Little Giants!

Much of my love for Minor League Baseball is because I grew up going to San José Giants games. Their affiliation started in 1988—right at the beginning of my baseball fandom*—and the idea of seeing players who I could later see at Candlestick was definitely compelling right out of the gate. But the games were just fun. A more raucous environment. Being able to sit nice and close. Crazy contests like Smash for Cash.** They all made me appreciate minor league ball and we were quickly going to multiple games a year and I even had my birthday party at a game.

*I knew about the Bees and even got the one and only foul ball I’ve ever gotten when I was walking past a Bees game a the exact right moment but never went to a game.

**Late in the game when the Peter Gunn theme started and the Rotten Robbie truck rolled out onto the field was always a highlight.

I missed going to a game when I was visiting California in 2019 and had zero idea that it would be another three years before I had a chance to go back. Thankfully I finally got back to a game last week. Turkey Mike’s BBQ is still there. As are the Churro guy* and the Beer Batter.** Since our tickets were free we got BBQ and churros. Unfortunately though Smash for Cash is gone…so it goes.

*I still need to get his card.

**A gimmick that Trenton tried this year but hasn’t figured out how to do it as well as San José. Sadly it looks like Martinelli’s has dropped its sponsorship so he’s no longer the apple juice batter after the 7th inning.

The big news is that the Giants are in Low-A now. And it kind of shows with baseball that’s closer to what I saw in the Draft League at Trenton than in AA Somerset. The Giants spotted Stockton with a 7–0 lead after 1.5 innings (making us question whether we’d wasted our money on the tickets) and proceeded to tie everything up at 8 apiece via a grand slam and Earl Weaver through three complete.

Utterly wild but absolutely in keeping with this level of ball where no lead is big enough and no pitcher can be relied on. Or fielder. The second Giants pitcher (Joe Kemlage) took over in the 3rd and pitched a great game—2 earned runs in 5 innings—with his biggest problems coming as a result of some sloppy shortstop play that gifted Stockton a run.

Unfortunately the Giants could never get the lead despite making it exciting in the 9th and lost 10–9. Kemlage got hung with an undeserved Loss but we went home happy after a game that started off so badly ended up being surprisingly crisp and exciting.

Oh, and the Beer Batter hit the absolute tar out of the ball all night as he not only never came close to a strikeout but got thrown out trying to stretch his second double into the cycle in the 9th inning.

The boys and I also got some autographing in. Travis Ishikawa is the Giants hitting coach and we caught him before the game. San José Muni is one of the lousiest places I’ve ever seen to get autographs* so I counted that as a win. Both boys know Ishikawa and his eponymous game so they were very happy too.

*It wasn’t easy when I was a kid but it’s gotten worse. There’s basically zero access to the players on the field and no place to hang around after the game.

We got some excitement as well. Dave Righetti and Bruce Bochy were in the house that night (probably in town for that weekend’s 2012 reunion). We saw both by the cages and it was nice to say hi. We had nothing proper to get signed (plus we’ve gotten them TTM) so we didn’t bother them much. It was funny to see the boys get a bit star struck by Boch since they did not expect him to be so big.

Really interesting for me to compare the player behavior to what I see on Somerset. Guys in San José are clearly still excited to have cards and are perfectly willing to not only sign a ton but chat about what pens they prefer. A shame they lose that joy by the time they reach AA.

All in all a great night. San José Muni is celebrating its 80th birthday this season which sent me to the googles to see how many professional baseball stadiums in the US are older than it. From what I can tell there are 7 older stadiums (5 MiLB and 2 MLB) currently in regular use which is about what I expected.

Stadiums don’t really last that long and Muni is definitely showing its age. It’s almost embarrassingly bare bones compared to Trenton or Somerset but it’s got a lot of character and has definitely gone around to being funky old instead of just a dump (replacing the fiberglass bleachers with aluminum ones helped a ton) and as the Bay Area has gotten increasingly new and shiny and characterless it’s nice to spend time in those places that essentially haven’t changed.

A Few Minor League Games

Been going to more minor league games over the past month. A good way to stay relaxed especially while I’m still more comfortable only doing outside activities.

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I got up to Somerset on the first day of summer and was treated to kind of an amazing weather show—typical New Jersey where the weather can’t choose and instead ends up with a little of everything. This culminated in a spectacular 8:30 sunset and rainbow combination.

The game against Hartford was pretty good too. Both teams were fighting for the firs half championship and the result was as tight as expected. Luis Medina started for the Patriots and it’s clear why he’s a top prospect since he’s no just capable of throwing 100mph gas but has some nasty offspeed stuff that he can rely on too. Unfortunately he could only make it through the Hartford lineup twice and the bullpen wasn’t as sharp.

Somerset did have its chances but couldn’t get that clutch hit and fell to a 3–2 loss. And as good as Medina was my main memory of the game was that it turned into an Ump show with an inconsistent strike zone (which contributed to Medina hitting 90 pitches in the 5th inning) as well as inserting themselves into ever single call they could.

Though I also need to mention that one of the Hartford players is actually from Somerset and his grandmother threw out the first pitch to him so that was pretty cool.

Yes I did get autographs. The Somerset environment isn’t great for getting signatures but I did bring a couple cards of their coach since those are pretty easy to get. While I’m happy to have added Chris Denorfia to the collection (especially on my first signed 2008 Upper Deck) I totally missed that Blaine Beatty was the pitching coach and as a guy who pitched in the early 1990s I have plenty of his cards lying around.

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I caught another great sunset at the Trenton-Mahoning Valley game the following week. Unlike my previous game this one was mostly good. A Mahoning Valley error in the first lead to three runs which were all Trenton really needed. A great read by Thunder coach Jeff Manto allowed a runner to score from first base on a hit and run and give the Thunder an insurance run after Mahoning Valley had clawed a couple runs back in the top of the 6th.

It turned out that the Draft League mandates 7-inning games on Tuesdays (excluding home openers) before the Amateur Draft so this game ended in a quick two hours with a 4–2 6.5 inning Thunder victory. Trenton, being a wonderfully fan-centered place treats the 7-inning ticket stubs as a coupon for a free ticket to another game so that was an unexpected bonus.

Two Mahoning Valley coaches played in the majors. Homer Bush has a bunch of cards so I just went with a pair of nice photos and managed to get my first signed 1998 Fleer as well. Ron Mahay though, despite a 14-year career and over 500 games played, has just a solitary individual card and only two MLB cards in all. And they’re both ridiculously hard to track down since apparently no one collected or sells Topps Total.

I’m glad I found one but this kind of thing is possibly  my least favorite aspect of the modern card collecting industry. It’s been a lot of fun getting autographs at the draft league games because it reminds me how much baseball cards matter. The players in particular love to see their coaches’ cards and, correctly, treat them as tangible evidence of having made it to the big leagues.

Everyone who plays in the majors should have a card yet the number of guys who can play for years and never get a card is really frustrating. It took Mahay seven years to get a “rookie” card and that’s just wrong.

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I used my free ticket last week on a game against Williamsport. Another great night though the threatened rain (which never materialized) scared a bunch of fans off. Great clouds though.

Before talking about he game though I need to mention this photo. Taking a panoramic shot from my sea is clearly urning into a thing but this is the first time I’ve tried one with the game going on. Panoramas are interesting with action because I have to swing the lens slowly and that doesn’t always work with fast action. In this case it works amazingly well since I managed to capture both the pitcher’s follow-through when he released the ball and the hitter’s follow through after making contact. Definitely something worth trying again. I doubt I’ll get another shot this nice though.

This was a game where Manto’s aggressive baserunning ended up costing the team. No blunders just that Williamsport executed well on defense and getting multiple guys thrown out at 3rd base and home plate is usually going to hurt you. Is very nice to see that the defense has improved a ton after that disastrous game earlier this season though. Unfortunately the Thunder relief pitchers have problems finding the plate and turned a close 2–2 game into a 6–2 loss.

Jesse Litsch is the Williamsport manager and may be the only former pitcher who I’ve come across as the manager in the minors. He signed a pair before the game including my first 2010 Upper Deck.

I also got another pair from Shawn Chacon. A 2006 for myself and a custom for Marc Brubaker’s Astrograph project. Marc’s customs are always nice and since Chacon has no Astros cards he was especially excited to see this one and very much appreciated keeping the extra Marc had sent. I’m glad I not only helped him out in his project but that I got to relay a good story as well. This should be on it’s way back to Houston now if it hasn’t gotten there already.

Halfway through the season it’s been a good season for coach signatures (I think I’ve gotten 11 different coaches). Though it’s also making me notice some things about the coaching pipeline. I hadn’t paid much attention to it until I wrote about my sons’ 1991 projects but now in many ways it’s become something I can’t not see. It gets even worse when I put all the coaches I’ve gotten autographs from together.

This is a pretty white group. I’ve included two college coaches in here as well but as far as I’m concerned it’s all part of the same pipeline and demonstrates why Major League Baseball’s coaching and managing has such a diversity problem. To MiLB’s credit the coaching staffs do seem to be pretty diverse but the guys with MLB experience don’t reflect that and given the way MLB hires managers that’s a problem.

It’s also been interesting to me to see how many Draft League coaches have MLB experience but how few of the AA coaches do.  This was very different in 2019 when most AA teams that came to town had at last one former MLB  player on staff. This year it was just Hartford.

Project 1991

A couple Christmases ago my eldest received his godfather’s set of 1991 Topps. When we started going to Trenton Thunder games that spring I realized that a lot of the coaches coming through town were players in 1991. And so a project was born. That year we tried to get as many of his 1991 Topps cards signed as we could.

Turns out it was just four—Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, and two Frank Violas—but we had big plans for 2020 and were excited to continue. Yeah that never happened, but during that year my youngest ended up with a set of 1991 Score and so he decided to join us on this quest in 2021.

We’ve been working them the past two years now. Casey Candeale. Jeff Manto. Derrick May. Scott Bradley. Dennis Rasmussen. It’s been a lot of fun and gives them an entry into those 1991 sets.* They may not know all the players but they’re connecting to them as coaches. And by being pulling cards they end up really looking at the sets and how their photography is different.

*I have previously wondered about what it means to collect cards of players you don’t know.

It’s also just been fun for my eldest’s godfather to watch as well since it’s not just letting a set sit in storage they’re doing something with the cards. Every time we get one signed I send him a text to show the new addition.

My eldest is up to ten cards now.* In an ideal world this would be twelve but we missed out on Devon White with Buffalo/Trenton and Pete Incaviglia with Sugar Land.

*Yeah I know I haven’t mentioned Jim Gott yet. Just keep reading.

My youngest meanwhile has seven. He missed out on Oliver, Harper and Viola in 2019 but picked up Oliver this year.

The interesting thing this year is that these went from being a bunch of individual projects to something we’re all doing together. When we got Dennis Rasmussen’s autograph, my eldest couldn’t make the game but my youngest insisted on bringing the Topps card. He was just as happy, if not happier, to get a card signed for his brother as he was to get his own signed.

Last weekend neither boy could make the game so I ended up going alone. Jim Gott was the visiting pitching coach and was super nice abut signing the boys’ cards but also signed a couple for me as well.

I was only going to ask for the 1986 (I usually limit myself to two so pushing to four felt wrong) but he just asked to sign everything. I’d gotten him TTM a few years ago but in person is always better. I texted the boys a photo of their signed cards as soon as I sat down. Very fun. I won’t make a habit of doing this for them since the entire point is that we’re doing it together but once in a while is acceptable. Plus Gott was another guy who we’d missed last year.

I also got a pair of cards signed by Trenton pitching coach Shawn Chacon. Chacon may be most famous for how his career ended but hung around in the majors for eight years before then. This was another fun request where the Draft League players got super excited to see their coach have real MLB baseball cards. Just goes to show how much cards mean in terms of having made it to the show.

This pair of cards also filled two holes in my one-per-year pseudo project. For 1957–2021 I’m now just missing 1971, 1996, and 1999* which still boggles my childhood mind.

*I’ve got a reprint in the 1971 slot on the tracking page.

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Anyway aside from the autographs Trenton opened the stadium a half hour earlier than usual which meant that I got to watch batting practice for the first time in ages. Game started off great too. Super crisp with the Trenton pitcher being lights out in the first three innings.

Sadly the wheels fell off in the 4th and he game degenerated into everything you’d fear about the draft league. Bad pitching. Sloppy defense. Local fans weren’t happy and I can tell they’re not used to this level of play after a couple decades in AA.

Trenton ended up losing 12–8, outhitting State College 14-6 but also committing 5 errors and walking 4 guy in one inning.

Back in Trenton

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The biggest problem with Trenton being in the Draft League now is that the season doesn’t start until June. This is a shame since I really like the Trenton baseball experience and cutting over two months off the season makes me feel like I’ve been robbed.

Anyway the season finally started and my youngest and I made our way out to the ballpark last Friday night. Frederick was in town and their coaching staff is all former Major League players so we got there early to hang over the rail. This is a lot of fun with the low-key nature of the Draft League. Zero autograph hounds prospecting just a couple older fans who remember guys from their youth.

Which meant that we just got to hang out at the railing and watch the grounds crew set up the field and just get ourselves into the mood of things. It’s relaxing just being there and my youngest is perfectly happy to pay attention to how the field is set up before the game and get fist bumps (and a lump of gum) from the players as they warm up.

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We had great seats for the game too, Right behind the dugout just safe enough behind the screen. Draft League games seem to be pretty fast and crisp. Maybe not the best defense but the pitching is good and Trenton puts on a good show so you don’t realize that you’re at the lowest possible MiLB rung.

They really do deserve a full season team.

So we got a crisp 2–0 Trenton win in about two and a half hours. Frederick was held to one hit and aside from one string of three singles in a row, Trenton never manufactured much danger either. Might’ve been a little quicker but the last half of the game was a bit Spring Training-like with wholesale substitutions from both sides that made keeping score a bit of a pain.

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All in all a perfect night with the only blemish being that they sold out of Pork Roll by the third inning. My youngest got autographs from both Joe Oliver and Dennis Rasmussen. We’d gotten Oliver a couple years ago but since then my youngest had picked up a 1991 Score set that he’s working the same way my eldest is working 1991 Topps and getting cards signed by all the coaches that come through town. To-date that’s been Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, Frank Viola, Casey Candeale, Jeff Manto, Derrick May, Scot Bradley, and Dennis Rasmussen.* And he also got a practice ball and some scorekeeping practice.

*We’ve missed a few too including Devon White, Pete Incaviglia, and Jim Gott.

Was fun getting a chance to talk to Rasmussen and Oliver too. This level is very laid back and I can see they’re enjoying teaching. Rasmussen was wearing an MLBPAA shirt and seemed tickled that I both noticed and liked it. Oliver meanwhile was chilling in the dugout when one of the players noticed my youngest had a card and went to bring it to him. So he came over and chatted a bit.

Yeah I also got a handful of cards signed. Nice to add Rasmussen and I picked two Oliver cards with photos I really liked. I got Angel Sanchez after the game and that was fun too. He seemed a bit surprised that I had cards and when he was signing all the Spanish-speaking players crowded around to take a look and were excited to see them. Sanchez asked to keep a card as well.

I’m happy to have this one since it means that I finally have a 2011 Topps card in the album leaving me only a few years short of something that would truly blow my childhood mind. Since I wrote that post I’ve filled things in quite a bit and am now missing only 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2007 (and a non-reprint 1971) to have a signed Topps card for each year from 1957–2021.

LOL

I mentioned at the end of my previous Somerset post about how some of the autograph seekers were bitching about Anthony Volpe. I downplayed it a little in that post but some of the complaints sort of stuck with me over the last couple of weeks.

When I was getting autographs at Trenton I don’t remember anyone complaining about guys signing or how they signed. Yes there were definitely guys seeking to sell signatures but in general things were pretty positive.

Somerset though either attracts a different breed of autograph seeker or the hobby has changed for the worse since 2019. A lot of the complaints about Volpe involved his signature and how he “ruins” balls and other items that he signs.  I understand being disappointed when a guys signs but demanding that he sign everything with a nice pristine signature when he’s trying to sign for as many kids as possible really rubs me the wrong way.

Marc Brubaker’s Volpe TTM

A large part of this though is due to the fact that Volpe has been a good TTM signer for a few years and is known for having a nice signature which stands out compared to so many poor signatures from the “never learned cursive in school” generation of players that he’s a part of. He’s also showing up at local signings* where his signature remains very nice. He’s set a high bar for what people should expect.

*At $99 per sig!

Still, he can take his time with TTMs and private signings and it’s completely unfair to compare those examples to something signed in the post-game crush as he makes his way down the tunnel carrying three bats, his glove, and batting helmet. I’m never going to complain about a guy who’s clearly trying to be good to the fans.

Then, last Wednesday, I got lucky at the Somerset game and got Volpe’s post-game rush signature. And now I understand why they were complaining.

Yeah… To be completely clear, I am not upset and still think that complaining about something like this makes you an entitled asshole. Ink is ink is ink. At the sam time I have to admit that my immediate response when I saw what he’d written was to start laughing. I find it to be absolutely hilarious and in many ways better than his “nice” signature since it comes with a ready-made story to accompany the “WTF is that” question this card will receive going forward.

I’ll be able to talk about all the entitled guys and how Volpe intentionally  hangs out at the end of the game to sign for as many people as possible. And I’ll be able to talk about how the game I got this Volpe went 2 for 3 with 2 walks, 2 stolen bases, and 2 runs scored.* I can see why he’s hyped since when he’s on the bases he’s the kind of electric player you’re always keeping on eye on.

*Second game in a row I’ve gone to where Somerset has spotted the visiting team like 5 runs early  and then pent the rest of the game clawing its way back to the win column. This time a big 3-run homer from Josh Breaux served the same purpose as Michale Beltre’s grand slam before a bases-loaded fielders choice in the bottom of the 8th drove in the eventual winning run as the Reading 3rd baseman attempted a 5-3 double play where he ran the ball to 3rd instead of either a 5-4-3 or a 5-2-3 double play and the batter just managed to beat the throw to first. Anyway. 2.5 hour game. Patriots won 7–6.

At the same time. Yeah. I can’t sugarcoat anything. This is not just one of the worst signatures I’ve encountered but it’s also one of the largest deltas between signature qualities I’ve seen. And that includes guys like Stan Musial who were signing on their deathbeds a decade after they couldn’t control a pen any more.

Still, into the album it goes and we’ll see if it amounts to anything more interesting than this story. He certainly has the tools to go far but I’ve seen enough AA baseball to know better than to assume anything.

Another funny thing about Somerset is how there’s a huge scrum of guys trying to get Volpe’s signature and no one seems to care about Sparky Lyle. Lyle seems to be available before every game and is extremely generous with his time as he signs and poses for photos with the one older fan who cares or the two kids whose dad knows what’s up.

I was the older fan this game. After getting a Yankee card TTM I decided to get a Phillies card this time and the only one I could find in my collection was a 1982. I’m slowly coming around to these being okay for autographing despite the facsimile sigs.

Hopefully I’ll get to be the dad too as I also have a pair of Lyle cards in my snapcase for my kids to use whenever we all get back to a game. No more 11:00am starts so our next visit will be for sure be either a Friday night or weekend day game.

A mental health day

It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Spring break always throws me for a loop plus I’ve had some dental issues,* we’re planning for summer, omnipresent COVID uncertainty,** and the general state of the world between the Ukraine disaster and the Supreme Court getting even more illegitimate than I expected. All of which has left me feeling like I just need to find a way to meditate for a day.

*Nothing crazy but I had to get an extraction.

**Some local schools are reverting to mandatory masking due to local spread.

Yesterday I got my daily email from the Somerset Patriots and noticed that the game was scheduled for 11:00am. I had had this circled on my calendar ever since schedules were released but have been so out of things that I hadn’t even noticed it coming up.  Since I haven’t managed to get to any games anywhere since I froze my ass off at Princeton in March* I made the quick decision that what I really needed was to hit another baseball game.

*I do need to get to more Princeton games but kid sports have started to interfere there plus our weather has been crap.

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So I made the drive up to Somerset and confirmed that yes, I really did need to hit another baseball game. I was a bit worried in the first couple innings as the teams combined for 9 runs in about an hour of gameplay. New Hampshire jumped out to a 5–0 lead through an Earl Weaver (after putting guys on via walk and HBP) and a two-run shot before Somerset loaded the bases (via dropped 3rd strike, walk, and infield single) and Michael Beltre hit a grand slam to turn it back into a game.

Things settled down after that though. Somerset strung a bunch of hits together in the fourth—scoring four runs and threatening more before running themselves into an inning-ending double play—but we went from what looked like a possible four-hour game to one that was the standard three-hour length.

The 9th inning got kind of scary though since the Somerset closer quickly gave back two runs via another two-run bomb and then let another two guys reach base (both via bunt!) with only one out. Luckily New Hampshire ran themselves into a game-ending double play and Somerset hung on for the 9–8 victory.

Not super crisp but decent baseball. Also very nice to see this level of minor league ball again too with players who are all prospects dreaming of the show but which are also mostly guys who have a legit chance of at least a cup of coffee.

I decided to hang around afterwards for a bit and test my luck with autographs. It feels like forever since I’ve done this. Getting coaches to sign is easy. Players? I last did this in 2019. The big name in Somerset is Anthony Volpe. I did not get his autograph though he did use my pen to sign for a dozen kids. He seems to be a reliable signer after the games but (correctly) prioritizes kids.

I did however get the grand slam hero of the game, Michael Beltre, on my ticket stub. The perfect memento for a day I sorely needed.

I also got a few other Somerset prospects. Josh Breaux is currently injured and didn’t play. Nor was Luis Medina, the only guy on he Yankees 40-man roster, scheduled to start (though it was his birthday so we all wished him happy birthday after the game). Blake Perkins didn’t get into the game but Jeisson Rosario made a few nice catches in left field including getting to a ball that the baserunners in the ninth didn’t expect him to reach.

The autographing was mostly fun. Good weather and a few little kids to bring smiles to everyone’s faces. A couple of the older guys who are clearly in it for the money got on my nerves a little bit as they bitched about Volpe being a punk because he tries to duck them and has started signing AVolpe or AV now. But for the most part it’s still fans who go to the game and do this for a hobby.

There’s another 11am game in a couple weeks and I hope I don’t need it as much as this one. Yes I’m planning on going even if I don’t need it.

Home Opener

It’s cold this week but last Saturday was one of those weird spring days which alternated between being cold, drizzly, & miserable and being warm & sunny. Not the best day for a baseball game but with Princeton not having played a season in 2020 and 2021 I was well overdue for some college ball and there was no was I was going to miss the game.

As much as I love pro baseball, I spent way too many years going to Stanford games and associating the ringing of metal bats and chatter from the dugouts with the true beginning of the year. My soul needed the reset especially after the past couple of years.

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Yale was in town for both the home and Ivy League opener and while Ivy League ball isn’t to the standard of Pac 10* ball it was a nice crisp game. Made it through four and a half innings in an hour with starter working quickly and into and out of jams. Both struggled in the 6th as Yale strung some hits together to manufacture two runs before each team hit a solo home run. Then the last couple innings were a return to form.

*Having never ben to a Pac 12 game I’ll have a hard time calling it that. I really just miss the original Six Pac which I grew up with.

Princeton rallied in the bottom of the ninth by putting runners on the corner with one out and getting the go-ahead run to the plate. Unfortunately, while the scored a second run on a sacrifice fly, Yale threw out the runner trying to advance to second and ended the game with one of the weirdest sacrifice double plays you’ll ever see. An exciting end for Yale and a gutting one for Princeton as he game ended 3–2.

We didn’t stay for the second game* since the weather looked to be deteriorating and the boys were getting cold.** We did however manage to get cards signed by both John Stuper and Scott Bradley before we headed home.

*Ivy League ball involves two 9-inning games in a Saturday doubleheader followed by a single Sunday game. 

**Game 2 was not as crisp either with Princeton making 6 errors and Yale scoring seven runs in one inning en route to a 14–8 win. It also snowed on Sunday so we didn’t even think about going to the final game.

Stuper has been the Yale coach since 1993 and is a really nice guy. He chatted with us as he was signing and I know he’s been good to people via TTM as well. The boys like that he won a World Series in 1982.

Bradley meanwhile has been the Princeton coach since 1998. I asked him about the 1986 Donruss card where he’s holding four gloves and he said it’s because he was goofing around and having some fun with the photo due to being a utility guy. While I was aware of the four gloves I had not noticed that he was listed in three different positions on the card as well.

Nice to get Bradley’s signature out of the way in game one too. My eldest continued his 1991 Topps quest (he’s up to eight cards now) and now we can just go to subsequent games this year without looking out for autographs.

A pair of games

After our first game at the beginning of this month we decided it was time to try a couple more. A good thing too since Covid numbers are going up again and it might get a bit scary to take the kids out soon. Things aren’t bad yet and hopefully we’ll respond fast enough to turn things around rather than let them spiral out of control for a month.

Anyway enough about Covid, this is about the two baseball games we went to last week as a way of salvaging a bit of normalcy for the first time in over a year.

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The first game we went to was at Somerset where we got to watch some of the guys we used to watch at Trenton. It’s interesting to compare the experience to what it was when Somerset was independent a couple years ago. Food is definitely cheaper and the crowd is a bit more partisan. Something about Independent ball caused fans to be a bit agnostic about things. Being a Yankees affiliate in definitive Yankee territory though resulted in a crowd that’s a bit more vocal: heckling the opposing team, complaining about the Somerset pitching, etc.

Heck the crowd was a bit more aggressive than Trenton too. Definitely a different vibe and made all of us miss the Trenton experience a bit. It’s not Major League Baseball’s fault in this case since the Yankees are the ones who changed affiliates but the fact that Trenton ended up in the Draft League is something we can blame MLB for.

The game though was good. At first. Got through six innings in 1:45 and we were having a pretty good time. Baseball card night so we each got a small pack of four Bowman cards. Somerset was winning 6–1 and cruising. And then the wheels fell off. The last three innings took another 1:45 as Somerset’s relievers couldn’t find the plate and shipped eight runs to lose 9–7.

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Still it was good to get out. A bit of a weird experience as the smoke from the West Coast wildfires made the air hazy and the moon red but I really like the drive through the wilderness to and from the stadium. No autographs. The boys tried for Sparky Lyle but he walked too fast and neither of them is bold enough to walk fast or call his name.

Later last week we went to a Draft League game. With the Canada border opening up again, Toronto is moving out of Buffalo and so the Bisons are leaving Trenton and returning to Buffalo. The last AAA Thunder game was last Sunday and as a result, the Draft League Thunder are moving back to Trenton for the last week of their season.

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Through this month though the Draft League Thunder have been playing their games at Rider University. Free admission and I wanted to check it out. The experience couldn’t have been better. Maybe 20 of us in the stands at a small college field. Super fast crisp game—so fast they didn’t even have a national anthem or 7th inning stretch*—which finished in two hours. Started at 3:00. Ended at 5:00. 80° day with clouds in the sky and just enough shade in the stands to be comfortable.

*Still got Sweet Caroline in though.

I can’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon with the boys. Due to free admission you can’t keep foul balls but the Thunder equipment manager gave one to each of the boys since they were the only kids in the stands. Plus we added a couple more autographs to our binders. Jeff Manto is the Draft League Thunder manager and Derrick May manages the Frederick Keys and they’re both in the 1991 Topps set.

I got some of my dupes signed but I’m really just excited for the boys. My eldest is up to seven signed cards from his 1991 Topps set. He got Joe Oliver, Brian Harper, and two Frank Violas back in 2019 and has now added Casey Candeale, Jeff Manto, and Derrick May. My youngest was working my 1991 Donruss duplicates in 2019 but now has a 1991 Score set of his own so he’s gotten Candeale, Manto, and May this year to go with the TTM Will Clark he got last year.

I know I’ve wondered before what resonance these players have to my kids but I also know that by getting autographs of the guys who come through town as coaches it actually makes these sets more personal to them as well. They’re not just players who played when their dad was a kid any more. Instead they’re a way for my kids to document the games they went to with me over the past couple years.

Restarting Normalcy

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On Father’s Day the Trenton Thunder invited everyone who had been in the Kids Club in 2020 to a day at the park. They had dollar hot dogs and free popcorn and soda. The kids could take part in various activities like hitting from home plate and running the bases. It looked to be a fun thing to do and so I duly took the boys.

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We had fun. Good to be back at the park and remember what it felt like to be in the stands even if there wasn’t a game. Also good to see that we felt relatively safe there. Which is why when the Thunder offered us half-price tickets to any upcoming Tuesday night game I decided to get some.

So last Tuesday we went to our first game since September 2019. It’s been way too long. I should’ve gotten more than one game’s worth of tickets.*

*Seriously though, until the kids can get vaccinated I reserve the right to turtle the family at home for a month and committing to multiple games is not something I feel comfortable doing yet. As much as I’d love for this post to bookend my start of Covid post, we’re not out of the woods yet.

We ended up with seats four rows off the field, right behind the plate. The boys have never sat that close before and it would’ve been plenty of fun if that was all that we did. But it turned out to be quite the event-filled night out.

It was a mystery giveaway night so we all got bats. Not full size but not mini either. Two-foot bats are big enough to actually use and kind of scary as giveaways.* I’m glad I brought a bad to put them into otherwise the boys would’ve been swinging them all game and there’s a decent chance someone would’ve been accidentally noggined.

*Though not as scary as the metal BBQ spatula and fork set a couple years ago.

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Then, since they were wearing their BRIGHT orange Kids Club tshirts, they were approached to do two of the activities—specifically throwing out the first pitch and saying “play ball” to start the game. My eldest was game, my youngest was not. So the eldest ended up throwing out the first pitch and being named the “fan of the game.” Very cool.

Oh, also it was kids eat free night so they each got a free hot dog, bag of popcorn, and soda. Plus dollar hot dogs for the rest of us. No complaints here.

No complaints about the weather either. Kind of a perfect balmy night. No rain in sight. A crisp well-played pitching duel (even though the teams combined to go through nine pitchers) which the Thunder won 2–1 by coming from behind and scoring 2 runs in the bottom of the 7th inning. No pitch clock in AAA but we still clocked in at ~2.5 hours.

And we even got some autographs. Turns out the Trenton/Buffalo coaches feature a couple guys who have a ton of junk wax cards (including in the 1991 sets that each of the boys has). We only got manager Casey Candaele’s autograph after the game but it was a wonderful way to wrap up a perfect night. I got these two signed—I love the 1993 photo and it looks better on-card than in the scan—while the boys got a 1991 Topps and 1991 Score from their sets.* Unlike a lot of the times when I’ve wondered what their connection to an autographed card will be, Candeale has an obvious hook due to his brother and mom’s relation to A League of Their Own.

*My eldest is up to five (I think) 1991 Topps cards signed from his set while this is my youngest’s second 1991 Score. This isn’t a project as much as a fun way for them to use their complete sets as a way of elating to the players.  

The boys went to bed a little late and took a while to fall asleep since they were both a bit hyped up.

For my part I’m less excited and more almost relieved. Feels nice to do something normal again. But even besides Covid, it’s great to remember how much going to a ball game—especially a low-stakes minor league game—just relaxes me. I can enjoy the good plays but just the pace and ambiance does wonders for my peace of mind. I hope I can get to some more this summer.

Revisiting the 2019 Thunder

While we haven’t been able to go to a Minor League game in well over a year, that 2019 season that the boys and I spent at Trenton is the gift that keeps on giving. We’ve been keeping an eye out for the players we got to know and it’s been a lot of fun to see them progress through the Minors and into the Majors.

This is something the three of us are all doing kind of in parallel. No one’s tracking, we’re just letting each other know when someone we watched makes it to the show or does something noteworthy. I have however decided to do quick card mockups of the guys who have debuted in the majors.

Since we’re up to a page’s-worth of cards now I figure it’s time for a quick rundown of who we’ve been following. And for fun I’m including autographs (when I have them) which I got that 2019 season as well as looking into whether or not their major league appearances have translated to cardboard yet.

Adonis Rosa was the first of the 2019 Thunder to make it to the show, debuting in the summer of 2019. This was a thrill for the boys since they had just gotten his autograph in Trenton that spring. Rosa pitched one game in 2019, then 2020 happened and he not only never got called up again he ended up being released last September.

He’s supposedly playing for Guadalajara in the Mexican League but his name doesn’t show up on the Guadalajara roster

Detroit grabbed Rony García in the 2019 Rule 5 draft so he ended up spending the entire 2020 season on the Tigers’ MLB roster. He ended up pitching 21 innings over 15 games, winning one game but getting knocked around a bit with a 8.15 ERA. His 2021 looked to be going better until he sprained his knee.

Unlike Rosa, García does have a Major League card that I should consider grabbing for the album. I haven’t started a “guys I watched in the minors” mini-PC but I can totally see myself doing this.

Brooks Kriske pitched in four games in 2020 and has pitched in four more this season. His ERA is not great (12.91 after 7.2 innings) but one horrible appearance each season for a reliever will really mess things up.

He looks to be a member of New York’s taxi squad for this season so I suspect we’ll see more of him this year. He has no MLB cards yet but if he sticks around all year he might slip into one of the end-of-year sets.

So I did get Nick Nelson’s autograph in 2019 only I sent it to Zippy. Probably should’ve gotten a stub signed. Oh well no regrets. Hardest part of Minor League autographing is getting the cards.

Nelson has been pitching a lot more that Kriske has for the Yankees—11 games last year, 8 games so far this year—and has a stronger ERA to show for it. He did pick up his first win last year but only has two losses this year. Like Kriske, he appears to be doing the tax squad thing bouncing between Scranton and New York.

Like Rony García, Nelson is on a multiplayer rookie card in 2021 Heritage.

So far, none of the guys who made it to the Majors where a big deal when they were in Trenton. Albert Abreu on the other hand is a completely different story. He was one of the guys to watch in 2019 and already had a bunch of cards available for autograph hunters to the point where he had to set strict one-per limits on requests.

He actually sort of struggled that season but I wasn’t surprised to see him get a chance in 2020. His 2020 numbers weren’t great (2 games, 1.1 innings, 3 earned runs) but he’s been doing good so far in 2021. Yes he’s made the trip between Scranton and New York a dozen times this season, but he’s kept the batters off the basepaths when he’s in New York.

Abreu also shares the same multiplayer rookie card as Nick Nelson. Unfortunately, the third player (Yajure) is not one of the Trenton guys.

Now, in terms of players who had it when they were at Trenton, Deivi Garcia is probably the best example. He could pitch and we all knew it was only a matter of time before he got called up. Unfortunately, I never managed to get his autograph but it was fun to watch him play.

Deivi is the first of the pitchers here who has featured as a starter. He had a decent 2020 where he went 3–2 over 6 starts and an ERA of 4.98. He’s primarily in Scranton this year but has been called up for two spot starts after which he is immediately sent back down. Neither of his year’s starts went particularly great.

Of the players here, Deivi is the one who Topps is hammering as one of the choice rookies of the season. He’s got cards in every product and I’ll be unable to avoid snagging one at some point.

Like Albert Abreu, Trevor Stephan was another prospect we all knew to watch in 2019. He battled injuries during the spring we were going to games but we did get to watch him pitch one great one. He’s also the only autograph in this post which we got at the open house. He got picked by Cleveland in the 2020 Rule 5 draft so he’s been up in the Majors since opening day.

So far he’s doing okay. 24.1 innings over 17 games. A 4.07 ERA which suggests that he’s been effective in most of his appearances nor has he gotten knocked around yet. And as a Rule 5 guy there’s a decent chance he’ll end up on one of the fall sets.

Garrett Whitlock wasn’t as good as Deivi Garcia but he was another pitcher who was clearly one to pay attention to. Unlike with Garcia, I did manage to get Whitlock’s autograph on a ticket stub. Whitlock was grabbed by Boston in last winter’s Rule 5 draft and has been pitching great for them all season.

34 strikeouts in 32.2 innings over 19 games. A 2–1 record and 1.95 ERA. It’s been fun to see how well he’s doing since he was also one of the friendlier players at Trenton too. He has no cards yet and I’m definitely looking forward to when he gets his first one.

And finally the first position player. Chris Gittens was literally the nicest guy on the Trenton team. Great with the fans. The type of player to promise to return to waiting kids and then actually do so. He was a good hitter and put together a pretty good season but I had to temper my kids’ optimism about his future because he’d been stuck at Trenton for a few years.

Was cool to see him get called up and the morning after he hit his first MLB home run my kids were more excited about him than they were about the Giants coming back from a 7–0 deficit. My eldest couldn’t wait to do the ceremonial transfer of the autographed card from the Minor League page to the Major League page. I’m pretty sure they’ll be excited to get a Major League card of him should he actually get one. Debuting in June 5 means there’s a chance he’ll make it into Update.

And for now that’s it. There are other guys from the 2019 team who have made it to the Majors but they weren’t part of that spring team that we got to know. Will be interesting to see if anyone else makes it up since this would be the year to do it. I see a decent number of guys in AAA (including a bunch in the Padres organization) so we’ll see if I have to make a sequel to this page.