In honor of the advanced Class A California League celebrating it’s 75th anniversary, the Lake Elsinore Storm hosted the annual California versus Carolina League All Star Game this past Tuesday, the 21, at the Diamond in Lake Elsinore and Lauren and I were fortunate enough to attend.
We had tried to get to the game last summer when it was hosted in Rancho Cucamonga, but my prolonged hospital stay following our horrific car accident endured that we missed it, despite having tickets. When I saw that the 2016 game was being held in Southern California for an unprecedented second straight year I marked the date on my calendar and bought tickets as soon as they went on sale.
Lauren and I took just over an hour to drive to Lake Elsinore and arrived shortly after the gates had opened for the pre-game FanFest. We had no idea what FanFest entailed, but thought it would be fun to try and get some autographs, especially since the Cubs were sending several members of their Advanced A team, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans to the event.
Most of the ballpark was open to fans and there was a “Fun Zone” available, but the main draw for the FanFest was the chance to meet and get autographs from some of baseball’s future stars. The players from the Carolina League had the first set of autograph sessions, meeting fans for an hour while the California League players took batting practice, and then the leagues switched roles.
Upon first arriving, we were not entirely sure what was going on, so Lauren went ahead of me on a scouting mission, while I held my ground in what seemed to be the longest of the lines formed around the concourse of the ballpark. Our instincts were right, as it turned out, we were in line to meet 3 of the 4 Pelicans players, including top prospect, Ian Happ, and pitchers, Zach Hedges and Jake Stinnett. Despite the line looking fairly intimidating, we did not wait more than 30 minutes or so and the wait was amusing, with mascots from many of the teams represented at the game wandering the concourse and interacting with fans. I even got a kiss and a beard scratch from Thunder, the Storm’s fuzzy green dog mascot.
When we reached the table with the players they could not have been more gracious. They signed autographs with a smile and gave in for any specialized requests. I got a chance to talk very briefly to Hedges about the fact that we had gone to the same college and Stinnett complimented me on my Pelicans t-shirt (journalistic objectivity be damned.) My one regret for the whole interaction was the fact that for some reason I didn’t ask for a photo with them, which I’m sure they would have willing obliged.
By the time we had finished collecting our things, the Carolina players were about to head down to batting practice, so Lauren and I headed to the team store to see if there was any specialty All Star game merchandise. We lasted only a few minutes in the jam-packed store and didn’t see anything that particularly struck our fancy so we headed down to our seats, a row behind the visitor’s dugout.
Lauren headed back up to the concourse for some snacks, since we still had about 2 hours until the pre-game festivities would begin and returned with some standard ballpark fare; some nachos, hot dogs and a cold lemonade, all of which were tasty, if unremarkable.
I always enjoy watching batting practice, though in retrospect, I should have sought out some of the California League All Stars for their meet and greet sessions, but the benefits of resting my legs and relaxing for a little bit cannot be overstated.
The pre-game festivities began with a local band doing some *interesting* covers of ’80s rock songs and that was followed up with a helicopter from the local hospital landing on the field and delivering Thunder to the game. The pre-game also featured the induction of the initial class of the California League Hall of Fame, with all of the inductees present to receive the honor in person, which meant fans got to see Jose Cruz, Jr., Storm hitting coach, Xavier Nady, 500 home run club member, Gary Sheffield and MLB Hall of Famer, Rickey Henderson.
Following the Hall of Fame presentation was the introduction of the All Stars. All of the non-starters were driven to their respective baselines by a parade of classic cars. A Navy parachutist carrying the American flag landed on the field and the game was underway.
A player for the Lynchburg Hillcats, an Indians farm team, and San Diego native, Greg Allen, got on base as the leadoff hitter and proceeded to steal 2 straight bases and come in to score. The Carolina League never looked back and the game felt like significantly more of a blowout than the score of 6-4 would indicate.
The Carolina All Stars always seemed to have something cooking on offense, and when the pitching allowed men on base, they seemed to get out of it with little to no pressure, until the 9th inning when Potomac Nationals pitcher, Evan Phillips gave up 3 runs and left with men on base. Even then, Pelican starting pitcher, Trevor Clifton came in to slam the door on the attempted comeback and nail down a save.
Clifton wasn’t the only Pelican to have a great showing at the game, however. While Happ was hitless, he had 2 good at-bats and looked good at second base, which is a relatively new position for him, as a converted outfielder. Both Hedges and Stinnett pitched hitless innings, and Hedges turned a particularly gorgeous double play. Speaking of Hedges, I mentioned earlier that he and I both attended the same college, located about an hour away from the Diamond, and the Zach Hedges fan club was in full force at the game. During his inning pitched, I think we heard the loudest and most enthusiastic cheers during the whole game, including any for local Storm players. It made for a fun environment…particularly for this Pelican fan.
I’d be remiss not to mention some of the other stars of the game, including the previously mentioned Greg Allen, who in addition to his 2 stolen bases managed to score 3 times, his teammate in Lynchburg, Bobby Bradley, who hit a monster home run and game MVP, Andrew Stevenson from Potomac, who hit 2 triples in a ballpark that seems far too cozy to give up too many extra base hits. If you are looking for some Cal League players to keep your eyes out for, I’d suggest looking at High Desert 2nd baseman Travis Demeritte, who is second in all of the minor leagues in home runs and hit a loud double in the game, San Jose shortstop CJ Hinojosa who had 2 RBI and his teammate, reliever Rodolfo Martinez who was lighting up the radar gun in the mid-90s.
I love going to minor league games and seeing some of these talented players so early in their careers. It gives me a sense of pride, a “I saw them first” baseball hipster vibe, and attending the All Star game just heightened that feeling. The Cubs, Giants and Indians (Hillcats) seem to have quite a bit of talent coming up through their systems and it will be nice one day to be able to say “I saw them when…”
Until next time (…and I promise it won’t be long!)
Keep Trippin’ Baseballs!
Before this season began, I had decided that I wanted to add some things to this blog. I no longer only wanted it to chronicle my various MLB games. I wanted to show some of the other baseball offerings available outside of the classic MLB games and with that in mind, I literally sent an email to every minor league team in the state of California, as well as a few in Nevada. I heard back from several offering to host me at some point during the 2014 season.
Unfortunately, one that did not respond was one of the teams that I was most looking forward to seeing, the Class High A affiliate of the Houston Astros, the Lancaster JetHawks. The team is loaded with top talent, including 2 former #1 draft picks in Carlos Correa and Mark Appel, first-rounder Lance McCullers, Jr. and star third baseman in the making, Rio Ruiz, as well as many other talented young players. I knew I wanted to see Correa in person, so even without an invite, I was planning on an early season trek north to see the JetHawks.
Thankfully, Twitter intervened, and when I posted that I was planning to catch a game at the Hangar, broadcaster Jason Schwartz sent me a message and invited me up as his guest.
I leapt at the opportunity and on April 8 Lauren and I made the 2 hour drive up the freeway to Lancaster. I wanted to see a game sooner rather than later, since players in the minor leagues are constantly in flux and didn’t want to miss my chance at seeing Correa and, hopefully Appel before they moved up to the Astros AA team in Corpus Christi.
Unfortunately, Appel would not be pitching at the game we attended, though he does later feature into our story later, but McCullers was scheduled to pitch a few innings and Ruiz and Correa were playing. I was more than happy with that outcome.
We arrived at The Hangar, home of the JetHawks about 2 hours before game time and found a great parking place right outside of the main entrance. I got my press passes at the box office and sauntered into the stadium.
The Hangar has been around since 1996 and has been the home of the Class A Advanced affiliates of not only the Astros, but also the Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks and Boston Red Sox. The stadium is named in honor of the local aerospace industry and normally features a statue of a jet taking off at the main entrance.
Our ease in entry illustrates something that was a theme throughout the evening. Even though I had a lanyard with my pass around my neck, it seemed like the ballpark was fully accessible to fans without much fuss or muss. It was a very homey environment, like one big community.
We wandered around the stadium for a little while, taking pictures and trying to get the lay of the land, while keeping an eye out for Jason. It turns out he found us as we wandered the concourse and he welcomed us, as well as showed us how to get up to the press box.
I had hoped to conduct some interviews before the game, but traffic delayed us and by the time we reached The Hangar, the team was already getting ready for the game. While I did have clubhouse access, I thought that the hectic pre and post-game locker room environment might not be the best place to do the profile interviews that I was hoping for. Jason asked who I was hoping to interview and I told him that while there were a few players, I would absolutely love the chance to talk to Correa and Appel.
As luck would have it, Mark Appel was just about to do an interview with a publication from Stanford, his alma mater, but if he hung around for a little bit, I would be able to talk to him afterward.
I tried to retain a calm demeanor as I agreed, so we watched the opposing San Jose Giants take infield practice and run the bases. Not long after, Jason emerged from the locker room area with Mark Appel in tow. Mark was more than gracious in answering my questions and allowing me to take up some of his time before the game. I hope I was able to look at least somewhat professional and I at least had the presence of mind not to ask him to sign a ball for me.
After a good 15 minutes, I had finished the interview and he thanked me and went back to his pre-game preparations. I checked that the recording was successful, while internally squealing like a little girl, and went up to check out the press box.
We dropped off our bags and met the local beat writer for the JetHawks, relaxed for a bit and let the afterglow of the interview wear off before going out to finish scoping out the ballpark and deciding on a plan of attack for the game.
As it turns out, Tuesday night games during the school week somehow don’t draw overwhelming crowds for some reason, and though the announced attendance was over 1,000 people, I think it was likely half of that number at best, but that didn’t stop the crew that ran the ballpark from being incredibly helpful, friendly and exceptional in every way. In fact, they were so attentive to the fans that I somehow wound up with 6 JetHawks pocket schedules, as everyone, from ushers to concessionaires to KaBoom the mascot tried to ensure that your visit to The Hangar would not be your last.
We spent most of the game moving around the stadium, enjoying it from as many different vantage points as possible, and taking tons of photos. There really isn’t a bad seat in the two-leveled stadium and aside from a small number of seats right behind home plate that sell for a whopping $12-13, tickets are only $8 in advance. It’s a steal.
The one area that could be improved are the concessions. While there were a few relatively unique items, such as the pulled pork sandwich and bratwurst, the food items available were generic ballpark food and the quality was more along the lines of a high school snack shack than a professional baseball team. This could have been due to the small crowd, which means less people buying food which equates to it sitting around for longer and not constantly refreshed. It certainly wasn’t the worst thing I have ever eaten, but it also was far from the best.
We enjoyed the game, especially once the JetHawks took the lead, and rushed down to get pictures of every at-bat by Correa and Ruiz as well as most pitches by McCullers, and these kids really are fun to watch.
At one point during the late innings, I decided that impartiality be damned, I was getting a JetHawks cap and wore it proudly though the rest of the game. There may normally be no cheering the press box, but there sure was in Lancaster that night.
Despite a 2 run deficit from the first inning, the ‘Hawks bullpen proved lights out and didn’t allow another run the entire game and some timely hitting and a home run from first baseman, Brandon Meredith, the home team got the 4-2 win in a game lasting just over 2 hours in length.
After the game, we stood around and talked a little bit of baseball with Jason and slowly made our way back to the car for the trek home.
Lancaster, being a bit further than I would probably travel on a regular basis was an absolutely fantastic experience. The community vibe was very strong throughout the entire game and most of the fans seemed like they were season-ticket holders or, at least, regulars. I can see how, once summer truly arrives, this would be a very attractive place to spend warm summer nights, and, if we lived closer, I would certainly look into season tickets. As it is, this may not be our only trip to Lancaster this season, since we had so much fun.
The Hangar is a wonderful place to watch a game with great vantage points, and with the team on the field, there is some good baseball going on in the Antelope Valley. If the opportunity presents itself, I highly recommend traveling a bit north of LA and catching a game in Lancaster.
You won’t be disappointed.
For all of my photos of the JetHawks game follow this link.