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!
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.