24 July 2007

Boise Hawks Game Review

I love the minor leagues.

Sure, it's the 30 major league teams that make all the money and get all the glory, but it's the myriad of minor league teams in hundreds of towns around the U.S. and Canada that have got baseball at its finest, and the Boise Hawks are no exception.

The Game:

I got to attend a game last week in Boise, while I happened to be there on business. The Boise Hawks, Class A Short Season affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, beat the Tri-City Dust Devils, a Colorado Rockies' affiliate. The Wanna-Cubbies wrapped 11 hits, drew four walks and two hit batters to rack up their seven runs without a ball laving the yard, while their opponents hit two homers, but only solo shots, and mustered only three runs on five hits and lost, 7-3. The win kept the Hawks in first place in their division of the Northwest league, but with a 12-15 record, the first place team in this division wasn't even as good as the last place team in the other division in this league.

Boise starting pitcher Arik Hempy allowed only three hits and struck out five in five innings of work, but two of the three hits were homers, as I mentioned. Hempy's delivery had a long stride and his pitching arm drops way back as he strides, giving the batter a long look at the ball in his hand. He's left handed, so he'll het some chances, but I'm guessing that the two homers he surrendered will prove a bad omen for the rest of his career. His relief, 21-year old Dominican native Al Albequerque, was very impressive in earning a save over four innings of work. He allowed only two hits and one unearned run, and though he only fanned one batter, nobody got much of a good swing against him either. He worked quickly, threw strikes, and got batters out, everything you could ask for in a relief pitcher. (You listenin', Kyle Farnsworth?)

Dust Devils' relief pitcher Joseph Williamson showed some promise, some nasty breaking stuff that moved all over the place. Unfortunately, it seems to have moved a little too much, as he managed to allow two runs (one earned) in only 1.1 innings of work. A walk, a hit batter and a wild pitch will do that for you. He may be well served to tone his stuff down a bit to make sure he knows where the ball is going...or he may just have had a bad night. No way to tell this early in the evaluation process, and the season.

The two homers hit by the Dust Devils seem to have been flukes. Both were the first of the year for those players. Brandon Reichert hit for decent average in college, but not really for power, so don't expect a barrage of bombs now. Helder Velazquez is a defensive-minded shortstop who hit only .255 in the Pioneer (Rookie) League last season, with two homers in 40 games. More important, perhaps, is that he swings at everything, walking only three times in 157 at bats last year, while fanning 27 times. This year the K/W ratio is infinite, with 19 strikeouts and zero walks in 109 at-bats over 25 games. With apologies to Ivan Rodriguez, there are not many major leaguers who never, ever walk.

The Team:

This may be baseball at its finest, from a fan's standpoint, but it's hardly baseball at its best or most-skilled. These guys are a long way from the major leagues. Most of them were playing college ball or working out for scouts in Latin America at this time last year, and some of them were just drafted this year, which means that they were playing college ball a couple of months ago at most. Most of the best college players will go straight to High-A or even AA ball, but the Short Season leagues are a good chance for some of them to get used to wooden bats and play a season together without having to step in during the middle of a regular Class A season. Some of these guys were in the Rookie League last year, especially the Latin American non-drafted free agents or playerssigned out of high school, but few if any of them is a "bonus baby" or a primadonna at this level.

Class A short season is half a step below Low-A ball, which is half a step below High-A ball, which is a whole step below AA and obviously two whole steps below AAA. Indeed, the "elder statesman" on the Boise roster, pitcher Oscar Bernard, just turned 24 a couple of weeks ago, and the only reason he's still down here is that he was only just converted from catching to pitching at the end of last season. There are five players on the roster born in 1984, and most of the rest of the roster is only 21 or 22 at most, and some of them are still in their teens.

Only two players, OF Kyler Burke and catcher Josh Donaldson, were first round draft picks, and only four other players were even in the top ten rounds of their respective drafts. Eight other players are non-drafted free agents, mostly from the Dominican Republic, and the rest are low-round draft picks. In total, among the 28 players on the roster, 14 were drafted or signed this year, and six more came aboard in 2006, which means that 85% of the roster is in its first or second year in profession bseball. The Class A Short Season Leagues are a stepping stone to (hopefully) bigger and better things. If you're here for more that two seasons and you don't have an injury or a position change to blame, then you likely won't have much of a career as a baseball player.

These are the kinds of low-risk, low-reward chances that the major league club can afford to take to see if there's any talent worth cultivating here in the high desert.

The History:

And certainly, some desert flowers have blossomed here over the years. When it became a Cubs farm team, Dontrelle Willis, Rich Hill and others came through here. Before that, this was an Angels' farm team and Garret Anderson, John Lackey, Troy Percival, Scot Shields, Jarrod Washburn, K-Rod and others had come through here before they made it to the majors with LAnahfornia. And going back even farther, when Boise hosted an Oakland far team, Brian Kingman (who had been the last guy to lose 20 games in a season before Mike Maroth did it with the Tigers a few years ago) and even Rickey Henderson started his long, Hall of Fame career here in 1976, and is easily the best known player to have spent some part of his career here.

The Experience:

This is where the minor leagues really are at their best. You walk up to the ticket window at game time, pay your money and get a good seat. There literally are no "bad"seats in a park that only holds about 3,000 fans, though there are better seats. When I got to the game, I was notified that I could sit along the first base line for $6, or along the third base line for $10, though the reason for this disparity was not immediately apparent. When I took my seat, I found out why. For Boise, where it sometimes hits 104 degrees Farenheit in the summer months and is frequently still in the mid-90's at game time, the third base side is about 15 degrees cooler, as the first base line is right in the sun, at least until it sets around 8:30. That was worth four bucks, lemme tellya.

Regardless of where you sit in the park, you get a good view over the horizon which consists entirely of the sandy colored mountains in the distance, rising in all directions and keeping much of the worst weather out of the aptly named Sun Valley, where Boise sits. It's quite dry there, so there isn't much vegetation, but what the mountains lack in color they make up for in majesty. Even if they're not purple.

They have your standard beer, soda, chips, dogs, chicken, fries and etc. at the concession stands, but they have some other stuff you can't necessarily get anywhere else. Wanting to savor the local flavor, I asked what "Idaho Nachos" were, and it was explained to me that they're essentially nachos with fries instead of corn chips. What was not explained to me was that they turned an entire 5-lb. bag of Idaho Russet potatoes into seasoned steak fries, piled them on a paper plate, and then layered refried beans, seasoned ground beef, guacamole, salsa, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream and a partridge in a pear tree on top. the thing must have weighed ten pounds! I mean, sure, it was tasty, but there was no way I could eat more than seven, maybe eight pounds of that stuff in one sitting! Apparently the residents of Idaho have either never heard of heart disease or they figure it won't catch up to them quickly enough to merit concern. I also had a local beer called Skinny Dip Ale (actually, I had two of them) which was pretty good, much better than a Coors Light or Bud.

And of course, besides the food and the landscape, like all minor league teams, the Hawks put on almost as good a show between innings as they do during them. There were lots of giveaways (T-shirts, towels, ice cream, a fried Snickers, etc.) most of it was either thrown into the stands (not the food, thankfully) or given away to "the fan who makes the most noise". This frequently turned out to be "some random 5 year old that the Usher Girl thought was cute", because the actual winners of these contests could not possibly have been making as much noise as either of the two adolescent boys sitting in my row, not to mention most of the rest of the ballpark.

They also had lots of on-field contests for kids, one of which was the requisite "race the mascot around the bases" in which the mascot is mobbed by a bunch of young fans at third base and the child competitor is supposed to go on to win the race, except that in this case, the 5-year old was wise enough to know a setup when he saw one, and never finished the race. Very funny. They also had a race between three people in giant, puffy costumes representing Fries, a Baked Potato, and a cup of Mashed Potatoes, I think, not unlike the Sausage Race in Milwaukee and other such competitions (in New York, I think it's Sewer Rats). One of the three fell down between second and third base, which was also funny, but only because the person in the costume seemed unscathed afterward.

My one complaint about the experience is that the Boise Hawks gift store did not have any coffee mugs, or travel mugs, nothing like that. I have a collection of mugs representing baseball teams from all over the country, and this was the first time I had actually been to a game and could not get one there. Granted, that's a rather small nit to pick in what otherwise seems to be a fine organization, but, hey, a man's gotta have his priorities, right?

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