Thursday, June 20, 2013

June 15- Fort Wayne Wizards

If there is a particular line in any baseball-related film that’s stuck with me throughout the years it has to be this one said by Shoeless Joe Jackson, played by Ray Liotta in “Field of Dreams” getting thrown out of baseball, “Getting thrown out of baseball was like having a part of me amputated. I've heard that old men wake up and scratch itchy legs that been dust for over fifty years. That was me. I'd wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet... The thrill of the grass.” There’s something truly haunting about never being able to do what you love again, and it’s definitely a feeling I hope to never experience. I love baseball; probably more than a grown man should. As a kid all I ever wanted to do was play baseball. Morning, noon and night my friends and I went to the school yard and played until we couldn’t see the ball anymore. I played Little League until I was 13-years-old, not that I didn’t want to keep playing, the unfortunate reality of my parents’ divorce prevented me from continuing to play every summer as my mother had moved to Pismo Beach, California, about an hour-and-a-half away from my hometown of Bakersfield. My father had been the coach of my teams ever since I was nine-years-old, and no one took it harder that I wasn’t going to be around to play as much as he did. For the next four years I played baseball off-and-on, alternating with basketball and soccer on occasion. I was good at the other two sports, but the reality was that I was truly a prodigy when it came to baseball. I know it sounds arrogant for me to say, but it’s the truth. It didn’t matter if I stopped playing physically, my mind kept going, analyzing new and better ways to get a read on a ball once it was thrown or hit so I knew how to move my body. I played one year of summer league ball once I got into high school, but once again had to move away for the summer to be with my mom, this time in Vancouver. Washington. In 1999 I stayed in Bakersfield for the whole summer. I had scored my bat boy gig with the Bakersfield Blaze and had no intentions on leaving it. This summer, as it turned out, would be one of the last times I’d ever play organized baseball.

I touched on this in a previous post on March 7th.  Since the Blaze were on the road my friends and I had the privilege of using Sam Lynn Ball Park to practice and play scrimmages in. Word got out and a few guys from the high school teams around the city starting hitting me up, asking if they could play as well. It was almost like my little clubhouse and I somehow became the leader. I obliged. There was no sense in keeping anyone out, especially considering the fact that I would be able to study them as I had intentions of going out for the varsity team the next season.

On an extremely hot 105 degree day in the middle of July my life was forever changed. The thing about Sam Lynn Ball Park is that it was built in the wrong direction. By this I mean the sun sets directly behind the center field wall. Even more important is that a sun shield was built to help get games started earlier as the sun goes down. Even funnier, the sun shield was built a few feet off. See?

It should also be noted that dead center is only 354 feet away, and not that difficult to knock one out during batting practice. Believe me, I don’t have much power but I’ve been able to do it. Anyway, on this particular day the sun was practically blinding everyone who came to the plate as it was around 3:30 in the afternoon. We were playing a full nine innings and I came up to bat for the third time, set to face off against my friend Jason who was on the pitchers mound. The first two pitches I took for a ball and a strike. I lucked out on the ball. I really couldn’t see it. On the third pitch I could tell by his wind-up that he was going to try and throw me a slider. Having known him and played on the same team as him for so many years it all seemed like it was going in slow motion. As he released the ball I could tell he screwed up. The ball was coming in way too high. For some reason my eyes looked upward briefly, catching the sun and I could no longer see the ball. Knowing that it was more-than-likely go in for a ball, I stood there. Within a split second my vision came back, but it was too late. The ball struck me dead center between my nose and my upper lip. I had been hit by plenty of baseball in the past; some in the back, a few in the leg and one or two in the ribs. But the pain of getting tagged in the face was excruciating. I stumbled back and bent down. Somehow I never fell to the ground. Jason came sprinting off the mound to make sure I was ok. I had difficulty finding words. The pain was too much to get anything out. Tears feel from my eyes, but I didn’t cry. When you get tagged in the nose it sets off a chain reaction that waters up your eyes, and I had it bad. Blood poured from my nose, onto my jersey and the ground. I looked up briefly and patted him on the back to let him know I didn’t have any hard feelings against him. Still a bit dazed, I started walking to first base. In my head I knew I got a free base after being hit, but the gravity of the situation hadn’t set in. A few of my other friends and the guys on the field tried to get me to sit down and have some water, but I just wanted to keep playing.

I never went to the hospital. It would be two years before I learned that I suffered post-concussion syndrome which I found out through an electroencephalography (EEG) test. I also learned that my brain rarely shuts down, which is why I usually never sleep. Either way, the damage was done. I was so mentally scarred from that event that anytime I stepped in the box after that I froze. I had no confidence. I was useless. Any dream I ever had of playing professional was gone. It took a few years to muster up the courage to play Portland City League and I was fortunate enough to hit .712 in my only season, but I felt I was too old and missed my window. I pretty much hung it all up after that.

I still have dreams of being in the box on a near-nightly basis. Not necessarily of me getting hit, but scenarios and pitch counts, and knowing what to do in any given situation. That part will never go away, and deep down, it truly saddens me. It’s been almost 14 years. Nearly half of my life, a glimpse of an unattainable moment from my past that will play on repeat for the rest of my life.

I realize I took you all down a weird road, but I promise you it has a point that has everything to do with this cap. I can pretty much come close to guaranteeing that had that moment never happened I probably would be sitting here today to write this story; nor would I have had the opportunity to be one of the nine Cave Dwellers in the MLB Fan Cave last season. Of all the people I had the pleasure of meeting, then-Los Angeles Angels and current New York Mets relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins certainly rounds out the top.

For those of you who don’t know Hawkins turned 40-years-old on December 21st of this last year. The occasion took place in Las Vegas and was orchestrated out by his wife. I won’t go into too heavy of details, but the only reason I know this is because he was kind enough to invite me, but I unfortunately couldn’t afford to take the time off of work as I was saving my money to fly to Florida to see my girlfriend Angie Kinderman. The reasons behind how I got invited are insignificant, but all I can really tell you that it was by far one of the most thoughtful gestures I’ve ever received from a truly amazing person. The reason I went into so much detail on how I lost my ability to play baseball over half a lifetime ago is because Hawkins has literally been playing professionally for a little more than half of his. He and I, from a professional stand-point, are polar opposites.

Hawkins was born in Gary, Indiana in 1972. For those of you who don’t know, Gary is roughly 25 miles southeast of Chicago. Gary's fortunes have risen and fallen with those of the steel industry. The growth of the steel industry brought prosperity to the community. Broadway Avenue was known as a commercial center for the region. Department stores and architecturally significant movie houses were built in the downtown area and the Glen Park neighborhood. In the 1960s, like many other American urban centers reliant on one particular industry, Gary entered a spiral of decline. Gary's decline was brought on by the growing overseas competitiveness in the steel industry, which had caused U.S. Steel to lay off many workers from the Gary area. As the city declined, crime increased. The first time I ever heard about Gary was when I was 11-years-old, trying out for the roll of Winthrop in a church production of “The Music Man.” There was a particular song that I had to sing in which the character thinks that Gary is basically the greatest place ever; something that I’ll never forget. Another key note of Gary is that it was also the birthplace of pop music sensation Michael Jackson.

Hawkins was drafted in the seventh round of the 1991 amateur draft by the Minnesota Twins out of West Side High School in Gary. He immediately reported to the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Twins of the Rookie League soon after, were he went 4-3 with a 4.75 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 11 games as a starter. He spent the next four years in the Twins' minor league system until making his Major League debut on April 29, 1995 against the Baltimore Orioles as a starter. From 1995-1997 Hawkins struggled a bit as a starter and was moved to the bullpen to take over closing duties. In 2000 and 2001 where he saved a combined 42 games. When Eddie Guardado was tapped to start closing games Hawkins become a set-up man in 2002 and 2003, and had his best years statistically with the Twins during this time. He went 15-3 combined for those two years with a 1.99 ERA and 138 strikeouts. At the end of the 2003 season Hawkins became a free agent and was singed to a three-year deal with the Chicago Cubs.

Hawkins was assigned by the Cubs to pitch the 8th inning to set up for Joe Borowski, but Borowski went down with an injury early in the season, and Hawkins took over closing duties. On September 11, Hawkins struck out the side on only nine pitches in a game against the Florida Marlins. He finished 2004 with a better-than-average ERA of 2.63 on the year and 25 saves, but he was traded to the San Francisco Giants on May 28, 2005 in exchange for pitchers Jerome Williams and David Aardsma. At the end of the 2005 season Hawkins became a proverbial “gun-for-hire” as he went to the Orioles in 2006, the Colorado Rockies in 2007, the New York Yankees for half of a season in 2008 before going to the Houston Astros for the next year-and-a-half, the Milwaukee Brewers for two seasons (2010-2011), the Angels this last season and the Mets now. During this time frame he pitched a few games at the Minor League level as well, but mostly for the sake of rehab appearances. All in all, Hawkins has donned the jersey of 10 different Major League teams as he is now in his 19th season in the Majors, but 23rd year overall as a professional, just a little more than half of his life. Many at any level would give anything to be in the game at the highest level for so long, and Hawkins is surely one who praises every day he steps into the clubhouse.

During the time we met each other in the Fan Cave we only said a few words to once another, mostly about what it was like to be stuck in a room for so many hours during the day. When I got my Instagram account set up back in June of 2012 he, Collin Balester and I would swap jokes back and forth amongst each other, and every now-and-then I found a “like” by Hawkins on a few of the photos I added. The most notable being the Jackie Robinson statue that sits outside Olympic Stadium in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, one of my favorite nights from my North American baseball tour.

When I was down in Corpus Christi, Texas visiting my little sister at school after we had gone to the Houston Astros game the night before, I talked to Hawkins for the first time in a few months on Twitter, but only after he had gotten into a bit of a spat by some punk talking smack. This is an unfortunate occurrence that I see more regularly than I’d like, all of which is started by raucous fans. I always make sure to applaud Hawkins for standing up to all the smack talk, no matter the consequence. I suppose after nearly 20 years of service, not to mention coming from one of the toughest towns in the United States, you can’t help but let his words slide. He earned the right to defend himself.

In the upcoming week I gave Hawkins a heads up that I would be in Arlington for when the Angels visited to play the Texas Rangers. During batting practice my friend Monica Gonzalez (@MissMoniRose) and I went up against the railing to spot him, and sure enough he spotted my big-ass beard and came rolling over to visit. We caught up as best we could. I had no idea of invested he was in my travels as he had been following my tour through all the photos I was posting on Instagram. We talked about food, the ballparks and pretty much everything else baseball related on top of how the season was looking tight between the Angels, Rangers and my Oakland Athletics as the last few games were shaking out. It was within this conversation that the topic of his birthday came up and he asked me to send him a direct message with my info to get to his wife. I of course obliged as soon as I could. We said our goodbyes and he went back to shagging balls during BP. As Monica and I walked away it dawned on me that I forgot to take a photo. I ran back across the left field bleachers, hailed him down again and popped this shot. I don’t normally ask people to pose for my photos, but in this case, based on the fact that he mentioned my photos, I had to do it.

It’s hard to say if we’ll ever meet again, my sources say yes only because I always seem to find myself in the right place at the right time more times than one could imagine. But until then, I hope this piece serves as a solid tribute to one of the iron men of Major League Baseball.

15-5/2.06-  I was fortunate enough to come across this cap on Ebay thanks in part to a fellow New Era Caps enthusiast by the name of John Beare (@Interstate19). He had casually mentioned that he saw it and thought I might be interested. Believe it or not, I had been trying to track down the hat for some time and immediately purchased it for the excellent price of $12 including shipping. Hell, it still had the tags on it.

The Fort Wayne Wizards used this cap from 1993-2004, changing it once to a wider "FW" logo without the wizard's cap in 2005 before they changed their name to the Tin Caps for the start of the 2009 season. The Midwest League came to Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1993. The franchise dates back from the league's days as the Illinois State League, starting in 1947 in Mattoon, Illinois. In 1958 the team moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where it spent five seasons; it was based in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin (1963–1983) and Kenosha, Wisconsin (1984–1992) before moving to Fort Wayne. From 1993-1998 they served as the single-A affiliate of the Twins before converting to the San Diego Padres in 1999 which still stands as the main affiliate to this day. The one detail about this cap that still puzzles me is why they chose the Wizard hat style that they did. To be honest, it reminds me of the hat Mickey Mouse wore in the Disney animated feature “Fantasia.” Even more surprising, I’m shocked Disney didn’t come to the same realization and get sue-happy.

Of all the moments in the team’s history that I could write about I still find myself drawn to Hawkins’ career; specifically the 1993 season, which, as mentioned above, was also the first season in the history of the Wizards era.

Fort Wayne is roughly 132 miles east of Gary, so not too much of a culture difference for Hawkins when he took the mound for the Wizards in 26 games, 23 of which were as a starter. That season Hawkins had undoubtedly the best year of his career (statistically) including the Majors. He went 15-5 with a 2.06 ERA and 179 strikeouts. Sadly I ran out of room to add the 179 in on my hat, but I made due with what I had. I was also lucky enough to come across some photos of his time with the Wizards which were taken 20 years ago to the date.

It’s moments like this where I realize I ended up where I need to be. As much fun as it would have been, and as great as a fat paycheck would be, I just love researching and telling these stories. God has a plan for all of us. Sometimes we know it on the spot from birth, other times we have to go through half of our lives for the light bulb to click on. I’m perfectly content with the gift and the path God ultimately chose to bestow upon me. It took some time, but the itch is gone. Now, it's just fun to play when I can.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

June 14- Hillsboro Hops

It’s weird to think that it’s only been two years since professional baseball left Portland, September 6, 2010 to be exact. I wrote about that date back on March 6th in my first of several posts about the then-Portland Beavers who are now the Tucson Padres. And while the city has been two years removed from the game I love, it felt like an eternity. A lot has happened in such a short time frame, at least from my perspective: I graduated from the University of Oregon… twice, went to New York City to be a member in season two of the MLB Fan Cave, traveled the country and Canada after being kicked out of the Fan Cave, fell in love with Angie Kinderman (@sconnieangie), went to Europe and made a lot of new friends. Yes, I’ve kept busy, but that still doesn’t mean I didn’t miss having a professional team in the city in which I call home.

From 2007 through the middle of March of this year I lived in Eugene, Oregon, going to school for the majority of the time that I was there. For the first two years I did my best to attend as many Beavers games as I could, but found myself attending more Eugene Emeralds games more and more each year due to proximity. Then, in 2009, the U of O baseball was re-established after a 28-year hiatus. These moments, in conjunction with the back-to-back National Championships in baseball that my school’s rival, Oregon State University, won in 2006 and 2007 were proving to the community and the surrounding states that baseball was finally becoming a thriving, successful sport in Oregon. But alas, the Portland Beavers were out as the newly-promoted Major League Soccer team, the Portland Timbers, needed a soccer-specific stadium to host their games. Their solution? Renovate and all ready renovated baseball stadium, PGE Park, convert it to a soccer-specific venue and leave the Beavers high-and-dry. Thus, the move to Tucson without a better option.

In May of 2011 buzz began to build about the possible return of professional baseball to the Portland area… sort of. Across the I-5 bridge to the north the town of Vancouver, Washington was scrambling to put together a proposal and business plan to be able to house the Yakima Bears and build a new baseball facility on the campus of Clark College, a junior college I happened to graduate from, in the southern portion of the city. Everything seemed to be in place for the upcoming 2012 season, but the deal fell through, leaving the Bears n limbo. On June 26, 2012 the town of Hillsboro, a thriving suburban just west of Portland, threw voted unanimously to bring the Bears, and professional baseball, back to the Portland area. In October the reality set in as the newly named Hillsboro Hops broke ground for a stadium renovation at Hillsboro Ballpark near Sunset Highway. 

On June 14, 2013, today, the Hops played their first game against Northwest League rival the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. Despite the fact that the Hops went on to lose 2-3, the reality is that all of the hard work and effort that it took general manager K.L. Wombacher, the Hops and the town of Hillsboro to put this all together need to be applauded no matter what the result on the field was. Baseball in the big city is back.

This particular hat is one that I sadly don’t own yet. Much like my Oakland Athletics Stars and Stripes post from May 21st, I had to borrow this one to be able to pull it off in time for the season opener. This will explain why there aren’t any marks yet. This is the first cap the Hops wore for their first game in the 2013 season, and will serve as such as their road cap for the rest of the season to go along with their classic grey uniforms. The name itself, the Hops, is comes from the beer ingredient which is grown in abundance throughout the state of Oregon. Believe it or not, most beer you drink comes as a result of Oregon having a hand in it. The name is also part of a three-year collaboration the Hops are doing with BridgePort Brewing Company, the official beer of the Hops.

The Hops themselves are an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, and have been so since 2001. Prior to becoming the Hops, the Bears resided in Yakima, Washington, a town in the southern-central part of the state since 1990. From 1990-2000 they were an affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers, but I’ll go into more detail about that later in the year. Notable alumni include Dan Uggla, Conor Jackson, Pedro Astacio and Paul Konerko. It’ll be interesting to see what this young Hops team will amount to in the years to come.

As I mentioned above I still need to get the hat, but I already picked up my marks. Once I get it in my possession I’ll be sure to update my photo. Until then, here you are.

RK: The start of any short season-A season is interesting because it comes right at the tail end of high school graduations, college graduations and Major League Baseball amateur draft. Most of the players on these teams are made up of the Major League affiliate’s recent acquisitions, so there is usually a pretty high turnover rate, so to speak, that comes at this level. Upon looking at the roster for the inaugural season for the Hops there was one name that really jumped out me, for literary and historical reasons mostly. In the 18th round and with the 540th overall pick the Diamondbacks selected Ryan Kinsella out of Elon University in North Carolina. If the name Kinsella doesn’t ring a bell, then you’re clearly not a baseball fan.

Kinsella is the last name on Kevin Costner’s character in “Field of Dreams;” in fact, it’s actually the last name of the guy who wrote the original story, W.P. Kinsella. I did my best to find out if the two were related, but my trail went cold. This particular Kinsella is catcher from Warren, New Jersey. He and the Phoenix made it to the final game of their Regional, but fell to the University of Virginia Cavaliers 11-3. Kinsella hit .291 in his two years at Elon including 13 home runs and 78 RBI. He is only the third player with the last name Kinsella to play at the professional level, and the first with that name to play after the release of “Field Of Dreams.”

#15- Hops pitching coach Doug Drabek has been affiliated with the team since the starts of the 2010 season back in Yakima. The following season he was promoted to the advanced-A California League affiliate the Visalia Rawhide before being brought to Hillsboro to help a new, fresh-faced batch of talent compete in their new home as the Hops.

Drabek’s career in baseball dates back to when he was selected in the 11th round of the 1983 amateur draft by the Chicago White Sox. After signing with the White Sox, Drabek was assigned to the Niagara Falls Sox in the short-season New York-Penn League where he finished 6–7 with a 3.67 ERA in 16 games with 103 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings. After pitching one game for the Class A Appleton, Drabek was promoted to the AA Glens Falls White Sox and was 12–5 with a 2.24 ERA. On 13 August, he was traded to the New York Yankees along with Kevin Hickey to complete an earlier deal made on July 18 for Roy Smalley. Drabek then spent the rest of the 1984 season at AA Nashville. In 1985, Drabek returned to AA and spent the entire season at Albany-Colonie in the Eastern League and finished with a 13–7 record with a 2.99 ERA with 153 strikeouts in 192 2/3 innings. After starting the 1986 season at AAA Columbus, Drabek made his Major League debut on May 30, coming in relief for starter Joe Niekro in a 6–3 loss to the Oakland Athletics. He would spend the rest of the season with the Yankees, appearing in 27 games (21 starts) and go 7–8 with a 4.10 ERA. 1986 would be the only year in which he didn’t wear #15; that season he wore #36. Following the season, he was traded with Logan Easley and Brian Fisher to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Rick Rhoden, Cecilio Guante and Pat Clements.

Drabek enjoyed his best years with Pittsburgh, from 1987 to 1992, during which time he regularly pitched over 230 innings and consistently finished in the top 10 in the National League ERA. On August 3, 1990 Drabek had a no-hitter broken up by a Sil Campusano single with two out in the ninth. The hit was the only one Drabek would allow in defeating the Philadelphia Phillies 11-0. He went 22–6 with a 2.76 ERA in 1990 en route to winning the National League Cy Young Award and leading the Pirates to the postseason (where they lost in the NLCS to the Cincinnati Reds). His 22 wins that year were a league high; it was also 7 more wins than his previous single-season mark.

Drabek signed as a free agent after the 1992 season with the Houston Astros. Despite a solid 3.79 ERA and playing for a rising team, he posted a 9–18 record. He improved in the strike-shortened 1994 season to 12–6 with a 2.84 ERA. When play resumed after the players' strike in 1995, however, he was unable to maintain his success and retired after the 1998 season, having compiled a 35–40 record over his final four seasons.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

June 13- Tampa Smokers

Well, the time has come. For the worst part of the last 12 years I unfortunately have been a smoker. A smart as I am and with as much knowledge as there is available to show people why smoking is bad, I still kept the habit up. Sadly, it all started because of a girl. When I was 18-years-old I graduated high school from Columbia River High School in Vancouver, Washington and started dating someone who was a year younger than me. Everyone in her family smoked, with the exception of her younger brother and sister who quite possibly picked up the habit once they were old enough. I can still remember the night I started too. We were driving from her house back to mine and she asked if I wanted one. We had been dating for about three months and I had always refused up until that moment. I can’t really give much of a solid reason as to why I say yes, other than with the hopes of getting some action, which is pretty much the only reason why a young kid like myself would do something when a woman asks. But from then, I was hooked.

After we broke up I started buying my own packs. I wasn’t chain smoking or anything, maybe like three-to-four a day. The only person close to me who smoked was my best friend Ronnie Forrest. He and I would always get together in our free time and jam out to Blink-182, our favorite band. On the evening of September 9, 2001 we enjoyed our last cigarette together right before I went home following his going away party as he was set to leave for Navy boot camp on the morning of September 11th; kind of crazy how that one worked out. For the next few months we chatted when we could. He and I had dreams of hanging out together in San Diego, California, going to school at San Diego State once his papers came in. He finished the top of his graduating class, and with that, he had the option to go wherever he wanted. He of course chose San Diego.

Our meeting and co-habitation would never come to fruition. In the months following his training he was set to deploy for Iraq, to serve in the Persian Gulf as the United States prepared for war. In the last hour before he flight was set to leave to London, England I had an opportunity to talk with him on the government’s dime. He first talked my mom for a solid 30 minutes before she passed it off to me. My mom said that he sounded drunk, which ended up being true once I had the chance to hear his voice. We were both 19-years-old, but with him being in the military he was allowed certain adult privileges. Our conversation fell heavily upon how we were doing and what he had been up to, but it ended with the only time I had ever said “I love you” to any of my friends. I had always been one to bottle up my emotions when it came to those closest to me, but I couldn’t really think of anything else to tell him. It wasn’t meant to be gay or anything of that nature, rather that I had always treated him like a brother. The phone went silent for a minute and he came back with an “I love you” of his own, followed by, “No really Ben, I really mean it and I really appreciate hearing it from you.” We said our goodbyes and he boarded his plane. I then walked outside, lit up a cigarette and cried my eyes out. For some odd reason I felt that was the last time I was ever going to hear from him. As it turned out, I was correct. While Ronnie and his fellow troops had a brief layover in London they were allowed to walk about the city until their plane for Iraq left later that evening. Somewhere on the route back (and I still haven’t gotten a clear answer about this), Ronnie was struck by a train and killed instantly. It would be two weeks before the news got to me. I called his parents’ house after someone I knew had heard about his death, I had to make sure things weren’t being blown out of proportion. Sure enough, my worst thoughts came true. From that moment on, smoking became my only escape.

Years have passed and my daily dosage has increased slightly. I got up to about a half-pack-a-day when I went to Europe in the summer of 2010, but I have yet to exceed that. I never feel good after I smoke either, which is one of the more unusual things that I always notice, yet I still continue to do so. When I took my Major League Baseball road trip this last summer after my time in the MLB Fan Cave I was able to make it to three Tampa Bay Rays games while I was in Florida. Tampa is a haven for smoking, cigars mostly, and Tropicana Field is one if the few places I’ve been equipped with a smoking bar. Little did I know that the smoking bar was for cigar smokers only, something I found to be incredibly funny. But with that, anytime I felt the need to light up during the game I made my way to the deck just outside the smoking bar to get a good puff in while raindrops trickled down on my head.

It was during this trip to Florida that I met the love of my life, my girlfriend Angie Kinderman (@sconnieangie), a soon-to-graduate student at Nova Southeastern University in the physician’s assistant program. In the near 10 months that we’ve been together, and with her extensive medical background, Angie has been asking me to quit for the sake of me being around longer to share time with her. Deep down I want this too, but I could never get myself to break the habit until now.

Angie means the world to me and the last thing I want to do is burn out because of a continuous mistake that I’ve made for nearly half of my life thus far. Losing someone I loved is what really aided the process, but gaining someone I love will help end it. I have many more years of baseball to watch and enjoy with my sweetie. I would much rather do it with a healthy set of vital organs.

I picked this cap up a few weeks ago, and I really lucked out too. I had only seen this cap for sale once on the shop Web site and all they had left were 7s and 6 7/8s. I had pretty much given up hope until I decided to peruse the Lids clearance section on their Web site. Sure enough, a few hats in and they hat it… on sale… AND IN MY SIZE NO LESS! I threw that, my Indianapolis Indians cap and an A.J. Pierzynski Chicago White Sox Player-T in my cart and checked out. For those of you who don’t know how hard it was to find, all I can say is that they only made it for one season: 2011. That’s right, and somehow there were still a few lying around the Lids warehouse in Indianapolis waiting for me to find it. Tight!

Now, to clear a few things up and why I spent most of this story thus far talking about smoking... This cap is a re-release of the old Tampa Smokers caps from 1951. The original Smokers were a charter franchise of the Florida State League that started play in 1919. The name reflected the importance of the cigar industry to the Tampa area. These Tampa Smokers moved to the Southeastern League in 1929 and officially ceased operations along with the league after the 1930 season. In 1932, the Smokers played in the short-lived West Coast Baseball League, but disbanded again when the league collapsed after a single season. The name was revived professionally for a final time in 1946, when the Tampa Smokers became a charter member of the Florida International League, a Class C league that was notable for fielding a team in Havana, Cuba. In 1952 this incarnation of the Tampa Smokers became one of the first three racially integrated teams in Florida, fielding black player Claro Duany. These Smokers folded along with the Florida International League after the 1954 season. The importance of the cigar industry to Tampa's economy had waned by the 1950s. When minor league baseball returned to the city in 1957, the new team was called the Tampa Tarpons.

On July 2, 2011 the Rays donned the Smokers uniforms as they took the field against the St. Louis Cardinals as part of their throwback days; however, the Rays made one key alteration in the uniform. This is what the original jersey looks like.

This is what they wore.

Do you see it? Despite the team name and the heritage of the team the Rays and MLB elected to remove the cigar logo from the front of the chest for a “slightly more contemporary version” for today’s crowds. In others words, NO SMOKING! This is a move that MLB pulled off last season as well with the Houston Astros when they wore their Colt .45s jerseys without the guns. It’s a move, in my eyes, which makes no sense as the team name itself signifies these removed objects, but more importantly the entire history and culture behind their names and logos no longer have any relevance. Basically, if you’re going to go old school, be sure to keep it as such. We don’t want another Washington Bullets to the Washington Wizards fiasco on our hands.

When it came to the marking up of the cap there was only one name that came to mind; however, his time with the Smokers was brief, so I needed to expand upon the history a little bit. I think y’all will agree.

#AL- Funny that it came out as “AL,” since it is his first name, but I assure you it’s his first and last initials. Al Lopez was the son of immigrants from Asturias, Spain who went to Cuba, then settled the Spanish-Cuban-Italian immigrant community of Ybor City, Tampa, Florida in the late 1880s. He was born in Ybor City. The cigar industry was most important in Tampa at the time, and Lopez's father, Modesto Lopez, worked in a cigar factory. Lopez visited his father's workplace as a child and "hated" the smell of tobacco that permeated the factory building. "I vowed never to work in one," he said later. Modesto died of throat cancer when Al was a young child. On May 16, 2013, his boyhood home is being moved to 19th Street and 9th Avenue in Tampa, where it will become the Tampa Baseball Museum.

After a boyhood spent playing baseball whenever possible, his professional career began in 1924 at the age of 16, when he quit school and signed on as a catcher with the Class-D Tampa Smokers. His starting salary was $150 per month. While with the Smokers, he impressed pitcher Walter Johnson with his abilities during a winter barnstorming exhibition game and was soon moving up in the minor leagues. He hit .293 in 167 games with the Smokers.

Lopez broke into the major leagues in 1928 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and became their starting catcher in 1930. Over a career which ran until 1947, he played for the Dodgers (1928, 1930-1935), Boston Bees (1936-1940), Pittsburgh Pirates (1940-1946) and Cleveland Indians (1947). His best offensive season was 1933, when he hit .301, stole 10 bases, and finished 10th in National League MVP voting. Overall, he compiled modest batting numbers, including 613 runs, 51 home runs, and 652 RBI and a .261 batting average. He was better known for his defense and his ability to handle pitchers, which earned him two trips to the All-Star game and respect around the league. In 1945, he surpassed Gabby Hartnett's major league record for career games as a catcher, and when he retired after the 1947 season, his major league record for games caught stood at 1918. This record was not broken until 1987 by Bob Boone, and the National League record was broken by Gary Carter in 1990.

As the first Tampa native and one of the first Hispanic-Americans to play in the major leagues, Lopez was already well-respected and celebrated in his hometown, especially among the city's Latin community. When he was named manager of the Indians in 1951, Tampa honored him with a parade. Under Lopez, the Indians won over 90 games from 1951 to 1953 but came in second place to the New York Yankees each season. In 1954, the team won a then American League record 111 games to capture the AL pennant but were upset by the New York Giants in the 1954 World Series. In 1955 and 1956, Lopez's squads again finished second to the Yankees. Lopez was "incensed" that Cleveland fans repeatedly booed Indian's third-baseman Al Rosen during the stretch run of 1956 season and felt that team management did not properly support his injured player. Consequently, he resigned at the end of the season, and agreed to manage the White Sox a month later.

Lopez enjoyed similar success in Chicago, as his new team finished in 2nd place to the Yankees in 1957 and 1958. His "Go Go White Sox" team finally broke through and won the American League pennant in 1959. He stayed with the team until 1965, finishing in second place five times and never posting fewer than 82 victories.

When the city of Tampa built a new minor league and spring training ballpark for the White Sox in 1954, it was named Al Lopez Field in his honor. Later in life, Lopez would recall a spring training incident in which an umpire with whom he was arguing threatened to throw him out of a game there. "You can't throw me out of this ballpark," protested Lopez, "This is my ballpark - Al Lopez Field!" The umpire ejected him anyway, causing Lopez to exclaim, "He threw me out of my own ballpark!"

Lopez retired to the White Sox front office after the 1965 season, but returned to manage parts of the 1968 and 1969 seasons after manager Eddie Stanky was fired. When Lopez retired for good due to health concerns in May 1969, his 1,410 wins ranked 11th all-time, and he never had a losing record in 15 seasons as a big league manager. His 1954 Indians and 1959 White Sox were the only non-Yankee clubs to win the AL pennant between 1949 and 1964 inclusive. His 840 wins with the White Sox still rank second in franchise history, behind Jimmy Dykes (899).

Lopez was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1977 by the Veterans Committee along with Joe Sewell and Amos Rusie. Ernie Banks was the only player that year to be elected in by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Lopez returned to Tampa upon retirement. As the first major league player and manager from the community, he was often mentioned as an inspiration by other baseball figures from the area and was considered one of Tampa's "legends" and most honored citizens.

When aging Al Lopez Field was razed in 1989, Horizon Park, a city park a few blocks north of the old ballpark site, was renamed Al Lopez Park and a statue of him was dedicated there. As a renowned alumnus, the athletic center at Jesuit High School, which is located across the street from Al Lopez Park, was also dedicated to him. And when the Tampa Bay area finally gained its own major league franchise in 1998 with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Lopez was asked to throw the ceremonial first pitch before their inaugural game.

Lopez died in Tampa at the age of 97 just four days after the White Sox won the 2005 World Series, their first championship in 88 years and their first pennant-winning season since Lopez led them to the World Series in 1959. He had been hospitalized for a heart attack, suffered two days earlier at his son's home. At the time of his death, Lopez was the last living person who had played major league baseball during the 1920s and is the longest-lived member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

#11- Remember that throwback game I mentioned that was played on July 2? Well, if there was a Player of the Game award for that particular game it probably would have gone to then-first baseman Casey Kotchman. The Rays beat the Cardinals that day by the score of 5-1, mostly thank in part to Kotchman’s 2-4 day at the plate including three RBI. The same could be said for outfielder Justin Ruggiano who also went 2-4 with a home run and two RBI. And the came could also be said of Johnny Damon who went 4-4 on the day with all singles and no RBI.

The fact of the matter is that in the case of Damon, singles are only good for strip clubs if there isn’t a return on the scoring. As for Kotchman and Ruggiano… in the bottom of sixth inning the Rays were down 1-0. The bases were loaded for Kotchman as Kyle McKlellan gave him a sweet pitch to hit which he smacked for a base-clearing double. Ruggiano batted next and tagged his fourth home run of the season. Since the score ended 5-1, it’s fair to say that Kotchman’s offensive production is what really turned the tide in the game. And for that, he earned a spot on the Smokers cap. Boom!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

June 12- Pittsburgh Pirates

When I first started this daily New Era Cap blog quest I did with the anticipation that I would finally arrive to this date to write about this particular event. I’ve always been fascinated with the lesser known, and sometimes eccentric stories of Major League Baseball’s past to the point where it’s borderline obsessive. Call me weird, crazy or a bit off if you will, but this moment still ranks within the Top-five of the greatest spectacles this sport has ever seen.

I first heard about it in 2007 when I was sitting on the couch at my first house in Eugene, Oregon as I had just started my first term at the University of Oregon. My roommate Lyle Birkey had a copy of “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader” sitting on the coffee table and I immediately began flipping through it. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always had a thirst for knowledge. If there was ever a book I had never read before that looked interesting, I would stop what I was doing and flip through it for an hour or so. This particular habit has yet to escape me into my adult years. That day I learned more about particle combustion, how to make wine and a flurry of other useless facts and hobbies that I otherwise never would have given two thoughts about. When I reached the section on “unusual sports records” I knew I was in for a treat. There were quite a few that I knew about, but as I dug deeper and deeper I found myself wanting to go beyond the brief snippet I read in the book. Eventually I came to a section labeled “The LSD No-No” and zoned in with intent wonder… but I’ll get to the story of that here in a moment.

One of the things that really bothered me about my time in the MLB Fan Cave this last year was the amount of censorship that we were put through. Granted, we’re not talking about a dictatorship rule by Joseph Stalin in Russia kind of censorship, but a few, in my opinion, odd things that we weren’t allowed to mention publicly despite the fact that we were supposed to be representatives of MLB’s entire fan base. For instance, we could talk about fights that occurred on the baseball diamond. I always found this to be an unusual free pass considering that I’ve never been in favor of violence in sports. Yes, when adrenaline gets pumping in “the heed of battle,” things can blow out of proportion like in moments when a pitcher intentionally beans a batter. What’s even more unusual is that MLB has stockpiles of fight footage from the last 40 years to help back up my point. Now, of the things we weren’t allowed to talk about: PEDs, drugs, gambling, injuries, off color remarks and Jose Canseco rounded out the list. All of these topics have been hot discussions for the last 30 years, and are most prevalent topics of barroom and fan board discussion. However, in the Fan Cave it was all off limits. Take for instance that story I’m about to unfold. Even though I have a tattoo in tribute of the “LSD No-No,” I was never allowed to talk about it. And yes, this was a topic of conversation that was brought up a lot in my Fan Cave campaign and after I made it to New York City. To be honest, at this point in time, 43 years later, it’s really more comical if anything and something that sports fans alike can appreciate and tell their friends about. I don’t know. Maybe I was just brought up with a different set of moral values. I’m not saying that I advocate drug use or performance enhancing drugs of any sort, but there is something to be said about them as opposed to James Shields and Coco Crisp slugging it out in front of 37,000 people at Fenway Park and especially in front of the thousands of people watching at home. Most people have the mindset that drugs and cheating are wrong. It’s a rule that’s branded heavily into our minds when we’re kids. Likewise, we’re also brought up with the idea that violence should only be used in particular circumstances. Only bring up your fists as long as you intend to use them, but only if there isn’t any other option. I guess the last thing to be pointed out in all of this is that any kid, adult, thug or dweeb can pick up their hands and throw a punch without really thinking about the consequences. It takes a whole other set of mental commitment to consider, purchase and use any kind of drug or performance enhancer. Which do you think I more damaging?

I have to say that I really lucked out in picking up this hat as I literally was able to purchase it five-and-a-half hours before I started writing this. Before this season it was one of the hardest hats to find. The Pittsburgh Pirates rocked this cap in 1970 as their alternate cap and used it as their full-time game cap from 1971-1975, ditching the classic black cap with a yellow “P” until it resurfaced again in 1987. Like the Chicago White Sox, the Pirates have been great about reviving their classic uniforms and caps for the last 10 years, wearing them on their Retro Sunday days at PNC Park. Had it not been for this season, I probably would be wearing this cap as we speak. The one thing that needs to be pointed out about this particular model is that it’s not a straight-mustard yellow like most people are lead to believe. If I had to call it anything, I would go with Dijon. No so much Grey Pupon, more Heinz Spicy Brown, because after all, Heinz IS Pittsburgh. In fact, the yellow caps that most people mistake for being mustard yellow back in those days are the batting helmets. Batting helmets generally don’t change throughout the season, even on special throwback days in a lot of cases. Yes, there have been a few moments where this has occurred; however, back in the 1970s this was not the case. Everyone pretty much used “their” batting helmet from Opening Day until the last game of the season, and it rarely ever varied in look.

I promise I’ll do this story some kind of justice. Something as big as this is something I don’t particularly want to screw up on, so please go easy on me if I blow it. I’m fragile. :D

6/12/70: A little history first: Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr. was born and raised in Gardena, California. Ellis first started taking recreational drugs when he enrolled at Gardena High School at the age of 14 in 1955. He played for the school's basketball team, recording 21 assists in one game. He also played baseball as an infielder for a local semi-professional team called the "Pittsburgh Pirates Rookies", along with future major leaguers Bobby Tolan, Roy White, Ron Woods, Reggie Smith, Don Wilson, Bob Watson, and Dave Nelson; the team was managed by Chet Brewer. However, Ellis refused to play for the Gardena High School baseball team, because a baseball player referred to him as a "spearchucker". When Ellis was caught drinking and smoking marijuana in a high school bathroom during his senior year, the school agreed not to expel him if he agreed to play for the school's baseball team. He appeared in four games and was named all-league. Ellis then attended Los Angeles Harbor College (LAHC), a junior college.

While Ellis attended LAHC, various MLB teams attempted to sign him to a professional contract, but as he heard the Pittsburgh Pirates gave out signing bonuses of $60,000, he held out until the Pirates made him an offer. He was arrested for grand theft auto, and given probation. Brewer, working as a scout for the Pirates, signed Ellis to the Pirates; as a result of the arrest, the Pirates offered Ellis $500 a month and a $2,500 signing bonus. He was happy to accept it.

Ellis played for the Batavia Pirates of the A New York-Pennsylvania League in 1964. The next season, he played for the Kinston Eagles of the Class A Carolina League and the Columbus Jets of the AAA International League. Ellis pitched in an exhibition game for the Pirates against the Cleveland Indians in July, receiving the win. After the season, the Pirates added Ellis to their 40-man roster.

In 1966, Ellis played for the Asheville Tourists of the AA Southern League, pitching to a 10–9 win-loss record, a 2.77 earned run average (ERA), and an the All-Star Game appearance. The Pirates called Ellis up to the majors near the end of the season, but the team did not use him in a game that year. Ellis started the 1967 season with Columbus. He believed that he wasn't on the major league club because the Pirates already had a number of African American players; he felt that the team did not want to alienate white fans. Ellis was sent down to the Macon Peaches of the Southern League, which Ellis believed was due to the length of his hair. Ellis said that he was promoted back to Columbus after shaving his head. He had a 2–0 win-loss record with Macon and a 5–7 record with Columbus.

During his minor league career, Ellis once chased a heckler in the stands with a baseball bat. He also used pills when he pitched, specifically the amphetamines Benzedrine and Dexamyl. Stressed by the pressure of his "can't-miss" status as a prospect, Ellis became addicted. Ellis later said that he never pitched a game without using amphetamines. He eventually needed 70 to 85 milligrams (1.1–1.31 gr) per game, between five and twelve capsules, depending on their strength. Ellis acknowledged that he began to use cocaine in the late 1960s.

Ellis held out from the Pirates in February 1968; he came to terms with the team in March. The Pirates optioned Ellis to Columbus, who moved Ellis from the starting rotation to the bullpen. At Columbus, Ellis credited his work with manager Johnny Pesky and pitching coach Harvey Haddix for improving his performance. Finally, on June 18, 1968, Ellis made his Major League debut; one inning of relief in which he allowed one hit and struck out Ken Boyer in the Pirates 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ellis was credited with the win. Ellis went 6-5 with a 2.50 ERA and 52 strikeouts that season. He started five of those games, going the distance in two of them.

In 1969 Ellis was a full-fledge member of the starting rotation. That season he had one of the worst years of his budding career. He went 11-17 with a 3.58 ERA and 173 strikeouts. As a result of the ever-building stress he was under to succeed, he popped pills like tic-tacs, trying to “overcome the fear of defeat.”

By the time June 12th had come around Ellis was 4-4 on the season with a 4.28 ERA; not exactly top notch stuff. His last outing before that day was a game against the Dodgers on June 6th in which he only lasted five innings and a no decision in the Pirates’ 7-6 victory over the Dodgers. Now, it’s June 11th, a day off for the Pirates before playing a double header against the San Diego Padres the next day. For this part you have to watch this video put together by the New York City-based clothing line called No Mas. Some of you may have seen this video in the past, and if you have, watch it again. It’s truly an amazing spectacle in narration by Ellis and flawless animation.

One of the things that I first need to point out about this video, other than the fact that it’s absolutely hilarious, is the part about second baseman Dave Cash. If you ever find your self looking at the boxscore you’ll see that Cash was not playing second base during that game; Game one to be exact. Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski had defensive duties at the keystone for that game while Cash took over duties for Game two. Anytime Cash mad reference to the “no-no,” it was while the team was in the dugout for their at-bats. The offensive hero of the game was Hall of Famer Willie Stargell who provided the entire offense for the Pirates by crushing two solo home runs for the 2-0 victory. Lastly, the manager, Danny Murtaugh. I only bring him up because his name is awesome. It would have only been made better if one of his assistant coaches’ names happened to be Riggs. In the end though, Ellis walked eight batters and plunked Padres centerfielder Ivan Murrell, but still escaped with the only known no-hitter under the influence of a controlled substance. In conjunction with my point about MLB and their avoidance of something so taboo, try finding any copy of the actual footage from that game. It's almost as if it doesn't exist.

Ellis went on to win 13 games and lose 10 with a 3.21 ERA and 128 strikeouts. In spite of his spot in history, Ellis’ best came in 1971 when he went 19-9 with a 3.21 ERA and 137 strikeouts. That season he made his one and only All-Star Game appearance as the starter for the National League. He also finished in fourth place for the NL Cy Young award, his only finish in his 12-year career. The Pirates also won the World Series that season. Ellis went 138-119 with a 3.46 ERA and 1136 strikeouts for his career. Despite pitching in only three games out of the bullpen in 1979, he won a second World Series ring that season.

On May 5, 1972, Ellis, Stargell, and Rennie Stennett missed the team bus to Riverfront Stadium. A security guard asked the three for identification; Stargell and Stennett complied and were allowed in, but Ellis did not have identification with him. The guard said that Ellis did not identify himself, appeared drunk, and "made threatening gestures with a closed fist." Ellis countered that he was showing his World Series ring as evidence of his affiliation with the Pirates. In response, the guard maced Ellis. Ellis was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

The Cincinnati Reds sued Ellis for assault and Ellis countersued. Before going to trial, the Reds dropped the suit and wrote Ellis a letter of apology. The municipal court dropped the charges against Ellis, though Ellis stated that this incident made him "hate better". Ellis finished the 1972 season ninth in the NL in ERA (2.70), sixth in winning percentage (.682), fourth in walks per nine innings pitched (1.818), and first in home runs per nine innings ratio (0.331). The Pirates won the NL East that year and faced the Reds in the 1972 NLCS. The Pirates pitched Ellis with a sore arm, but the Reds won the series.

Ellis said that the scariest moment of his career was when he attempted to pitch while sober in a 1973 game. During pre-game warm-ups, he couldn't recreate his pitching mechanics. Ellis went to his locker, took some amphetamines with coffee, and returned to pitch. In August 1973, pictures circulated of Ellis wearing hair curlers in the bullpen during pre-game warm-ups.

The Pirates told him not to wear curlers on the field again. Ellis agreed, but charged that the Pirates were displaying racism. Ebony devoted a spread to Ellis about his hairstyles, which was inspired by the hair curlers.

After Ellis defeated the Reds by a score of 1-0 in a 1973 game, Joe Morgan claimed that Ellis threw a spitball. Anderson had the umpire check Ellis, but found no evidence. In his 1980 book, Ellis admitted that wearing hair curlers produced sweat on his hair, which he used to throw a modified version of a spitball.

Ellis attempted to hit every batter in the Reds lineup on May 1, 1974, as he was angry that the Pirates were intimidated by the Big Red Machine. Ellis admired Pete Rose and was concerned about how he would respond, but Ellis decided to do it regardless. Ellis hit Rose, Morgan, and Dan Driessen in the top of the first inning. Cleanup batter Tony PĂ©rez avoided Ellis's attempts and drew a walk; the first pitch to Perez was thrown behind him and over his head. Ellis threw two pitches that he aimed at the head of Johnny Bench, at which point Ellis was removed from the game by Murtaugh. Ellis's box score for the game reads as follows: 0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 1 BB, 0 K. Ellis tied eight other players for the MLB record with the three hit batsmen in the inning. Ellis retired from baseball in the spring of 1980, saying that he lost interest in the game. That year, Ellis entered drug treatment, staying for forty days at The Meadows in Wickenburg, Arizona. In 1984, he revealed that he had pitched his no-hitter under the influence of LSD.

Ellis lived in Apple Valley, California. He worked in Victorville, California as a drug counselor. He also counseled prisoners in Pittsburgh and at a prison in Adelanto, California. The New York Yankees hired Ellis in the 1980s to work with their minor league players, including Pascual Perez, who he counseled for drug problems. In 2005, Ellis began teaching weekly classes for individuals convicted of driving under the influence. Ellis also appeared in the 1986 film Gung Ho, directed by Ron Howard.

In 1989, Ellis served a player/coach for the St. Petersburg Pelicans of the Senior Professional Baseball Association and went 0–2 with a 1.76 ERA and seven saves as a part of the team's bullpen. In 1990, he allowed no earned runs and recorded two saves for the Pelicans before the league folded. He continued to play in the Los Angeles Veterans League.

Ellis was diagnosed with cirrhosis in 2007 and was placed on the list for a liver transplant. Though he had no health insurance, friends from his baseball career helped him to pay his medical bills. However, Ellis suffered heart damage in his last weeks of life, which made a transplant impossible. Ellis died on December 19, 2008 at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center due to his liver ailment. Services were held at the Angelus Funeral Home. He is interred at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood, California.

If you didn’t notice from the picture at the top of the screen I’m wearing a limited edition No Mas shirt commemorating Ellis’s no-hitter. This is hands down one of my favorite shirts of all time especially when it comes to unusual attention to detail. To me, the first that that springs out is the placement of Ellis’s name on the back, “Ellis D.” It’s definitely one of the more mindboggling coincidences for a particular feat to have your name also closely spelling out the substance in which he was on when he chucked his no-no.

Lastly, the tattoo.

There’s actually a double meaning going on here that most people are completely unaware of. First, look at the eyes of the Pirate Parrot, the mascot of the Pirates. I had them filled in with different colors as well as added the marks above its head to emphasize how Ellis felt on the mound that day. I pretty much have the animation in the video to thank for that. The second thing has to do with the Pittsburgh cocaine trials of the 1980s, something I’ll go more in-depth on down the road, but one of the biggest figures in the trafficking of the drug amongst players was in fact Kevin Koch, the man who was inside the mascot outfit. Like I said, I’m a sucker for detail.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

June 11- Kannapolis Intimidators

I have to once again tip my cap to Will MacNeil (@RFWill149) for this pickup. During the Oakland Athletics Fan Fest he and I had talked at length about scooping up this cap as it is the only cap inspired by someone outside of the baseball realm. Within about a week after I had gotten back to Eugene, Oregon to wrap up my studies at the University of Oregon Will had messaged me on Facebook, letting me know he ha scooped it up for me. Very rarely in my life has someone ever done so much for me with something as seemingly insignificant as giving me a hat.

The Intimidators franchise moved to Kannapolis in 1995 from Spartanburg, South Carolina, where they had been a Class A-affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in the South Atlantic League. With all new teams, debate raged in Kannapolis over what to name the team, with team officials finally decided to call the team the Piedmont Phillies for the 1995 season until they could figure out a suitable replacement.

A name-the-team contest in the fall of 1995 drew thousands of entries, and team officials settled on the boll weevil as the team's new mascot, indicative of Kannapolis' history as a textile mill town (Kannapolis natives are even called "lintheads"). The Piedmont Boll Weevils would keep that mascot until after the 2000 season, when NASCAR racing legend Dale Earnhardt purchased a share in the team's ownership. It was then that the name was changed to the Kannapolis Intimidators, in honor of Earnhardt's legendary nickname. It was also during that offseason that the team's parent club changed from the Phillies to the Chicago White Sox, making the Intimidators the third White Sox farm team to be located in the Carolinas, following the Charlotte Knights (who actually play their home games in suburban Fort Mill, South Carolina) and the Winston-Salem Warthogs, now called the Winston-Salem Dash.

Earnhardt, who drove the #3 car in NASCAR, was killed in an accident at the Daytona 500 in February 2001. Following Earnhardt's death, the Intimidators avoided assigning the number 3 for team members. Team manager Razor Shines, originally slated to wear #3, and subsequently changed his uniform number to #43. The team officially retired #3 on May 15, 2002, in memory of their former co-owner, similar to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim retiring the number 26 (the 26th man) in honor of former owner Gene Autry. I wrote about this tribute on April 8th.

The team's logo was designed by Sam Bass, who has designed paint schemes and uniforms on many NASCAR, Champ Car, and IRL race cars, another rarity within the realm of baseball.

The team plays in CMC-Northeast Stadium (formerly Fieldcrest Cannon Stadium) in Kannapolis. "The Cannon" was still under construction when the Piedmont Phillies began play in 1995. Upon completion in the winter of 1995, the stadium seated 4,700 fans. The stadium officially changed names on April 3, 2012 under a new naming rights agreement for the 2012 season.

In their 18-year history in Kannapolis the Intimidators/Boll Weevils/Phillies have only won one South Atlantic League title, which came in 2005. However, the team has yet to win a division crown. That year the team went 74-59 under then-manager Nick Capra who played for five seasons in Major League Baseball with the Texas Rangers (1982-1983, 1985 and 1991) and the Kansas City Royals (1988).

When trying to come up with marks for this cap I did quite a bit of digging. As most of you who read these posts have come to learn I don’t usually take things at face value. I always like to find little patterns within the names, dates and numbers to tell a story that I find particularly interesting that also has to do with something going on in my life. With this hat I scored big time.

#1- This tall, lanky right-handed pitcher was taken in the 17th round by the White Sox in the 2002 amateur draft out of Lamar Community College in Lamar, Colorado. In 2002 and 2003 he battled through the Rookie Leagues with the AZL White Sox and the Great Fall White Sox respectively, posting solid numbers as a starter. In 2004 he made got bumped up to Kannapolis where he made 15 starts, going 8-5 with a 3.64 ERA and 113 strikeouts before moving on to advanced-A Winston-Salem and AA Birmingham to play with the Barons. In 2005 he made his Major League debut on May 22nd, only pitching in 12 games, 10 as a starter going 3-2 with a 4.03 ERA and 48 strikeouts. That season he split time between the big club and in AAA with the Charlotte Knights. But despite his split time he still won a World Series ring as the White defeated the Houston Astros in four games.

In the offseason after the end of the 2006 season he was traded to the Rangers where he stuck it out until the end of the 2010 season, going 13-15 with a 4.68 ERA and 134 strikeouts. On December 14, 2010 he signed as a free agent with the Athletics where he became the ace in 2012 and helped the team win their first American League Western Division title since 2006 despite missing the month of the regular season and postseason after taking a liner off of his dome due to a pitch hit by Angels shortstop Erick Aybar.

He’s hands down on of the funniest cats on Twitter, along with his wife Amanda. Brandon McCarthy.

#16- This outfielder grew up in Houston, Texas and was drafted in the 16th round of the 2001 amateur draft by the White Sox out of Bellaire High School. Like McCarthy, the two went through the same system together, starting out in the Rookie Leagues with the AZL White Sox, Great Falls White Sox, but also the Bristol White Sox from 2002-2003. In 2004 he spent the entire season in Kannapolis and hit .261 with 24 home runs, 56 RBI and 31 stolen bases. In 2005 he moved on to Birmingham where he won praise by making Baseball America’s first-team Minor League All-Star outfielder as well as the White Sox Minor League Player of the Year award after going .277/26/77 with 32 stolen bases. Despite this prestige he was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks at season’s end with Luis Viscaino and Orlando Hernandez for Javier Vasquez and cash considerations.

Despite rolling to a new team, this cat continued his ball-hitting barrage with the Tucson Sidewinders before getting called up in August of 2006 where he made his MLB debut on the 18th. From then until the end of the 2012 season he hit .239 with 132 home runs and 408 RBI. He finished fourth for National League Rookie of the Year in 2007 and made his only All-Star Game appearance thus far in 2010. At the end of the 2012 season he was traded to the Athletics for infielder Cliff Pennington and Yordy Cabrera. This cat, Chris Young.

#18- I actually all ready wrote about this guy on March 13th, but he’s still a crowd favorite. He was selected 38th overall in the first round of the 2004 amateur draft by the White Sox out of Monsignor Edward Pace High School in Opa Locka, Florida. That year he split hit time in Bristol as well as a few games in Kannapolis. In 2005 he made 10 starts for the Intimidators, going 5-3 with a 1.87 ERA and 84 strikeouts before moving on to Winston-Salem for another 13 starts, going 9-3 with a 3.56 ERA and 79 strikeouts in the process.

Between 2005 and 2008 he was traded three times. First to the Phillies along with Aaron Rowand and Daniel Haigwood for Jim Thome. The he was traded back to the White Sox at the end of the 2006 season along with Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia. In 2007 this guy led the Minor Leagues in strikeouts with 185 while playing for the Barons. In 2008 he was traded to the Athletics along with Ryan Sweeney and Fautino de los Santos for Nick Swisher. Showing some solid promise in AAA with the Sacramento River Cats he was called up and made his MLB debut on August 6, 2008.

Despite a few rough outing in 2008 and 2009 he moved up and down between The Show and AAA before finally getting a solid spot in the rotation in 2010 where he went 15-9 with a 3.23 ERA and 171 strikeouts. In 2011 he made his first All-Star Game appearance behind a 16-12 record, a 3.12 ERA and 197 strikeouts. In the offseason he was traded to the Washington Nationals along with Robert Gilliam for catcher Derek Norris and pitchers Brad Peacock, A.J. Cole and Tommy Milone. Gio Gonzalez, we still miss you brother!

#33- This guy was selected by the White Sox in the 15th round of the 2005 amateur draft out of Sierra Vista High School in Las Vegas, Nevada. In 2005 and most of 2006 he played with Bristol and Great Falls before finishing out 2006 in Kannapolis for 16 games. In 2007 he had a monster year with the Intimidators, batting .291 with 25 home runs and 93 RBI. As soon as the season wrapped up he was traded to the Diamondbacks for Carlos Quentin. Two weeks after that he was dealt to the Athletics as part of a package for Dan Haren.

Between 2008 and 2012 he became a professional ball hitter throughout the Minor Leagues, mostly sticking it out in Sacramento. On August 9, 2010 he made his MLB debut. He would only play a total of 106 games for the Athletics in three years before getting traded to the Houston Astros at the end of the 2012 season. During his time in Oakland; however, his most memorable moments (for me) came on July 6th when he hit a walk-off three-run blast against the Seattle Mariners in the 11th inning and the other coming on August 28th when he went 3-5 with a home run against the Cleveland Indians at The Jake. The moment I’ll never forget about this is how I yelled, “X-Files!” after his home run and first base coach Tye Waller didn’t stop laughing until the end of the inning. Chris Carter, you are clutch kid.

While there were a slew of other players I could have paid tribute to I couldn’t help but find all the guys whose tenures in Oakland were all paved through the pathway of Kannapolis. The only person I forgot to mention was Brandon Allen who played alongside Carter in 2006.

Monday, June 10, 2013

June 10- Anaheim Angels

I realize a lot of people, especially Anaheim Angles fans aren’t particularly fond of this cap, but honestly, I kind of dig it. It was first introduced in 1997, the same time the California was dropped from the name and the Anaheim was added. For five grueling years they wore this cap under managers Terry Collins, Joe Maddon and Mike Scioscia just as he was starting out. It served as their game cap, unlike its counterpart with the light blue bill which I wrote about on April 8th. While the Angels themselves didn’t fair out too well under this cap, there is one moment that occurred while they were wearing this bad boy that I can’t shake for my mind.

As an Oakland Athletics fan it’s hard for me to tip my cap to an accomplishment by a rival player; however, there are just some moments that occur in sports that one needs to cast differences aside and realize that what they just witnessed is truly spectacular. Even more impressive is when someone I’ve had a history with and I agree upon the same thing. This story takes place on a random day in April while the other eight Cave Dwellers and I were watching “Top 50 Countdown- Greatest Defensive Plays” edition on MLB Network while we were sitting around waiting for our production assignments for the day in the MLB Fan Cave.

I’m having a little bit of difficulty remembering which day in particular it was, but I think it might have been on April 27th as we were waiting for Detroit Tigers players Collin Balester and Miguel Cabrera. The two were running just a little bit late and all eight of us had gotten there especially early for prep-work on the Miggy Poco sketch that we would be filming that day. With time to kill until they arrived we turned a few of the televisions on the Cave Monster on and tuned into MLB Network since all we were really allowed to watch was baseball no matter what hour of the day it was. Due to it being so early in the morning, 8:45 AM EST, there wasn’t anything live on air quite yet, so we were regaled with “Top-50 Countdown.” The funniest part of this moment is that St. Louis Cardinals fan Kyle Thompson, Atlanta Braves fan Ricky Mast, New York Yankees fan Eddie Mata and I really knew all of the plays that they were going to show. So of course, to make things interesting, we all started predicting the order of the Top-10 plays. The only problem with this is that this particular activity, much like the crew who assembled the stories and highlights, based everything around lore and personal opinion. There really isn’t an accurate way to rank any of these moments, especially when it comes to something like robbing a home run. At the end of the day, as long as the ball was caught, the job was done. I suppose a degree of difficulty could be added onto it, but a lot of that is arbitrary too because the ground covered by the defender is really based on how well they read the person at the plate and where they’re stuck when it comes to defensive positioning. Yes, I take a lot of these things into consideration when making important judgment calls.

By the time we started out little game the show had all ready cracked the Top-20. Not having any idea of what the previous 30 plays were made it a little more challenging. Eddie, being the homer that he is, of course said the Derek Jeter flip play was going to be number one. My response to that has simply giving Eddie the finger. I don’t really remember what Ricky said, but both Kyle and I ended up with the same answer. It was probably the only time he and I ever really agreed on anything.

This is another befuddling moment for me because I don’t remember exactly where the moment landed on the list. I’m pretty sure it was Top-five, possibly even at number 3, but to this day I still stick to my guns as it is not only the greatest play I have ever seen as it occurred, but quite possibly the best play in history. Once again, this is merely a matter of my opinion and should be taken as such. No sense in starting a Holy War over something so trivial.

6/10/97- One of the really cool things about living in Bakersfield, California during baseball season was that I got a seemingly endless fill of Major League Baseball games on TV even without the assistance of or MLB Network, both of which didn’t exist at the time. Now, the only drawback to this is that I was stuck watching Los Angeles Dodgers and Anaheim Angels games. Sadly I was too far away from the cusp of where we had a signal to the Bay Area sports stations so I could only watch Athletics games if they ever played on ESPN or against the Angels.

On one particular summer day on June 10, 1997 I found myself especially bored out of my mind I was watching the Angels on the road against the Kansas City Royals. Just to let you know how bad things were back in those days, Angels’ skipper Terry Collins had the team sitting is second place in the American League West with a 32-28 record while Bob Boone was on the verge of getting canned as the manager of the Royals as they were in third place in the AL Central at 28-31. The Angels struck first in the top of the second inning with a 1-0 lead after Tim Salmon crossed the plate from second thanks to a Garrett Anderson single. The Royals would make a charge in the bottom of the fifth inning, tying the game a one apiece after a Jeff King double followed up by an RBI single by Chili Davis. Johnny Damon then followed that up with a single while the next two batters, Mike MacFarlane and Scott Cooper lined out to Anderson in left field. With two outs, a runner on first in the bottom of the fifth inning, Royals’ right fielder David Howard came to the plate.

The look of a true baller.

Howard had broken into the Major Leagues in 1991 and was 59 games into his final season with the Royals at the time when he stepped into the batters box. The best season he had ever put together was in 1996, the only season in which he played in over 94 games (143). In ’96 he hit .219 with four home runs and 48 RBI. He got cot caught stealing more often than he was successful, which goes to show that he wasn’t that quick for as fit as he was. His four home runs in ’96, 11 for his career show that he didn’t have a lot of power. And despite how mediocre his career may have been, stats wise, he will always be remembered for this at-bat.
 The eyes say, "I'm stone cold," but the sideburns say, "I came to party."

 Jason Dickson was pitching for the Angels that day. Dickson had been called up the previous season, 1996, and made seven starts for the Angels, going 1-4 with a 4.57 ERA. 1997 was proving to be a much better year for the 24-year-old right-hander who would go on to make his one and only All-Star Game appearance that year and finish in third place for the AL Rookie of the Year award with a 13-9 record, a 4.29 ERA and 115 strikeouts. Unfortunately for Dickson, some “flash in the pan” (sarcasm) named Nomar Garciaparra made short work of every rookie in the league.

Dickson threw a hanging curveball to Howard which he immediately turned on. For a guy hitting in the nine-hole it’s not exactly expected the he’d make contact, but for the lack of power he usually put behind the ball, Howard sent this was screaming to centerfield. Angles centerfielder Jim Edmonds then had to get on his horsey and haul ass to even come close to making a play. Wait… did I say Jim Edmonds? Did I say come close to making a play?
"Thanks for the stupid jersey Disney."

Edmonds made his MLB debut on September 9, 1993 as a late-season call up for the 40-man expansion roster. In 1994 he played in 94 games (94 in ’94, funny) and hit .273 with five home runs and 37 RBI which was good enough for an eighth place finish for AL Rookie of the Year. In 1995 he made his first of only four All-Star Game appearances as well as a 14th place finish for AL MVP after going .290/33/107. It was a really stupid year for on the voter’s behalf. Edmonds produced another solid year in 1996, but it would be on this day in 1997 that Edmonds became a household name.

As the ball sailed into centerfield Edmonds could tell that he was playing way too shallow to make a play. However, while most people would make the play off the wall after realizing they’re doomed, Jim “F---ing” Edmonds will do everything in his power to make that out. Rather than me blab about it anymore, take a look at the play here.

Now, there are plays that a truly worth of note, and then there are some like this that are beyond words like “boner-inducing,” as I would use. “The Catch,” as it’s known throughout the baseball community, pretty much cemented the first of eight Gold Glove awards that Edmonds would win throughout his career. Now, I realize that there are some purists out there who still hold Willie Mays’s over the shoulder basket catch during Game one of the 1954 World Series as the greatest play of all-time; however, all I can really say to those people is, “Shut your mouth. Shut it.” While the importance of Mays’s catch is what makes his so amazing, the pure athleticism and sacrifice of the body is why I hold what Edmonds accomplished in such high regards, even if it is an early June game against a team that hadn’t been to the playoffs since they won the World Series in 1985. It’s a level of play that very few will ever display in their careers, and Edmonds did it on a regular basis.

The Angels, energized by what they had witnessed, went on a scoring tear and beat the Royals by the final score of 6-2. But even with the win all anyone wanted to talk about that night on ESPN’s Sportscenter was that amazing play which we still talk about to this day.

Like I said, “boner-inducing.”