Most summers, I try to get out and see the country a little. If I’m lucky, I catch a few baseball games in the process. This year’s journey took me north along I-5, from San Diego to Portland and back again, with stops in several minor-league towns on the way.
Day 1: San Diego to Sacramento
Raley Field opened in 2000 and seats 14,680. In its first year of operation, the home team River Cats drew 861,808 fans, shattering the previous Pacific Coast League mark. That’s roughly 50,000 more than the Florida Marlins drew in 2002, and the Marlins had nine more home dates.
My wife and I arrived at the ballpark a half-hour before first pitch, and the only seats available were directly behind home plate. They cost more than I’m accustomed to paying for a big-league game, but we didn’t drive nine hours just to sit in a hotel room. We planted ourselves in the fourth row behind home plate and watched the Bees pitchers chart pitches.
I’ve mentioned before that in the California League, they typically use pencil and paper. In Triple-A, at least on this night, they employed a touchscreen computer.
Lacking a rooting interest, I cheered for players I’d seen in the Padres farm system. Eric Sogard, acquired by the A’s in the Scott Hairston/Kevin Kouzmanoff trade, patrolled second base for the home team. Sogard—who looks suspiciously like Dr. Daniel Jackson from Stargate SG-1—singled, hit two deep fly ball outs and committed a throwing error.
The Bees designated hitter, Paul McAnulty, spent parts of 2005-2008 in San Diego. I’d watched him there as well as at Lake Elsinore in 2004, when he hit .297/.404/.521 for the Storm. When healthy, McAnulty has put up numbers (he’s at .342/.409/.593 in 276 PA as of this writing), but he’s 29 years old and listed at 5’10″, 220 lbs. Plenty of guys down in the minors can flat rake but never achieve success at the big-league level.
Speaking of which … there once was a fellow with a similar name who played for the Sacramento club. Bill McNulty hit .329/.438/.690 with 55 homers for the team then known as the Solons in 1974. He spent parts of the 1969 and 1972 seasons with the Oakland A’s, hitting .037/.103/.037 in 29 plate appearances.
McNulty’s lone big-league hit came on Oct. 4, 1972, a single up the middle off Nolan Ryan. McNulty was denied a chance at what would have been his lone RBI when Reggie Jackson was thrown out at home on the play.
Relevance? None, really. The mind wanders on a road trip.
Day 2: Sacramento to Eugene
We left town at 5:30 a.m., a little later than I’d hoped. The game in Eugene started at 2:05 p.m., and according to my calculations, the drive would take about eight hours, leaving precious little slack time.
We arrived at PK Park five minutes before first pitch of the third game ever in that ballpark. PK Park seats 4,000, and on this day, 2,555 showed up despite a steady drizzle.
The home team Emeralds featured several Padres draft picks from the just-concluded June draft. One of them, third baseman Jedd Gyorko, taken in the second round, would knock four singles in as many trips to the plate.
Starting pitcher Adys Portillo, San Diego’s big free-agent signing from 2008, made his season debut and looked every bit the 18-year-old in a league full of college kids: 4.2 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 3 BB, 5 SO, 1 HR, 1 HBP, 2 WP. I can still hear the thud from the Portillo fastball that landed squarely in the middle of Tony Thompson’s back.
The Emeralds ended up winning late, essentially because Vancouver failed to turn three double plays. That sort of thing happens in the low minors.
Day 3: Eugene to Portland
It is sad to witness a city and its team lose interest in each other. Portland and the Beavers have fallen out of love.
Things weren’t always this way. In 1964, the Beavers boasted a pitching staff that included the likes of Tommy John, Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant, among several others who would enjoy big-league careers. McDowell and Tiant combined to go 23-1 with a 1.73 ERA. For reasons that are obvious, neither spent much time in Portland.
The Beavers currently share PGE Park with soccer’s Portland Timbers. In 2007, the Timbers averaged more than 6,800 fans per home date. That team will be joining Major League Soccer in 2011 and the park is being converted to a soccer-only facility. I don’t pretend to know all the details, but the important point is that this leaves the Beavers without a place to play.
The assumption is that there won’t be a baseball team in Portland next year, which seems to be keeping people from investing in the current team. Granted, the Beavers aren’t playing well this year, but when only 1,678 show up in a ballpark that holds 19,566, it looks bad.
To provide some perspective, Petco Park holds 42,445. To achieve the same effect, the Padres would have to draw 3,640. Even in 1995—after the fire sale and work stoppage—when you could sit anywhere you wanted at Jack Murphy Stadium (which admittedly had more seats than Petco), the Padres never drew fewer than 6,000 to a single game.
Right-hander Josh Geer tossed a complete game shutout for the home team. Geer made 17 starts for the big club in 2009 and was dreadful. Opponents hit a robust .288/.329/.561 against him. If you’re having trouble picturing how bad that is, this may help:
Player Year BA OBP SLG PA/HR Josh Geer 2009 .288 .329 .561 16.22 Matt Williams 1993 .294 .325 .561 16.29 Andre Dawson 1985 .287 .328 .568 13.51 Ryan Braun 2008 .285 .335 .553 17.92 Dave Winfield 1982 .280 .331 .560 16.14
Williams was threatening Roger Maris‘ single-season home run record when the strike intervened, Dawson won the MVP, Braun finished third and Winfield is in the Hall of Fame (along with Dawson). Suffice to say, when you’re making all of the league’s hitters look like those guys, it’s a problem. That is why Geer is back at Triple-A, where even with the shutout, he isn’t having much success (5.72 ERA in 14 starts as of this writing).
My friend Timm caught the game with us, and we talked about many things, including Stephen Strasburg. Seems Strasburg is on everyone’s mind these days, and I mentioned that when I saw him at San Diego State, he reminded me of Rob Dibble… if Dibble could sustain his effort for 100 pitches and had a change-up.
I haven’t watched Strasburg pitch since he turned pro, but I’m enjoying people’s reactions to him. I feel like such an indie-rock snob. Dude, you should have seen him before he sold out.
Day 4: Portland
On a Tuesday night, with the league’s best team in town, a crowd of 2,453 materialized. That’s still fewer than made it out to a Short-Season Class-A game two days earlier, but better than the previous night.
Portland center fielder Luis Durango, whose offensive game calls to mind Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre, tripled in the second inning. Durango hit a ball to left-center that Fresno center fielder Eugenio Velez cut off in the gap. When Velez got to the ball, Durango appeared to be pulling up at second base but instead kicked into another gear and beat the throw to third. I don’t know a lot of guys who even try for the extra base there, let alone make it.
Right-hander Ernesto Frieri closed the game for the Beavers. A converted starter, Frieri doesn’t have overpowering stuff but he is aggressive with it, which helps explain the 10.8 K/9 and why opponents are hitting just .115 against him.
Day 5: Portland to Ashland
There is no baseball team in Ashland, only the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. We saw an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The production was excellent, and the actor portraying Mr. Collins stole the show. It lasted nearly three hours—like a Jon Garland start, but without a bunch of infielders standing around waiting for him to throw the ball.
Day 6: Ashland
We watched Twelfth Night, which is basically an extended episode of “Three’s Company” (and I mean that in the best possible way). It’s a big misunderstanding, everyone laughs, and they all live happily ever after… except Antonio, who totally gets jobbed.
Day 7: Ashland to San Jose
Who names their team the Nuts? It’s not as bad as the Blowhards or Osteopaths, but still…
We met up with the estimable Steve Treder for this one. The Nuts managed to win despite committing three errors and being outhit, 12-6. The Giants left 12 runners on base, including men on second and third to end the game. This also marked the first (and only) loss by the home team on our trip.
Steve and I had a great chat about all things baseball… pitching phenoms of yesterday and today (Bob Feller, Dwight Gooden, Mark Prior, Strasburg), hitters who succeeded despite unorthodox approaches (Willie McCovey, Jeff Bagwell), guys with quick wrists (Hank Aaron, Eric Davis), guys with ridiculous plate coverage (Roberto Clemente, Vladimir Guerrero, Alfonso Soriano), Ray Miller‘s “first pitch strike” philosophy and pitch counts. (Unbeknownst to us at the time, Edwin Jackson was busy throwing a 149-pitch no-hitter for the Diamondbacks, which has made for some lively discussion and will continue to do so, I’m sure.)
I mentioned having gotten to see Strasburg and USD’s Brian Matusz pitch in college. Strasburg simply destroyed hitters, while Matusz never had that luxury. I don’t mean to suggest that Strasburg didn’t know how to work sequences and locate his stuff, because he certainly did. What people forget is that he added 10 mph to his fastball while in college. Strasburg wasn’t a guy who threw hard and then learned how to pitch; in his case, the exact opposite happened.
As for Matusz, he stands a decent chance of becoming the best baseball player from my alma mater (an honor that currently belongs to former Royals catcher John Wathan). It didn’t receive the attention that Strasburg’s return would have, but Matusz made his first big-league appearance in San Diego the night before we left on our road trip, taking the no-decision in a loss to the Padres. He pitched well and made me proud in a way that, frankly, doesn’t make any sense seeing as how I had nothing to do with his performance.
Day 8: San Jose to Fresno
Chukchansi Park opened in May 2002 and seats 12,500. A fairly packed house of 9,064 turned up for an evening inspired by a certain popular movie franchise. Among other things, scoreboard mug shots were digitally altered so that one team’s players appeared as werewolves, while the other’s appeared as vampires (no Blowards or Osteopaths).
Thanks to my friend Bob, a season-ticket holder, we once again sat right behind home plate. Chukchansi Park was designed by the same company that was responsible for many of today’s big-league venues, including Petco Park. The hope was that its presence would help revitalize downtown Fresno in much the same way that Petco has attracted businesses to downtown San Diego, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
The home team was in control all night, with the only run by the visiting 51s coming courtesy of shortstop Mike McCoy‘s solo home run in the third inning. I was rooting for the Grizzlies, but I had to cheer McCoy’s homer. He, like Matusz, is a USD alum.
Brett Wallace got hit in the head with an errant Matt Yourkin fastball. Wallace stayed in the game and later made a terrific diving catch of a line drive at first base. These kids are tough. There were five hit batsmen in the game, four by the Las Vegas pitchers (three by starter Luis Perez).
Edwin Encarnacion “played” third base for the 51s, committing two errors and looking generally uncomfortable in the field. He had no such problems at the plate, knocking a single and double in four trips.
One thing about the minor leagues is that sometimes basic stuff goes horribly wrong. For example, the Grizzlies scored their fifth run of the night when, with runners at the corners and two out in the second, Perez picked Tyler Graham off first base. While the 51s were trying to retire Graham, Emmanuel Burriss broke from third and scored ahead of the throw, with Graham taking second on the play.
Another thing about the minors, especially at Triple-A, is that you see guys you don’t expect to see. Case in point: Joe Borchard plays for Fresno. He didn’t get into this game, although he appeared as a pinch-hitter when I saw the Grizzlies at Portland.
I did a double take when I heard Borchard’s name announced over the PA. Once upon a time, he was a top prospect, but strike-zone judgment eluded him and he became a poor-man’s Doug Frobel (or, if you prefer, a slower Hiram Bocachica). Still, Borchard keeps plugging away, hoping for another shot.
Las Vegas, meanwhile, started a catcher named Raul Chavez who once played for the Montreal Expos. He made his big-league debut a couple of weeks before a younger, hotter prospect named Vladimir Guerrero. My knees ached just watching Chavez try to move around out there.
Day 9: Fresno to San Diego
When we left town, the Padres held a one-game lead in the National League West. When we returned, they had extended that to 4.5 games. People have been asking me all year what’s going on with this team. I am supposed to have answers, but beyond the fact that the pitching has been much better than anyone could have anticipated, I don’t.
Before the season, I had the Padres winning 75 games. People thought I was crazy for picking them to finish fourth in the division, ahead of Arizona, but I felt strongly that while the Padres would be pretty bad, the Diamondbacks would be terrible. Well, one out of two ain’t bad.
As for picking up 3.5 games in just over a week while I was on the road, I don’t know what to think. It’s a small sample, but my working theory is that I need to get out of town more often. My wife is always telling me as much, anyway.
References & Resources
Thanks to my wife, Sandra, for tolerating my idea of a summer vacation; to my friends Timm, Steve and Bob for joining us along the way; and to baseball and the open road for helping preserve whatever sanity I may possess.