31 May 2005

Rochester Baseball Review

There comes a time in every man's life...and, and unlike Casey Stengel, I haven't had too many of them. However, despite being only 30, I still can grasp the value of a vacation, especially when my wife impresses it upon me with such vigor as she is capable of displaying when the need arises. Well, after three years of marriage without a vacation of our own since our honeymoon, the need arose. So my wife and I made some plans. We chose to stay at a spot called, fittingly enough, "The Chosen Spot", a modest but very accommodating Bed & Breakfast in Canandaigua, NY, which actually means "the chosen spot" in the Seneca tongue.

And so it came to be that I had the opportunity to visit Frontier Field, home of the Rochester Red Wings, AKA "The Twins of Tomorrow," not because they're planning to clone the entire roster tomorrow, but because the Red Wings are the Minnesota Twins' AAA franchise. The Red Wings were hosting the Buffalo Bisons, top farm club for the Cleveland Indians, in the first of a three-game, Memorial Day weekend series on Friday night, and the wife and I decided to attend. (Actually, I mostly decided to attend, and the wife acquiesced. Turns out she's pretty accommodating, too.) So we hopped in the car and headed off to Rochester, meandering through towns like "Victor" and "Hopewell", over rolling hills and past fields ("Centerfield", actually, another town) along routes so obscure that the local authorities only bother to label their numbers once in a while.

This commute, as you might imagine, was markedly different from the commutes to Philadelphia or New York to see the respective major league teams of those cities. Sure, I-78 in New Jersey has rolling hills, too, but appreciating the scenery as you zip by at 85 mph while swerving to avoid someone in a '73 Impala who's putting along at (how dare he?) the 65 mph speed limit is about as easy as trying to hit a major league fastball while enjoying the sunset. Needless to say, the 40-minute drive to Rochester left us both in a much better condition to see a baseball game.

Furthermore, buying front-row seats, right on the third base line, for $9.50 apiece sure puts you in a good mood as well. We even recieved a complementary "megaphone" also known as "a conically shaped piece of red plastic" from the local newspaper, which we proceeded to use throughout the game, mostly to converse with each other during its louder moments, but also to yell silly things at the players. And each other. OK, mostly each other.

If the concessions followed the same pricing scale, I reasoned, compared to game at Yankee Stadium, hot dogs should cost about 80 cents each, but apparently the concessions folks haven't been told that this is only a minor league town. Still, a Diet Coke for $3 is better than a Diet Coke for $4.50, and paying $5 for a fresh-grilled sausage and peppers (and peppers) and onions (and onions, and onions...) sandwich sure beats paying $8 for the privilege of consuming a cold sandwich, half the size, at Yankee Stadium. My wife and I both ate and were more than satisfied for less than $20 total. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, as they say.

Oh yes, the game. We did get to the game just a little late, but not too late to be shown to our seats (by a gracious, elderly usher who even wiped them off for us) just in time for Red Wings' 2B Augie Ojeda's first at-bat of the game in the bottom of the first. Ojeda, you probably don't know, has had a largely undistinguished major league career as a reserve middle infielder for parts of several seasons with the Twins and Cubs. But Augie has the special distinction of having been born on my birthday, December 20th, and unlike Branch Rickey, Aubrey Huff and my mom, Ojeda was born on December 20, 1974, the same year as I was. How’s that for kismet?

One of the more noteworthy Red Wings players to see time in the majors was leadoff man/CF Jason Tyner, he of the impressive college batting average and the 6'1', 170-lb frame that couldn't generate power if the Hoover Dam were attached to it. Tyner hit .385 with 49 steals in 64 games his senior year at Texas A&M, but did not homer in 278 at-bats that year, even with the benefit of an aluminum bat. The Mets took him in the first round of the 1998 draft anyway, but now, eight years later, he has exactly one home run in over 3000 major and minor league at-bats, and has to be considered a flop. Other Red Wings who have been in the majors included Todd Dunwwody, who played right field and SS Jason Bartlett, who got a cup of coffee with the Twins last year and broke camp as the starting shortstop with Minnesota this season but got sent back down after hitting only .242 through mid-May.

The Buffalo Bisons also featured several former (and perhaps future) major leaguers, including DH Jeff Liefer, 3B Mike Kinkade, 1B Andy Abad, OF Ernie Young (who's not, anymore), CF Darnell McDonald, SP Francisco Cruceta and SS Brandon Phillips, who may still be the shortstop of the future for the Cleveland Indians, but hitting .203 in the International League is not a good way to solidify your position as a prospect. Just so you know. Liefer, McDonald, and 2B Jake Gautreau were all 1st round picks at some point in history.

But the real story was Juan Gonzalez. That’s right, the Juan Gonzalez. "Juan-Gone." "Gonzo." "Igor." Sir. Call him whatever you want, but he's still a two-time AL MVP, with 434 career major league homers, over 1400 RBI, over 1000 runs scored and almost 2000 hits. Unfortunately, he hasn't had a healthy, productive major league season since 2001. The Indians, in dire need of some production out of right field, activated Gonzalez this week in hopes that even at age 35 he might be able to do any better than the paltry .203 Casey Blake was hitting in that role. Gonzalez though, took a page out of the Frank Thomas Guide to Health & Rehabilitation, promptly re-injured his hamstring and was placed back on the DL. Oops.

But enough with the name dropping, you probably want to know what happened at the game, right? Well, just pretend you do.

Red Wings' starting pitcher Dave Gassner surrendered 5 runs in seven innings of work, including homers to Mike Kinkade and Brandon Phillips, and the Bisons led 5-1 heading into the bottom of the seventh. With the home team down by four runs, and things looking bleak, the 8,500 or so fans in attendance started to let them hear it, leading my wife to observe,

"Boy, people are really mad about this."

Which was the funniest thing I had heard all day. My wife, not being a baseball fan, per se, often comes up with observations at games that would never occur to me. Sometimes she's wrong, as when she says, "This guy sucks!" if the batter happens to swing and miss at a pitch. "That's only strike one, honey," I reassure her, before whomever it is proceeds to bounce into an inning-ending double play, thereby reinforcing her initial judgment. But this time she was right-on. It just wouldn't have dawned on me to think about it, as I'm so accustomed to hearing fans boo at games that I didn't even notice. I do live near Philadelphia, you know.

The seventh inning stretch was fun, as it always is. A children's choir led us in singing "God Bless America" although without the spiffy intro that Ronin Tynin does at Yankee Stadium ("When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars..."). Then we all sang "Take Me Out To the Ballgame" and I must say that I was pleased to find that it was not followed up with what Jay Jaffe, my colleague at The Futility Infielder, once called "the sonic horror of 'Cotton-Eyed Joe'."

Getting back to the game, Cruceta tired in the seventh, giving up 4 runs on five hits, as my favorite player who's exactly my age, Augie Ojeda, scored the tying run. Ojeda also made a diving stop to start a 4-6-3 double play in the eighth to get reliever Willie Eyre out of a bases-loaded jam, and had two hits in four at-bats to bump his average over the Mendoza line. Phillips had flashed some leather earlier in the game as well, making a diving stop of a grounder deep in the hole, but unable to hold onto the ball to make the play. This actually made my wife laugh out loud, as the image of a grown man trying to throw a ball forward and have it pop out of his hand and land on the ground behind him is apparently an amusing sight, at least to her. I suppose, if you take all the external ramifications out of the picture (i.e. the score of the game, the player's salary and career aspirations, etc.) it is a pretty funny image. Yet another observation that eluded me.

To be fair to her, later in the game my wife got so upset at seeing Bisons' left-fielder Ernie Young tumble and fall as he ran after and missed a bloop fly ball that she nearly started to cry. Not because he missed the ball, but because it looked like he had hurt himself. So it's not that she laughs at others' pain. Just their mistakes. Or something. She felt better after she saw that he got up and returned to his post in left field, apparently unscathed. The gentleman one section over from us who got hit with a screaming foul ball and had to be taken from the stadium on a stretcher was not so fortunate, and Sunny (appropriately) did not so quickly recover from that sadness. But she did take care to keep an eye on the ball during the game herself.

Anywho, with the game tied at 5-5 after the seventh inning, the Red Wings came back up in the eighth, and a kid named Josh Rabe (pronounced "ray-bee") came to the plate with nobody on base. We had been making fun of Yankees' announcer John Sterling most of the night, trying to think of awful and not particularly clever catch phrases to use for significant feats by various players, I suggested that if this guy hit a homer, they could call it a "Rabe shot". Stupid, I know, but no worse than "...AN A-BOMB...FROM A-ROD!!!" And naturally, Rabe did just that, belting a solo shot to put the good guys up, 6-5, which was the score by which they won. Red Wings' closer Travis (more kismet!) Bowyer pitched a perfect ninth for his 11th save of the season, and Rochester had itself a win.

Following the game, I was able to procure a Red Wings' ceramic coffee mug for my baseball mug collection, and a tee shirt for myself and one for my wife, and then they even had fireworks, surprisingly good ones for a minor league ballpark in a small city. Traffic on the way home wasn't bad either, and we were able to get back to The Chosen Spot before 11:30. And if you're tired of the high prices, hectic travel and impersonal feel of major league stadiums, you could do worse than to make a place like Rochester your chosen spot for some entertaining and affordable baseball.

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