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Wednesday, July 02, 2008
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Holy cow! For those of you not paying attention, the Tampa Bay Devi, er, Rays are in first place with a solid lead in July. They finished last (or so) for a decade (or so) and horded talent, and now they have a good young team. It helps to rip off the Mets in the newest version of the “Worst Trade Ever”. I live near Durham, NC. The Durham Bulls are the AAA affiliate of the Rays. Just flipping through my scorebook, I have names like Crawford, Winn, Longoria, Upton, Dukes, Young, Cantu, Hall, Gomes, Riggans, Huff, Truby. That’s all well and good, and for the last decade, the Bulls have been about a movie. They were every bit as entertaining as the Rays. This season, all that has changed. I went to the game last night (01 July 2008) against the Charlotte Knights, and the place was crowded. Okay, there were fireworks after the game, but the good seats were nearly full.
What really changed was last night I saw something new - not Bulls shirts, but Rays shirts. Lots of them. The Durham Bull shirt and symbol is one of quality, and the movie makes it cool to wear, so everyone has one. Plus it is the minor leagues, so they give them away like crazy. Last night though, I saw more Crawford, Upton, Longoria and Kazmir shirts than ever before. the most I had seen before last night was this past week at SABR 38 where my friend Mike wore one every other day. It was a great transformation, and not dissimilar to the one that took place with the Bulls when they were a Braves farm club 20 years ago. It doesn’t hurt that this is the 20th anniversary of the release of Bull Durham, and that Kevin Costner and his band, Modern West, (really?) are playing a concert here this weekend *at the park*. 5:30 - tickets still available.
Then there was the game.
I have played in the Men’s Senior Baseball League (MSBL) for about ten years, off and on. My local team is the Raleigh Red Sox. Ten years ago I was pretty good - now I am mostly the scorebookkeeper and extra hitter. About five years ago, the City of Oaks decided to have a fall baseball league. About ten teams entered, including the Raleigh Red Sox. We were much older than the other teams. At 39, I was about the median age. We made it to the championship game, and played another good team. The other team had a monster first baseman. He just killed the ball. We scored about six runs in the first two innings, and our opponents brought in this left first baseman to pitch. It turned out this lefty was none other than former NC State and *current* minor league pitcher Mike Prochaska. Oh, he slammed the door on us, but after six innings we got to him, and scratched out the tying run. He was lifted and we beat them in the 9th. I have written about it before, but can’t locate that piece.
Flash forward to last night: starting for your Durham Bulls - Mike Prochaska. I hooted - yeh, we beat that guy. Prochaska is obviously going to make the majors because he’s a lefty. Just ignore those 60 hits allowed in 30 innings. He threw about 86-88, with a change, and what appeared to be some breaking pitch. He mixed his pitches decently, and the hard hit balls, and there were a few, were right at his defense. In 5.1 innings, Prochaska allowed two runs, one earned, regardless of what your boxscore says. Holy moses. In the second inning, there were back to back grounders in between the 3B and SS, and both should have been fielded with ordinary effort, and both were scored as hits:
Charlotte Top 2nd
It was pretty obnoxious. Prochaska struck out three - all looking, so he had something tricky going on. He should get a few cups of coffee. At any rate, my night was made because every batter he got out, I laughed and laughed.
The Knights were throwing a knuckleballer, Charlie Haeger. Oddly, I happened to attend Haeger’s other Durham start this year where he threw a gem (May 18). Haeger throws his knuckler about 68 mph. He struggled with his control in the first, but settled down after that.
At the end of the second inning, my lovely little redheaded daughter, Red, wanted to go to the playground, so my wife, ACE, and I walked up to the right field plaza where the playground was and watched the game from above the party pavilion. I had an ice-cold PBR, and my scorebook, so I was happy. Prochaska sat the side down in order. Leading off the third for the Bulls was Ben Zobrist. For those not clicking through, Zobrist is a 27 year old switch-hitting shortstop who has the misfortune of being in the wrong farm system. He’s been at Durham since 2006, and gotten a few weeks with the big club. Zobrist destroyed a pitch from Haeger, and I saw it coming. I said to ACE, “He crushed that, and it’s coming this way.” It was a towering shot, as well as tremendous distance. I set my beer down and began moving toward the area it was headed. I could tell it was going to bounce hard when it hit, so I was playing the carom. Besides, I was up in the plaza, and it was going to land in the seats/party pavilion. I had to move about forty feet to my right as the ball arced my way, so I was trotting. The ball came down on top of the Budweiser party pavilion’s rubber awning, and bounded over my head, and I made a sweet running one-hand grab without the ball ever touching concrete. I turned around to see my wife and daughter and a few Bulls employees going crazy over the catch. Evidently it was quite the snag. There’s a video clip of the home run on the Bulls website, but it doesn’t show me making my terrific grab.
After the inning we headed back to our seats, and walked past the scouts behind home plate. I teased them - “Did you see that catch?” The reply? “Sure, but why didn’t you catch it on the fly?” It’s tough to make the big leagues. On the way several fans had seen the play, and complimented my catch, and one Bulls employee said I’d be on the highlight reel, but I think she was kidding. It was a fun moment - and one where my wife was impressed. That’s always good for the ego.
We got back to our seats, and the people to our left asked if it was me. I was wearing an orange Mets cap, so it was pretty obvious. He then asked me if I wanted him to see if he could get Esteban Loaiza to autograph it for me. Um, no thanks? He explained that he was from Chicago (the Knights are a White Sox farm club), and Loaiza was a real “major league pitcher just on rehab assignment - because that’s what they do when they are recovering from an injury. They go to the minors to tune up.” Really, old man? Is that what they do? After I declined, he turned to his group - he is sitting directly beside me, mind you - and begins to mock my lack of understanding of baseball and just what it means to have a chance to see a real MLB pitcher, and possibly have him autograph my baseball. Did I mention it was Esteban Loaiza? My wife mockingly says to him, “My husband just doesn’t know that much about baseball.” We had our private chortle and enjoyed the rest of the game. My calmness defintely was related to the Pedro-Zimmer incident (or the Chacon-Wade, or Manny-Costanza ones).
Haeger came out after six innings, and the Knights brought in a sidearmer named Ehren Wassermann. Wassermann gave up some serious rockets to Chris Richard and Elliot “Eats Paste” Johnson. He had no velocity, and when he came three-quarters, the ball got smashed. The Bulls tacked on three runs against him to get a nice cushion. Wassermann has nice stats, but he didn’t have it last night. The Bulls got another run in the 8th when the Knights defense got lazy, and both the shortstop and second baseman took their time on turning a double play, and the batter, Joel Guzman, beat it out - barely. It was some poor lollygagging that led to a tack-on run.
It was a good night at the ballpark.
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