Tagged: minor leagues

Trout Fishing

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They call him the GOAT, but he doesn’t even have a hit!

Somehow, in my quest to visit as many minor league ballparks in this great land of ours, I have been neglectful. Within 2 hours of my home lie 4 teams in the High-A California League and I have only officially covered 1. This is wrong and I seek to remedy this injustice as soon as possible, starting with the Inland Empire 66ers, based out of San Bernardino, formerly known as the San Bernardino Spirit. This was also to be my first baseball game of the year. In July. For a man who loves the game and considers a ballpark to be his comfort place.

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.

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Dialysis Boy

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.

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Mike Trout’s first 66’ers at-bat

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.

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Our Entry

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!

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The mass of humanity stressing out poor 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.

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Geez, the guy hitting 3rd doesn’t even have an average

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.

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Mike gets some signs

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.

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OK, so it wasn’t that EXACTLY, but close!

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.

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I suppose this menu is slightly more accurate

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.

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SPAM and cheese and bacon. AMERICA!

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.

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SPAM musubi. After the photo the seaweed was quickly removed

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.

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Mikey likes it!

“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.

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Good night, San Manuel Stadium!

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.

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Mike connects!

I’m hoping to be able to add some more entries on here soon, so until next time, keep trippin’ baseballs!

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The prize!

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. 

A Clift”ton” of Talent

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Trevor Clifton comes in for the save at the CAR-CAL All-Star Game in Lake Elsinore, CA

The 2013 draft was an exceptional one for the Chicago Cubs. Not only did they reap the benefits of suffering through a dismal 61-101 record in 2012 by getting to draft future superstar Kris Bryant with the 2nd pick, but they managed to snap up Trevor Clifton as well. Clifton was expected to be drafted in approximately the 5th round. However, a strong commitment to the University of Kentucky had many teams wary of spending a draft selection on the tall right-handed pitcher out of Tennessee. The Cubs liked what they saw in Clifton enough to take a chance on him in the 12th round and offer him a large signing bonus of $375,000, which was enough to break with Kentucky and join the Cubs organization. It’s looking like a good investment for the Cubs, so far.

Standing at 6’1 and weighing in at 170, with room to grow, Trevor Clifton draws comparisons to another right-handed hurler who was once in the Cubs system but found success elsewhere, Chris Archer. Like Archer, Clifton had a bit of a slow start to his career, but has learned from early adversity and spends every season trying to improve on his success.

“My goal each year is to be better each year in every part of my game,” says Clifton. “That’s the only way for a steady climb.”

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Young Trevor Clifton

Moving thousands of miles from home to begin a professional baseball career is an intimidating concept. When you combine that with barely turning 18 and graduating from high school, it is downright overwhelming and Clifton reasonably struggled in his first professional season, posting no wins and a 6.97 ERA in 8 games and 10 innings pitched. That was the last time that any numbers put up by Clifton would be referred to as ‘gaudy’ in a negative sense.

Over the next 3 seasons, Clifton’s ERA would never finish above a 4.00 and he averages just about one strikeout per inning pitched. Oh, and about those innings? Clifton has thrown over 100 of them for the past 2 seasons, so his durability, often a concern with pitchers drafted straight out of high school, doesn’t seem to be an issue.

Clifton’s slow and steady progress paid real dividends during the his 2016 campaign with the Myrtle Beach Pelicans where he was named Pitcher of the Month twice, earned the save in the All-Star Game and ultimately was named the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year. He also just so happened to lead the Pelicans to the Carolina League Championship and is currently ranked in the Cubs’ top 10 prospects. Not a bad resume for a young pitcher who is still just 21 years old. Aside from the natural maturing process, what changed for Clifton in 2016?

“A whole lot of stuff, from mechanics to preparation to arm care. My biggest change, by far, was the mental side of the game. I went in to last season with confidence in my pitches and slowing the game down.”

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Trevor Clifton at Myrtle Beach

Given his steady rise through the Cubs system it seems likely that Clifton will at least begin the season with the Tennessee Smokies, conveniently located about 4o minutes from his hometown of Maryville.

“I’m very excited about this upcoming season and seeing my family in the stands,” says Clifton. “A lot of players don’t get to experience that. My family means the world to me.”

That’s not to say that Clifton is going to take it easy in front of the local fans. “I enjoy seeing everyone’s support from my hometown. It makes me feel accountable.”

Clifton received an award this off-season from his hometown before even throwing a professional pitch there  when his former high school retired his baseball number.

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Number Retirement at Heritage High School

“I’ve had a lot of awards throughout my career, but having my number retired around the closest people to me was by far the best. I loved getting to spend that success with Heritage [High School] and my hometown.”

Clifton’s dedication to his family and friends gives insight into the man behind the athlete and fits in perfectly with the Cubs’ character-driven mindset.

“My family means the world to me and they’ve always been really supportive from t-ball until now, so I guess I don’t know any better. I think as a player you have to earn the fans’ respect and attention. I also have some great fans and followers I see throughout my social media and love conversations with them.”

Cubs fans, if you don’t know Trevor Clifton yet, consider this your introduction. It’s very possible that Clifton will be called up to AAA Iowa at some point this season, and from there a September call-up would be certainly within the realm of possibility.

“Now pitching for your Cubs, Number 25, Trevor Clifton!” may be heard at Wrigley Field sooner than we all may think. With his raw skills and positive attitude, Clifton has every chance to be a Wrigley Field stalwart.

 

Rob Zastryzny’s Shoes

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.

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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!