It’s been a long time. A really long time since I’ve made my presence known here. For that I apologize. I haven’t been to a baseball game in almost a year, and while i have looked for alternative avenues to write about, they proved to be much fewer and far between than I had hoped.
While my medical conditions that have held me back have not exactly abated I am making it a priority to find things to write about. This is assuming that some of you took pity on me and stayed subscribed or otherwise didn’t forget about this silly blog. If that applies to you, please accept my heartfelt thanks.
Now that we have finished up with the housekeeping let’s get to the good stuff. Long time readers may remember a few years ago when Lauren and I visited The Diamond in Lake Elsinore for the Class-A California-Carolina All Star Game. Since then the format has changed and both the Cal League and the Carolina League host their own insular All Star games. In the Cal League, that means the host alternates between the North and South divisions. Last year, the first of this new format, the game was hosted in Visalia, which was a bit too far for us to attend, but this year the game was to be held in Lancaster, which is only 1.5-2 hours away from home, plus more importantly is the home of our favorite radio broadcaster, our friend Jason Schwartz.
I was planning to purchase our tickets online, but kept putting it off for some unknown reason when I got an email from Jason. He asked if we were planning to attend and then offered that if we were to go we could do so as his guests, with him covering the cost of our tickets and parking. Obviously I leapt at this offer. I also made the decision that we would not want to try to drive home after the game, so I booked a hotel for the night and provide us with a much-needed mini-vacation.
On the Tuesday of the game we spent the morning running errands before grabbing a gourmet fast food lunch at McDonald’s and hopping on the freeway to drive up into the desert. The drive was uneventful, albeit hot since the air-conditioner in the car was on the fritz. We avoided most traffic and only had one unexpected stop, which deposited us at “The Hangar” about 15 minutes after the gates opened.
We had assumed that the pre-game “FanFest” would operate like the last game we attended, At that game the two teams took turns taking batting practice and sitting in a gauntlet signing autographs. It seems that for this game, both teams were signing at the same time, so some tough choices needed to be made, Since most of my focus was to be on players from the South team we began to hustle over to where they were–at least in as much as I can hustle these days without my wheelchair–when we were waylaid by a third line hugging the wall of the concourse.
Coming into the game we knew that Roberto Alomar was being inducted into the Cal League Hall f\of Fame and would be having a short autograph session following the ceremony. According to the literature I had gotten his autograph session was to begin at 6:30. The time was currently 4:30. There was already a relatively hefty line and if I know anything about these sorts of events, it was only going to get worse while we met the current All Stars.
While there were some Padres and Angels All Stars–rather Storm and 66’ers All Stars–I wanted to get autographs from, none were earth-shattering to me and as Alomar was my main quarry in the world of autographs for the night, I made the executive decision to join the line. Lauren was starting to fade in the heat so I let her go off and explore the various concession stands for some sort of cold treat. Sadly, all she was able to wrangle up was a cold bottle of water, but it was certainly better than nothing at the point of consumption.
While she was gone, an older man joined the line behind me and began talking briefly as to what the current time was and when the autograph session was due to begin. I passed along what I knew and he said, somewhat sadly that he didn’t think he’d be able to wait because he had heat-related health issues and had been hospitalized twice in the past year for heat stroke,
I decided to hedge my bets with karma and do my good deed for the day. I informed him that I too had heat issues that resulted in brief hospitalizations, so I could relate. I then offered to let him go find some shade or air-conditioning and come and join Lauren and I closer to the actual autograph time. He seemed rather appreciative and toddled of to cooler pastures.
At some point while all of this was going on, somehow a man and his adult son managed to cut in front of us in the line. Honestly? Not the world’s biggest deal, especially because there was something developmentally stunted with the son, but when the son was having a fit about the large family in front of us having kids coming and going and “cutting”–a crime that he had done several times himself–Lauren and I had to laugh.
The father started talking to me on one of these sojourns by the son. Whether just due to boredom or if he was trying to appear extra friendly to avoid a conflict about line positions I couldn’t say, but we had a pleasant chat. He found out where I used to work (and Lauren still does) and told me that he was a regular visitor and there all the time. I was able to tell some fun work stories and he seemed to enjoy them, while Lauren just tried to melt into the background.
The pre-game festivities, including a home run derby, the Hall of Fame induction and the throwing of the first pitch were beginning to occur and I was coming to the realization that we wouldn’t be in attendance for any of them, or–in all reality–the start of the game.It didn’t matter. I was getting to meet one of my all-time favorite players. Hopefully. If the line moved like it was supposed to do.
My older friend joined us at this point of the wait, since the sun had dipped behind the stadium and we were mostly in a temperate shade. He then regaled me with stories of his life as a baseball fan and autograph collector. Many, many stories. Some of which may have even been true. I think my error is the acknowledgment that I know who these obscure baseball players from decades ago are. I should just pretend to be like the man who, after asking me what the line was for, told me he had never heard of Roberto Alomar, but if the line was for Pedro Guerrero he would have been in it right away. Sometimes I’m sorry that I speak the language.
After approximately 45 minutes of hearing these tales, somehow the line cutters in front of us connected with the man so we had a nice double-play, getting rid of both of them in one fell swoop. By this time we were rapidly approaching and passing the supposed 6:30 start time with no sign of Mr. Alomar .The young man In front of us began to slowly–and then rapidly–freak out. Having not spoken to me at all the entire time I was in line, he turned to me and said if we didn’t get an autograph he would demand to see the supervisor’s supervisor and have his dad hold them while he beat them with my cane. I was not sure what to say at that point so I just slowly backed away as far as I could.
Luckily at this point Alomar had appeared “After signing for all the fat cats upstairs” said the line cutter father. Despite Alomar posing for photos as well as signing, the line moved very quickly. At this point, he was not the most talkative guy I’ve encountered as I told him I was a long time fan, since he started his career as a Padre and I was just the right age to start remembering players at that point. The important thing is he signed a ball for me and Lauren–albeit in Sharpie–and posed for a few photos with me.
Jason had interviewed him at a luncheon earlier in the day and assured us that he was a really nice guy. Coming from a background where I used to get comments at work if I didn’t constantly have a smile on my face, I can understand that maybe something happened in his personal life, or maybe it was just a long day. Either way, he provided more than I had hoped for.
We had been keeping up with the game by listening to Jason’s broadcast that got piped out to the concourse and made our way to the seats just to the right of home plate, essentially right below his radio booth. It was the 4th inning and the North was already leading the South 4-0. That put a slight damper on the crowd, many of whom were clad in the replica SoCal jerseys that were given away that night.
One thing that was not affected by the score was my appetite. While waiting for the autograph we were stationed across from one of the concession booths and that didn’t help matters. The last time we visited The Hangar the food was rather sub-par and I was hoping that 4 years later things would have changed for the better. I realize that generally when one wishes for such things they tend to get worse by tenfold. Thank you to the big JetHawk in the sky that they didn’t only stay static, they got a lot better! n addition to a basic hot dog I had been tempted by a “Build Your Own Tots” option where they provided a base layer of tator tots and then it was customizable with 3 toppings. My hesitation was a fear that the order would be TOO big and I’d get halfway through before having to tap out. I was pleasantly surprised when Lauren returned to me with a small cardboard boat–the kind hot dogs are often served in–with the tots inside. The size was perfect, and I must say my choice of toppings–cheddar cheese, sour cream and bacon–were amazing.
I wish there were more unique options at The Hangar, but the tots were certainly a great start. By the way, I mentioned my hunger earlier? That’s why there are no photos. I was that desperate for the food. I can imagine most readers are familiar with hot dogs and tator tots. Now just imagine sour cream, cheese and bacon on your vision of tots. Theater of the mind!
By this point it was about the 6th inning and we had a text from Jason saying to come up to the booth to visit at any time. We figured to head up in about the 8th inning and catch the end of the game with him. I was paranoid, asking how we’d get up there without proper credentials. He reminded me that this was the California League and no one would hassle us. He was 100% right.
When we reached the booth it was still the top of the 8th and Jason was broadcasting so we sat down quietly to wait for the inning break to visit. We spent the rest of the game in the booth, trying to be as invisible as possible while the game was going on. As the game came to an end and Stockton’s Dairon Blanco won the MVP various members of other Cal League media teams and the Lancaster front office popped in to congratulate Jason and he was so gracious to introduce us to each of them as if we were more than just his friends who happen to run a blog.
We celebrated the end of the craziness that was preparing for the game and then Jason walked us out where we proceeded to continue talking for another 30 minutes or so before heading over to the Oxford Inn and Suites, the hotel I had reserved.
It was significantly better than the vile motel we stayed at in Arizona, with its assorted health and decency violations. The room was exactly what we needed, we felt safe staying there and leaving our car outside PLUS there was a free breakfast in the morning with a waffle bar.
We are looking to do this trip once a season from now until Jason moves on to a different team (or retires!) and this will likely be the place that we stay for those mini vacations.
One last note. On the drive up Lauren saw a sign for the Vasquez Rocks. This is an iconic area most noted for its use in “Star Trek”, but was used in Hollywood productions from “The Muppet Movie” to “Blazing Saddles.” We, of course had to stop. The drive to the parking lot closest to the rocks took about 10 minutes (Vasquez Rocks is a County Park) followed by a brief hike. I was unable to make the hike and since Lauren was alone without water there was not much exploration of the area, but maybe next time.
I know I havent written too much about the ballpark up in Lancaster but I reviewed it relatively recently and the only real change I noticed was the improvement of the food. I did truly have a wonderful time at a point where I needed something like this All Star game to look forward to.
I also want to give a special thanks to Jason Schwartz and his generosity and hospitality. His friendship means a lot. While I don’t anticipate a return to Lancaster this season, Jason may just make a return to these pages in the not too distant future! Look for that and remember…
Keep Trippin’ Baseballs!
Please allow a slight detour as I explain why.
Longtime readers of the blog have probably figured out that my health has not been the greatest over the past few years. In late 2016 I was diagnosed with kidney disease right as my Cubs were charging into the World Series. I had to go to a center and receive a dialysis treatment 3 days a week. That adds up.
Then, this spring, my doctors decided that I was able to continue my dialysis at home. The good part was not having to travel to the center several times a week. The bad part was that this type of dialysis took about 8 hours and sapped my energy. I could barely find it in me to eat, let alone go out to a game, surrounded by people in an environment that I have always considered to be high energy for myself.Recently I was approved for a dialysis machine, that allows me to do the entire treatment overnight as I sleep. It is much less intense and I mostly feel good afterwards when I wake up. This allows me a return to a relatively normal schedule, which means that one of the first things I wanted to do was get out to the ballpark!
My lovely wife, Lauren, and I picked a day off of work for her and began planning a game. Initially we were going to return to Lancaster to see the Jethawks, but shortly before gamely I started hearing some interesting rumors. It seemed that the injured, Mike Trout was getting ready to start his rehab and would begin working out with the 66ers.There were no guarantees that he would play right away but I’m a gambling man and bought 2 tickets for the first date that the Angels said would be his earliest return. I figured he would at least be working out with the team so we could watch him hit in batting practice and who knows? Maybe he’d be up for signing autographs.
Mike is a great signer at home in Anaheim, literally minutes away from my home, but luck has never been with me when he is signing and I’ve always missed out. A smaller ballpark, like San Manuel Stadium, home of the 66ers seemed to provide a much better opportunity.
So Lauren and I packed up baseballs, camera gear and a pretty sweet mix CD by me and headed up to San Bernardino. Along the way we stopped in to the Inland Empire’s favorite fast food, Baker’s Drive-Thru, and grabbed a couple of burgers for lunch.
I was afraid that the detour to Baker’s might throw off our timing to reach the ballpark, but we got there approximately 45 minutes before they were set to open the gates, which was an hour prior to first pitch.
It seems others had heard about the return of Mr. Trout (who the Angels had confirmed WOULD be playing that night.) There was a sea of #27 Angels jersey in the line, which appeared to be at least 100 people deep. By the time the gates opened, that number had at least tripled.After getting my bag checked I hobbled down to the third base side of the park and joined a mass of humanity with the same dreams of getting an autograph from Mr. Trout as I did. Having been in guest control in a former life I truly felt bad for the usher who was trying to keep the aisles clear for people who actually had tickets in the general vicinity. He was very kind and never lost his cool, so props to Darrell of the 66ers!
We stood. And we waited. Not only had Mike not come out by approximately 20 minutes to game time, but suddenly there was the announcement that strikes fear into the heart of all stadium autograph seekers.
“At this time we ask that you please return to your assigned seats.”
Honestly, I would have, but I was literally stuck in a mob of people with no way out. Darrell was not pleased that no one was leaving. I’m sorry Darrell!By this time Mike had come out and after signing autographs for the Little League team that was being honored on the field, headed down the left field line to warm up.
With the announcement having been made and the fact that it was mere minutes from the first pitch I figured I would have to chalk this up to a ‘close but no cigar’ encounter, but I was still trapped next to the dugout in a hot, sweaty mass of humanity.And then it happened. Mike came down to our little section and began signing. He mostly hit up the kids, but I’m not ashamed to say that I was able to hand over my baseball and get it back signed. I didn’t push, I didn’t cheat and I didn’t screw over any kids. I was pretty pleased with my quarry. Anything else that happened this night would be mere icing on the cake.
I found Lauren who had cooled down with a shave ice while I was Trout fishing and we got a lemonade to cool me down and found a nice shaded picnic area in which to relax. We rested and I rushed down to try to get some photographs of Mike’s first at-bat.In addition to being Mike Trout Day (unofficial) it was a celebration of SPAM’s 80th birthday (official). I love SPAM. Lauren likes SPAM. It seemed natural that we would enjoy some of the SPAM-centric snacks available. I was getting hungry again, so Lauren went exploring and reported back with the specialty SPAM menu. I felt that the “Grilled Cheesy Bacon Melt,” described as “Thick slabs of griddled Texas Toast loaded with bacon, cheese, more bacon and even more cheese!” with an addition of diced SPAM would hit the spot and the SPAM musubi would also be a nice treat. This is the point where the wheels fall off of our lovely adventure.
It seemed to me that Lauren had been gone a while, like 3 innings at least, and I was beginning to worry when my fast dying cell phone buzzed at me and I got a text saying “Still waiting.” She made it back to me shortly thereafter, and was obviously not happy.
We don’t know why, but it took over 40 minutes to make my sandwich. There was no warning that this was going to be an issue, and most appallingly, there was no apology for the wait afterwards. Not even an obviously false one. In addition, the musubi and bottle of water we ordered was given to her upon paying. The water had 40 minutes to warm up and the musbui had the same amount of time to cool down and slightly congeal. Lauren was not the only one with this problem. There were several others at the stand livid about the treatment and many cancelled their orders and demanded refunds.
I understand that this is a Class-A ballpark. I understand that the SPAM items are a specialty and that the high school kids in the concession stands are probably not overly familiar with them. I do NOT understand where an “I’m sorry for your wait” or even some indication that what was happening was unacceptable was never offered. I’m not saying offer a discount or comp the food or anything like that. However, a bit of human decency is not difficult to muster up and, to me, seems like an automatic response.
This experience cast a very negative light over our whole time at the ballpark and will likely color any future visits; but it doesn’t matter to the concessionaires. They’re just high school kids working for minimum wage and couldn’t care less if their attitudes cost the team, or at least their concession stand, customers. It was just a shame.That being said, the sandwich was delicious. Tons of orange American cheese melted on standard white bread with little jewels of bacon and SPAM sprinkled throughout and decorating the top. I destroyed the thing. Might have considered another if I thought I could get it before the game ended. The musubi was a bit of a disappointment. As stated earlier, it had gotten cold and the rice began to solidify as the SPAM was disintegrating into a cold grease bomb. We were only able to eat a few bites. The warm water was wet and that was all we asked of it, though a cool drink would have been nice.
We decided to leave the picnic area at this point and look around the stadium itself. It was a nice little ballpark that to me was very reminiscent of an MLB Spring Training facility.
As we walked past one particular point of the concourse there was a line of people, probably 40-50 deep. Lauren asked me what was going on, and I was stumped for a minute and then my brain clicked.“They are out here waiting for Mike Trout to leave after the game!” I said. Considering that he was only at that point coming up for his final at-bat and then would have to shower, get ready to go and likely handle some media requests, those folks were in for a long wait. I hope they did well.
The team store was nice. It had a pretty decent selection of things, including a Mike Trout 66ers shirsey, but my wife says I have too many t-shirts already (I do) and nothing else in the store particularly struck my fancy. There were some nice hats, but at the price point, I’m not sure I would have gotten the value out of wearing them, so we left the shop empty-handed. I was also surprised to not see any game-used items for sale. Usually team shops will have a bucket of cracked game-used bats and maybe a few other items, but there were none to be found.It was at about this time that we decided to head out, so we took a few last photos and headed to the car.
Overall, I achieved what I came to do and the ballpark itself was nice and had a very strong community vibe. A lot of the fans seemed to know each other and spent a lot of time visiting with each other and catching up on life. There was a very positive energy that I enjoyed.
Sadly the food incident really did color the entire evening, but we are willing to revisit San Manuel Stadium, perhaps on a normal weeknight when one of the greatest players in the MLB isn’t in town and see what kind of experience we have then.I’m hoping to be able to add some more entries on here soon, so until next time, keep trippin’ baseballs! As always, my full complement of photos can be found here
Addendum as of Friday morning. After I contacted the 66ers with my concern they reached out to me and not only apologized for the behavior of the employees, but gave a reasonable explanation as to why the food took so long (They knew it would be time-consuming so it was scheduled on a Wednesday night,which is traditionally slow…and then Mike Trout happened.) They invited us back to a game to get a full experience and I will look forward to taking them up on that. Thank you, 66ers for your prompt and satisfying customer service.
When I was a freshman in high school I somehow convinced my mother that if I achieved a certain GPA my reward should be a trip in the middle of January, away from the mild clime of southern California to attend the Cubs Convention that I’d been hearing about all summer on WGN. What a Cubs Convention was, I didn’t really know, but if it involved the Cubs I knew I wanted to be there.
That first convention was a whirlwind. I met Harry Caray, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and many more great Cub legends and had them all sign my Cubs branded baseball as my mom snapped away with a disposable camera to preserve the memories. I loved every minute of it, not counting the sub-zero temperatures and every winter I long to go back.
I’ve attended three more times since my initial Con, and only this year have I gotten a companion willing to attend a second time. I try not to take it personally.
While each Convention has been different, this year provided some new bumps in the road. First, the obvious. The Cubs are the reigning World Series champions. Yay! Which leads to opportunists and bandwagon fans. Boo! It also leads to the Cubs selling more admissions than in years past according to many of the team employees I spoke with. The Convention-related areas of the Sheraton Hotel were a teeming mass of humanity the entire weekend, which leads into bump number two. Due to medical issues, I don’t move around very well these days, which necessitated my acquisition of a wheelchair for the weekend. While most people were very helpful, there was a select portion of the conventioneers who were completely oblivious to the fact that I was trying to travel through the common areas. That got very old very quickly. Overall, these were minor quibbles and I feel like the Convention was probably my most successful yet. Had you asked me about it on Friday night, my opinion might have been a bit more bleak.
Opening Ceremonies weren’t scheduled to begin until six in the evening, with Con registration beginning at noon. Since Fridays are still workdays for most people, Lauren and I figured that we could relax, make our way from our hotel to the Sheraton (a ten to fifteen minute trip at the longest) by mid-afternoon and still beat most of the crowd. A glance at Twitter upon waking soon told me that was not going to happen. Supposedly by ten in the morning a line was forming for the Opening Ceremony and growing longer by the second. This blew my mind. While I had never been at the very front for the Ceremony in the past, I had always been able to walk in and find a viewing spot with minimal waiting around. While the prospects of getting a spot weren’t quite as dire as I had been led to believe, we still needed to register for the Convention before we could even think of doing anything else. After forty-five minutes or so, we had officially logged our attendance and gotten our SWAG bags and weekend schedules. We went to the Cubs Charities room and browsed some game-used merchandise, but nothing really caught my eye. We did, however, donate money and got a “mystery autograph” baseball. While I didn’t quite hit the lottery and get a Kris Bryant autographed ball, I did get one signed by several players from the AAGPBL, the women’s baseball league started in WW2 and featured in “A League of Their Own” that I’ve become pretty attached to.
I was still wary of waiting in line for the Opening Ceremony with several hours to go and no guarantee of admission, so Lauren and I wandered around deciding what to do next. We met Bill Buckner and didn’t even mention 1986 and purchased our Convention shirts, since the last time we had attended they sold out before we got them. We decided that we were willing to skip the Ceremony that night and instead get dinner and return for the “autograph hunt” immediately following. Once again, it seemed like we would be ahead of the crowd, since certainly most of them would be attending the ceremony. Once again we were wrong.
According to the misleading information on the schedule, the autograph hunt was to be in the same area that we had registered earlier. On returning from dinner we saw that we weren’t the only ones prioritizing the autograph hunt, so he stuck ourselves in what seemed to be a ragtag line well over an hour before the hunt was due to begin. In spite of the fact that our line mates asked the ushers in the area several times about how the line was formed, how the hunt would work and even the fact that we were in a line to begin with, no one seemed to have any answers as to what exactly was going on and kept repeating that no one had told them anything. This was the most egregious to me, having a very strong customer service background. You can’t just say that you are ill-informed and expect that to be the end of discussion. You need to find a way to get the information you require.
As the scheduled time for the hunt came and went, our line mates began leaving as well, and eventually, even my eternally optimistic self gave up too. There was one final show/panel going on as we left, but there was a very early autograph signing the next morning we wanted to attend, and honestly, I felt so defeated by the rest of the day that I didn’t want to try to do anything else that night. I was ready to swear off of the Convention, now that the Cubs had become the “it” team, it felt like they had forgotten the long-time fans who had always supported them.
We were up almost before dawn the following morning in the hope of getting to attend a meet and greet with the recently retired David Ross and were at the Sheraton well over an hour before the session was to begin. We were trying to navigate our way down to the area that the meet and greet was being held when a man associated with the Convention saw that we needed help and escorted us not only to the elevator, but to the meet and greet area as well. We chatted the whole way over and discussed our disappointment about everything that had, or had not, transpired the night before. As we began to approach our destination, the escort asked which of the meet and greets we were hoping to attend. We told him and he said he would see if he could help us. The curse of the bad Con employee struck again as the woman manning Ross’ line screeched to our new friend that David Ross’ line was full and there was no way that we were getting in that line. He didn’t seem bothered and told us to hold tight for a moment.
He disappeared but returned a few minutes later and told us to follow him and not draw attention to ourselves. We did and he snuck us through a “behind the scenes” area and put us in the very front of the David Ross line. We were astounded, as there were people waiting in the line who had been there since eleven pm the night before. Our new friend next handed me his card and said if I had any trouble getting into any of the panels that day to text him and he would help us. As it turns out, our friend was the hotel manager. We thanked him profusely then and every time we saw him for the rest of the weekend.
David Ross was wonderful, showing up early, thanking us for being there to see him and taking photos and signing autographs, including signing my baseball as “Grandpa Rossy!” All of the trials and tribulations of the previous night were forgotten and a new day dawned for the Cubs Convention.
Obviously this all took significantly less time than I had originally assumed, so we were able to see many of the booths and exhibitions while we waited for the first panel we were interested in, which included prolonged visits with all of the Cubs minor league teams and enjoying their amenities, as well as taking the opportunity to swing an actual game-used Ron Santo bat at the Louisville Slugger booth.
We had absolutely no problem getting into the panels we wanted to see, as there was a designated wheelchair section that provided a great view. We saw a panel hosted by Joe Maddon and the coaches, one with Kyle Hendricks, Carl Edwards Jr., Mike Montgomery and Wade Davis and the amazing “Cubs All Star Infield” with Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Ben Zobrist and Anthony Rizzo.
The nice thing about the panels is the opportunity to see the players as human beings and see their personalities emerge. All of the guys in question are character-first guys and very personable, which makes it fun and easy to root for them. During the All Star Infield panel, I noticed on Twitter that Anthony Rizzo’s charity was selling opportunities for a meet and greet with him, so Lauren volunteered to go and look into it for me. Unfortunately, it was $300 and at the time I couldn’t make myself pull the trigger. Looking back and having spent less at the Convention than I had budgeted for, I do somewhat regret not doing it.
In my SWAG bag from the day before I had won a spot in an autograph signing with Edwards Jr. and we headed to that next. Edwards was pleasant enough, but very quiet and didn’t really provide a chance for a photo so that was a bit of a bummer. At this point, the Convention was beginning to die down, so we did one lap of the sales floor and then headed out for some Chicago deep-dish pizza for dinner.
Even in a wheelchair and not walking very much at all the Convention wore me out every day. We didn’t stay until closing any of the three days and I was still exhausted when we got back to our hotel every night. It may have been the exhaustion that helped make this such a personally successful Convention, however. I realized from the start that I wasn’t going to be able to see everything and do everything, so I had to make conscientious decisions about the things I really wanted to experience and didn’t need to stress myself–and Lauren– out by trying to do every single thing. It was different for me, but overwhelmingly easier.
The final half-day of the Convention arrived and we had only one thing we needed to accomplish. Seeing the World Series trophy. It had been on display all weekend for people to take photos, but the line was consistently an hour wait or longer. We hoped with Sunday being a slower, more low-key day, the line for the trophy would reflect that…and it sort of did. We ended up waiting just under an hour to see it in the bizarre makeshift tent that had been setup in the parking garage of the hotel. The tent was fine, but it was a bit chilly and the single heater I noticed wasn’t quite warming the tent enough. Nor was the combined body heat of dozens of Cubs fans.
After we thawed out a bit we went to the Charity room again and met one of the all-time great closers, Lee Smith. He is a big man but sounds like “Boomhauer” from “King of the Hill.” He is a genuinely nice man, and it is honestly a crime that he is not yet in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
While we finished up with Smith I saw on Twitter that Cubs organist, Gary Pressy, was in the hotel lobby giving away some of the bobbleheads of himself that the Cubs gave away at a game the previous summer. We found him and lucked out and got one. He even signed it for us. With that, the Convention was pretty much over. There was some area with apparently tons of wiffle ball sets because–I’m not joking–we saw families walking through the hotel lobby all carrying 5-6 sets apiece. I want to know why one family needs 25 wiffle ball bats.
Overall, I’d give this World Champions edition of the Cubs Convention a solid B+. The first night was really hard and I questioned if I’d ever come to another one, but Saturday’s meeting with David Ross helped redeem that and there were very few, if any, issues from then on out.
The Cubs created the idea of a winter fanfest and still host the largest and greatest of them all, though most–if not all–teams do something in the same vein. I’m proud to have been able to go this year after having one, if not two, planned convention trips have to be cancelled in recent memory. Remember, pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in less than a month!
Until next time, keep tripping baseballs!
Whether it’s a signed ticket from being in the right place at the right time or an autographed photo from an athlete to promote the opening of a car dealership, many sports fans have some signed items tucked away in their collections. What makes Tim Virgilio different is that he is using his collectibles to make a difference, rather than just collecting dust in a forgotten box in the attic. Virgilio is the founder of “Signatures For Soldiers,” an arm of Military Missions In Action (MMIA), a registered 501(c)3 charity supporting both veterans and current military members.
MMIA provides home care, repairs and home remodels for disabled veterans and the disabled children of active service members, as well as providing clothing and hygiene items for homeless veterans and sends care packages to deployed military personnel.
Virgilio has been involved with the organization since its inception in 2007, but a move out of North Carolina–home of MMIA– made it difficult to be as involved as he once was. Still desiring to support the organization, in November 2014, Virgilio founded Signatures For Soldiers, to “…use my hobby of autograph collecting to reach out to former MLB players to request that they sign cards that I had so that I could sell the cards and 100% of the money raised, not just the profits.” In just under two years, Signatures For Soldiers has raised over $14,000.
Virgilio takes trading cards, either donated or from his personal collection, and contacts the athlete to see if they would be willing to sign a few cards or make a personal donation. Once the card or cards have been returned, they are posted on the Signatures for Soldiers website and made available for purchase, with the full amount donated to the larger MMIA cause.
The support from athletes is nothing short of impressive. While contributions from any professional athlete are appreciated, Signatures For Soldiers has some impressive names amongst their over 300 supporters. Former All-Stars Ivan Rodriguez, Curt Schilling, Delino DeShields and Rob Dibble have contributed, as have some top minor league prospects such as Jacob Faria, Taylor Motter and Jose Trevino.
Sometimes, the athletes will go above and beyond the initial request and add cards and signed photos from their personal collections. Sometimes, they even add more.
Jose Trevino, a catching prospect in the Rangers organization sent Virgilio a tweet of several signed cards as well as a pair of signed game-used batting gloves. Taylor Motter of the Tampa Bay Rays sent a signed game-used bat, but the biggest surprise came from Lance McCullers Jr., a star pitcher with the Houston Astros.
“Mr. McCullers. . . informed me that the game issued hat and cleats that he wore from the Memorial Day game this season were going to be donated to support my efforts. True to his word, he donated the hat and cleats and signed all of them.”
You don’t have to be a professional athlete to support Signatures For Soldiers. If you have a dusty old box of baseball cards sitting in a closet somewhere that you can part with, Virgilio can use them.
“If I can make a dollar or two from the donated item, I’m willing to accept it.”
In addition, sending cards to the athletes isn’t free, and any postal supplies would be greatly appreciated as well. Stamps, padded 4×6 envelopes and sharpies are the items most in need, but the support doesn’t need to be tangible. Any assistance getting information about the charity can make a huge difference, as can contacting athletes and asking them to get involved with Signatures For Soldiers. Exposure is key, and any creative way to raise awareness of MMIA and Signatures For Soldiers can make a world of difference.
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!
How’s it going?
The sun is shining. The swallows are returning to Capistrano and baseball is alive and well in Arizona and Florida.
It has now been well over a year since my last blog post and almost a full baseball season and a half since I have really contributed on anything even remotely looking like a regular basis. For that, I am sorry.
Last summer I was in a fairly horrific car accident and am only now getting back into the most remote imitation of “normal life.”
Suffice it to say that with a broken back and shattered leg, I only made it to two games the entire last season, both at Petco Park, and sadly, I was focusing more on making it all the way through the game rather than documenting either the ballpark or the games.
I also missed out on writing about the most exciting season that I have experienced in a long time…possibly ever. Luckily my convalescence allowed me to watch many, many Cubs games and just enjoy the heck out of the team.
See? There’s always a bright spot of some kind!
I will refrain from making any promises this season, because those don’t seem to work out well for me, but I will do my very best to post regularly here and share my love of baseball and its many facets with the internet. Whether the internet wants it or not!
Until next time,
Keep Tripping’ Baseballs!
It’s somewhat hard to believe that my last entry here was 6 months ago, but on the other hand, it feels like even more time than that has passed. Part of my absence was due to a major move of the Tripping Baseballs home office, aka my apartment, which took up a lot of time in the late summer and part due to some health issues that manifested in the fall and winter. These major life changes mean that I only attended 3 baseball games after returning from my trek to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Wrigley Field, giving me a very limited scope to write about. I apologize for that.
So…what’s ahead for the blog?
I plan to keep it active, otherwise I would have just kept it as a personal archive of many of my baseball adventures of the past year and a half. No, I want to keep Tripping Baseballs, but I’m not 100% sure what that means at this point. I am still fully invested in the goal of visiting all of the MLB and as many of the minor league ballparks as I can, but at best, my reports will be 4-6 new parks a season.
Another idea along those lines (read: same limitations of few new parks) is something about ballpark food, which is something that really interests me (rocky mountain oysters, anyone?) but I do generally at least touch on unique foods in my ballpark trip reports, so I don’t feel like that can be the sole direction that the blog takes.
As far back as Spring Training of last year I toyed with the idea of interviewing various baseball people, which kicked off in spectacular fashion with the Mark Appel interview early last season, which was a lot of fun to conduct and turned out really well. I wouldn’t mind doing more profiles and interviews, if that is something that would be of interest.
Is the hodgepodge approach something that still works? Sometimes, I feel that there should be more of a dedicated focus, giving the blog a chance to be the “go to” source for something specific. After all, do people care what an average baseball nut does on his assorted baseball adventures? I don’t know.
What are my personal plans for 2015, as far as baseball is concerned? Well, I am currently just over a week away from attending my 4th Cubs Convention in the frozen tundra of Chicago. The Convention is unlike anything else in baseball and I hope to be able to illustrate that. My baseball adventure for the year is slightly less ambitious than it has been in the past. I think this year I am going to stay relatively local and get in my ‘official’ visits to all of the California parks, with a few minor league parks thrown in, as well as maybe a surprise or 2 in the offing.
At this point, I’d like to once again apologize for my abandonment of the blog over these past months, and rededicate myself to the blog, and to my baseball adventures in 2015 and beyond. I hope the end of 2014 treated you well and that 2015 is doing the same thus far.
Until next time, keep tripping baseballs!
When last we left, Lauren had proposed some interesting questions as to what we were going to do on our last full day of this year’s baseball odyssey. She was curious as to where the Cubs were playing and I told her they would be in Cincinnati on Monday night. She thought about it for a moment and resignedly told me that she had been considering either renting a car and driving or even taking a flight in, but since it was a night game, the timing would be difficult to get us back and packed to depart early on Tuesday.
I next decided to see if the Brewers were at home, but sadly, they were not, so Miller Park was out of the running for us. Flash back to Christmas a few years ago when Lauren got me a Fort Wayne TinCaps cap. I enjoy collecting interesting minor league hats and we had a friend who grew up in Fort Wayne and it became a bit of a joke to us. I mentioned, jokingly, that we should go catch a TinCaps game. Lauren asked how far it was to drive. It was about 3 hours each way and that sealed it. We were going to Indiana.
Our trip to the heartland wasn’t first on our agenda, though. First we were touring Wrigley Field. The tours are always advertised during Cubs games and, of course, I knew that we would have to do it when we were visiting Wrigley. Our guide was great. Very knowledgable and enthusiastic, he would not have been out of place working at Disneyland. I even learned a few fun stories about the ballpark’s history. I think Lauren and I were starting to bother the “guest wrangler,” who accompanied our tour to ensure that no one got left behind, because we were constantly stopping to take pictures and compose nice shots and adjust our settings. We got to see the broadcast booth, sit in the press box, visit both the home and away clubhouses and sit in the dugout. And then…and then I got to do the thing that I have wanted to do since I was 9 years old and I stood on the field. I stood on the same field as Ryne Sandberg, Ron Santo, Ernie Banks and Greg Maddux. It was so very surreal.
Following the tour, we did a lap around the stadium, in order to get pictures of all of the statues that reside around Wrigley. There are currently only 4, but I hope that there will be many more added in the coming years. The Cubs have a long history of which to be proud (No 1908 jokes!) and players that deserve to be honored.
Once we finished the tour, it was off to Indiana!
I’m sure that many people spend the final days of their vacations in a city as multi-faceted and interesting as Chicago by driving 3 hours into Indiana to watch a Class-A minor league baseball game, right? It’s totally rational.
If this surprises any readers in the slightest, you clearly don’t know Lauren or I. We booked a car as soon as we returned to the hotel to be picked up the following morning and returned on Tuesday at the airport. Now we no longer needed to lug our belongings through Wrigleyville to the El station. Two birds, one stone, you know.
We picked up the car and were on our way. It was nice taking Lake Shore Drive out of the city and seeing many of the landmarks that we had seen on foot days earlier. Right outside the city, we stopped at a WalMart for some snacks and other necessities, and it was here that I got my first bit of anti-Cubs harassment. While neither the TinCaps, nor the Great Lakes Loons were affiliated with the Cubs, I was wearing my heavy Cubs jacket, since it was rainy and cold. As we were walking into the store, a man stopped his car right in front of us to yell “The Cubs suck!” and cackle as he drove off. This was an old man, mind you.
The rest of the drive was fairly non-eventful, though we did amuse ourselves by looking at the fast food restaurants in the Midwest that aren’t available on the West Coast. We are real connisseurs of culture. That being said, I will recreate our drive through Indiana.
We did that for 3 hours.
There was a bit of excitement when we were about an hour or so outside of Fort Wayne. We looked at the car clock and it was only 30 minutes until game time. We were absolutely gutted that we had made such an effort to get there and would still miss part of the game. Gutted until I realized that Indiana didn’t adhere to the status quo that is “daylight savings time,” and we still had plenty of time to reach Parkview Field.
The weather wasn’t looking terrific as we approached the stadium and I was silently praying that we didn’t make this trip to see half an inning of baseball and a rainout. I was reassured by some of the fine Indianans that it would take a flood of Biblical proportions for the game to be rained out, so we purchased our tickets with confidence. $8 got us seats in the front row right next to the TinCaps bullpen, where we saw Padres 2013 3rd round draft pick, Bryan Verbitsky warm up for his first start.
The weather was frigid, and while there was very little in the way of actual rain, the cold kept people away and honestly, there were probably less than 200 fans in attendance. I’m not complaining, it was kind of fun and made me feel like I had the run of the ballpark, which, by the way, was quite nice.
Obviously being a Class-A park, it is going to be intimate, which is something that I really like, and the TinCaps certainly embrace their connection to Johnny Appleseed with apple-themed everything, which made for some wonderful in-game food offerings.
We had the apple crisp and the apple wontons and both were outstanding. Warm and apply and the crisp even came in a mini-TinCaps batting helmet! What more could a guy ask for??
The team store, called The Orchard, even had a fake apple tree standing right in the middle of the store. What a store it was, too. It had significantly more merchandise and better quality than many MLB team stores that I have visited, putting the White Sox store we had seen the day prior to shame. We both ended up getting t-shirts to represent the most eclectic part of our trip.
After our apple snacks and shopping we walked around the whole park and took in all of the little details, including the treetop seating area and the large expansive lawn beyond the outfield fences. What little rain there was had decided to appear at this point and even the most hardy of fans were leaving. Not us, though. We wanted to get our full $8 worth! We even found Johnny TinCap and got our photos with him.
Also during our wanderings we wound up talking to an usher about our trip and how we managed to be so far from both our temporary home in Chicago and our real home in California. He asked us if we would be attending the game on Tuesday, and we had to tell him that we were just in town for one game. He seemed disappointed, but I reassured him that the ballpark and the team were leaving us with a very favorable opinion.
As far as the game was concerned, well, things weren’t pretty. The TinCaps ended up losing 7-3 and sitting as close to the action as we were, we could hear the frustration of the TinCap hitters returning to the bench. Quite a bit of salty language was being thrown around.
The inevitable happened. The TinCaps took the loss and we left Parkview Field, for quite possibly our one and only visit.
The field is quite nice and well taken care of. The staff were all in very good spirits and seemed to value the fan experience, which we appreciated. The food was great and I only regret that I had but one stomach in which to fill with apple-based goodies. The entire experience was wonderful and it speaks highly of the Padres organization in general that both low minor league teams that I have visited within their organization (the Lake Elsinore Storm) have been such positive fan experiences.
The drive back to Chicago seemed much faster and we stopped to have our first White Castle burgers at a gas station/White Castle restaurant somewhere in rural Indiana, where the employees were shocked that we didn’t have them our west. The burgers were everything that we hoped for and more. We got to the hotel at around 1am and proceeded to get ready to depart the following day.
Up next, the recap.
Until next time, keep trippin’ baseballs!
The Houston Astros haven’t had a whole lot of cheer about over the past few years. Three years of sub-.500 records makes it tough for even the most die-hard of fans to wave a team’s flag. The one compensation that makes a stretch like this tolerable is the notion of a first pick in the amateur player draft and the chance to rebuild the team for the future. If 2013 first overall pick and current Lancaster JetHawk, Mark Appel is any indicator, Astros fans will have a lot to cheer about in the years to come. In my brief interaction with the young phenom, I found him to be not only sincere and engaging, but as good of a person as he is a pitcher.
It takes a special kind of player to be drafted high in the first round on more than one occasion (Appel was picked eighth overall in the 2012 draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, but opted to finish his time at Stanford, before coming to the Astros in the number one spot of 2013.) With Appel, the future seems to be in good hands.
Mark discussed a lot about his faith and reliance on God as a player in an uncertain profession, where all of the promise and plans for the future can be snatched away at any time. Appel is willing to go wherever his path may lead and takes every day in baseball as the blessing that it is. That is not to say that he isn’t working hard every day to hone his already considerable skill set.
“I’m going to do the best that I can, every single day to maximize my potential and help the Astros be a winning organization, and that’s really where I find my joy. I don’t feel pressure, I don’t feel whatever it might be that might hinder me or cause me to think that I might have to live up to some lofty expectations that are unrealistic or whatever. My approach is to keep my head down, work hard every day and see where God takes me… I wanna go out and be myself and attack hitters the way that I attack hitters and use my pitches that I have. I’m not trying to develop a Clayton Kershaw curveball or anything like that. I mean, it’d be awesome if I could, but you’re just trying to use the talents and the abilities that God has given me and maximizing those to reach my potential is what I’m trying to do.”
One of the most unique pitches Appel throws is a modified “fosh” pitch, that he refers to as a “circle-split-change,” that he learned and then modified in high school.
“It’s kind of like a slight split-change. You have the 2-seam grip and you just hug the narrow seams of the baseball. It’s a change-up, so it’s supposed to kind of pronate and roll out of your hand, and the way I grip it, I grip it a little deeper and I actually circle it with my pointer finger and my thumb.”
Beyond the ball field, though, is a young man who values family and being around those that he loves above all else. He described his ideal off-day.
“Ideally, I’d love to have my family here; my parents and my brother. Any time I get to see them is a great day. Just getting to spend time with family and close friends. Maybe going out to a movie, grabbing a good bite to eat. Just kind of relaxing.”
For fun, rather than video games like “Call of Duty” or “TItanfall,” Appel would rather sit down with a good strategic board game.
“Not many guys around here like to play heavy strategy board games, but its something that keeps my mind fresh and keeps me thinking and keeps my mind off of baseball.”
More importantly, Appel is an Astros fan, through and through. The Astros have a tradition of bringing in big game local pitchers, Messieurs Clemens and Ryan immediately come to mind, and Appel fits that mold perfectly. In fact, he draws encouragement from the Hall of Famer, and Astros advisor, Ryan.
“He was a little bit before my time, but my Dad would tell me stories of how he watched him play in the Astrodome and I’ve seen video of him a number of times and just the way he attacked hitters, and approached the game–mentally and physically–it was impressive and something I look up to and find encouragement and motivation through what he did.”
In addition, growing up in Houston has tattooed the Astros indelibly on Mark’s heart. He remembers the good times and looks ahead, expectantly to the future. “It’s real exciting, you know. It’s a dream come true, really, being able to think about that. I remember growing up in Houston, playing with my buds in little league and pretending to be some of the Houston greats. Now knowing that I’m part of the organization it’s an amazing feeling just knowing how gracious God has been through this whole process… You know, being a fan of the Astros myself. I guess it’s a little different being on the other side of things, but I remember going to games in the Astrodome and I remember going to games at MinuteMaid and I remember watching the ’05 World Series and the National League Championship run. Astros baseball is a lot of fun.”
Looking ahead, the Astros appear that they will have a lot to cheer for in beginning in the next few seasons and the crew in Lancaster, led by Appel and 2012 top pick, Carlos Correa, are leading the charge. Appel can feel the winds of change beginning to swirl and is excited by what the future may hold.
“It’s not fun to lose, but I don’t think we’re going to be losing much longer. I think patience is a virtue, and I think that what Jeff Luhnow has been doing, has been staying true to his word, as far as his plan and as a part of that plan, I hope to be a part of that for years and years to come. I love the city of Houston, I love the Astros and I want to see the Astros win a championship, whether I’m a part of it or not, but I want to be a part of it too.”
Leaving the conversation I was struck with the maturity and grace of this young man at still just 22 years of age. While he may be slightly more polished than the average 22 year old, due to the level at which he has produced and been touted, I was impressed. The Astros have a gem gestating in Lancaster and I will not be shocked in 5 years time to see him on the mound at Minute Maid Park, as the confetti falls down, celebrating the World Champion Houston Astros.
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.