Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

River Cats vs. Isotopes

As in Sacramento vs. Albuquerque, both in the AAA Pacific Coast League, the former affiliated with the Giants and the latter with the Rockies. Another relatively cool night in the Central Valley (headed for a much more typical 100 by week’s end), 81 degrees at game time. The Isotopes are already eliminated from the playoffs, and the River Cats are sitting in first in their division.

AAA is interesting because it is the highest level of the minors, the last stop for young stars on the rise before they make the Show (some even skip AAA and go up from AA) and often populated with big leaguers that get sent down for rehab or because they hit a rough patch in the Show.

The Cats play their home games at Raley Field on the banks of the Sacramento River in West Sacramento. Unlike a lot of minor league parks, it is not named for some dear departed ball player but for the supermarket chain that bought the naming rights. The disease is seeping to ever lower levels! The stadium has a seating capacity of 14,000, which certainly outdoes the 4,000 or so at the most recent Advanced A games I’ve seen and this crowd didn’t begin to tax that capacity. It is a pretty stadium and to my surprise, the luxury boxes on the upper level seemed to be almost fully occupied.

As you can see, there is a fancy Jumbotron and another couple of electronic scoreboards that are easy for geezers like me to read. The only problem was that they went out in the bottom of the first, came back briefly an inning later, and then were in and (partially) out at intervals for the rest of the game.

Unlike the Advanced A games, here (maybe because both teams are affiliated with National League clubs), the pitchers hit for themselves. Chris Rusin, the Isotopes pitcher – who, by the way, was throwing mostly junk, not breaking 90 – drove in two runs with a clean single his first time up, but later, despite several years with the Cubs and Rockies, couldn’t manage in three attempts to lay down a bunt. Any National League pitcher should be able to bunt at any time in any count. But who cares what I think?!

This guy started out with the crew dragging the infield after the 6th inning, but ended up doing a dance and finally jumped up on the wall to entertain the crowd. The minor leagues are really about entertainment rather than baseball, though at the AAA level, there aren’t as many between-inning gimmicks as at the lower levels.

Finally, to the food. There was a pretty wide variety of sandwiches along with the usual fare. The one that caught my eye, that I’ve never seen in another park – not even at the New Orleans Baby Cakes last year – was a muffuletta sandwich. I was skeptical, so I asked the servers if it was authentic and if anyone was from N.O. who could vouch for it. One kid said he was from N.O. but claimed he’d never had a muffuletta sandwich. So I tried it. It was bad. There was a tiny container of muffuletta that was good for about a third of the sandwich, and I had to be satisfied with mustard for the remainder. A cruel hoax. Oh yes, and the prices were definitely big league.

What I said about standings at the beginning didn’t really matter because the Isotopes had the upper hand throughout and won 4-1.

So that’s it for the California Dreamin’ tour folks. I’ve enjoyed it immensely and just hope I managed to send some of the fun your way.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Rants

Nuts vs. Jethawks

That’s the Modesto Nuts and the Lancaster Jethawks, two more teams in the California League, Advanced A. The Nuts are in the Mariners organization and the Jethawks in the Rockies system. I have no idea what a Jethawk is but according to Wikipedia, their name comes from Lancaster’s association with the aerospace industry. The Nuts are presumably named for the almonds (and maybe some other nuts) grown around Modesto.

The Nuts play their home games at John Thurman Field, opened in 1955 and renovated in 1997. It’s a tidy place with lots of bathrooms and plenty of general admission seating. The problem, as you can see, is that the third base side is in full sun till about 8 p.m. and in Modesto, that’s generally not pleasant. This game started at an unseasonably cool 87 degrees, but even with that moderate temperature (for Modesto) full sun is still too much.

When I arrived, there was a fairly loud symphony of chirping – turned out that there were about a zillion pre-pubescent girls waiting to get on to the field to demonstrate their cheerleading skills. I didn’t know cheerleading played any part in baseball outside of Japan, but sure enough, the hordes occupied foul territory before the game began to demonstrate their skills. Here they are:

Then, to my dismay, they invaded the first base grandstands where I was sitting and, having been stoked by their parents’ lax fiscal discipline into a high state of sugar frenzy, continued their jumping and shouting and generally chaotic behavior through the first few innings till the sugar wore off. By the fifth inning (after the girls and their parents had departed) the crowd was down to a reasonable 100 or so.

As we all know, the Mariners are languishing in last place in the AL West and, watching this farm team of theirs, it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better any time soon, at least not if they’re counting on guys from the minors to bail them out. First, their roster reads like a prep school yearbook. Some sample first names: Collin, Austin, Ian, Keegan, Connor . . . you get the idea. Also, the Nuts had as many starters hitting at or under the Mendoza line as the Jethawks had hitting over .300.

Once again, there was no sign on the field showing its name – just the team name behind home and on the Jumbotron. And a footnote – there was no dirt path from the dugout to the batters box, so I guess in isn’t a Cal League thing.

Some of the wannabe cheerleaders on the Jumbotron

There was a wide variety of sandwiches on offer, far more than customary in the minors, and the prices were almost, but not quite, big league. Because of the home team’s name, and because there is a limit to how many hot dogs an old man can eat, I settled for a bag of peanuts and a beer (though I doubt many peanuts are grown around here). All in all, it was a pleasant evening of baseball (after the cheerleaders left), but the Nuts got shelled (sorry, blame Jack Faust – it was his line) 6-4.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Giants vs. 66’ers

That’s the San Jose Giants vs. the Inland Empire 66’ers (San Bernardino), both of the California League, Advanced A. You may recall the 66’ers from the first game of the California Dreamin’ tour when they played the Stockton Ports and shut them out 7-0.

But this game was at the Giants home, Excite Park, otherwise known as San Jose Municipal Stadium. It’s old, but it has been kept up to date and all told, is quite a nice park. It has a video Jumbotron and radar pitch speed readings, both of which are rare at that level of the minors. Lots of reasonably comfortable general admission seats, too. And once again, though I didn’t bother to photograph it, there was the dirt path from dugout to batters box. Must be a Cal League thing.

The mustache is fake

Two interesting roster notes. First, Johnny Cueto of the parent club San Francisco Giants, is on the San Jose roster for his rehab after Tommy John surgery last season. He pitched a bit for the S.J. Giants two games ago. On the other side is the son of one of my all-time favorite players, Torii Hunter. I didn’t mention him before because he didn’t play in the Stockton game. Junior looks like his dad and may even have some of his skills. And he’s in the Angels organization, where his dad spent a few good years. He went 2-4 in this game and played well. Here he is.

I also have to note another literary name, this one with the S.J. Giants: Hamlet Marte. He joins such luminaries as Arquimedes Caminero and Socrates Brito in the baseball world.

There was some sort of gimmick between nearly every inning, including having a kid toss toilet rolls into a toilet and ball players throwing baseballs in an attempt to break the headlights of an auto parts company van (both succeeded).

There was a bigger variety of food options here than I’ve seen in any minor league park. It didn’t hurt that it was Italian Night, with several specialty (presumably temporary) Italian food stands, and the greatest variety was in the large table seating area along the left field line. There was a good crowd, with the grandstands mostly full.

My favorite thing about this park, though, is the quotes painted on the walls of the tunnels leading from the concourse to the grandstands. There are the obligatory Yogi quotes:

And for my money, the best one is on top here:

One interesting aspect of the minor leagues, at least the ones I’ve seen, is that they all use the designated hitter. This being the Giants home game and their parent club being in the National League, you might think they’d want their baby pitchers to learn how to face serious pitching (notice I did not say hit) so they’ll be ready when they make it up the Bay. Even when both teams are affiliated with National League teams (you might recall from the Stockton game that the 66’ers are in the Angels organization), they use the DH. A puzzlement. Maybe I’ll be forced to do some research.

And finally, the 66’ers should hire me to attend all their games. They won 7-3.

Eats, Minor Leagues, Outfield Ads, Rants

Sonoma vs. Napa

Normally I use the team moniker rather than its city but this title is just too good to pass up – sounds like an article from the Wine Spectator on the relative merits of the special vintages of the two best known California wine regions.

But it’s about as far from fine wine as you can get. Instead, it is the Sonoma Stompers vs. the Napa Silverados, two teams from the Pacific Association, an independent league (not affiliated with any major league organization). Independent leagues come and go, but there are currently six that are considered viable. The players get paid, so they are professional, but just barely. Many live with host families and most are either high school or college players who were not drafted or signed by any major league club or guys who have played pro ball for a while, maybe even made it to the Show, but are quite unlikely to get there again but just can’t give up the game. They figure it’s better than being a bagger at the local grocery in their home town.

The reason I came to Sonoma is that two baseball quants, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller, wrote a book published in 2016 called The Only Rule Is It Has To Work, and I finally got around to reading it this winter. They convinced the owner of the Stompers that they could use baseball analytics to turn the Stompers into league champions, and the book chronicles their efforts over one season. Like many books, it is too long (one of my pet peeves), but it is pretty entertaining, so if you’re good at skimming, I recommend it. I won’t reveal how the experiment worked out.

The Stompers, and the Pacific Association are kind of scruffy, just barely getting by, or they were before the book (more on that shortly). Guys don’t get paid enough to have their own apartment, so host families are important, as are other economies the teams must take. The P.A. is considered one of the lesser independent leagues, so these players aren’t going to be headlining in the Bigs anytime soon. All you have to do to understand this is watch a game. Lots of errors, passed balls, brain cramps and so on. The contrast with even short season A ball is evident.

Sonoma is one of those precious towns where only senior citizens with substantial bank balances can enter (exceptions to the age requirement can be made if your bank account is big enough) and they can enjoy the trendy shops, wine bars, art galleries and the like. And the Stompers have incorporated that ambience by offering such delicacies as a bacon and Brie burger ($16), Caesar salad (unadorned – $10) and a basic hot dog for $12. Oh yes, and admission to the park costs $14, the highest I’ve paid for this level of baseball. Not even minor league baseball, but seriously major league prices!

Anyway, the Stompers play their games at Arnold Field, which is also used for high school football. It features a small grandstand surrounding home plate (the outfield corners are blocked from view by the cinderblock dugouts) and some table seating along the left field line. The grandstand crowd was not more than 100, but they all seemed to know each other and at any given time, there was more visiting than baseball spectating happening there.

It was also Bark in the Park night, my second such promotion on this tour. What’s with bringing dogs to a ball game? They don’t fit conveniently in the seats, they sometimes scuffle with each other, pee in inconvenient places and don’t seem to revel in the experience very much.

I haven’t mentioned outfield ads in a while and all I can say about those at Arnold Field is that they were mostly so small as to be unreadable. The ones I could read were neither interesting nor unusual.

The Stompers came into the game leading the league, but gave up nine runs in the first three innings. They did get one solo homer, shown here just before and just after, and later got three more, back-to-back-to-back. Another feature of independent ball – the local fans (everyone except me) pass the hat for contributions to the player who hits a home run. They were going broke at this one. The Stompers scored a few more runs, but ultimately lost 10-7.

It wasn’t a pretty game. Weak pitching, poor defense and baserunning and high prices. What’s not to dislike?

Eats, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Ports vs. 66’ers

I was repeatedly warned that the California Dreamin’ tour would be hot and my response was always to ask if the warner remembered last year’s Heat and Humidity tour. That normally closed down the conversation.

But they may have been right, since the evening began at 100 degrees. Of course it was a dry heat.

The Stockton Ports play their home games at Banner Island Ballpark, which is on the banks of the San Joaquin River, which really isn’t a river at all but rather part of the delta that goes all the way to the Pacific. Oh yes, and there is no discernible island. Maybe that’s why there is no sign to be found, inside or outside, identifying it as Banner Island Ballpark. You have to go to the Ports’ website for that. And another thing (which really doesn’t relate), the stadium clock was 15 minutes slow.

The Ports’ opponent for this game was the Inland Empire 66’ers of San Bernardino. Both teams play in the California League, which is Advanced A level. Stockton is currently in last place in the North Division and IE is last in the South. The pre-game tension was heavy. Perhaps reflective of the importance of this game, there were no more than 300 fans in attendance. The Ports are an Oakland A’s affiliate and the 66’ers belong to the Angels – a true California rivalry.

Interestingly, the Ports had only four Latin Americans on their roster, while the 66’ers had ten. As you might expect, nearly all the players are under 25.

Early in the game, a 66’ers hitter stroked a sharp ground ball to the far right of the first baseman. He made a spectacular diving stop only to look up to see the pitcher watching from the mound, thus giving the hitter a single. A fan right in front of me commented loudly enough for the pitcher to hear (with that non-crowd, shouting was unnecessary) “That’s gonna keep you on the bus.” And of course that runner came around to score the first run.

A quirk that I haven’t seen in any major league park is this dirt path from the dugout to the batter’s box. Maybe here in Stockton they don’t have enough water to irrigate that extra grass.

Another first was the first base coach for the 66’ers. An older gentleman with a less than athletic physique (that’s not unusual for coaches) had a gait and stance that strongly indicated he had suffered a recent stroke. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I’m not enough of a cub reporter to have shouted a question from the stands. Curious.

Then there’s the food. A meager selection since most of the concessions were closed. Once again, I made a rookie mistake. Because this was the first game of the tour, I opted not for the mandatory hot dog, but in tribute to my Latino friends selected the classic burrito. As you can see, it looks like a portly potato and was nearly as bland, at least till the last bite when I crunched down on a piece of wire. That’s a first (and I hope a last!).

Eats, M's, Minor Leagues, Oddity

Yard Goats vs. Thunder

I came to Hartford solely because of the novelty of their team’s name – the Yard Goats. Like other unusual minor league team names, it was the result of a contest. It is a slang term for a rail yard worker, but that has no connection to this team or its ballpark.

So I was a bit surprised when a good game broke out. The game was scoreless until the ninth – a real pitchers duel, including one inning when the Thunder loaded the bases with no outs and didn’t score. And there were some terrific defensive plays by both teams.

Hartford is affiliated with the Rockies and Trenton (the Thunder) with the Yankees. They play in the AA Eastern League and the quality of play was on par with AAA or MLB ball. The Thunder finally scored two in the top of the ninth, but the Goats came back with a solo homer and then a single, but it ended there, 2-1 for the Thunder.

Dunkin’ Donuts paid for the naming rights to the ballpark, which was supposed to open in 2016, but construction delays forced the Goats to play their entire ’16 season on the road. It opened last year and apparently draws good crowds. When I stopped in the early afternoon to buy my ticket, the first answer was the game was sold out. The clerk then corrected himself and did find me a ticket, but the crowd for the game was robust.

Game time temperature was 81 degrees, so for the whole tour, only one game (Winston-Salem) started below 80.

No name oddities this time, but I did note that the Thunder carry the son of former Mariner disaster reliever, Jose Mesa, otherwise known as “Joe Table” (the literal translation of the name, and he regularly set the table for opposing batters). Junior is also a pitcher.

I tried to get a good picture of the team name on a uniform and what I ended up with was this one of a batter who twirled his bat after each pitch.

I could not face another ballpark hotdog or BBQ sandwich so I looked (in vain) for a salad or something with a lower salt quotient. Nothing. The only vegetables were the pickles and kraut on the condiment table. So I tried a bag of peanuts – wouldn’t you know – it was “peanut-free” night! There was a “donut dog” on offer, but that just seemed way too wrong.

The only real oddity (and you’d have to go to a lot of ballgames to consider it such) was the singing of “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch. That practice ended several years ago. Then one of the announcers sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” while the crowd sat. Quite different.

Oh yes, and the goats. In a pen on the outfield concourse. Precious.

So this year’s tour is over except for the Hall of Fame, and that will happen on Sunday. Stay tuned.

Eats, Minor Leagues

Keys vs. Nationals

Well, it happened again – rainout in the bottom of the fifth! And rain is forecast for tomorrow night in New York and Friday night in Hartford. I may have to rename this the Heat/Humidity/Rain Tour.

This was another Advanced A Carolina League game between the Frederick (Md.) Keys, named after Frederick County native Francis Scott Key, affiliated with the Orioles, and the Potomac Nationals of Woodbridge, Va., affiliated with, guess who?

The Keys play their home games at Nymeo Field at Harry Grove Stadium. Harry Grove was a baseball pioneer in the area and Nymeo is a local credit union. The stadium is modest by comparison with the Winston-Salem palace. Perhaps the credit union isn’t as flush as BB & T bank.

The most distinctive feature of the stadium is the fence. The distances are conventional (325 at the corners and 400 in center), but the fence is 25 feet high. Or so I thought, until the Keys hit back-to-back dingers in the third inning. Then, upon asking some questions and looking closer, I saw that the lower fence was about 4-5 feet in front of the upper one. A local told me that on occasion, one of the hitters will even clear the high fence.

Although the fence has lots of ads, I was unable to spot one that was odd or inappropriate.

Despite the rain later, the evening started well with a game time temperature of 87 degrees. It didn’t cool off much when the rain came, but no doubt will before it is done.

It was another “names” game too. The Nats have a pitcher named Joan Baez. He is either Brazilian or a ground-breaking woman starting her second career at age 77. Their manager’s name is Tripp Keister – there has to be a punchline there, but I just can’t find it. The Keys have a Christian Turnipseed (could there be a Muslim or Jewish counterpart?). They also have Rafael Palmiero’s son, Preston, who hit one of the homers in the third. I trust he will not follow his father’s drug regimen.

Finally to the eats. The prices were decidedly big league, but, this being Maryland, I fell for the crab cake sandwich and it wasn’t bad. Lots of meat, though no garnish, save for the thick and spicy potato chips, which were quite good. Once again, I got started before remembering to take the snap.

The Keys were ahead 7-2 in the bottom of the fifth, so if the rain doesn’t stop, it will be an official game. I’m not waiting around.