Monday, March 11, 2013

March 11- Toledo Mud Hens

In all the years that I’ve been collecting New Era Caps I’ll never really begin to understand why it took me so long to scoop this cap up. Every time I jumped on the Lids Web site I’d run across it whenever I was in the mood for buying from the Minor Leagues. I think there was a part of me that always assumed that its popularity would always keep it in stock, much like a New York Yankees cap; it was always be there. It wasn’t until the Christmas Day that I finally pulled the trigger and bought this, as well as a few other random caps that caught my eye. Until today I hadn’t removed the tags, nor had I even tried it on. Both of those are very unbecoming of me as trying the hat on is primarily the first thing I do when I get a shipment. I don’t know; something always felt kind of distant whenever I looked at this hat in person, like something subconscious was at play. It took me a while to really put my finger on it, but even now it’s become a bit of struggle to try and put the words together to not screw this up.

This Toledo Mud Hens hat was first used in 1987; however, the current incarnation of the logo was actually created in 1984. From ’84-’86 the Mud Hens wore a similar hat which featured a red bill. In 1987 the all-navy blue hat was introduced. Prior to the “T” logo with the Mud Hen over the top the team just used hats featuring only the “T,” which dates back to the 1950s before the original AAA version of the Mud Hens packed up shop and relocated to Wichita, Kansas at the end of the 1955 season. For those of you who happen to be old enough to really remember the show MASH, the Mud Hens were the favorite team of Corporal Max Klinger played by Jamie Farr, a Toledo native. The most important things to note from this are that…

1. The hat he wore occasional featured the “T” logo.

2. MASH took place during the Korean War, which was fought from 1950-1953.

Upon doing photo-based research I was able to conclude that the cap Farr wore on the show was historically accurate. The current incarnation of the Mud Hens resurfaced in 1965 when the Yankees moved the former Richmond Virginians there prior to that season. From 1966-1987 the Mud Hens changed affiliations three times; going to the Detroit Tigers to the Philadelphia Phillies, to the Cleveland Indians to the Minnesota Twins and then back to the Tigers which still stands today. Another important historical note about the Mud Hens is that in 1884; when the team was know as the Blue Stockings, they were the only team operating at the Major League level with black players on the team. More specific, Moses Fleetwood Walker and his brother Welday, the first and last black athletes allowed to play professional baseball until Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers debut in 1947. But none of these facts listed played a real part in my hesitance.

To really clarify things I have to go back to 1999, the first year I was bat boy for the Bakersfield Blaze. For the first half of the season my primary duties had nothing to do with being a bat boy. I was primarily a ball shagger. By that I mean I had to run around behind the fence to scoop up all the home run balls hit during batting practice so that they could be used again. See, things aren’t like the Major League level. The budgets aren’t as hefty, and when you’re playing Class-A ball expenses are kept at a minimal. About half way into the season the regular bat boy was growing tired of his job, so I was tapped to be his replacement. At first I thought it was going to be awesome, but that was all before I went through the hazing process from the players. I was 16-years-old at the time, and for the most part the average age of the guys on the team hovered around 22-years-old. At the same time I was dealing with professional ball players, a bunch of guys who had larger than life attitudes and weren’t too keen on some new kid coming into the clubhouse to screw everything up. The first few games were Hell. None of the players bothered to talk to me, but I kept my head up and concentrated on not screwing anything up. As the season wore on a few of the players opened up to me to let me know that I was doing a great job. One of those players in particular was a Venezuelan-born kid named Guillermo Rodriguez.

#7- (Of all the photos I could find, of course I find the one where he's getting plunked) Guillermo  was born in 1978, the same year as my older brother Adam, and was signed as an amateur by the San Francisco Giants in 1995. Throughout ’99 he moved up and down between Bakersfield and Salem-Keizer with the Volcanoes, the short season-A club in Oregon. At the tale end of my sophomore year in high school Guillermo gave me a hand with my Spanish homework on occasion, other times he would purposely give me wrong answers to help me learn it on my own. Every time I came into the clubhouse he would greet me with a hug, sometimes without pants on, and then whip me with the towel he had around his waist before he took a pre-practice shower. This sort of tomfoolery continued into the 2000 season as well. Yah, it was pretty weird, but it was all part of being accepted amongst the gang. When I made the decision to move to Vancouver, Washington to live with my mom for my senior year of high school I decided to leave after the California League All-Star break to make it easier on my schedule. I told the team that I was leaving with two home stands to go. All of them were surprisingly saddened by the news, but none as much as Guillermo. We kept in contact through emails every now-and-then, but both of our schedules got way too crazy to keep it going. I was; however, able to see him and a few of the other guys in 2002 and 2003 when they came up to Portland as members of the Fresno Grizzlies, the AAA-affiliate of the Giants. I was still too young to hit the town with them, but we talked smack before and after the games as if things had never changed. Finally, in 2004, Guillermo was dealt to the Tigers as they were in desperate need of a new catcher. Things were looking rather promising that he was going to finally get his break to play in the Show on a daily basis, but… two days after the deal the Tigers picked up Ivan Rodriguez. Guillermo spent the entire season in Toledo and had one of the worst years of his career. Guillermo did play a few games in the Majors: 39 for the Giants in 2007 and 7 for the Baltimore Orioles in 2009, but that was it. He went back down to the Minors by the end of the 2009 and disappeared from the game. Or so I thought. In 2012 he popped back up on the radar down in Mexico, playing for the Pericos de Puebla, a team managed by former Major League journeyman, and old guy Julio Franco. I haven’t talked to Guillermo since the summer of 2003, and to be honest, I kind of miss the guy. I’d take another awkward hug and towel whip from him any day.

#31- Collin Balester and I met in the MLB Fan Cave on April 27 of this last year. The only reason I remember the date is because I had to look it up. The cool thing about Collin is that he had a pretty sweet beard that rivaled mine quite well. One of the first things that I had remarked to him is that he reminded me of Arik Thaughbaer (yes, I had to check spelling) from the movie Willow. This guy to be exact…

In between takes for the Miggy Poco sketch Collin, Gar “Batting Stance Guy” Ryness and I goofed around and chatted while everyone else shot their scenes. At the end of filming he and I gave each other a manly handshake; you know, the only kind that can be brought together by the mightiest of beards. Well, I guess if you don’t have a beard, then you wouldn’t know, but I assure you, the Gods were smiling down that day. (I’ll stop being retarded for the rest of this) Over the next few weeks we continued our Shenanigans over Twitter, with Collin getting the Rambo (First Blood) Award for this gem, poking fun at the massive Samsung Galaxy Note that I had gotten in the Fan Cave…

After that my jokes paled in comparison, but we still tossed a few out when we had free time.

On May 23rd, everything changed. The Tigers designated Collin for assignment to Toledo almost immediately after the Tigers suffered a 5-3 loss at the hands of the Indians. I was crushed. I had known guys to get moved around the Minors, but I had never really known anyone to be playing in the Show to then get demoted.

If you read my post from February 23, a lot of this will sound familiar. After Collin got the news I stayed silent. I really didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know each other all that well, and I didn’t know if my words would have given any bit of encouragement or made things worse, so I kept quiet. Little did I know, my world was about to take a swift detour as well.

On May 30th I was given my walking papers from the Fan Cave. Not a demotion, just an all-out “thanks for coming, have a safe flight home.” To make things worse I was promised by two executives (Jacqueline Parkes and Jeff Heckelman) that I would get assistance for a job in the near future, but I had to keep quiet about things until they made a formal announcement on the 31st. So I did. I was out and about when the news broke and came home to a flurry of tweets and messages asking what happened. I did my best to reply in as politically correct fashion as I could, that is, until I saw Collin’s direct message. I had kept pretty calm up until that moment, but I couldn’t hold it back as I responded to him. I think it was a slight feeling that I hadn’t been there to support him when he may have needed it that brought the emotional wave on, but I think most of it was because a Big League ball player took the time to help me out when I needed it most. My parents and friends couldn’t really say anything to comfort me, but Collin’s words did. In the weeks and months to follow we’d chat through Instagram or Twitter, depending on which one of us has the best joke going.

(Read my post from February 23 to get caught up to this point) On September 18th Collin, his father-in-law and I met up at Tropicana Field for a Tampa Bay Rays game against the Boston Red Sox. Collin had gotten a hook-up on tickets, so all I had to do was get to the stadium. I rented a 2011 Ford Mustang and hauled ass to the Trop as I was running just a wee bit late. With about 20 minutes before first pitch I got inside and met up with the guys.

For the first time since we had really known each other, it was the first time I didn’t look at him as a ball player. I’ve always done my best to not look at a person based on their job or their status, but in New York, and especially in the Fan Cave, it made things difficult. Now that we were both kind of out of our element we could watch the game as friends. At times, I’ll admit, it felt a little weird, but only because I knew that he should have been in Detroit, gearing up for the playoffs. Even though we were at a game, I managed to not bring that up. Instead, we crushed some beers, popped some sharks

and hung out with sting rays. One of which I accidentally pissed off.

After nearly having my hand bitten off by a sting ray, Collin’s father-in-law convinced the both of us to make a music video for Collin’s daughter, but I made a promise to not ever mention it, so I’ll just leave it at that. We bummed around the stadium, catching the game from every angle we could, and then we parted ways. The next day I met my girlfriend Angie Kinderman; something that would have never happened without Collin inviting me out to the game.

To this day we still chat every now-and-then, but a bit more limited on account of Spring Training. On November 28th the Texas Rangers signed Collin to a Minor League deal with a spring invite. When I pulled this hat out this morning the first thing I noticed was the “T” logo, which happens to be the same logo the Rangers used from their first year in 1972-1993. The “T” logo is one of the rare cases in which a Major League team borrows from a Minor League for something as iconic as their logo. I take this as a good sign. At 26-years-old I know he has a lot of solid years left in him, especially considering the fact that he’s the last draft pick in the history of the Montreal Expos to have an impact at the Major League level.

I felt compelled to mark my hat up with the two guys who I knew to play for the Mud Hens to have a profound impact on my life. To Collin and Guillermo- I thank both of you, from the bottom of my heart, for everything you have done.

1 comment:

  1. This is awesome, Ben. Unrelated, but I had Mud Hens season tickets in 2009 ... minor league baseball is a pretty fun time! If you ever make it over to Fifth Third Field in Toledo for whatever reason, let me know - the beers are on me.