Monday, April 29, 2013

April 29- Arizona Diamondbacks



This post is going to jump around a bit in history, but more when I get down to talking about the marks on my cap. I picked this one up off of Ebay back in October of 2011 along with a few other hats I got on the cheap from a dealer for around $20 apiece including shipping. Needless to say, I had a pretty solid haul that day.

The Arizona Diamondbacks introduced this cap at the start of the 2007 season where it has served as their home and road style cap ever since. In their 16-years history they’re one of a few teams to run through close to a half dozen caps in shut a short period of their existence. Not too bad to nearly average a new cap every other season. New Era Cap collectors like myself are incredibly appreciative of this trend, especially since it allows us to build upon our arsenal in a shorter time frame. One of the most important things to note from this addition is the change in colors. In 1998 I always thought it was kind of interesting how the Diamondbacks expanded into the Majors sharing the same color (purple) as their counterpart the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Even more interesting is how just five years prior the Colorado Rockies also had the color purple as one of their dominant colors. The most important thing to note from this trend is that prior to the Rockies not a single team had worn purple. It’s almost as if the uniform designers/creators thought that this was going to be the new thing. Well, they were wrong. The Diamondbacks adopted more of a desert motif of colors and the Devil Rays dropped the Devil and the color purple in 2001 and 2008 respectively.

The 2007 season was a great year for the Diamondbacks. I would even be as bold to say, from a depth perspective, that it was their second greatest year in franchise history. For those who are as savvy on the Diamondbacks as I am, here’s what I’m talking about. Obviously 2001 was their best year. They went 92-70 on the season and won their first World Series title in seven games against the New York Yankees. Now, there are a few different ways you can go with this. On one hand you can look at the 1999 team led by then manager Buck Showalter who went 100-62, but lost in the National League Division Series against the New York Mets in four games. Next you have the World Series-defending Diamondbacks who went 98-64 under then manager Bob Brenly, but got swept by the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLDS. This leaves the 2007 team who played under then third year manager, and current Oakland Athletics manager, Bob Melvin. Melvin had a rough shake in his first two years; winning 77 and 76 games in 2005 and 2006 respectively. In 2007; however, Melvin and the Diamondbacks were firing on all cylinders. They won the National League Western Division with a 90-72 record and made it passed the Chicago Cubs in the NLDS in three games. Unfortunately they got smoked by the Rockies in four games in the National League Championship Series. The Diamondbacks have been to the NLDS five times in their existence, but only twice have they ever been to the NLCS, going 1-1 in the process. Therefore, even though they may not have had the season record to prove it, I put more value on their depth in the playoffs. Because after all, which means more?

The two numbers I marked this cap up with have personal ties to very important times in my life. I’ve been around baseball for the better part of 27 years, but the moments I had with these two guys are unforgettable.

#14- Back in February of 2012 I was lucky enough to be one of the 30 people selected to be a part of the final audition process for the second season of the MLB Fan Cave. On our first full day there we were each given a packet with our itinerary to let us know how each of the two days were going to go, as well as show us which players we were going to interview at whichever sprint training facility we were assigned to. When I saw everyone else open up their envelopes and read off the names they had been assigned to I only had one name running through my head, which from a marketing standpoint would have made the most sense. However, none of the executives, nor any of the other potential Cave Dwellers knew that this guy is one of my favorite players. As I broke the seal and scanned by pages the only thing that popped out was Ryan Robert’s name. I didn’t show it on the outside, but on the inside I was ecstatic.

Roberts was drafted in the 18th round of the 2003 amateur draft by the Toronto Blue Jays out of the University of Texas. He worked hard through the Minor Leagues and hit with a lot of power in his first few years until finally getting his shot in the Majors on July 30, 2006. He made a few appearance that season, but his most notable moment came on August 3rd when Roberts hit a solo home run in Yankee Stadium for his first career hit and his only hit in the nine games he played in. 2007 started out almost the same, in AAA with the Syracuse Chiefs. By the time the end of April rolled around Roberts got called back up with almost identical results of 2006; eight games with only one hit. At the end of the season the Blue Jays parted ways with Roberts, making him a free agent.

During the offseason the Texas Rangers signed Roberts to a Minor League contract where he played 130 games with the Oklahoma RedHawks. He did quite well, batting .300 with 10 home runs and 66 RBI. Like the Blue Jays, the Rangers liked what they saw and brought him up and he made his Rangers debut on July 29. He made only one appearance that season, a pinch hit strikeout for Milton Bradley. He was sent back down afterward to finish the season out in Oklahoma.

In November of 2008 Roberts was signed to another Minor League contract; this time by the Diamondbacks where he ended up making the 2009 Major League roster out of spring training. For a few games throughout the season Roberts spent some time in AAA with the Reno Aces, but mostly for the sake of getting him some at-bats as he was mostly used for spot starts as a utility guy. That season he posted his best season average to date; .279, along with seven home runs and 25 RBI in 110 games. Even with the successful year he had in 2009 Roberts still found himself playing in AAA to start the season. He would play in only 36 games for the Diamondbacks and 94 for the Aces in 2010. Until this point in time I had only heard bits and pieces about Roberts, and saw him in a few games when the Diamondbacks played the San Francisco Giants. But it was during this season that I heard the story that really opened my eyes to what kind of a person he is.

The story was first reported by Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic. Roberts and his family had moved to Phoenix where they all thought that he was going to be a regular fixture in the Diamondbacks lineup. They got their own place, all the fixtures and were ready to start their new life. The unfortunately side of reality is that plans are sometimes halted without notice. Roberts was sent back down to Reno at the start of the 2010 season. Since he had all of his money tied in being able to provide for his family, so he did one of the most unselfish acts of his life, he voluntarily became homeless.

After every Aces home game Roberts would lay out on the couch to give off the idea that he was just going to relax for a bit before showering up and heading home. Every night, one-by-one, his coaches and teammates would exit and Roberts would shower up and hang out with the cleaning crew while they worked. After they finished he went back to the couch and slept for the night. Granted, Roberts was in a much better situation than most, but it doesn’t exactly mean it was something that the club would just look over because of his financial situation. When his family came to visit he’s spring for a room, and when the team was on the road he had hotels to crash in. But for every home game Roberts would raid the fridge for snacks, play video games on the clubhouse television and chat it up with the maintenance crew. It wouldn’t be until early September that Roberts was called back for good.

I’ve brought this point up many times before, but I’m not the most conventional sports journalist. I’ve always believed in telling the stories that go beyond the game to learn more about the people who play it, run it and watch it. Getting the opportunity to interview Roberts was my chance to show what kind of range I had as an interviewer, not to mention how to make the guest feel relaxed… or weirded out. I have the interview recorded, so you be the judge: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=98rKUFAjzeg

I think it went well, but I also know it could have been better had I not had to wear that Fan Cave shirt. I’m more of a dress shirt kind of guy, believe it or not. Anyway, Roberts’ 2012 campaign with the Diamondbacks had its ups and downs. In 83 games he batted .250 with 6 home runs and 34 RBI. On July 27th he was designated for assignment. Fortunately for Roberts, the Rays were interested. He finished his season out in Tampa, 60 games in which he’d crush six more home runs and bring in 18 more runs. Roberts provided a much needed spark in the offense; however, the Rays fell short of the making the playoffs by five games.

This season Roberts has played in all but six games, getting a fair mix of time at third, first and mostly second base. Two weekends ago my girlfriend Angie Kinderman and I caught the Rays’ series against the Oakland Athletics at Tropicana. He went 4-11 with two RBI, two walks and two runs, on top of some stellar defensive plays to rob the A’s of quite a few hits. At 32-years-old he still looks great. I hope the best for him and his family for years to come. I also wish to thank him again for the time he gave me and for being a great sport with my line of questioning. And lastly, I still want to do an interview with him while we’re both getting tattooed. I had pitched that after our on-screen interview as a possible sketch in the Fan Cave, but alas, it never came to be. Someday perhaps.

#22- This guy and I have a history that goes back to the long summer days of the California League in 1999. I was in my first year as bat boy for the Bakersfield Blaze and he was in his second year win the league with the Modesto Athletics. It should be noted that he played 29 games with the Visalia Oaks in 1998, who were also an advanced-A affiliate of the Athletics at the time. He’s one of the few guys to be selected in three separate drafts; the first time coming in the 38th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1994 June amateur draft, the second time in the fourth round by the Houston Astros in the 1997 amateur draft until finally getting taken in the eighth round by the A’s in the 1998 amateur draft as he opted to attend all four years of his college days at UCLA alongside fellow MLB gamers Garrett Atkins and Troy Glaus.

During the few games when we met and interacted with one another in Bakersfield he always tried to get me in trouble. Nothing major, just minor hazing type things like convincing me to steal his teammate’s pizzas after the games, sticking gum on the top of my hat while he was on-deck and always telling me I had a black widow spider on my back after one time when I actually did. He was one of a few guys from that squad (Jacques Landry, Ryan Ludwick and Marcus Jones) who always took the time to talk to me, joke around and never treated me like some kid. Needless to say, Eric Byrnes was one of the raddest dudes I had ever encountered in my life.

Being an A’s fan I’ll never forget about how awesome he played in the green and gold. He made his debut on August 22, 2000 and only had ten at-bats in the 10 games he played, batting .300 in the process. In 2001 he made appearances in 19 games before getting his big break in 2002 when he played in 90 games with the now historic “Moneyball” team who won 20 straight games on top of their 103-59 record. Byrnes has always been a solid hitter, despite most critics considering him to be a “free swinger.” His biggest accomplishment at the plate, with the A’s, came on June 29, 2003 when he hit for the cycle against the San Francisco Giants at Pac-Bell Park. It is one of the few times that Giants fans have ever given a standing ovation for an opposing player, let alone their Bay Area Rival. The A’s won 5-2 and Byrnes went 5-5 on the day. Despite having a career .270 average, 45 home runs and 164 RBI in the six years he played in Oakland, Byrnes was a regular fixture of highlight reels making body-sacrificing diving catches in the outfield game-after-game. It was rare to see Byrnes without grass stains or dirt on his jersey and his was aptly given the nicknames “crash test dummy” and “Pigpen.”

Despite being a key fixture in the lineup, let alone a fan favorite, Byrnes was traded to the Colorado Rockies after 59 games during the 2005 season. It should be noted that he was hitting .266 with seven home runs and 24 RBI in the six or seven hole. At that time Byrnes was arguably one of the best hitters on the team. To this day I’m still pissed about that move, especially considering the A’s got Joe Kennedy and Joe Witasick in return. What!?!? As if things couldn’t get any weirder, Byrnes lasted 15 games for the Rockies before being traded again to the Baltimore Orioles for Larry Bigbie. Once again, what!?!? The rest of Byrnes’ season was shaky. He hit three more home runs on the season and never got above .192 with the Rockies or Orioles. At the end of the season Byrnes became a free agent.

On December 30, 2005 Byrnes was offered a one-year $2.25 million deal from the Diamondbacks with the promise that he would be a regular fixture in centerfield. Byrnes happily accepted the terms. An optimistic Byrnes continued to make the highlight reel for his stellar defense, but more important, he got his swing back, batting .267 along with a career-high and team-leading 26 home runs and 79 RBI. He also swiped 25 bags and only got caught three times that season. The Diamondbacks were so impressed by his performance that year they signed him on for another year… which eventually led to a three-year $30 million extension in the middle of the 2007 season. What prompted this you might ask? Well… as I mentioned above the 2007 season, in my opinion, is the second best season the Diamondbacks ever had; most of which should be credited to Byrnes.

Throughout his 11-year career Byrnes never received any major awards, nor did he make a single All-Star Game roster; however, in 2007 he was certainly playing in a higher class. He finished in 11th place in voting for the NL MVP that season, batting .286 with eight triples, 21 home runs, a career-high and team-high 83 RBI and 50 stolen bases. Un-be-lie-vable. Unfortunately for Byrnes his last three years in the league would be marred by injury. He only played in 136 games from 2008-2009; his last two years with the Diamondbacks and played in only 15 games with the Seattle Mariners in 2010 before they cut him loose. Shorty after, Byrnes retired from the game.

During the 2006 postseason Byrnes made a few appearances with Fox, ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and The Best Damn Sports Show Period, doing analyst work during the World Series and both League Championship Series. In 2007 Byrnes started doing on-scene work for KNBR in San Francisco which has transitioned into a nightly show as of 2011. Byrnes is also a regular fixture on MLB Network, once again working as an analyst on MLB Tonight. It’s because of these gigs that the two of us were reunited in Arizona for the Fan Cave.

On the first day one of the things I had quickly glanced over on our agenda sheet was a MLB trivia competition that would take place after our elevator pitches at Chase Field, the home of the Diamondbacks. The elevator pitch was basically us going into the post-game media room one-by-one to pitch why we would be a great fit for the Fan Cave. We only had 60 seconds and if we went longer there would literally be someone waiting to crack a gong too let us know. My speech was…

Whether the sun shines brightly or the Oregon rain pours upon my head, it’s baseball season. Baseball season is not the box score I read at breakfast and it’s not about the massive wall of hats I have looking down upon me when I wake every morning, ready to brave the elements as I share my stories and dedication with anyone I meet. Baseball is about the eccentricities, the nuances and the superstitions. It’s about the outlandish uniforms of the 1970s, the mustache gang, the fear the beards, but most of all it’s about the fans who come out in droves to support their local ball club, year-after-year. It’s about pain, sacrifice and doing what you love to succeed.

For the last few weeks I’ve done what I can to spread the word and show how much this game means to me. I worked tirelessly, always wanting to find that next baseball fan who shares my same enthusiasm. For the last two years I’ve dedicated my mind and body to the game that I love. For the last 16 years I’ve dedicated my time and resources to build my education to become the voice for the next generation of baseball fans. And for the past 26 years I’ve given my heart, year-after-year to the game that has given me the happiest and lowest moments of my life.

I don’t deserve a spot in the MLB Fan Cave, I earned it. Thank you.

Granted, that was merely a paraphrase. Either way, it was pretty damn inspiring even hearing it come out of my mouth. And yet, looking back on it, I guarantee that it was the best damn speech they’ve ever heard throughout this competition. I didn’t practice a word of it. It all came from the heart when I walked into that dark room. I didn’t stumble, and I still left two seconds on the clock. Everyone in the room clapped, and from what I could tell, they all had smiles on their faces. I should also point out that I flicked the gong with my finger before I walked out. It was really bothering me.

After everyone finished up we broke for lunch up the executive suite area of the park. Since I didn’t have a smart phone at the time I whipped out my computer and looked for a Wi-Fi signal so I could hit to Twitter and update my Facebook status. Roughly two minutes into firing up my computer the spread was served. Ball park food, of course. I decided to wait a minute so I could take care of business. Almost immediately after I was logged in to all of my accounts Baseball IQ host Matt Vasgersian and Byrnes came walking into the main hallway. I was frozen. I looked around and no one seemed to have noticed. I immediately put my computer away, walked out and greeted both of them. I shook Vasegersian’s hand, but the look on his face read, “who the hell is this clown?” as he looked upon me. With Byrnes, I brought up 1999.

Believe it or not, the blonde kid with the “Make 7-UP Yours" shirt is me, and this is what I pretty much looked like in 1999 and 2000. I don’t blame Byrnes for not recognizing me. Hell, I barely do when I look at this photo, but once I brought up some old stories and players it all started coming back a little bit more. I didn’t press it too much; just wanted to make conversation. But at the same time, I’ll totally admit that I was psyched to see him; he’s always been one of my Top-five favorite A’s players I’ve ever witnessed play.

As we soon found out from him and Vasgersian, the trivia format was going to be team-based and all of our answers would be written down to be revealed to make it fair. I had no beef with this. Our teams were all ready selected, but not told to us until right before the competition started. Somehow everyone either knew or assumed that I was some sort of a trivia master, so naturally everyone wanted me on their team. I’m not exaggerating this either. Everyone asked me to be a member of their team. I just said yes to everyone and moved on; mostly because I was told in advance that the teams were all ready predetermined. I ended up with Toronto Blue Jays representative Dave Barclay (@DaveBarc) and Minnesota Twins fan Lindsay Guentzel (@LindsayGuentzel). Every other team but ours and one other had four members. No matter, we made short work of them.

I don’t normally brag about anything; however, I take a lot of pride in knowledge when it comes to trivia. I’d say about 75% of the answers we got right I knew without help. On a few I needed Barclay’s help, I’ll admit, but not so much with Guentzel. In between rounds I was called upon to see if I knew the answers for any of the question in which our team wasn’t playing, one of which was to name every team that Byrnes played for. With the exception of Byrnes, I was the only one in the room who knew, including a guy who had actually been Baseball IQ; one of two questions where I impressed Byrnes. The second question to do so was to name the player who has one the most home run derbies. I’ll never forget Byrnes saying, “Well, we’re talking about a player who’s not even in their generation.” The team we were playing showed Vladimir Guerrero. I showed Ken Griffey, Jr., the right answer. Like I said, we made short work of the competition. Well, Dave and I did at least.

I wouldn’t see Byrnes again until May when he hit me up one night and asked if he could stop by the Fan Cave to check things out. The answer “no” never crossed my mind. When Byrnes rolled in he brought a bottle of wine and we all kicked it, watching and talking about baseball. It was hands down one of the coolest nights I ever experienced in the Fan Cave, let alone the baseball world. I kept trying to take photos for the Fan Cave Web site but everyone kept popping “The Shark” in the background. As many of you know, this is my little photo call sign, but at that time it was something that I had been photobombing everyone else in the Fan Cave with. So, everyone did it to me. And then eventually we started teaching it to players and so one. I gave Byrnes the scoop and the story behind it and decided to play along.

After he bounced he sent me a tweet to watch MLB Tonight around 7 the next night as he had a surprise for me. The next day was interesting because we were hosting a book release/signing party for one of my favorite writers, Joel Stein. But I’ll get to that part of the story in another post. But, when 7 PM came around we made sure to have MLB Network on a few of the Cave Monster screens. About five minutes in, with all of the editors of Time magazine and most of the executives from Major League Baseball in the house, this happened…

By far one of the most thoughtful things that anyone has ever done for me.

I’ll always hold Byrnes in high regards, and the same goes for Roberts. Both of those guys showed me that what I’ve been trying to accomplish for my entire life is the right path. They pursued their dreams of playing ball, just like I’ve pursued my dreams of being a journalist. I will never forget their kindness and encouragement. Thank you guys.

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