Friday, August 16, 2013

July 5- Salem-Keizer Volcanoes

It sounds cliché, but there has been one constant in my life that I almost always share with anyone who has made an impact in my life for the better or worse; at some point in time down the road, we will meet again. I assure you, this is one of those positive moments.

Whether you have been actively reading my posts or just getting introduced to them, there is a two-year time period that I still hold as one of the best times of my life. From 1999-2000 I served as the bat boy for the then-advanced-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants the Bakersfield Blaze. Over the last few months I’ve gone back into my vault of stories and unearthed experiences and encounters that, for the most part, I never really shared with anyone. Most of it had to do with the fact that I never really had a platform or a reason to share these stories, but most of all; I never really thought anyone would care about them. During my second season the Blaze shook things up on the field by bringing in a brand new managerial crew led by former Baltimore Orioles shortstop and World Series champion Len Sakata. For those playing at home, Sakata was the original starting shortstop for the Orioles before Cal Ripken, Jr. stepped in and started his Ironman streak of 2632 consecutive games started; keep this in mind for later in the story. One of the members of Sakata’s crew included a former minor leaguer named Bert Hunter who was serving as the Blaze’s batting coach and outfielders coach.

Now, I’m going to do things a little more unorthodox than usual by jumping around which you’ll soon realize has great purpose.

BH- Bert only served as an assistant coach from April until early June as he was only doing extended coaching work with the Blaze until the short season-A season started in the Northwest League as he had been serving as the batting coach for the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes since 1998. Since the Volcanoes season was getting started, it was time for him to head back north to Oregon. Little did he or anyone else know, but I soon followed him up north in July when I made the move to live with my mother in Vancouver, Washington roughly 165 miles north of where Bert was. From 2000-2002 in lived in Vancouver with my mother. Only six times during that time period did my mom and I drive down to the Salem-Keizer area or southward, at which Volcanoes Stadium rests just off of I-5 around mile marker 160 and a couple hundred yards north of the 45th parallel. For those of you who don’t know, the 45th parallel is the degree of latitude directly between the equator and the North Pole. The reason I bring all of this up is that in all the times we passed by the stadium we never once stopped for a game.

That was a pretty sad move on my part because Bert and I got to be decently close during the two-and-a-half months we worked with one another. After the third game of the 2000 California League season Bert dubbed me with the nickname “Spread Killer.” The story behind that has to do with an unfortunate reality of minor league baseball; it’s really not that glamorous. Before every game the team provided a food spread for the players which consisted of bread, peanut butter and grape or strawberry jelly. That’s it. Unlike the Oakland Athletics in “Moneyball,” sodas from the fountains in the concessions booths were free to the players and staff. But, before every game I always made myself a PB & J sandwich without ever asking any of the coaches or players permission. Because of this, I became the “Spread Killer.” To pay penance for all of the sandwiches I had enjoyed before every game I provided the team with entertainment from my house which consisted of my Nintendo 64 and an electronic dartboard that I happened to have lying around the house. Both of these gestures went very far with the guys, but they still called me “Spread Killer,” except this time they didn’t have a dickish tone about it. After almost every game Bert and I rolled a best of three series of 301 on the dartboard. Of all the guys in the clubhouse, he was the only one who could contest with me.

June 2013

It was a rather boring Saturday at work at Just Sports (@JustSportsPDX) alongside my former co-worker Bradley. I say former because he had put his two weeks notice in and would be moving on to another job shortly after this date. Bradley was about an hour away from clocking out for the day and on the sales floor while I was behind the counter picking up a pile of stocking caps that had been knocked onto the floor by a customer. As I reached for the last one I heard Bradley say, “Hey, how are you doing?” to someone who had just walked in. Within a matter of seconds I recognized his first, but I couldn’t pinpoint why. Rather than be a jerk and ask where we might have known each other, I held back, played it cool and let Bradley do all of the talking. The two gabbed about baseball for a few seconds which gave Bradley allowed Bradley to chime in about the “black and orange” since he’s a Giants fan. The man then mentioned that he was a black and orange fan himself, but his allegiance falls with the Orioles. I had a feeling of déjà vu wash over me as Bradley and I had talked about the Orioles almost days prior, mainly about Ripken, Jr. and September 6, 1995, the day Ripken passed Lou Gehrig on the consecutive games played list. Bradley, being the big Ripken, Jr. fan that he is, brought that moment up. The man then talked about how awesome that night was from his perspective, which he followed up with, “and I was there.” Somehow Bradley didn’t hear that part, but that was all I needed to hear for everything to finally come jarring loose in my brain.

“You played professionally for a few years, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes I did. Nine years,” he said.

“You used to coach the Bakersfield Blaze back in 2000, right?” I followed up with.

He looked at me with a slightly puzzled look and then said, “Yaaaaahhh… but I spent most of my coach years with the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.” At this point I had to ask his name as I had forgotten it. Sure enough, it was Bert. Bert was still a bit confused as to how I knew him and he didn’t know me, so I asked him, “Do you remember a spiky blonde-haired kid who worked as the bat boy back in Bakersfield?” He said, “Yaaaahhh… I kind of do.” I then helped him out a little bit more, “We used to play darts after all of the games and you always called me “Spread Killer.”” As soon as the last syllable escaped my mouth his eyes widened and he let out a boisterous, “Oh my God!!!” and chuckled.

In about 10 minutes, the time it then took for his wife and kids to come into the store, we caught up on 13 years of lost time. Bert managed for six years in the Arizona League, still within the Giants organization from 2002-02. The Rookie League club won four league titles and he was named manager of the year in 2004 after the team went 37-19. After that he went home to Keizer and got on with Willamette University, a private and solid baseball school in Salem where he has been the team’s third base and outfielders coach since 2009. One of his daughters plays basketball at Oregon State University. I told him about graduating from the University of Oregon, the MLB Fan Cave, my baseball tour and how I’m trying to break into baseball as a writer. My only regret from our conversation was that I didn’t get a photo with him before he left, but I still find it funny that very little had changed with him and so much had changed with me, yet we were both still doing our thing in the environment that we both have a kinship for, baseball.

In the 14 years that I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest I for some reason only made it out to a Volcanoes game once, and that happened by chance in 2005. I had a brief (one week) internship with the local newspaper, The Statesman Journal, working as a stringer for their sports page. On my second night I was sent to Volcanoes Stadium to shadow their Volcanoes beat writer, whose name escapes me, as the home team took on the visiting Tri-Cities Dust Devils. I don’t remember too much from the game other than the fact that the Volcanoes won. After the game we headed to the clubhouse for post-game interviews with a few of the key players, both of whom I decided to write about and mark my cap with. What I didn’t know at the time, like Bert above, we’d have quite the reunion a few years down the road. But first…

In 1996, Bellingham Giants co-owners Jerry Walker and William Tucker announced that they were moving the NWL franchise to Keizer, Oregon, a city of 22,000 located immediately north of Salem. The Bellingham club, short-season Class A affiliate of the Giants, had the NWL's lowest attendance figures during each of its two seasons. Keizer had striven to assert itself as an independent, thriving city for 12 years since the former Salem suburb had become an incorporated municipality. City officials, led by Mayor Dennis Koho, and civic leaders worked toward getting a new baseball stadium located and built in Keizer. The area had lacked a suitable facility for pro baseball since the early 1960s, when the Salem Dodgers vacated historic Waters Field (which burned down in 1966). Volcanoes Stadium was built in less than a year, on a tract of land adjacent to I-5 just northwest of the Keizer interchange. The 4,252-seat facility was ready for the debut of the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes in 1997. Two years later, the American Institute of Architects honored the Volcanoes with a design award for the stadium. This cap, according to Chris Creamer’s has been around since their inaugural season.

Well, I suppose there is a little bit of truth to that. This particular card was from the 1998 season and features the “V” with the baseball blowing its dome out like a smoke stack; however, this particular panel shading on the cap was first introduced for the 2003 season. Prior to that, all of the caps featuring this logo were a very light grey. Even funnier, when trying to track down photo of players wearing this cap, I this was the first photo that came up.

What’s unusual about this photo is that Tim Lincecum only pitched in two games for a total of four innings for the Volcanoes. In my opinion, I think someone with a bit more history with the team should have been higher on the search criteria. You know, someone like these two knuckleheads below. And one thing I need to point out, I couldn't find photos of either of these guys wearing this hat.

#20- Sergio Romo was born in Brawley, California. He graduated from Brawley Union High School in 2001, having played shortstop and third base on the baseball team. With no scholarship offers from four-year colleges, Romo nearly signed enlistment papers to follow his father in the U.S. Navy, but opted to play baseball at junior college instead. Romo first went to Orange Coast College before transferring to Arizona Western College. Romo was named to the All-Region I second team of the Arizona Community College Athletic Conference in 2002 and 2003. In 159 innings, Romo earned a 16-4 overall record with a 2.79 earned run average (ERA).

For his junior and senior years, Romo played NCAA Division II baseball at two colleges: the University of North Alabama (2004) and Colorado Mesa University (formerly Mesa State College) (2005). He was named First-Team All-Gulf South Conference in 2004 while playing for North Alabama and was 10-3 with a 3.69 ERA in 97.1 innings. In his senior year with Mesa State (2005), he was the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Pitcher of the Year. That same year Romo was drafted by the Giants in 28th round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft.

Romo only played one season for the Volcanoes in… you guessed it, 2005. In fact, it was the first of two years as a professional that he pitched as a starter. That year he took to the hill for 15 games, 14 of which were starts. He went 7-1 with a 2.75 ERA and 65 strikeouts in 68.2 innings pitched. Impressive.

#38- Playing third base for the Volcanoes that season was an 18-year-old kid from Puerto Cabello, Carabobo, Venezuela who was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2002 and goes by the nickname “Kung Fu Panda.” Yup! Pablo Sandoval lit up the NWL that season with his bat, hitting .330 with three home runs, 15 doubles and 50 RBI.

On the night I was in house, July 4, 2005, Sandoval went 2-5 with one of his two triples on the season and two RBI. Romo was equally a s brilliant throwing five solid innings, allowing only two hits, one walk, one earned run and struck out five. At the time Sandoval didn’t know much English so Romo did a bit of the translation work for him during the interview. From what I can recall they were both incredibly pleasant guys, both of whom had the potential to break out further down in their careers. How right that statement turned out to be.

Now, as I mentioned above, we did meet years later, last year to be exact in the Fan Cave.

As sharp as my memory is I had completely forgotten about that night in Keizer just as much as they probably did as well. The day in the Fan Cave was rather interesting for more than just the video and premise that they were brought in for. If you haven’t seen it, check it out. The concept was pretty clever; Sandoval and Romo had a little booth in Washington Square Park and the two would give out custom handshakes to people who dropped a quarter in their jar for charity. Before we left Sandoval and Romo kept calling me B-Weezy on account of my beard and how I looked like closer Brian Wilson, but they were also giving me smack for wearing an Oakland Athletics shirt that day. Not being one to be a “Buzz Killngton,” I told them to wait a second while I went to my cubby box to throw on my sweatshirt. I dropped my hat in, tied my hair back, put on my favorite black hooded sweatshirt, threw up the hood and rocked some shades before turning around to greet them again. Both of them lost their minds and rallied for me to be a part of the video because I looked the part so much.

As much as that last little bit sounds like BS, here’s the proof. 

This sketch was put together two days after Wilson had gotten his second Tommy John surgery and I did my best to play it off the whole time they were there as if I was actually Wilson. My impression, despite saying little-to-nothing, was so successful that I got requests for pictures and autographs the entire time we were out in the park. To everyone who asked I repeatedly told them that I WAS NOT Wilson; however, all of them thought that I was just saying that as a rouse. It wasn’t until I took off the sunglasses, removed the hood and moved my arms around that people finally believed me. Romo and Sandoval had a good laugh about it, but all of the scenes with me were edited out, more than likely because I made Ashley Chavez, the Giants fan, seem irrelevant. This happened a lot, and not because of anything I purposely did, but because everyone thought I looked like Wilson so often, they all assumed that I was the Giants fan of the group. In fact, there was another sketch that was supposed to be filmed the next morning with only me. The concept was that Giants pitcher Barry Zito and I were going to walk around Times Square for an hour to see who would get more photo and autograph requests. An hour before I had to be at the Fan Cave the next morning Zito backed out. Funny.

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