Walk the Plank Mailday

A couple weeks ago, Matt over at Bob Walk the Plank pinged me to ask if the boys and I had any Series 2 or Bowman needs. Considering that we’d not ripped any product yet this year,* the answer was a definite yes. The nice thing with collecting with kids is that they enjoy the commons as long as they’re Giants. Which makes it very easy for people to unload extra base on us.

*We’ve since ripped some Series 2 as of National Baseball Card Day last weekend.

A few days later I received a bubble mailer of cards and sure enough there were plenty of Giants cards to go around. I distributed a bunch before I remembered to take photos so there was more than is pictured in this blog post.

Two decent stacks of Bowman and Series 2 were a lot of fun. Not much to say about the Series 2 except to note that the Tony Watson really confused the boys. He’s in the checklist because Topps doesn’t update its checklists when players are free agents. Even though Series 2 releases in mid-June, it wasn’t able to catch that Watson had signed with the Phillies in February let alone that he’d subsequently signed with the Angels in March AND made their Opening Day Roster.

To be clear, this isn’t why the boys were confused (Jeff Samardzija is also in the checklist despite having been released by the Giants last September). What got them was that Watson was traded back to the Giants at the Trade Deadline and they thought, for a moment, that somehow Topps had already produced a Giants card for him rather than Topps being three transactions behind.  I’m really curious if he’ll get a card in Update with the Angels now.

There were a decent number of Joey Bart Bowmans as well as a shiny Hunter Bishop which caught me by surprise since this was supposed to be excess base. Nice to spread the Bowmans around as well but it’s really the Series 2 that the boys enjoyed most.

They may change their mind on Bowman in the next couple of years. In addition to the Giants prospects I also asked for some excess Yankees prospects since Somerset is our local Minor League team and it’ll be nice to try for some autographs there once Covid restrictions are lifted a bit.

Matt was very generous here too with a couple guys who are biggish names already. These are going in the Yankees Prospect box which I’ll check against the Somerset roster next time we go to a game.

Very cool stuff. Thanks Matt!

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.

So I jumped the gun…

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When I wrote about wrapping up our season, while it was about Trenton, I was in the mindset that it was also our last baseball game of the year. As we drove back from the ballpark we were talking about how many games we’d gone to and had all reached the conclusion that that was it.

Then last weekend I caught notice that Somerset was playing a Saturday night game with a super hero theme so the boys and I decided to head out for one last game. I’d been to Somerset earlier this season but this would be the boys’ first time. It’s always nice to add a new ballpark to your life list.

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We ate before we left and still managed to get the the park in time for the boys to get their capes. There were enough kids wearing them at the ballpark that even the older kids were okay dressing up. Also there were all kinds of costumed heroes walking around and many of the fans were dressed up too.

My youngest ate it up. He loves Batman so he loved the Batman-themed jerseys and all the other stuff going on. We just wish that the baseball caps had batears like the batcowl.

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The highlight though was getting Frank Viola’s autograph before the game. My eldest received a complete (well near complete) set of 1991 Topps for Christmas and when we were getting ready for the Thunder season I noticed that Frank Viola was the Binghamton pitching coach. It was at this moment that the idea of getting his 1991 cards signed occurred to him. And it was this moment which also encouraged me to look up the other coaches and figure out who had played in the pros.

So while Joe Oliver was the first autograph of the set (and my son added Brian Harper later), he was disappointed to find that Viola had switched from Binghamton to coach for the High Point Rockers. That High Point was in town for this game meant that we were able to wrap up the season getting autographs on the two cards that were part of the excitement in the beginning. Very cool.

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This takes my son to four in-person autographs on his 1991 Topps set. Is he getting the complete set signed? LOL of course not. But it’s going to be fun to see how many he can add to it. Princeton baseball coach Scott Bradley has a card in the set (a fact I only realized after the season ended).  And Pete Incaviglia manages Sugarland which comes to Somerset a couple times a year*

*Actually this week but only on school nights so no dice.

1991 also just looks pretty good signed. Nice photos and simple borders. I like that the two Viola cards look so different too.

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In order to stave off sibling rivalries for now, I’ve been supplying my youngest with cards so he can “me too” with his brother. In this case where his brother is getting 1991 Topps signed, he’s getting 1991 Donruss. I know I know. Those are just the duplicates I have handy.

Still there is something to 1991’s color which appeals to his sensibilities though. In many ways it’s a perfect set for him. And the 1987 is because I happen to have a ton of those as well. But it’s a good year for Viola too.

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Viola is a super nice guy. Chatted briefly with the kids and thanked them for having his cards. They were super happy as we settled into our seats and watched the game. It was fun for the boys to watch without a rooting interest. Somerset is nominally our home team but they kind of rooted for High Point because of Viola.

We just watched the game. Saw a couple guys steal first base and chatted about how the Atlantic League rules are different.* My eldest has started to recognize when balls are well hit too. For a long time they couldn’t tell if something was hit well or not but a couple of the homers in this game were crushed and he could tell how those looked and sounded different.

*I’ve been wondering how to score those. The box score from this game lists them as HBPs even though the Atlantic League rules suggest that they should be listed as SBs. My gut suggests that they should be listed as WPs or PBs and count (or not) as earned runs accordingly.

He also noticed that many of the players had Major League experience and even recognized a few names from his collection. I suspect we’ll be going to more Somerset games next year and be keeping more up-to-date on the roster. The more low-key autograph scene here suits my preferences and my kids’ comfort a lot more.

High Point jumped out to an early 4-run lead. Somerset scratched back to within one. Then the Somerset pitcher ran out of gas, loaded the bases, and the relievers proceeded to let a couple runs in, re-load the bases and serve up a grand slam. Still, we saw some nice defense in there as well and there were plenty of other Independent League shenanigans as well.

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Mascots and superheroes roaming the aisles. Batman clips on the Jumbotron. Tshirt tosses (my eldest grabbed one). Playing “Piano Man” when it hit 9:00.* And yes fireworks after it all ended and Somerset was put out of its misery.

*No tonic and gin for sale though. 

The show had been hyped as a good one and it was one of the better stadium shows I’ve seen. An NJ Transit train pulled in right during the finale and I found myself wondering how much the train riders could see since it looked like things were being fired off right nest to the tracks.

There’s another series in a couple weeks. I don’t expect us to go but I can see them lobbying for it…

Independent Ball

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A couple weeks ago I noticed that the Somerset Patriots also had a few mid-week morning starts on their schedule. I’ve been intrigued by the idea of checking out some independent ball—especially with the Atlantic League partnering with Major League Baseball to workshop rule changes—but have never made the drive up to Bridgewater. Last Thursday was the first 11AM start of the season so I figured it was as good a time as any to make the drive.

It’s a nice drive along the canal. Only 35–45 minutes and very pretty for most of the way. Parking is cheap and plentiful and, if I lived along the train line,* I wouldn’t even have to drive. The park itself is pretty nice too. A good size but still cozy with no bad seats.

*Specifically the High Bridge line. I live on the Northeast Corridor so to change lines I have to spend the two hours to go all the way in to Newark and then back out again.

Morning starts are designed around school groups. This game was a combination STEM day and sports-careers day. For older kids there was a pre-game QA session with various community members who worked in sports. I didn’t catch much of this but I was listening to the portion involving a former Rutgers Athletic Director who was asked about paying college athletes. A good question. His answer though was essentially that if they paid athletes they’ll end up unionizing. Very weaksauce and serves as additional confirmation that the athletes should be paid.

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The STEM day portion involved a pre-game experiment/demonstration about how launch angle effects distance where they wheeled out a giant protractor and used a sling shot to launch a baseball at the desired angle. This then turned into the between-innings tshirt toss method. I’m not sure any of the kids got the lesson but if even one of them noticed that 45° appeared to be the best angle then I guess the exercise was worth it.

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To the game itself and thinking about the rule changes. First off, the 18″ square bases look comically huge. I’m not sure why this is needed. I guess it’s an attempt to increase offense without tampering with the canonical dimensions of the game. Changing the distance between bases from 90 feet would be outrageous. Making the bases 3″ larger though can slip through the cracks. I’m not sure how much offense it’ll create though since it also means that throws to first don’t have to be as long.

No mound visits is weird but wasn’t noticeable during this game due to pitchers not laboring and getting into trouble. This is an observation of its own and I don’t know if it’s just this game or a generic Atlantic League thing but there were very few walks or strikeouts in the game. At Trenton it seems like deep counts are increasingly the norm and that the three true outcomes are working their way through the minors now too. At Somerset? Lots of balls hit in play. It was kind of wonderful even if the fielding was a bit of an adventure at times.

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The exciting thing though was, appropriately for STEM day, I got to witness the first day of implementing TrackMan and automatic umpires. This isn’t the first case of implementing automatic umpires but it’s still super-new technology to the game. When I was watching the game I thought it was up and running completely and was amazed at how much of a non-factor it was. Then I noticed the home plate umps subbing out* and found out that they were calling their game but also hearing the TrackMan chirping in their ear.

*4 innings for the first ump. 1.5 for the next two (day/night doubleheader so only 7 innings)

Still, a pretty interesting thing to witness and I want to go back to see how the experiment progresses. Automated balls/strikes is clearly something Major League Baseball needs to implement soon.

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To the food. I wasn’t planning on eating at the game. I usually don’t and once I saw the prices I very clearly wasn’t. $5 for a hot dog. $8 for a foot-long. $13 for a burger. Yes the food looked good but even with the usualy ballpark markups that’s pretty high.* Then I saw an advertisement for their special of the day, chicken empanadas. I would’ve been second guessing myself all day if I didn’t try those. They were good. Not great. About the right value for ballpark food. I’m glad I got them. I also don’t need to get them again.

*I couldn’t help but wonder if the higher prices meant they were paying their players better than Minor League salaries.

And lastly. Of course I got some autographs. Frank Viola is the pitching coach for High Point. He’s definitely one of those players I remember from my youth. World Series MVP in 1987. Cy Young in 1988. A frequent All Star during those years. He had a very good big league career and I was very happy to get a couple of his cards signed. He was super nice and I bet he much prefers the autograph scene in the Atlantic League to the one in the Eastern League. There were maybe a handful of us at the game and we were all the type who like the older players or obscure guys. None of that prospecting/investing crowd that exists at Trenton.

I can see my kids having fun here. I can see myself having fun here again. I’ll definitely be back and will dial in some time to visit Bound Brook as well since it looks to be full of Costa Rican and Peruvian food.

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