most of the people in my family were Cardinals fans, and I liked the Cubs. (This is a circumstance best left unexplained. Suffice to say that my career choices have amply demonstrated that popularity is unimportant to me.)IMG_20170718_180336135

It felt like they were saying I had to be a Reds fan just because they were geographically closer.  And if some smarmy, slick-haired yokel is telling me to be a Reds fan, well, there’s only one approach that makes sense to me. Be anything but a Reds fan.

Then there’s Marge Schott. She owned the Reds from 1984-1999, having inherited her husband’s auto dealerships after he died of a heart attack. She was under constant pressure from MLB due to a unique talent for expressing racist, homophobic, and otherwise crazy thoughts. Facing a second suspension in 1999, she finally agreed to relinquish control of the team.

So all these things combined, I never understood how anybody could be a Reds fan unless they lived in Cincinnati. Within walking distance of the ballpark. I do, however, go to at least a couple of Reds games every year. Now, I’m usually there because a team I like is playing, or it’s a weekday afternoon game, or there are really cheap tickets available. Luckily, since the Reds have been mediocre to awful for a while, there are almost always cheap tickets available.

In my first few games at Great American Ballpark, I didn’t really care that much for the facility. Sure, it was an improvement over the multi-use, anti-septic, artificially-turfed Riverfront Stadium. But rich guys hadn’t yet ruined Wrigley Field, and it felt to me like GABP was trying to present itself as old school without really getting there. Plus, the beer selection was terrible.

But over the past few years, the ballpark has grown on me. I like that you can take soft-sided coolers and food in. Around the fifth inning, I like to walk around the concourse, stand by the south wall and sniff the Ohio River. The paddlewheelers moving slowly upstream remind me of my old home town, and the beer selection has improved quite a bit.

BelleOfLouisville

I went to a Diamondbacks game there earlier this week. I kind of like going to baseball games by myself. I can sit there and keep score and listen to the conversations going on around me. I wore my D-Backs jersey (see “popularity unimportant” above), and Arizona ended up with an 11-2 win. I got a seat in the 10th row behind the visitors dugout for $30 off StubHub, and actually had empty seats on both sides. After I got back from stretching my legs, there were no fans within twenty feet of me. It was like being at an Indianapolis Indians game in April on a weeknight.

I usually wear opposing team jerseys at Reds’ games, and I’ve never heard a rude or drunken negative comment. Cincinnati’s a lot more like Louisville than Indianapolis; more Catholics, more gambling, a little more relaxed.

They’re still not my Reds. But I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, and I like Great American Ballpark now. They can’t match the pizza at Miller Park, the beer selection in San Francisco, or the gameday atmosphere in Pittsburgh. But at least I don’t feel like I’m being scammed (looking at you, Wrigley Field).

And, like I said. Tickets are cheap.