Embedded baseball writing

Tom Verducci’s outstanding first-person account of his five days spent as a player with the Toronto Blue Jays is a fascinating look into a major-league clubhouse. Spring training is definitely the time to do it. Had he managed to gain access for five days during the season in April (which, of course, wouldn’t happen because those games count), his days would’ve been filled with milling around hotels, malls and playing video games.

Reading the article, which was essentially a journal of his week in Dunedin, in the magazine, took me back to 2001, when I covered the Lakewood BlueClaws. The Phillies and the BlueClaws gave me permission to join the club on a road trip for a feature article in the newspaper. Ideally, I would’ve gone on a slightly longer trip, one that took us to two cities in the South Atlantic League, but my duties in the office required me to choose a four-day, down-and-back trek to Greensboro, N.C. So on the last game of a homestand, I arrived at the ballpark with my computer, as usual, but also with a duffel bag for the trip. We left after the game, arriving at the Greensboro hotel sometime in the late morning. I quickly fell into the routine. Like Verducci with the Blue Jays, I found the BlueClaws players to be very accommodating. They were a bit more relaxed around me after that trip, talking more freely and openly after games and for stories. Interviews were no longer like pulling teeth, answers did not have to be coaxed out of them.

The night before we arrived, rain had soaked the field at 80-year-old War Memorial Stadium. It’s so old that the war it refers to is World War I. The field has horrible drainage, so despite a hot, sunny August day, that night’s game was postponed because the field was too soggy. With idle time, many of the players (as well as myself, the broadcaster, Neil Solondz, and the strength coach, who I spent most of my time with) navigated the overpass and the four-lane highway to get to a Best Buy visible from the hotel parking lot. On the way back, Neil, hitting coach Jeff Manto and I played a round of miniature golf.

I’d ride the bus to the ballpark with the players and was under even more deadline pressure to file my game stories. Once the final out was made, I’d already have a lede written up because then I had to hustle down to the cramped visitors’ clubhouse down the right-field line, get the comments I needed, and zip back up to the press box to file my story before the bus left to return to the hotel.

One morning, I joined the workout group on a trip to a local gym and found myself riding a stationary bike in a line with Manto (who was the acting manager for the trip, with skipper Greg Legg having used these four days for his vacation that the Phillies allow each minor-league instructor to take during the season), the bus driver and several Greensboro residents.

The trip home was much like the ride down, leaving after the game and driving through the night, arriving back at the ballpark at 7:30 in the morning. Everyone then went home for a few hours’ sleep before returning for that night’s game.

I’ll have to dig through my old disks to see if I have the original story to post here. If I do, it’s probably the unedited version.

* * *

I also came across my scorebook from the 2002 BlueClaws season, when they hosted the South Atlantic League All-Star Game. Curious, I opened it up to see who played in that low-Class A midsummer classic. I remembered several names, but was surprised to be reminded of another.

The hometown BlueClaws featured Ryan Howard, now one of the Phillies’ top prospects and the guy who hit 48 home runs at three levels last year. Also starting for the Northern Division was second baseman Jeff Keppinger, then with Pittsburgh’s Hickory affiliate but now in the Mets’ organization, and Jose Bautista, now the Pirates’ starting second baseman. He played third back then for Hickory.

The Southern Division started Dodgers farmhand Victor Diaz at third; in two weeks he could find himself the Mets’ starting right fielder if Mike Cameron isn’t ready. The Mets featured three starters and four all-stars overall that year. Outfielder Angel Pagan was set to start in center and lead off, but was promoted days before the game. Catcher Justin Huber did get the start, but was traded last summer to the Royals. In left field was Jeff Duncan, who’s since reached the big club.

But the name I’d forgotten was one I became aware of only a week or so before the game, when the all-star teams were announced. I hadn’t pegged him as a prospect until then and I remember wondering just how long it might take this guy to get to the big leagues. He didn’t start the game, but after two at bats by starting DH Scott Thorman of Macon, David Wright pinch-hit. He went 0-for-2 in the game, but 25 months later he made his major-league debut with the Mets.

Other SAL All-Stars of 2002 who have reached the majors include Willy Taveras of the Astros and Chris Young of the Rangers, who allowed the only hit in the game to the South (yes, it was a no-hitter until the eighth) but was credited with the win when the North scored three runs in the bottom of the inning.

It’s a little surprising that, just two seasons later, I’m able to name so many players from low Class A who have already reached the majors. The first player from the SAL in 2001-02 who got to the bigs, I believe, was Houston reliever Mike Gallo. Now the all-stars are getting there. A few more should make it in the next year or two, but after that, if they’re not there already, the dream is pretty much over.

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