Archive for the ‘Atlantic League’ Category

2009 Bus Leagues Independent Awards

Andrew approached me last week with a complaint: in compiling the list of nominees for the Bus Leagues Player of the Year award, I had neglected to include representatives from any of the independent leagues.

You could argue that this was an inexcusable offense for someone with my background; I prefer to imagine that it was my way of protesting the likely death of independent baseball in Nashua (note: it was the first reason).

In the end I figured it was worth it to go through each of the independent leagues that played in 2009 and try to find some of the top performers.  And was I ever glad that I did, because there were some crazy numbers posted around the independents this year.

(A note on the selection process: rather than pester the guys who voted for the affiliated Player and Pitcher of the Year awards, I decided to just make this call on my own, with some input from Andrew.  It just figured to be easier that way.  I also added a Reliever of the Year award as a nod to those who didn’t like the fact that all pitchers were combined for the affiliated award.)

Independent Player of the Year
Joey Metropoulos, Southern Illinois Miners (Frontier League)

joey metropoulosCutting the list of offensive players down to about ten names was easy.  Getting it to six was tough, but doable.  Picking a winner was damn near impossible.  Finally, in a fit of “I just don’t know what to do,” I decided to take drastic measures, reading each player’s name to my wife and grading based on her reaction.  The first few were lukewarm: “eh”, “maybe”, and one flat-out “no”.  Then I got to Joey Metropoulos, who was greeted with such an enthusiastic “YES!” that I was, quite frankly, a little concerned.

So Metropoulos had the benefit of having a great name, one that is strong and lends itself well to a variety of nicknames (the one I’m using right now is “Captain Metropoulos”).  That got things off to a good start.  As luck would have it, he also had a tremendous offensive season, hitting .317 with 31 homeruns, 82 RBI and a 1.061 (.651 SLG/.410 OBP) OPS.  Just for kicks, I figured out what his numbers would have been over the course of a 162 game season (he actually played in 96 games) – how does 52 homeruns and 138 RBI sound?

For Metropoulos’ troubles, he won the Frontier League’s Most Valuable Player award and earned a spot on Baseball America’s postseason All-Independent Leagues First Team.

Honorable Mention
Ernie Banks, River City Rascals (Frontier League): 24 HR, 75 RBI, .353/.668/.437
Nelson Castro, Calgary Vipers (Golden Baseball League): 11 HR, 81 RBI, 33 SB, .410/.647/.460
Jason James, Rockford Riverhawks (Frontier League): 14 HR, 48 RBI, .374/.571/.455, 40-game hitting streak
Charlton Jimerson, Newark Bears (Atlantic League): 21 HR, 62 RBI, 38 SB, .335/.567/.387
Greg Porter, Wichita Wingnuts (American Association): 21 HR, 86 RBI, .372/.617/.453

Independent Pitcher of the Year
Kyle Wright, Rockford Riverhawks (Frontier League)

kyle wrightKyle Wright was, after much deliberation, my first choice for Independent Pitcher of the Year.  Then new information came to light and I decided that he didn’t deserve the award.  Then I thought about it some more and realized that even though my original information was bad, Wright was still pretty good.  So he wins.

From the glazed look on the collected face of our readers, I gather that further explanation is required.  Very well – Wright’s season stat line went as follows: 10-6, 2.24 ERA, 129 strikeouts, and 144 innings in 20 games (all starts).  More digging revealed that he had enjoyed both a lengthy winning streak and a lengthy losing streak this season, so I found some box scores on the Frontier League web site and plotted out his game-by-game numbers.

I went over the numbers three times and arrived at the same result each time: Wright allowed 143 hits, 52 runs, and 41 earned runs in 2009.  His ERA was 2.56.  The problem is that those numbers differ from the ones on his “official” stat line: 140 hits, 50 runs, 41 earned, and a 2.24 ERA.  This discrepancy, which I can’t seem to figure out, significantly tightened the Pitcher of the Year race.  Wright’s closest competition, Ross Stout, was 13-5, 2.94, 138 strikeouts in 143 innings (assuming his dailies are more on the level than Wright’s).  10-6/2.24/129 seemed more impressive than 13-5/2.94/138; the ERA was what really did it for me.  The stat adjustment gave Wright a .32 increase in his ERA, which made me question just how significant the new gap was.

Got all that?

In the end I decided to keep Wright in the top spot, even though his numbers didn’t add up and he lost five decisions in a row to close out the season.  Fact is, he was 10-1 with a 1.74 ERA on August 5 and while he didn’t light the world on fire over the last month, he was good enough at times that his team could have put another victory or two on his resume.  That’s enough to keep him just ahead of the field, in my book.

Honorable Mention
Brian Barr, Texarkana Gunslingers (Continental Baseball League): 9-3, 2.54 ERA, 80 strikeouts, 88.2 innings
Jim Magrane, Somerset Patriots (Atlantic League): 15-4, 2.70 ERA, 134 strikeouts, 183 innings
Dan Reichert, Bridgeport Bluefish (Atlantic League): 14-9, 3.53 ERA, 126 strikeouts, 193 innings, 7 complete games, 3 shutouts, 21 hit batsmen, 10 wild pitches
Ross Stout, Windy City Thunderbolts (Frontier League): 13-5, 2.94 ERA, 138 strikeouts, 143 innings

Independent Reliever of the Year
Rusty Tucker, New Jersey Jackals (Canadian-American Association)

rusty tuckerTucker was the Can-Am League’s Reliever of the Year after a season in which he went 5-2 with a 2.40 ERA, 24 saves, and 56 strikeouts in 41.2 innings.  He was also named the league’s Pitcher of the Week twice.

2009 was Tucker’s third consecutive season with the Jackals, the first in which he didn’t spend some time with an affiliated organization.  This year was almost a disappointment compared to the previous two:

2007: 0-1, 1.48 ERA, 14 saves, 37 strikeouts, 24.1 innings
2008: 3-3, 1.85 ERA, 21 saves, 54 strikeouts, 47.1 innings

That’s 59 saves, 113.1 innings, and 147 strikeouts.  And he’s only still only 29, which means he could still be coming to an organization near you.  Not too shabby.

Honorable Mention
Hunter Davis, Pensacola Pelicans (American Association): 3-1, 1.79 ERA, 22 saves, 40 strikeouts, 40.1 innings
Justin Dowdy, Wichita Wingnuts (American Association): 0-4, 2.25 ERA, 17 saves, 52 strikeouts, 44 innings
Bret Prinz, Somerset Patriots (Atlantic League): 1-2, 2.04 ERA, 21 saves, 51 strikeouts, 39.2 innings
Kris Regas, Sioux Falls Canaries (American Association)
: 2-0, 1.19 ERA, 15 saves, 25 strikeouts, 22.2 innings

Bus Leagues Q&A with baseball documentarian John Fitzgerald

johnfitzgeraldWe’re big fans of filmmaker John Fitzgerald. His films capture the little moments in sub-major-league baseball that we love to see. His first film, The Emerald Diamond, follows the creation of the Irish national baseball team, and its gradual climb to respectability on the European scene. His second effort, Playing for Peanuts, takes the viewer inside a season in independent baseball, with all of the attendant pitfalls and simple joys that go along with a fly-by-night league.

John was kind enough to enlighten me about the ups and downs of independent filmmaking. Read his answers to my questions below.

Bus Leagues: You seem to have a fondness for the underdog – one that we share. Have you ever been tempted to cover a more popular subject with a built-in audience?

John Fitzgerald: Absolutely. You’re right that I do like underdog stories, but I’m always open to stories about all subjects, big and small. Although, I did think that a story about Ireland and a story about minor league baseball would have large enough audiences to support a film or TV show. I was wrong in both cases.

BL: Playing for Peanuts captured the essence of everything we love about the lower levels of professional baseball. Do the players ever remember it fondly, or do they just want to get out?

JF: I think the players enjoyed it. I’m not sure if it was the players or the situation, but everyone seemed to have a great sense of humor about the whole thing. There were times where they just wanted to get out of there, but there was an overall acceptance of the situation and a sense that they’d be telling stories about their time with the Peanuts for years to come.

BL: Your edits and choices always move the story along in compelling fashion. Where did you learn filmmaking?

JF: Thank you. One of my friends – cinematographer Bill Winters, who also worked on Emerald Diamond and Playing for Peanuts – went to NYU film school. I learned a lot from helping him on his student films. As far as editing, I’m self-taught.

BL: It seems like your cameras were always around when something kooky happened. Did you develop a sixth sense for where to be at any given moment?

JF: I’d like to say we could sense when something weird was about to happen, but the league was a circus. If you had a camera turned on, you were bound to get something interesting.

BL: Was there anything you didn’t catch that you wish you could have included?

JF: Yes. On the final game of the regular season, Tug Gillingham hit a walk-off homer in extra innings. I believe it was his only professional home run and I think it was the only walk-off HR for the Peanuts that season. Unfortunately, it was the second game of a long and rainy doubleheader and I had sent the crew home to rest up for the upcoming playoff series. We were exhausted and running on fumes so it had to be done, but it would’ve been great to have that moment on camera. Although in retrospect, I’m not sure it would have added much to the narrative of the TV show.

BL: Was it difficult to find the humor in what was a basically bleak situation for the Peanuts?

JF: I don’t think it was a bleak situation for the players. Like I said, they had a sense of humor about it, so that made it easier to film… However, I do think it was a bleak situation for the six cities that hosted the South Coast League. The fans and the cities really got screwed financially and emotionally.

BL: Your film about Irish national baseball, The Emerald Diamond, had a gift-wrapped rags to riches storyline. What led you to that story?

JF: I found the Irish team’s website and I wanted to play. It turns out, I wasn’t eligible to play, but I was intrigued by the story. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was in Dublin filming the first interviews for the documentary.

BL: It’s hard to judge the relative skill levels of players on film. Did you see anyone during the making of either film that you thought had major-league potential?

JF: There were no MLB prospects in Ireland, although it wouldn’t have surprised me if guys like Joe Kealty or Chris Gannon (both products of the Boston College baseball program) or Brendan Bergerson (U of West Virginia) ended up playing independent minor league baseball. The window of opportunity for those guys is probably closed now, but they were very talented players.

In Peanuts, there were three former major leaguers – Mike Caruso, Curtis Goodwin and Desi Wilson. Caruso definitely could have played major league baseball again, but I don’t know if he was prepared to do so. Aside from that, there were several guys that were in their mid-20s that probably could have made it if the circumstances were right – Steve Garrabrants, Jon Zeringue and Jasha Balcom. Zeringue was a big prospect with Arizona – his name used to be mentioned along with Conor Jackson and Carlos Quentin, but he never made it past AA. A lot of times that stuff depends on injuries, age and a player’s agent. I have no doubt Jon Zeringue could bat .240 with 12 HR as a major leaguer right now. Unfortunately, he made it back to AA when he was signed by Oakland during the show and he was in spring training camp with the Dodgers this season, but I believe he is out of baseball now.

BL: I was able to find Emerald Diamond on Amazon.com, and you sell Playing for Peanuts at your website. Has it been difficult finding distribution for these projects?

JF: I’ve tried to find distribution, but it hasn’t worked out. So self-distribution is the only other option.

BL: How do you finance these sorts of DIY projects in the first place?

JF: Emerald Diamond was financed with credit cards (I don’t recommend it). Playing for Peanuts was financed on credit cards and investments from family and friends.

BL: The economy’s been kind of shaky. Do you have another project on tap, or do you have to lay low for a while?

JF: I don’t think the market for indy DVDs and TV shows will come back for a long time – if it ever does come back. The economy is in bad shape and the distribution model is shifting from DVDs to downloads… The end result is that it’s just not safe to put money into traditional media projects.

I’m working on a new web project called SmallBallUSA.com. The goal is to provide something like an interactive digital documentary for every affiliated and independent minor league team in the US and Canada. The scope of the project is enormous, but I’m going to move forward and avoid spending money on it until I know it’s a viable idea.

BL: Do you get out to a lot of minor-league games? Which teams are your favorites?

JF: I don’t really have a favorite team – I do like checking out Atlantic League games because I’m in NY and there are a lot of guys in that league that have played at a very high level.

I haven’t been to a minor league game this season. I’m hoping to change that soon.

If we can get John away from his computer for one night and out to a live ballgame, we’ll consider this season of Bus Leagues an unqualified success. But we hope he won’t be out too long. SmallBallUSA sounds like our kind of site.

Thanks, John!

This Week in Bobbleheads – Week 6

What a week this has been!  Alex Rodriguez has a dramatic return from his injury with a first pitch homer on 5/8/09 and Manny Ramirez shows his feminine side by being the latest superstar to test positive for PEDs.  Still though, bobblehead promos are front and center on my end of this blog.  Here’s the lineup this week:

San Francisco Giants 5/12/09 Lou Seal (Chinese) (Mascot) – Part of a Chinese Heritage Night Promotion.  Although a Seal as a Lion Dancer is quite intriguing.

Chicago Cubs 5/12/09 Ernie Banks – First 10,000 – Cubbies go retro with his second giveaway.

Memphis Redbirds 5/12/09 Keith McDonald – First 1,000 – Another in the Redbirds alumni series.

Trenton Thunder 5/13/09 Joba Chamberlain First 2,000 6 and over – Last year they gave out a Joba for plan holders only. This time a straight giveaway.

Myrtle Beach Pelicans 5/15/09 Chris “Butter” Ball – First 1,000 – It’s time for the Pelicans to honor their groundskeeper following in the footstep of Trenton and Clearwater. He also boasts the title of 3-time consecutive winner of the Carolina League field of the Year!

Lansing Lugnuts 5/16/09 Carlos Zambrano – Lansing chooses to honor a no-hitter by a Cubs alumnus even though they are a Jays farm team.

Pittsburgh Pirates 5/16/09 Nate McLouth – Pirates annual All-Star bobblehead.

Tampa Bay Rays 5/16/09 Evan Longoria Figurine – This is probably the only way you can get this hot hitter to stand still, other than an upcoming bobblehead of course!!!

Texas Rangers 5/16/09 Josh Hamilton – The Rangers honor the defending HR derby champion.

San Francisco Giants 5/17/09 Tim Lincecum – First 20,000 – The Giants give the reigning NL Cy Young champ his due.

St. Louis Cardinals 5/17/09 Lou Brock Statue – First 25,000 16 and older – Continue your collection in the Cardinals bronze statue series with this one-of-a-kind replica of the Hall of Famer, just like the one that stands on the corner of 8th and Clark.

Toronto Blue Jays 5/17/09 Alex Rios – First 10,000 – This bobblehead is one of the first I’ve ever seen with a weight around the bat.

This week’s bobblehead travels take me to Trenton for the Joba bobblehead night on Wednesday. Don’t be chicken, Don’t be shy, come around and just say hi.

You Want Mascot Stories? I’ve Got Mascot Stories

Yesterday, Extra P brought us the story of Jacob Osterhout and his audition to be the mascot for the Brooklyn Cyclones.  Jacob’s story made me laugh, yeah, but it also caused some seriously scary flashbacks.

As I’ve mentioned on here a time or ten, I used to work for a professional baseball team (I think this is the first time I’ve talked about it this season, so if you had May 7 in the “OMDQ brags about his past work experiences” pool, you win!).  One of my responsibilities?  Dressing up as Prime Time the Moose for appearances at local schools and community gatherings.  Fortunately, I was never called upon to do it during a game, although I always sort of wanted to try.  Still, it probably would have been a disaster – with small groups, I was decent; I couldn’t see myself as an entertainer of hundreds.

Still, Extra P asked for mascot stories, and I’ve got a couple, so I figured I’d share them here.  I’m even sitting on the couch as I type, so it’s like therapy.

3) My worst mascot experience actually doesn’t involve me wearing the suit.  In 2004, the Nashua Pride didn’t really have a set person in charge of promotions, so three front office people handled various aspects of the job.  I generally put the game script together for the PA announcer (sometimes to great comic effect, as I’ve chronicled here before) and occasionally bossed the mascot around.  Yes, I’m terrible at management.

Our primary mascot that year was a high school kid named John.  He loved the gig, got really into it, did a great job.  One day, however, I saw him sitting down on the stone wall that runs almost parallel to the field just past first base.  This offended my delicate sensibilities regarding what a mascot should and should not do, and I told him so.

“Don’t sit down when you’re outside,” I ordered the next time I saw him.  “If you need to sit and take a break, come into the office.  It doesn’t look good for the mascot to be sitting down like that when he should be entertaining.”  Sound advice, I thought.  Unfortunately, it was about a million degrees, and he interpreted “Don’t sit down outside” as “Don’t take breaks ever,” which led to a call over the radio that he had stumbled into the umpire’s locker room, taken the head off, and passed out.

He was okay in the end, of course, but really, it was a terrible feeling and one of the main exhibits for why I should never be in charge of people.

2) In an effort to extend the Pride’s reach out to the Seacoast region, I signed Prime Time up to take part in Portsmouth’s holiday parade.  It was actually my second parade in the region – I grew up in Rye, the town next door, and my parents still live there and know everybody, so they got me involved in that one (it took some time for my nephew Patrick to grasp that it was Uncle Brian inside that big hairy moose suit).  For Portsmouth, I was joined by my brother Tim.

I realized something important that night: when you take cold December air and hot breath and combine them in an enclosed space, glasses will fog up.  Within minutes, I was blind as a bat, truly A Moose On The Loose, with Tim doing his level best to point me in the right direction.

He couldn’t protect me from everything, however, and that’s why this experience made this post.  I was walking along the street, waving to fans, maybe attempting the occasional high-five, when all of a sudden, “WHOOMP,” I felt something hit my midsection.  No idea what it was until I was able to find Tim, who leaned in close and told me what had happened:

A little kid had broken free from the crowd, run out into the street, and attempted to give Prime Time a big hug.  Not a problem ordinarily…except, of course, in this situation, Prime Time couldn’t see a damn thing.  From what Tim told me, the kid hit me at full speed, bounced off, and was eventually corralled by his parents.

And then I finished the parade, changed behind a parked car, and got the hell out of there.

1) My best mascot story is also my first mascot story.  I started working for the Pride on June 1, 2003.  Somehow, I made it all the way to July before it became necessary for me to don the smelly, perpetually wet suit.

It was another parade, this one for the Fourth of July.  It wasn’t in Nashua, but one of the surrounding towns, Hudson or Litchfield or Hollis.  Someplace not too far away.  My spotter was Andy, our assistant general manager.  I figured it’d be a piece of cake.  Wear the suit, dance around, shake some hands, entertain some kids.  How hard could it be?

At the beginning, it wasn’t bad.  I did all the aforementioned stuff, and I think I was okay.  Then, my body started to realize that it was 95 degrees.  Right around the time I actually started to melt, Andy leaned over and said, “Hey, we’re about halfway.  I’m gonna go grab the car and meet you at the end.”  And he left me there, to die all alone in the streets of Hudson or Litchfield or Hollis or wherever the hell we were.

What he neglected to mention, I think, was that he was getting out right in time (or maybe he did mention it.  This was six years ago).  The end of the parade route featured a hill.  A very, very big hill that might as well have been Mount Washington at that point.  It was horrible.  I thought I was gonna have to crawl to the finish, which would not have been a positive memory for the local children to have of Prime Time.

Luckily I made it and changed in a dugout at the local Little League field, where Andy found me and gave me a bottle of water.  I think I ate it rather than waste time with something silly like drinking.  Then he took me home (after laying a towel on the front seat to soak up my sweat – I looked like Jason Giambi), leaving me to reflect on the situation and hope that it never happened again.

Little did I know that the day would come when our then-promotions manager would set an ambitious appearance schedule, figuring he could do as many as necessary, only to be laid off a month before the season, leading to me donning the mascot suit as many as three times in a single Saturday.  I still can’t pet a wet dog without shuddering.

This Week in Bobbleheads Week 3

Baseball fever is officially in regular season mode.  2 new venues have debuted for MLB here in NY, minor league reports are starting to mount and promotional schedules continue to mount.  Here’s this week’s report on the still prosperous hobby:

Chicago Cubs 4/21/09 Carlos Zambrano “No-Hitter” Statue – First 10,000 fans – Z’s feat is especially amazing considering this was to be a “road game” in a neutral site due to a hurricane in Texas, yet more like a home game since the Cubbies next door neighbors are in Milwaukee.

Mississippi Braves 4/21/09 Tim Hudson – First 500 fans – Leftovers of the Atlanta ’08 giveaway.

San Francisco Giants 4/21/09 Manny Pacquiao – The Filipino boxer’s figure is in conjunction with Filipino Heritage Night, along with it being close to his next boxing tangle.

Mississippi Braves 4/22/09 Bobby Cox – First 500 fans – Another A-Braves leftover to give to M-Brave fans.

Arizona Diamondbacks 4/25/09 Justin Upton – First 25,000 fans – This will be J-Up’s first MLB uni bobble following Norfolk’s ’08 representation in a hometown heroes series.

Cleveland Indians 4/25/09 Kerry Wood – The only problem with this bobblehead is his beard isn’t thick enough.

Fans of this blog, the hobby and baseball are going to love this Vanity Fair article regarding the economics of baseball at http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/04/spring-training200904 .  Page 1 has quotes by yours truly on not only the hobby, but the cancer that is Alex Rodriguez in the Yankees clubhouse.  Continue to follow the schedule of bobbleheads past, present and future at http://thetruebobbleheadboard.yuku.com/

See ya next week

Life After Baseball

So hey, remember yesterday when I went on a mini-rant about the way old ballplayers have a tendency to fade gently into anonymity without anyone really noticing, and as an example I used the fact that I knew the whereabouts of perhaps one or two of the guys from my time in baseball?

Mr. Moynahan, “Irony” is waiting for you on Line Two.

As I was walking into a building with a client this afternoon, a Fed Ex deliveryman held the door on his way out.  I looked at him the way most people look at deliverymen, nothing more than a passing glance, until the part of my brain that handles visual memory decided to kick in.

“Hey, wait a minute…I know this guy.”  It was Glenn Murray, without a doubt the greatest player in Nashua Pride history.  He was the Atlantic League’s Most Valuable Player in 1999, led the team to a championship the following season, and became the first Atlantic League player to reach 100 career homeruns in 2003.  If the powers that be were ever to create a Hall of Fame for the Atlantic League, Murray would easily be a member of the inaugural class.

In the middle of performing the automatic and mindless task of holding a door for someone, Glenn realized that I was studying him fairly closely.  He took a closer look at me and recognition dawned.  I don’t know if he knew exactly where he knew me from, and there’s no doubt in my mind that he didn’t remember my name, but he seemed to know that he knew me.

We exchanged greetings, shook hands, and talked for a minute or two, all about him of course.  He coached for awhile after his playing days were done, but it didn’t really work out.  He’s been working for Fed Ex for a couple of months now, delivering packages and making more money than he ever did as a ballplayer.  I informed my client that he was looking at a living legend – he asked Glenn what he did, where he played, how long he played.

And then, it was done.  With a “Take it easy” and “Good seeing you,” we continued into the building and he continued out to his truck.  As I walked inside, I realized I should have obtained some contact information, that the life of an ex-ballplayer is something that fascinates me to no end and I would have liked to talk to him about it in greater detail.  What, if anything, did he miss?  Does he still talk to his former teammates?  When did he know that it was finally over?  Has he adjusted to the fact that it’s March and there is no spring training on the horizon?  Will he ever really adjust to that reality?

Knowing Glenn, he’ll continue to accept that his time in the game is done without dwelling on it.  But for me, a guy who watched him play every day for two seasons, watched him during late game at-bats in close games where you just knew a homerun was only moments away, watched him strike out on sliders low and away that simply looked too good to resist, watched him hobble around the bases on two bad knees, it was awfully hard to see him wearing the purple uniform shirt and carrying the clipboard of an average working Joe.

John Updike once said of Ted Williams, “Gods do not answer letters.”  In Nashua, New Hampshire, unfortunately, one delivers them.

The Shot Heard Round Nashua

I was sitting in the scoreboard booth of the Holman Stadium press box, above and to the left of home plate, when James Lofton hit the most dramatic homerun my eyes have ever seen.

The game had not started off well for the hometown Nashua Pride, knotted with the Bridgeport Bluefish at one-win apiece in the best-of-three Atlantic League North Division playoffs. Heading into the bottom of the sixth inning, they trailed 6-2, with the prospect of facing the league’s best bullpen looming on the horizon. Bobby Chouinard (5-4, 2.17, 46 games) had a great season in the setup role; Mike Guilfoyle (7-3, 1.90, 40 saves), only the greatest closer in the history of the league, was at his absolute best.

My memory tells me that even though Chouinard was Bridgeport’s regular setup man, he came on in the sixth. Either I’m wrong or Jose Lind brought him in early to quiet a threat from the Pride. Whatever the case, whoever was on the mound, the end result was not optimal for the Bluefish: Nashua loaded the bases and second baseman Joe Kilburg, the team’s most intense player, jumped on a pitch and deposited it over the wall in right centerfield.

Steve Cox and I were in the press box. He was working the scoreboard, I was on message board duty. When the ball came off the bat, Steve, a one-time star player at Daniel Webster College, began yelling at the top of his lungs; when it went over the wall, we both destroyed the unwritten “no cheering in the press box rule”. It was warranted, though. In the blink of an eye, in no more time than it takes to bring the bat through the strike zone, we had a whole new ballgame. Six to six.

Bridgeport scored one run in the seventh. With Guilfoyle getting ready to warm in the visitors bullpen, it might as well have been five. Truth was, Guilfoyle didn’t really belong in the Atlantic League. He was just too good. But there were two factors that kept him on the Bluefish roster: one, his age (35) probably discouraged affiliated teams from taking a chance and two, he lived in the Bridgeport area, considered it his home, and didn’t want to leave.

It was a 7-6 game heading into the bottom of the ninth and sure enough, here came Guilfoyle. Steve had departed for parts unknown, leaving me in the scoreboard booth. I might have been alone – I hated doing both jobs at once, but this would have been one instance where I wouldn’t have much cared – or they might have thrown an intern in there to cover the scoreboard. Impossible to say. And ultimately irrelevant.

Two batters quickly became two outs. Guilfoyle was really dealing as Chris Petersen came to the plate.

Petersen was a tremendous defensive shortstop. I don’t have the fielding numbers from that season, but I can’t imagine that he made more than six or eight errors all season. He played the position exceptionally well. He was not, however, the type of guy you wanted to have at the plate in a “loser-go-home” situation. His batting average in 2003 was .267, his on-base percentage .325, his OPS .650. He had little power – only three homeruns all year. Petersen’s primary offensive contributions were sacrifice bunts and grounding into double plays.

Predictably, Guilfoyle quickly gained the upper hand, starting Petersen off 0 and 2. The Bluefish players lined the top step of the dugout, preparing to run on the field in celebration of a trip to the Atlantic League finals. They waited there as Guilfoyle delivered the ball to the plate (I think it was a curveball)…

And hit Petersen with the pitch.

Who knew a hit batter could be the most exciting play in baseball? It was like seeing Rocky cut Drago. Petersen scampered down to first as the ballpark, all two hundred people still in attendance, came alive. I worked the message board as hard as possible, throwing up stuff like “LET’S GO PRIDE!” and “CLAP YOUR HANDS!” My boss, Eric, had a different perspective: he was on top of the home dugout in the mascot suit, running back and forth and trying to get people fired up. It was working.

With two down, Petersen on first, and Guilfoyle suddenly proven mortal, here came James Lofton to the plate. Lofton already had a special place in Pride history, having played for the 2000 team that won the city its first baseball championship and later playing in the major leagues for the Boston Red Sox. I don’t think his number was one of the ones added to the Holman Stadium press box last season; if not, it should have been.

Still, like Petersen, he wasn’t the guy you wanted at the plate in that situation. The only hope was for survival, that he might do something that would keep the inning going until the lineup came back around to guys like Kilburg and Glenn Murray, the heavy hitters who could change the game with one swing of the bat.

Also like Petersen, Lofton fell behind 0 and 2 almost before we realized what had happened. He was clearly overmatched. Again, Bridgeport’s entire roster was on its feet, poised for a celebration. This time, Guilfoyle stayed with the fastball, trying to overpower Lofton, but he left it up in the zone and Lofton turned on it. It left his bat and flew on a line toward left-center field as I screamed at it to “KICK, KICK!”, hoping I could convince it to get an afterburner in its ass and at least catch the wall. No way Petersen doesn’t score on that. No way.

We didn’t have to worry. The ball landed safely on the other side of the wall and the ballpark went insane. It was the first homerun Guilfoyle had allowed all year. I was no longer just cheering in the press box – I was screaming in the press box, which I figured was okay because our assistant general manager came running into the scoreboard booth, more excited than I was, and hugged me. Somewhere in the middle of all this, the PA announcer, Ken Cail, showed what an unbelievable professional he is: he threw a wireless microphone at me and suggested I run down to the field in case the manager, Butch Hobson, wanted to say a few words to the crowd.

I flew down as fast as I could. Butch was already gone by the time I got there, outside the locker room door with a crowd of people around him. I saw Kilburg, who was pulling a Jim Valvano and hugging everyone he could get his hands on, and screamed into his ear, “THAT’S HOW YOU HIT THE BALL!” as I pounded him on the back. At that point, armed with my microphone and no one to talk to, I just stood on the field and basked in the moment. My future wife and mother-in-law later commented on the big goofy grin that was plastered all over my face.

It would be a nice ending to say that the Pride went on to the Atlantic League Championship Series and took care of business against the Somerset Patriots. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. They held a two games to one lead in the best-of-five series, with a chance to clinch the title at home, but all did not go according to plan. The long season finally caught up to them – Hobson had been juggling things mightily for some time due to injuries – and they dropped Games Four and Five. Just like that, there were no more games left.

Even with the less-than-storybook ending, Lofton’s Homerun remains the most dramatic I have ever seen. Others, like Carlton Fisk or David Ortiz, might have occurred on a grander stage and stimulated greater excitement, but the circumstances surrounding Lofton’s blast make it the best. Not only did he do it with two strikes, two outs, in the bottom of the ninth, in an elimination game, with his team down a run, he hit it off the best closer in the history of the league. All things being relative, I’ll take Mike Guilfoyle over Pat Darcy and Paul Quantrill. But maybe that’s just because I was there.

Indy Spotlight – The Ballparks

Minor league ballparks have always been a source of fascination for me.  One of the most interesting things about working for the Nashua Pride (how many more mentions can I make of that job before the hate mail starts rolling in?) was “Historic” Holman Stadium, a city-owned ballpark that played host to a number of amateur activities (including, for many years, high school football) as well as the various professional baseball teams that rolled through the area over the years. 

Holman Stadium was, by far, the oldest ballpark in the Atlantic League; I’m fairly certain that the league’s six other venues were all built in 1998 or later.  But one thing that I always liked about Holman, and this may just be the home team bias talking, was the history that had taken place there.  It was the place where Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe had played in 1946, to become the first black ballplayers to see action for a professional team based in the United States.  Sure, the layout is terrible – the field of play isn’t visible from the main concourse, for example, so on a busy night, you could go for a hot dog and miss three innings – but there was, and still is, a certain charm to the place. 

But don’t take my word for it.  I still get all misty when I visit Fenway Park.

There are 62 independent teams in action this season, 61 of which have home stadiums.  Wikipedia lists the cost information for 20 stadiums, the year opened for 55 stadiums, and the capacity for 60 stadiums.  Using that, I put together a few lists – oldest and youngest ballparks, biggest ballparks, most expensive, yadda yadda yadda.  It’s interesting stuff, but take it with a grain of salt.  For one, the information is from Wikipedia, and two, the listed capacities aren’t always accurate.  For instance, Lancaster’s Clipper Magazine Stadium is noted as having a capacity of up to 7,500.  On Opening Night, however, they set an Atlantic League record by packing 8,485 fans into the place.  Obviously, there’s a slight difference there, probably due to standing room, but still – grain of salt.

Five Oldest Independent Ballparks
Hanover Insurance Park at Fitton Field (Worcester Tornadoes, Can-Am League) – Opened in 1905
Bosse Field (Evansville Otters, Frontier League) – Opened in 1915
Bringhurst Field (Alexandria Aces, United League) – Opened in 1933
Lawrence-Dumont Stadium (Wichita Wingnuts, American Association) – Opened in 1934
Holman Stadium (Nashua Pride, Can-Am League) – Opened in 1937

Four Newest Independent Ballparks
QuikTrip Park at Grand Prairie (Grand Prairie AirHogs, American Association) – 2008
Regency Furniture Stadium (Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, Atlantic League) – 2008
Sovereign Bank Stadium (York Revolution, Atlantic League) – 2007
Rent One Park (Southern Illinois Miners, Frontier League) – 2007

Five Most Expensive Independent League Ballparks
U.S. Steel Yard (Gary SouthShore RailCats, Northern League) – $45 million
Sovereign Bank Stadium (York Revolution, Atlantic League) – $32.5 million
Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium (Newark Bears, Atlantic League) – $30 million
Haymarket Park (Lincoln Saltdogs, American Association) – $29.53 million
Silver Cross Field (Joliet JackHammers, Northern League) – $27 million

Five Largest Independent League Ballparks (in terms of capacity)
Desert Sun Stadium (Yuma Scorpions, Golden Baseball League) – 10,500
Ottawa Stadium (Ottawa Rapids, Can-Am League) – 10,332
Telus Field (Edmonton Cracker-Cats, Golden Baseball League) – 10,000
Cohen Stadium (El Paso Diablos, American Association) – 9,725
Haymarket Park (Lincoln Saltdogs, American Association) – 8,500

Oldest Average Ballpark Age By League
United League Baseball – 41.4 years
Can-Am League – 37.375 years
Golden Baseball League – 30 years
American Association – 26.2 years
Frontier League – 21 years
Northern League – 7.83 years
Atlantic League – 5.875 years
Continental Baseball League – 5.5 years

Largest Average Capacity By League
Northern League – 6,078
American Association – 5,833
Atlantic League – 5,678
Golden Baseball League – 5,367
Can-Am League – 4,866
United League Baseball – 4,840
Frontier League – 4,647
Continental Baseball League – 2,107

Indy Spotlight – Holding the Flavor of the Month’s – Ahem – in the Bus Leagues

When I promised last week to provide a relatively accurate list of former major leaguers that are currently listed on independent rosters, I had no idea what a task it would become.  Did you guys know there are like eight independent leagues out there?  Eighty or so teams?  Somewhere in the vicinity of 1,600 players?  That’s a lot of players.  Throw in a vicious flu/bronchitis that hit on Monday morning and it’s a miracle we’re here today, only one day behind schedule.

The list below isn’t perfect.  There have been some signings since I copied all the rosters into Word, the most obvious of which I accounted for, but I didn’t go through and enter every name into BR to see if somebody had four games of experience in 1999. 

Not surprisingly, the Atlantic League dominates this list, with 56 former big leaguers under contract thus far.  The ALPB has been one of the top independent leagues in the country for ten years now, the place where high-level talent goes when they have something to prove.  In 2001, Jose Canseco started the year with the Newark Bears (including a record crowd of over 4,800 on Opening Day in Nashua) before finishing the year (and his major league career) with the Chicago White Sox.  Two years later, Rickey Henderson took the same route, playing for Newark (literally an hour into my first day as an intern with the Pride, I tagged along with another intern who had been assigned to meet Henderson at his car) before the Dodgers came calling for the last thirty games.  And my personal favorite?  Dante Bichette, who joined the Pride in late July of 2004 after skipping two full seasons, took about a week to shake the rust off, then put on a clinic over the final month.

Will any of the guys on this list follow in the footsteps of Canseco, Henderson, Brendan Donnelly, or any of the other guys who used the independent leagues to get one more shot at the big time?  Too early to tell, but we’ll try to keep an eye on it as the season progresses.  (Some of the more interesting names are in bolded italics.  Guys that I’m not 100% certain about are listed as “possible”.)

American Association (A – AA)

Lincoln Saltdogs
Felix Jose (OF) – 1988-95, 2000, 2002-03 – Jose was the Atlantic League’s Co-MVP with the Nashua Pride in 1998.

Pensacola Pelicans
John Webb (P) – 2004-05

Sioux City Explorers
Dusty Bergman (P) – 2004

Sioux Falls Canaries
Pat Mahomes (P) – 1992-97, 1999-03

Wichita Wingnuts
Kevin Hooper (IF) – 2005-06
Dustan Mohr (OF) – 2001-07

Atlantic League of Professional Baseball (AA – AAA)

Bridgeport Bluefish
Adam Greenberg (IF) – 2005 – Greenberg had one of the craziest careers ever, taking a pitch off the head during his first major league at-bat.  He left the game and has not appeared in a big league uniform since.
Alex Prieto (IF) – 2003-04
Tim Drew (P) – 2000-04 – The middle of the three baseball-playing Drew brothers, Tim and J.D. played together on the 2004 Atlanta Braves.
T.J. Tucker (P) – 2000, 2002-05
Eric Dubose (P) – 2002-06
Matt Ford (P) – 2003

Camden Riversharks
Kevin Walker (LHP) – 2000-05
Jason Phillips (1B/C) – 1999, 2002-03
Josh Rabe (OF) – 2006-07
Mike Vento (OF) – 2005-06

Lancaster Barnstormers
Matt LeCroy (C-1B) – 2000-07
John Nelson (SS) – 2006
Sendy Rleal (P) – 2006

Long Island Ducks
Tom Martin (P) – 1997-07
Jason Simontacchi (P) – 2002-04, 2007
Joe Valentine (P) – 2003-05
Brent Abernathy (IF) – 2001-03, 2005
Donaldo Mendez (IF) – 2001, 2003
Pete Rose, Jr. (IF) – 1997
Carl Everett (OF) – 1993-2006
Damian Rolls (OF) – 2000-04
Jamal Strong (OF) – 2003, 2005

Newark Bears
Bobby Hill (IF) – 2002-05
Ramon Castro (IF) – 2004
Randall Simon (IF) – 1997-99, 2001-06
Cory Aldridge (OF) – 2001
Keith Reed (OF) – 2005
Ruben Mateo (OF) – 1999-2004
Jose Herrera (OF) – 1995-96
Al Levine (P) – 1996-2005
Benito Baez (P) – 2001
Edwin Almonte (P) – 2003
J.J. Trujillo (P) – 2002
Will Cunnane (P) – 1997-2004

Somerset Patriots
Michael Ryan (OF) – 2000-05
Jeff Duncan (OF) – 2003-04
Brandon Knight (P) – 2001-02
Scott Wiggins (P) – 2002
Bret Prinz (P) – 2001-05, 2007
Andy Van Hekken (P) – 2002
Brian Reith (P) – 2001, 2003-04

Southern Maryland Blue Crabs
Jeff Farnsworth (P) – 2002
John Halama (P) – 1998-2006
Adam Johnson (P) – possible – 2001, 2003
Jason Pearson (P) – 2002-03
Carlos Perez (P) – possible – 1995, 1997-2000
Dan Reichert (P) – 1999-2003
Damian Jackson (IF) – possible – 1996-2006
Greg Blosser (OF) – 1993-94 – Anyone else surprised that Blosser only played 22 games in the majors?
Eric Crozier (OF) – 2004

York Revolution
Wayne Franklin (P) – 2000-06
Pete Munro (P) – 1999-2000, 2002-04
Aaron Myette (P) – 1999-2004
Aaron Rakers (P) – 2004-05, 2007
Corey Thurman (P) – 2002-03
Dave Veres (P) – 1994-2003

Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball (A)

New Jersey Jackals
Joel Bennett (P) – 1998-99
Luke Allen (OF) – 2002-03

Ottawa Rapids
Napoleon Calzado (OF) – 2005

Sussex Skyhawks
Yohanny Valera (C ) – 2000
Walter Young (1B) – 2005

Golden Baseball League (AA)

Edmonton Cracker-Cats
Augustine Montero (P) – possible – 2006
Hector Ramirez (P) – possible – 1999-2000

Yuma Scorpions
Pascual Matos (C ) – 1999

Northern League (A-AA)

Gary SouthShore RailCats
Tony Cogan (P) – 2001

Joliet JackHammers
David Moraga (P) – 2000
Juan Carlos Diaz (INF) – 2002

Schaumburg Flyers
James Lofton (INF) – 2001 – I have an absolutely awesome story that features Lofton as the central figure.  I’ve been meaning to write it up for about two years now – maybe this blog will give me the momentum to do so.
Rontrez Johnson (OF) – 2003
Jermaine Allensworth (OF) – 1996-99
Bo Hart (INF) – 2003-04

United League Baseball

Laredo Broncos
Edgard Clemente (OF) – 1998-2000

San Angelo Colts
Matt Duff (P) – possible – 2002

Two Roads Diverged

On a shelf in my parents’ living room, there is a baseball signed by every attendee of the 2004 New Hampshire Baseball Dinner. Some of the names are starting to fade, but most are still clearly visible. Jim Rice. Johnny Pesky. Rick Wise. Butch Hobson. Bill Monbouquette. It’s one of those items that is pretty cool to have, even if the actual monetary value is probably nonexistent.

In addition to some of the big name stars who signed balls for fans that night, there were a couple of relative nobodies, minor leaguers who had played their high school ball in New Hampshire and were now working their butts off for the opportunity to play in the major leagues.

Manchester’s David Williamson (for some reason, all the stats sites refer to him as “Willie” Williamson) was a former seventh round pick by the Cardinals out of UMass-Lowell who was starting to run into some serious and confusing trouble. Like Steve Blass, Mark Wohlers, and others before him, Williamson was a pitcher with immense physical talent who, somewhere along the way, had forgotten how to throw strikes. In 2002, with the Low A New Jersey Cardinals, he appeared in six games, all starts, posting a 2.25 ERA, 10.13 K/9, 7.13 BB/9, and a 1.29 WHIP in 24 innings pitched. His line the following year? 17 games, four starts, 9.90 ERA, 7.20 K/9, 15.30 BB/9, 2.45 WHIP in 20 innings pitched. In 2004, he ended up at the end of the world, in Nashua, pitching for the Pride, hoping to figure out the problem and capitalize on his potential. Didn’t happen. I distinctly remember watching him in one of the three games he pitched – he got two quick strikes on one of the hitters he faced, then hit the backstop on the fly with his next pitch. He ended up appearing in a total of eight games between Nashua and Pennsylania (the league’s traveling team, which really WAS the end of the world for most guys), walking 31 batters in 7 2/3 innings. Just like that, his career was over.

The other minor leaguer at the dinner that night was Litchfield’s Kyle Jackson, a 32nd round selection by the Boston Red Sox in June 2001. Unlike Williamson, Jackson has achieved limited success at the minor league level; for awhile, he was even included on Boston’s 40-man roster. He suffered a setback in 2007, however, going 4-9 with a 5.99 ERA in 42 relief appearances at AA Portland. Now 25 and in his seventh minor league season, Jackson’s career is at a critical stage. Will he finally follow in the footsteps of Charlie Zink and Chris Smith (Portland’s “Governor” and “Mayor”, respectively, as Kevin Gray tells us at the beginning of a story on Jackson in today’s Union Leader), who left the Sea Dogs after a combined nine seasons with the team, moving down the highway to AAA Pawtucket? Or does Jackson’s story end before he walks down the tunnel, through the dugout, and out onto the impossibly green grass of Fenway Park? At this point, only time will tell.