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.
One of the things that I love most about the current age in which we live is the access to our heroes. Be they athletes, politicians, movie stars or astronauts, most celebrities are easily accessible. Many people use this newfound access to express support, appreciation or encouragement. I’m a bit different. I used it to get a pair of Rob Zastryzny’s shoes. Let me start at the beginning.
I love following the Cubs on the Twitter, both members of the elite big league club and those who are toiling in the minor leagues, working their way to Wrigley Field. That is how I found Rob’s Twitter feed. Rob is a left-handed starting pitcher, and was the Cubs #2 draft pick in 2013 out of the University of Missouri Columbia and spent part of last season in the Cubs organization, where he pitched well in both Kane County and Boise. All that being said, he’s entertaining to follow on Twitter and that’s where our story picks up.
Rob posted this picture and asked if anyone would be willing to trade Nintendo GameCube games for the shoes and card. He was looking for 2 games in particular and I was pretty sure that somewhere in my collection I had at least one of them. I found the game box and asked if the offer was still on the table. Rob responded that it was and sent me the address to mail the game.
Not wanting to rip him off with a scratched game, I decided to test it in my Wii, where my worst fears came true, as the game wouldn’t even begin to load. I headed back to Twitter with my tail between my legs and shared the bad news. Rob was more than gracious and we were able to work out a deal where I ended up sending him a few different games and the shoes and card were mine, after assuring him that I would remain a Cubs fan.
As luck would have it, the package arrived on my birthday, with both cleats signed and the autographed card flawless as well.
I’m looking forward to having these as a big part of my collection and being the envy of my friends when Rob Zastryzny is starting for the Chicago Cubs.
Thanks again, Rob. Your understanding and generosity did not go unnoticed.
Until next time, keep tripping baseballs!
March is almost over and spring has sprung. At least for most of the country. Here in Southern California we have not only been free of the Snowpocalypse that gripped the rest of the country, but have been suffering through abnormally high temperatures. I know, I know. Humble brag.
The onset of spring means only one thing…regular season baseball shall soon be upon us, and as this entry posts, the DBacks and Dodgers should have already kicked off the season with their first game “down under.” Crikey!
I have spent the past several weeks trying to plan out a pretty exciting year for me personally and, hopefully, for my readers as well. I’ll be taking you all to lots of new places and getting some great behind the scenes looks at things that not every baseball fan gets to see!
That all being said, here is what 2014 looks like for us here at “Tripping Baseballs.”
Our first major trip occurs in late April and just so happens to be to Wrigley Field, my favorite ballpark in the majors and home of my beloved Chicago Cubs. Not only will this be my very first trip to the Friendly Confines, but it will coincide with the game celebrating Weeghman Park…err Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary. To say that I’m elated is like saying that Westboro Baptist is slightly xenophobic. In addition to a few games at Wrigley, I will be headed deep into enemy territory when I travel to Miller Park and US Cellular Field, probably the 2 most Cub-hostile parks I have visited thus far. I also plan on doing a behind the scenes tour of Wrigley and taking an absolutely obscene amount of photos.
The next bit, I am legitimately excited about as well. During the offseason I sent messages to every minor league team in the state of California, asking if they would like me to come and cover their team/ballpark/fan experience. I was fortunate enough to hear back from 5 of the teams, thus far, and have been offered press passes to all 5. It makes me feel so legitimate! The teams that I will definitely be covering are the Lake Elsinore Storm (Padres), Rancho Cucamonga Quakes (Dodgers, Bakersfield Blaze (Reds), Stockton Ports (A’s) and High Desert Mavericks (Mariners). These are all teams in the High-A California League and I look forward to getting an early look at some of the game’s future stars. In that same line of thought, I am also planning on going to see the Lancaster Jet Hawks (Astros), in order to see one of baseball’s fastest rising stars, in shortstop, Carlos Correa. If I’m lucky, I might even get to see top draft pick, Mark Appel. No word on where he’ll be pitching, but Lancaster seems to be the natural next stop for him. I also have tentative plans to see the IE 66’ers (Angels), but that is about as far as the planning for that has gone.
I will also be making at least 1, if not 2, trips to see the Fresno Grizzlies this summer. The first potential trip would be in June, as the Iowa Cubs come to town and it will be the closest to me that they travel. I have a great desire to see the Cubs future, namely, Javy Baez, in person.
The 2nd trip would be in early August and it would be to see the Grizzlies take on the Salt Lake Bees. This trip would not be to see any player in particular, but because the Grizzlies are hosting a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles night, with TMNT-themed jerseys. My 10 year old self would never forgive my 32 year old self if I missed it.
In addition, I plan to see the Cubs when they visit San Diego in late May and have a number of Angels games I plan to attend, as well. Sadly I didn’t get my mini-ticket plan this year, so there are no games set in stone, as far as that is concerned. There are also a few more tricks up my sleeve that I hope to be able to pull out in the upcoming weeks, just to keep things interesting in between my baseball adventures.
Hopefully this is exciting to you as it is to me, and you’ll join me throughout the 2014 season and beyond, as I continue tripping baseballs!