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Minor League Moves: The Dance Begins, Connecticut Defenders move to Richmond

007Minor League Moves: The Orioles Affiliated with The Norfolk Tides in 2007

Minor League Baseball teams move around for many reasons with a fair amount of regularity.  At the end of every season there are almost always a number of teams that either changes their major league affiliation or moves to another city.  A few years ago my team here in Norfolk told the New York Mets and the Minaya – Bernazard Axis of Idiocy to “get out of town and don’t let the door hit you.”  The Mets had treated their AAA affiliate badly for years and these guys gutted the Mets farm system.  I talked with various Mets scouts this year who although not saying anything on record nodded in agreement about my observations of the Mets.  So the Mets went to New Orleans and this year to Buffalo and managed to continue their mangled management of their minor league system.

However teams change affiliations for a number of reasons.  One reason that Baltimore relocated to Norfolk was the entrance into the Hampton Roads TV market.  Other reasons include facilities, distance from the home club, fan base issues, tradition or local government policies.

When I was a kid I lived in Stockton California where I got my first taste of Minor League ball watching the Stockton Ports of the California League in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  At the time the team was affiliated with the Baltimore Orioles.  A few years back I had opportunity to talk with Orioles great Paul Blair who remembered his days playing in Stockton at Billy Hebert Field.  The Ports have since been with the Brewers, the Rangers, the Reds and the Athletics and maybe a couple of others over the years.  This is not unusual as teams try to move their teams closer to the major league club or local owners negotiate deals with major league franchises to move teams to their markets.

Last year there were several moves in the International League and the Pacific Coast League. In the PCL the biggest news was the relocation of the Dodgers AAA affiliate from Las Vegas to Albuquerque, a move that returned the Dodgers to one of their tradition minor league cities.    The Ottawa Lynx franchise left that city for Allentown Pennsylvania to become the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. This left that city without any baseball.  A Canadian league that was supposed to move a team there folded.  This is actually sad for Canada as both Ottawa and Montreal which had a long baseball heritage with the Major and Minor leagues no longer have teams.  This is in large part due to the Canadian government’s tax policies that ensured that minor league players would be taxed by both the US and Canadian governments.  This made the situation difficult if not impossible for many minor league players from the states and as a result the major leagues moved all of their teams out of Canada except the Vancouver Canadians in the Northwest League.  Since the Northwest League is a short season single “A” league and most of the players are college players there is a different dynamic at work than the rest of the minors.

In 2009 the New York Mets brought the team once known as the Norfolk Tides from their home in post-Katrina New Orleans to Buffalo. In Buffalo the Mets replaced Cleveland who had moved their team to Columbus.  This ensured that the city of Buffalo and especially Bison’s fans would bask in the misery inflicted on both Norfolk and New Orleans fans for the foreseeable future.  The Bisons under Mets management finished the season with the worst record in Triple “A” ball.  I saw them several times in Norfolk and there wasn’t a young prospect of any caliber on the team.  There was an ass-load of older “has been” players who are deep into the tail end of their careers and I looked like I was in better shape than some of them, some of the guts and butts were simply huge.   The Mets under the current Oscar Minaya management are pathetic.  They have no prospects, their minor league system is broken and if the Bison’s plight was not enough their AA affiliate the Binghamton Mets were the worst team in AA Ball.  If Ross Perot was talking to Larry King about them he would say “That’s just sad Larry.”

Cleveland moved its affiliation to Columbus to be closer to the major league team while the Washington Nationals who had been in Columbus moved to Syracuse when Toronto moved its Triple “A” affiliation to Las Vegas in the Pacific Coast League.    In the mean time Atlanta which had been embroiled in a decade long contest with Richmond’s clueless city council led by Doug “I have no plan or clue” Wilder for a decent stadium to replace the cesspool called “The Diamond” gave up.  Since they and not a local owner controlled the franchise, they moved the Braves to the Atlanta suburbs of Gwinnett County.  Richmond has one of the worst if not the worst ball park in the International League and maybe the minors.  Having been to the Diamond many times I have to say that it was the worst venue that I have ever seen a ball game, decrepit and uncomfortable seating, poor amenities, and a field that flooded if so much as a thimble full of rain fell made it a horrible venue for fans as well as players.  Thus the city which refused to work cooperatively with the Braves lost its team and AAA franchise, a franchise that has been for many years one of the best in the minor leagues.  Richmond lost their hockey team as well to this bunch’s inept leadership.  These people have to be one of the most clueless city government s in the entire United States and certainly the worst managed state capital.

All of this leads to the first move of the 2009-2010 off season.  On the 23rd of September the Eastern League announced that the Connecticut Defenders franchise would move to Richmond in time for the 2010 season.  The city has agreed to make improvements on the Diamond to keep it viable until a new stadium can be build by 2012, a plan that should be doable unless the city has decided to make their plans for the new stadium on the Mayan calendar which assumes that the Cubs will win the World’s series, that Jesus will come back and the world as we know it will end.

The team is an affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, which means that if the Tides are not in town that I may make a number of trips to Richmond in 2010.  The Giants will stay with the team through the end of 2010 and hopefully for me will remain in Richmond for many years.  Richmond is allowing fans to suggest new names for the team.  A link to that site is here: http://www2.timesdispatch.com/rtd/sports/baseball/name-the-team/

There will be more team moves announced in the coming month or so as cities and major league teams alike assess what they need.  Cities with a long minor league heritage may lose teams, some cities are building stadiums to get teams and some cities may end up with teams in the independent leagues.  Regardless Minor League Baseball will continue to do well and fans will come.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Minor League Road Trips

grainger stadiumGrainger Stadium Kinston NC

“The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and what could be again.” – James Earl Jones in Field of Dreams (1989)

There is something about baseball that is healing.  It is part of the fabric of our American culture something that somehow overcomes the political and religious divisions that so divide our country right now.  We were at Gordon Biersch watching the last couple of innings of a qualification game for the Little League World series between a team from Peabody Massachusetts and one from Rhode Island.  It was one of those magical games that ended with a walk-off Grand-Slam home run in the bottom of the 6th.  It triggered a flood of memories for me and ait got Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess and I talking about some of our own expereinces travelling the country and watching baseball.

I love the game of baseball especially going to a ballpark and seeing a game.  The experience of this for me has been life-long though difficult to continue from about 1983-1999 due to a tour in Germany with the Army a very difficult four years of seminary followed by residency, my first hospital job where I worked the second shift, a mobilized tour in Germany prior to coming in the Navy in early 1999.  During those years getting to games was a rare event, either due to time or money.  Despite this we as a couple got to a few games and I got in a couple on my own when traveling.  Thankfully, Judy, the Abby Normal Abbess tolerates and even joins me in my own baseball journey.

When I went into the Navy and moved to North Carolina that began to change.  North Carolina of course is the setting of the classic baseball movie Bull Durham and once can visit some of the same ballparks as are shown in the movie. The adventure of going to the ballpark again became a regular part of our lives.  It began in a little town in Eastern North Carolina called Kinston, the home of the Kinston Indians.  Kinston is a town that has seen better times, but the Indians, or the K-Tribe as they are known is part of the lifeblood of the community.  They play in Grainger Stadium, which though an older ballpark is still a great place to watch a game.  The Indians Carolina League which is advanced “A” ball and for a number of years dominated that League. When were stationed in Camp LeJeune we would make the trip to Kinston on a regular basis when I was in town. At the time the Indians farm system was producing a lot of great prospects, many who now are major leaguers, including Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta Shane Victorino and Victor Martinez.  When we left LeJeune we were stationed a brief time in Jacksonville Florida, where we lived very close to the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, home of the Jacksonville Suns then the Los Angeles Dodgers AA affiliate in the Southern League.  The ballpark is a great venue to see a game and the Suns management led by Peter Bragan and Peter Bragan Jr. who are part of a great baseball family run a great show, and the Dodgers staff was a class organization.  I got to meet Tommy Lasorda in Jacksonville as well as Steve Yeager.  I have 2 game worn special issue jerseys from the Suns.  When we moved to Norfolk in 2003 the season was already over but beginning on opening day of 2004 I began to worship at the Church of Baseball, Harbor Park Parish.  This if you follow this site is the home of the Norfolk Tides.  Ever since then I have had the opportunity to see the game close up on a very regular basis.

In addition to attending the games near us we would travel and see other games. We would make trips down to Kinston from Virginia.  Once we went to a reunion of a singing group, the Continental Singers and Orchestra that I ran spotlight for back in 1979 which was being held in Kansas City.  On the way we saw a game in Louisville with the Louisville Bats, followed by a game in Cedar Rapids Iowa where we saw the Cedar Rapids Kernels play the Battle Creek Yankees and followed it with a trip to the “Field of Dreams” outside Dyersville, where that film was made.  Judy indulged me by playing catch with me on the field and taking my picture coming out of the cornfield.  It was almost; well it was a spiritual experience.  Occasionally when we visit Huntington West Virginia we try to see the West Virginia Power in Charleston.

Until I went to Iraq Judy and I used to take trips to Minor League ballparks around our Wedding anniversary.  We would take about four or five days and travel city to city to see some of the most fascinating baseball venues around.  We haven’t made a trip like that, even outside the wedding anniversary in a while mainly due to time as my much leave time has been spent going home to assist with my parents, especially the past 18 months where my dad’s Alzheimer’s Disease has progressed to the point of him being in a nursing home on palliative care.  Despite that I would always try to find time to see a game when in Stockton.  Before Iraq we would see the Stockton Ports in Billy Herbert Field.  The Ports now play in Banner Island Ballpark which is a great place to see a game.  If the Ports have not been in town we have occasionally been able to see the Giants, the A’s or the Sacramento River Cats, the AAA affiliate of the A’s.

The anniversary trips took us to some of the most interesting places to see games.  I have already mentioned Kinston where on one of our anniversaries we got to throw out the first pitch.  We have also travelled to Winston-Salem, when they were the Warthogs and Charlotte home of the Knights, the AAA affiliate of the White Sox.  Actually, Charlotte’s stadium is just down the road a way in Round Rock South Carolina.  We got rained out in Winston-Salem as a major storm hit at game time.  To our north we have been up to Frederick Maryland, home of the Frederick Keys, the Carolina League affiliate of the Orioles and Harrisburg Pennsylvania to see the Harrisburg Senators, the Montreal Expos-Washington Senators AA Eastern League affiliate at Metro-Bank Park on City Island.  This park was used in the movie Major League II as the Spring Training facility. There were two really cool things that happened at Harrisburg which was on our anniversary.  First we saw Phillies Slugger Ryan Howard about tear the cover off a ball hitting a double down the right field line and the General Manager had a ball autographed for us by the team.  That was really cool.  Likewise when Atlanta still had its Richmond affiliate, the Richmond Braves, we made a number of trips to “The Diamond” in Richmond.  This was the worst stadium I had ever watched a game in, though the team was always good.  We saw a playoff game there in 2004 between the Braves and the Columbus Clippers, who were then the Yankees AAA affiliate.  Sitting behind home plate I saw Jason Giambi play for the Clippers on a rehab assignment.

I have done some parks on my own when travelling.  Any time I have been on the road in baseball season and have the chance I try to see the local team if circumstances permit.  I have seen a number of games in the Pacific Northwest seeing two Seattle Mariners short season single A Northwest League affiliate the Everett Aquasox and AAA Pacific Coast League affiliate the Tacoma Rainiers.  Everett is an especially interesting place to see a game.  The games are well attended and the team management has some great promotions including “Frogfest” where the team wears tie-dyed jerseys and there is a kind of 1960s hippy theme.  The Rainiers play in Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.  In Tacoma I saw Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez pitch his first AAA game. Both Everett and Tacoma are nice places to see a game.  While on the USS Hue City at the Maine Lobster Festival I worked a deal with festival organizers to get tickets for our sailors for two games watching the Portland Seadogs the AA affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.  When the Seadogs hit a home run a lighthouse rises up from behind the fence and a foghorn sounds.

However the two most interesting place that we have seen games together are Ashville North Carolina, the home of the Ashville Tourists and Zebulon North Carolina home of the Carolina Mudcats.  Ashville has quite a history with McCormack Field dating back until 1919.  The grandstand was rebuilt a number of years back, but the playing field is the same.  The outfield wall backs up into a tree covered hillside into which home runs hit at night almost seem to dissolve.   Zebulon is another matter.  The stadium is about a mile out of town surrounded by farm fields.  When you drive to it down US 64 from Raleigh the stadium almost seems to emerge from nowhere as if it were beamed down from a orbiting starship.  It is a fairly new stadium and very modern a great place to see a game.  We went there to see the Mudcats, who were then the Marlins AA Southern League affiliate play the Mississippi Braves.  We got to the stadium and found that somehow I had left our tickets at home.  Since the game was in an hour and home was bout a 6-8 hour round trip I knew that going home to get them was not an option.  So I went to the ticket manager and explained the situation.  He had remembered taking my ticket order by phone as we had talked about shared military experiences.  He was able to print us duplicates for the seats that we had previously purchased and we saw the game, as always from down behind home plate.  In this game we saw Braves All Star catcher Brian McCann play the week before he was called up to Atlanta.

I hope that we have some time next year to make at least one trip out to see some other Minor League venues.  They are a lot of fun and part of the fabric of our country and somehow I believe if we reconnect in these locations, watching this timeless game that maybe just maybe we can overcome the emnity of all that divides our country and learn to be Americans again.  We will never all agree on politics, religion, domestic, foreign or economic policy.  No Americans ever have, but we can discover what it means again, through this wonderful game called baseball.  I do think that the Deity Herself approves of all of these local parishes of the Church of Baseball scattered about our land.  At the same time I always have my place in Section 102, Row B Seat 2 at Harbor Park.

Peace, Steve+

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