11th and Washington

11th and Washington: January 2005

Friday, January 28, 2005

The solution to all his problems

Here's one for Peter Angelos: If you want to ensure that the Orioles don't lose too many fans to the Nationals, go out and get Sammy Sosa. Don't make MLB or Washington do the work for you; do it yourself. Put together a package of prospects and throw in Larry Bigbie or Jerry Hairston, have the Cubs pay a chunk of this year's salary if that's what it takes. But do it. It's a win-win for Baltimore. If Sammy can't bring the fans out to Camden Yards, with the 50 homers he could hit even if he misses two weeks with a sneeze-induced back injury, then you were right all along about your fan base in Washington. But if having Sammy hopping out of the batter's box 20 times in June fills the place even without the Yankees in the other dugout, then your complaints were bull, yet you've still got a packed house, which is what you really wanted all along.

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Traveling to Atlantic City for baseball is worth the gamble

Warming up in the Atlantic City Surf bullpen. Posted by Hello

This is the eighth in a series. Previous posts are:

Trenton Thunder
Cape Fear Crocs
Newark Bears
New Jersey Cardinals
New Jersey Jackals
Staten Island Yankees
Somerset Patriots

August 22, 1999

The Surf is always up at the Sandcastle.

The name is a bit misleading, but nonetheless, a trip to The Sandcastle is like a night at the beach.

The home of the Atlantic City Surf sits between a highway and an airfield – not the boardwalk and the shoreline – and, well, it’s not actually made out of sand. But it is an attractive, nostalgia-inspiring place. There’s a certain Boys of Summer feeling about it.

Arrive early and walk around the outside of the park – the outfield corners provide a close view of each team’s bullpen as the players prepare for the game during batting practice. Most likely you’ll find a small gathering of children – more like a chain-link gang than a knothole gang – chasing each baseball that clears the fence.

The steps leading up to the main entrance are decorated on each side by baseball murals depicting Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb and generic feel-good scenes of sandlot games and barnstorming teams.

Inside, the wide concourse makes for easy access to seats, via the Monopoly-named rows – from Baltic Avenue in left field to Mediterranean Avenue in right. The closer the seats to home plate, the more prestigious the names. The two lower sections behind home are Boardwalk and Park Place.

The 5,836 seats share the same color scheme as the Surf uniforms, a soothing complement of aqua and blue – the color we all would like the Atlantic Ocean to be along the Jersey Shore.

Like any minor league park – and increasingly the major league venues as well – the outfield is one panoramic billboard mosaic. Missing from the various advertisements, though, is Donald Trump’s collection of hotels and casinos. There’s no need, though – Trump Plaza and the Taj Mahal dominate the Atlantic City skyline that serves as the backdrop to the field.

Arriving close to two hours before the 7:05 p.m. game on Wednesday, I bought a $9 box seat that put me in the front row behind the Surf dugout on the third-base side.

From there, you have a great view of the game, plenty of leg room and a dugout roof that can be used as a footrest or a place to set your dinner. You also get a front-row center orchestra seat for the fifth-inning “YMCA” dance, featuring as many kids as can fit safely on the roof.

Such a close seat also allows for a close view of Surf catcher Hector Villanueva, the former Chicago Cub who could have been the origin of the term “backstop” to refer to a pitcher’s batterymate.

The 6-1, 220-pound catcher took the ceremonial first pitches from two guests, then handled the ceremonial first bag of peanuts tossed out by a peanut vendor because it was his birthday. The vendor took the bag back before Hector had a chance to eat the peanuts.

Atlantic City owner Frank Boulton is the founder of the independent Atlantic League, which will expand to eight teams next summer.

Boulton, a Long Island resident, will also own the Long Island Ducks.

The Surf nickname works well so close to the ocean, but makes for some puns that get old fast. The public-address announcer begins the bottom of each inning with, “Ladies and gentlemen, Surrrrrrrrrrf’s up!” Each new pitcher was introduced with a different name for the mound – from sandhill to sand dune.

Before entering the game, instead of warming up in the bullpen, the relievers get loose in the Sandbox. OK, that one I kind of liked.

The Surf, in their second year at A.C., won the game, completing a three-game sweep of the Somerset Patriots. Former Met Chuck E. Carr homered and scored twice for the “Beach Boys,” (another one thought up by the P.A. guy) the 1998 Atlantic League champions.

Former major league all-star Ruben Sierra went 1-for-4 with a single, and Villanueva walked twice but never made it around to score. Kerry Taylor went 7 1/3 innings to improve to 2-2 on the season.

It was fireworks night after the game, so I put my feet up on the dugout as each light tower was shut down for the show. While the pyrotechnic display exploded beyond the scoreboard in left field and the patriotic music came through the speakers, I thought how nice it was for the Surf to end my eight-week summer odyssey at minor league ballparks with such flair.

Now I might have a chance to catch the Mets at Shea.

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Thursday, January 27, 2005

Mets Dig Doug

I thought that was a clever headline on the New York Post this morning. For once.

The other thing I meant to mention in the previous post was that Doug Mientkiewicz makes sense for another very good reason: The Mets' championship teams of the past have been built around strong pitching and defense. It's the nature of the beast when your home park is Shea Stadium. If you have a ballpark that benefits a certain aspect of the game and you can take advantage of that, well, that's where you get any bit of home field advantage when it comes to late-season and postseason home games.

The Braves are still the team to beat in the NL East, but the Marlins aren't the best team in the NL -- as ESPN seems to continue to suggest -- and it's going to be quite a race among the three or four who can take it past the trading deadline.

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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The Mets are better off

The Mets couldn't pull off the free agent trifecta.

In the end, I think the Mets are better off without Carlos Delgado. He's certainly a player you want on your team, and I would have taken him for four years at around $45 million, but to look at what the Marlins signed him for, I'm glad he went south. It would have been nice to keep him out of the division, but there's only so much you can do.

First of all, the guy's going to be 33 when the season starts. Carlos Beltran is five years younger and Pedro Martinez is a pitcher. It's different giving four years to a 33-year-old pitcher than to a 33-year-old slugger.

Second, you're taking him out of SkyDome as well as the American League. The pitching's going to be tougher and in addition to adjusting to a new league and a new city, he's going to be hitting in a less forgiving ballpark. Shea probably would have been better for him than Dolphins Stadium, but neither can promise him 40, 45 home runs the way Oriole Park would have.

Finally, the Mets need defense. With Mike Piazza behind the plate, Cliff Floyd in left field and Kaz Matsui learning second base (not to mention showing none of the defensive prowess last year he was alleged to have had in Japan), the Mets need a glovemaster at first base. I've been a proponent of this since November. I like the idea of someone like John Olerud scooping up whatever the young infield throws at him. That can only help Matsui, Jose Reyes and David Wright improve and gain confidence. I'd be happy to see Olerud come back to Shea, riding the 7 train again from Manhattan on gamedays. But it sounds like the Mets are on the verge of sending a Class A minor-leaguer and some cash to Boston for Doug Mientkiewicz and his baseball. ("Have you seen my baseball? Have you seen my baseball?") That would be a fine deal, too. Travis Lee is the worst option of the three, but he'd fill the void. Sorry, Jason Phillips, but you're strictly the backup catcher now. Maybe if you had hit .300 and knocked 15 or 20 balls out of the park you'd have a shot at a platoon or something.

What I don't understand about ESPN's coverage of Delgado's signing is the graphic that asked if Florida was now the NL's best team. I don't see how that's even a question because you can't even pinpoint the top team in the NL East, and even if you could, do any of them match up with the Cardinals? Maybe Florida has the edge in that fantasy category -- on paper -- but the lineup suffers a severe drop after the top five (Juan Pierre, Luis Castillo, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Delgado, Mike Lowell). The rotation has nothing but question marks after A.J. Burnett. Can Dontrelle Willis pitch like he did in 2003 more than he did in 2004? Can Josh Beckett stay healthy? Can Al Leiter get through the fifth inning in less than 100 pitches? Can their rotation match up with the Mets'? Ismael Valdez vs. Victor Zambrano? Will Guillermo Mota have any trouble adjusting to the closer's role? Will they suffer a dropoff with him out of the setup role?

I think that until the Marlins get into camp, and perhaps not until they get through a month of the season, they've got too many things to figure out before you can think of them as the best team in the NL. The same goes for the Mets, and that's only whether or not you can consider them a playoff contender. Well, I think you can consider them a contender; they should be in it late into the season. But without a better bullpen, they'll end up fading in September, if not sooner.

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Friday, January 21, 2005

Once more to the picks

As we sat on the patio of the Camelback Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona, last week, watching the Jets-Steelers game in the warmth of the Sonoran Desert, Casey was nervous. "I don't think we can have a Super Bowl party if the Steelers lose," she said. "I'll be too upset." She has never said anything close to this regarding sports in the three-and-a-half years we've been together.

That's how much the Steelers mean to Pittsburgh. Having no tight NFL allegiances myself, I've dropped the 49ers cold turkey (after they hired that imbecile Dennis Erickson two years ago) and gravitated more towards the Jets, who are in my backyard, and the Steelers, partly because of Casey and partly because of Jerome Bettis. Last week, I pulled more for Pittsburgh than the Jets, with the feeling that this could be Bettis' last best chance, while Chad Pennington, Curtis Martin and Co. should still be on their way up. Besides, the Steelers have a much better shot to win it all this year than the Jets do anyway.

Last week I went 3-1 picking the winners (putting me at 5-3 for the postseason) and 2-2 against the spread (5-3 in two weeks). Two weeks from now, I'll post one final football blurb, and then it's all baseball until November.

* * *

I agree with just about everyone when it comes to the Eagles on Sunday. They're going to come out tight. They're going to be feeling the pressure of three straight NFC Championship Game losses, the weight of last year's measly three points against the Panthers. If they fall behind early, if they can't stop Michael Vick, if they can't hold the Falcons to three-and-out, that pressure will increase exponentially. But it might not happen. Philly can win this one. I just think Atlanta had it too easy last week, plus they're the odd team out of the remaining four: an indoor, Southern turf team that has to deal with freezing temperatures and, if their neighbors at the Weather Channel are correct, snow. So I say Eagles (-5), 26-17.

The Patriots scare me. They are clearly the deepest, most well-coached team in the NFL. (As a Notre Dame grad, I'm thrilled their offensive mastermind will become our head coach in a matter of weeks, if not days.) New England gets as much from its highest-paid player as it does the last guy brought in from the scout team. Pittsburgh can win (perhaps easily) if they run the ball. Run, run, run. Pound it with Bettis. Get a little more speed and quickness with Duce Staley. Play-action to Hines Ward across the middle, or to Plaxico Burress for a jump ball. Or Antwaan Randle-El deep. But running is the key. Something tells me the Steelers will get away from that too early in the game. And that plays right into Bill Belichick's hands. While my heart will be in Pittsburgh, while I'll be rooting for the Stillers, while I think they can win, whether it's 21-17, 27-24, 14-10, I'm going with the dream I had the other night, which was quite vivid. It's the Patriots (-3), 20-17, on an Adam Vinatieri field goal in overtime, in the snow.

I'm just hoping I'm wrong.

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Thunder covers all the bases

Where minor league baseball returned to New Jersey. Posted by Hello

This is the seventh in a series. Previous posts are:

Cape Fear Crocs
Newark Bears
New Jersey Cardinals
New Jersey Jackals
Staten Island Yankees
Somerset Patriots

August 8, 1999

Something sets Mercer County Waterfront Park aside from the rest of New Jersey's minor league baseball scene.

It might be the setting – on one side, rows of houses on the outskirts of Trenton; on the other, the flowing water of the Delaware River, at this point still respectably high despite the lack of rain.

It could be the tenure – only in its sixth season, Waterfront Park and the Trenton Thunder are the senior members of New Jersey's collection of minor league baseball teams.

Or maybe it just comes down to the players and the level of baseball being played before 6,000 fans every night. As the Boston Red Sox's Class AA franchise – only two rungs from Fenway Park on the organizational ladder – the Thunder players are among the best of Red Sox future. There's the chance one of the players can take the field as a member of the Thunder and walk back into the dugout to be told he's got to pack his bags for Pawtucket or Boston.

Some names on the back of those Boston road jerseys are still familiar to loyal Thunder fans – Lou Merloni, Brian Rose and Nomar Garciaparra. Bret Saberhagen even made some starts for Trenton while rehabilitating his arm on the way back to the majors.

Now there are new players making their names known. By this time next summer we could be reading about Rafael Betancourt, Andy Hazlett (it should be noted here at the Shore that the Oregon native pronounces it Hays–lett), David Gibralter or Nate Tebbs starring on Yawkey Way. Tomokazu Ohka, the first native of Japan to play in the Red Sox organization, can still be found in this year's Thunder yearbook, and I saw him get rocked by the Tigers in Detroit two weeks ago.

Trenton does it all. The ticket prices and between–inning entertainment are minor league, the pinstripes and four different hats (one each for home, away, Sunday home and away on cloudless weeknights or something) are major league. The players for both teams are young and aggressive, flashy when they can be and resourceful when they need to be. You can't help but enjoy yourself in a packed stadium on a summer night with the breeze blowing off the river.

I drove out to Waterfront Park on Tuesday with my sister, Jessica, and we met a family friend and Notre Dame classmate, Liz Petruska, who had a considerably shorter drive from Hopewell. It took us an hour from the Shore. Regular readers of this column may notice that every park but Skylands in Sussex County has taken 45 to 75 minutes to reach. Even with the construction closing Route 29, the traffic off the interstate was bearable. As a result, we took Cass Road, also named Thunder Road, which is certainly appropriate considering Mr. Springsteen's current run at the Meadowlands. Couldn't find Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, though.

Unlike any of the previous parks I've visited, I called ahead for Thunder tickets, but only on one day's notice. Still, we had good seats just to the first–base side of home plate in the last row, right in front of the reclining chairs set up on the concourse for the Stevens Furniture "Best Seat In The House" promotion.

As they've done all season – forgive me, but it's hard not to use this one here – the Thunder rolled. Second baseman David Eckstein led off the game with a triple and finished with four hits in five at–bats, only a home run short of the cycle. The New Haven Ravens – the Mariners' affiliate – put four runs up in the fourth for a 4–2 lead, but the Thunder stormed back (sorry again) and held on for a 5–4 win.

After the game, the stadium announcer mentioned that Trenton's magic number now stood at 20. Magic number! That's not a phrase you usually hear two days into August unless you're talking about the 1998 Yankees. But this team is blowing through the Eastern League with a 151/2–game lead late last week on the Norwich Navigators, the second–place team in the Northern Division. The entire South Division is within eight games of first place.

You may have noticed from other ballparks, but the concession prices are always the same. In Trenton, the rather hard cheeseburger cost $3.25 and a helmet full of fries was $4. A huge soda, probably a liter, was $4.25 in a souvenir cup. A glance at the board told me water costs $2.25, juice $2.75, glasses of chardonnay and white zinfandel $3.25 and beer (Miller Lite, Coors Light, Michelob, Yuengling Black and Tan, River Horse Ale) anywhere from $3.50 to $5. Jessica, Liz and I kept talking about getting cotton candy – and how none of us could remember ever seeing it come in purple – but we settled for Carvel ice cream that was perfect for the warm night.

The success of the Thunder in Trenton has happened all over America with teams in similar cities sparking a rebirth, drawing people back from the suburbs. They're roaring down Thunder Road, and it looks like this year it will end in a championship.

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Thursday, January 20, 2005

Phoenix in the offseason

I find it heartbreaking to travel to a major-league baseball city during the offseason. It's a bit sad to be in a place where I could plan a game as part of the itinerary, if only the calendar would cooperate.

Casey and I spent five days in Scottsdale, Arizona, because her stepmom had a conference and her dad offered us a free stay at a timeshare in the city. Knowing five days in the desert would be welcome during the winter, we did not hesitate. (Next year's conference is in San Antonio — a minor-league baseball city, with another an hour north in Austin.) So on Tuesday, our last day on vacation, we planned to get some pizza at Pizzeria Bianco, allegedly the best pizza in the West. (It's hard to argue with that assessment, by the way. It was delicious — a thin crust, yet a puffy edge, and tasty, fresh ingredients. Even the olive oil was outstanding.)

Casey's research told her that people actually start waiting outside Pizzeria Bianco at 4:30, half an hour before the restaurant opens for dinner. We arrived at 3:30, parking near the historic/museum district and just two blocks from Bank One Ballpark. The historic compound looked like a ghost town, and though the science museum was open, we barely had an hour and we didn't want to pay a potentially exorbitant admission fee for such a short visit. So we walked over to the ballpark.

As we approached the gates outside left field, I remembered the TGI Friday's inside. It might have been the giant Friday's Front Row Grill sign over the doors. A few people were walking in, so we decided to have a beer. Once inside, we saw a multi-purpose arena instead of a ball field.

That pitcher's mound is a little higher than regulation. Posted by Hello

I've attended two games at the BOB, two of three against the Rockies during the Diamondbacks' inaugural season in 1998. Knowing what Oregon State's offense could do to Notre Dame's defense, I never really planned a trip out to see the Insight Bowl last December. But considering all that the Mets have done this offseason, knowing that we're less than a month away from the first pitchers and catchers reporting to camp, I was itching for just a glimpse of a baseball field, even if it was inside the dark dome of the BOB.

As we asked for our check, we chatted with the bartender while SportsCenter flashed images of Roger Clemens, who had just asked the Astros for $22 million to pitch in 2005 — though he hasn't decided yet if he's even going to do so. Our bartender encouraged us to walk out onto the patio, which I hadn't realized was open, and told us to visit again during baseball season, when the restaurant is packed on gamedays.

We went through the door carrying the last few gulps of our 22-ounce beers, and the alcohol on my empty stomach combined with the vast, open space in front of me to seemingly lift me off the concrete steps. It's odd being inside such a big stadium with nothing planned for that day, no one else walking around the stands, no workers getting the field ready. I looked out across the dirt — a motorcross event had just taken place that weekend, and monster trucks and a demolition derby were coming up, the bartender told us — and pictured the field there.

Then I wondered how many fans would fill the seats. The Diamondbacks' moves this offseason have been strange. Troy Glaus will help, if he's healthy. Hopefully, Luis Gonzalez will recover from his elbow surgery. But where will the team be without Steve Finley, Richie Sexson or Randy Johnson? Russ Ortiz isn't even close.

When we turned around, I chuckled.

Counting up. Posted by Hello

Does anyone expect that strikeout board to still be up on opening day? I can't see any team continuing to keep a live count of the career strikeout totals for a pitcher who hated playing for the team in his backyard so much that he forced a trade out of town. I do, however, expect they'll keep up the one below it.

Even with a 36-year head start, the Mets still don't have one of these. Posted by Hello

As we took off from Sky Harbor Airport yesterday, we passed over Sun Devil Stadium at Arizona State, then what I guessed was Scottsdale Stadium, where the Giants play their spring games. Two months from now would be a perfect time to visit, with the Royals and Rangers in Surprise, the Cubs in Mesa. I have friends planning trips to Florida in March this year, and now three years removed from my spring training reporting trips to Clearwater I'm missing the 80-degree days and the exhibition games I attended in 2001 and 2002.

But the Giants have announced when individual game tickets will go on sale (more on that another time), and I check Mets.com almost daily to see if they're going to get their act together and give us their corresponding date. I've never had baseball fever this bad before during the offseason.

It feels pretty damn good.

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Friday, January 14, 2005

NFL picks, round two

So last week, I threw out some NFL playoff predictions at the end of a baseball post, just because I like to throw out predictions.

Now here I go again, only without the baseball post. (But you can still check out this week's minor-league column from the past, below.)

I'd better be right; I'm off to Arizona tonight, so this page won't be updated until Wednesday, at the earliest, and these picks will be up there until we're just three days away from the conference championship games.

Last week I was 2-2 picking winners outright and 3-1 calling the games against the spread (which I didn't include, so I suppose I should this time around). For comparison, Bill Simmons went 2-2 under both criteria.

We'll be watching Jets-Steelers from Scottsdale, and though I count the teams as my two favorites in the NFL, I think only one has a legitimate shot at reaching (and winning) the Super Bowl. And since I'll be with Pittsburghers, I'd rather save my sports arguments for the upcoming Notre Dame-Pitt basketball matchups. Anyway, earlier today I heard one caller to a New York sports talk station base his argument on one thing. "There's one X-factor you can't overlook," he said, "he's a rookie quarterback." That argument (which he failed to back up with anything noteworthy) would mean more going against, say, a defending conference champion, or Super Bowl champion, or maybe the league's top defense against the pass. The Jets are none of the above, and their secondary is the weaker link (by far) of their defensive unit. I think the Jets can keep it close, and the team that gets a 10-0 lead will have the easier road to next weekend, but I see this as more of a see-saw game; a 7-0, then 7-3, then 7-6, then 10-6, then 13-10 type of game. You get the idea. So, in the end, it's the Jets who have to make the game-winning drive (or it's the Steelers running out the clock), and in both cases, I like the Steelers (-8 1/2), 20-13.

To be honest, I've been reading and listening to too much about this weekend's games to try to claim all these observations as my own. As such, much of what I'm saying here is made up of the points I agreed with most, or those that futher clarify my own initial analyses. For the Rams-Falcons matchup, I caught on to one significant aspect just today: the Atlanta defensive line against the St. Louis offensive line. Back in September, when I drafted my fantasy football team, I wavered on my quarterback pick. Four of my top five were gone, and I was deciding between Trent Green and Marc Bulger. Bulger was rated one spot higher on the draft board I'd made, but I felt more comfortable with Green because of the questionable o-line in St. Louis. Clearly, both offenses are going to get their points in this one, which leads me to believe that the efforts of Atlanta's defense are what will lift the Falcons (-7), 34-28.

With last week's upset in Green Bay, the Vikings are now 3-20 in their last 23 games outdoors. I don't know what that means, if anything, but it does lead me to think that they won't get two in a row. For one thing, it doesn't account for temperature, so it's not like it means 3-20 in their last 23 games outside with the temperature below 40. One of those losses was at Arizona to end the 2003 season when they needed a win. I don't know how far I'd go with the Eagles, but I do feel comfortable this week. Something horrendous for Philly could happen with so many of their key players not having played any meaningful minutes in about a month, but they were clearly the class of the NFC this season, and the gap was the result of more than just other teams' apparent lack of talent. It's time to get the groove back for the Eagles (-8 1/2), 27-17.

Something tells me to pick the Patriots against the Colts just because so many people are giving the upper hand to Indianapolis. I do like their chances against a patchwork New England secondary and virtually no chance of rain or snow or pushing and shoving against the Colts' receivers on Sunday in Massachusetts. I've always liked Peyton Manning, from the moment he decided to stick around at Tennessee for his senior year, and a win on Sunday would put to rest any arguments that he can't win a big game. I see two distinct outcomes for this game. On one hand, the Patriots devise brilliant defensive schemes to completely throw Manning's offense out of whack and get turnovers, and New England wins easily. On the other, Peyton picks apart the Patriots for some early scores, allowing Edgerrin James to get some significant yards and a touchdown or two, redeeming himself for his two Week One fumbles on the goal line. But I also see the Patriots keeping it close in this scenario, though the Colts win the tight one. I'm going with option two, Colts (+1 1/2) 31-28.

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Lakewood's minor league team is a major loss for Cape Fear

Uh ... "welcome" to J.P. Riddle Stadium. Posted by Hello

This is the sixth in a series. Previous posts are:

Newark Bears
New Jersey Cardinals
New Jersey Jackals
Staten Island Yankees
Somerset Patriots

August 15, 1999

It's sad, really.

In the spring of 2001, Lakewood will join six other New Jersey towns and cities on the minor league baseball map. Many people along the Shore are already excited about the team coming to Lakewood, but it comes at the expense of fans in the Sandhills region of southeastern North Carolina.

As excited as New Jersey fans will be to welcome the franchise to Lakewood, that's how sad the fans down Interstate 95 will feel when they say goodbye to their Cape Fear Crocs.

The Class A Crocs will finish this South Atlantic League season and the next in 11–year–old J.P. Riddle Stadium in Fayetteville, N.C., a city of 75,000 that lies halfway between New York and Miami on I–95. Then the organization will leave, re–emerging at the start of the 2001 season in Lakewood, with a new nickname.

After a two–game visit to Riddle Stadium, I can see why Crocs owner Greg Padgett decided to sell his team to the American Baseball Co., the same group that owns the Class AA Eastern League Trenton Thunder and Reading Phillies. It's a small stadium with metal stands, seats and bleachers. There is no covering over the seats, no concourse, no concession or souvenir stands other than separate, free–standing sheds behind the stands. The six–person Crocs staff has a trailer set up at the end of one building to use as its office.

The scoreboard has no video screen and lists only the bare essentials – line score, pitch count and batter's uniform number.

It's minor league baseball like it used to be, really. Just like in "Bull Durham," only without the big bull beyond the outfield wall. But not even that landmark stadium could avoid the progress of the wrecking ball, and now the Class AAA Bulls – in a higher classification – play in a new park.

These days, no–frills baseball does not cut it for a public that expects to be entertained wherever it goes. In fact, we prefer to be entertained while waiting to be entertained. A mere baseball game is not going to be enough to satisfy a culture that produced a demand for minivans with videocassette recorders and video screens. Seems the journey is no longer half the fun, we just want to get there.

The journey to Carolina's Cape Fear region covers a little more than 500 miles and takes nine to 10 hours, depending on speed and stops. I spent the entire trip down with Bruce Springsteen – someone who knows about small communities hitting hard times – in the tape deck. I later checked how far his entire roster of albums would take you – easily from here to Miami, with 19 hours of Boss music from the start of "Greetings from Asbury Park" to the end of "Tracks."

City on the rebound

I toured Fayetteville on Tuesday before that night's game with the Delmarva Shorebirds. It's an old city, established in 1783 and one of many U.S. cities named for the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette. Before establishing Raleigh as the state capital, the North Carolina Legislature met in Fayetteville, and it was there in 1789 that it ratified the U.S. Constitution and chartered the University of North Carolina, the oldest state university in America.

Dozens of miles from the ocean, Fayetteville is North Carolina's most inland port, thanks to the Cape Fear River that lends its name to businesses all over the state's southeastern corner. The actual Cape Fear lies about 80 miles south, which would make a long ride for Robert DeNiro holding onto the bottom of a car.

Eight historic churches are scattered about town, along with other significant buildings and landmarks. The Old Market House now occupies the site of the old State House, where the Legislature ratified the Constitution and founded UNC. The Market House is a national landmark, centered in a traffic circle at the intersection of four downtown streets. It's a bittersweet picture with such an elegant building sitting among abandoned storefronts.

Leading west from the Market House is Hay Street, a cobblestone, tree–lined avenue with storefronts along either side. It's the type of street that should be blocked off on weekends with hordes of people shopping, eating, sightseeing, but there are only a few stores to attract any crowd; one of every three buildings is occupied, with the others whitewashed and boarded.

But Fayetteville is making a comeback. I had watched a city–produced tourism pitch on television and recognized many of the projects under way or about to start. Storefronts and entire buildings are under renovation. The only problem is the city may not have baseball to help with the rebound, the way Trenton and Newark are pulling themselves up with the help of America's pastime.

Still fighting

If baseball does not return to Fayetteville for some time after the Crocs leave, it won't be because of a lack of effort by team management.

General manager Brad Taylor and the director of media and military special events, Buck Rogers, know they need to make a push for baseball in the region. Every home date left on the 1999 Crocs schedule has some promotion attached to it, and there's certainly going to be a lot planned for next season.

But despite their efforts, the Crocs rank last in Sally League attendance. Through 52 home dates, Cape Fear was averaging 1,202 fans with a total of 62,523. The Shorebirds, an Orioles affiliate playing in Salisbury, Md., led the league with 236,068, an average of 4,216 for their 56 home dates.

"We have 55,000 people stationed at Ft. Bragg," Rogers said. "Every Monday home game is Military Monday, where anyone with any kind of military ID gets in free. But we had only 620 people here last (Monday)."

That's about all the Crocs got for each of the three games on last week's homestand – 620 to 670 people per game. After winning Monday's game 7–3, Cape Fear dropped the second game 6–1 to fall into a three–way tie atop the standings with Delmarva and the Hagerstown (Md.) Suns. The Shorebirds won Wednesday's game 8–3, sending the Crocs to third place.

It seems that the record on the field has nothing to do with it.

"The bottom line is, a facility will make or break baseball in Fayetteville," Rogers said. "No team will even remotely consider coming here without ground being broken and ongoing construction."

A little more than a mile up the road, back toward the city, the new $55 million Crown Coliseum draws 3,000 for Fayetteville Force ice hockey games, and sells out the 10,000–seat arena for professional wrestling.

"Around here, if it's not NASCAR or All–Star wrestling, they don't care," Rogers said.

So next summer, while we watch the progress on Lakewood's 6,500–seat park, baseball fans in Cape Fear will be counting the days until J.P. Riddle Stadium finally falls silent for good. Just don't call the Crocs lame.

"People are saying we're going to be a lame–duck team next year," Taylor said. "It's only lame duck if you make it that. If the fans make it, if the community makes it, if we as a staff let it. But if we don't give a push at the end and show people that we want baseball here, it could be 10 years before anyone looks at this region again."

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Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Do you have the Power?

That's gold and Moss to you. Posted by Hello

While perusing minor-league schedules for the upcoming season, I came across one of the team name changes that went unnoticed (at least by me) when it was announced last November: The former Charleston Alley Cats of the South Atlantic League have used the occasion of a new ownership group, a new stadium and a new affiliation with the Milwaukee Brewers to completely retool the team's image.

Apparently, the website needs a little more time.

Naturally, my first thought was, "Why Power?" The glut of team nicknames that do not end in the letter "S" has become a plague, I fear. Many of them represent a clever and purposeful connection to the local area or some history for the city or baseball in the region. When I first learned of this ability to name a group of people after a singular word was when I learned all the teams in the NBA and got to the Utah Jazz. How do you say it, I wondered, if you're a player on the team? "I'm a Knick" or "I'm a Cub" are easy; "I'm a Jazz" just sounds like Ralph Wiggum. (Nevermind the Jazz' idiotic decision not to rename the franchise when it moved from New Orleans.)

A quick look at the affiliated minor leagues gives us six awkward team names (excluding true plurals that do not end with an "S" like the Missoula Osprey and any variation of Sox; I'm not sure what to think of the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx):

Altoona Curve
Bakersfield Blaze
Fort Myers Miracle
Lake Elsinore Storm
Salem Avalanche
Trenton Thunder

The above list potentially could have included several more; I know that one of the finalists when the Lakewood BlueClaws were named five years ago was Lightning, to go with the Thunder across the state in Trenton. So why Power? I was even more curious about what seemed to be a domed building as the centerpiece of the logo, which is exactly what I thought it might be: West Virginia's capitol building. According to the team's announcement, "West Virginia is and will continue to be recognized as one of the leading energy providers for the country. The energy production from coal, natural gas, and hydro-electric sources, combined with the fact that Charleston serves as the center for the state's political and economic powers led us to the name of the team. We felt it was extremely important that the name reflect the entire region and are excited about the tremendous marketing opportunities that will go along with the name."

Yet all I can think about is He-Man's cry once he received the Power of Grayskull: "I HAVE THE POWER!!" They should put that on a shirt.

"By the Power of Grayskull ... !" Posted by Hello

Personally, I think they should've taken a cue from teams like the Toronto Raptors, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim or the Springfield Isotopes and christened the team with a nod to Hollywood: The West Viginia Alias, in honor of homegrown star Jennifer Garner.

But I understand that's just being silly.

I wonder, too, if anyone made the connection between the team's "custom" color of Moss and one of the state's athletic heros, former Marshall star Randy Moss.

What I do like, however, is using the name of the state rather than the city. The SAL already has the Charleston River Dogs in South Carolina, so now there's no need for the parenthetical designation of "WV" or "SC" in standings, box scores or game stories. But more interesting to me is that it is the first affiliated team to play in the Mountain State and use the state's name rather than the city's (or town's). With a few dark years, minor league baseball has been played in West Virginia since 1887. The only other team to use "West Virginia" in its name — at least according to Baseball America's Encyclopedia of Minor League Baseball, 2nd Edition — is the West Virginia Coal Sox of the Frontier League. That team played 10 games in 1993 before folding.

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The Big Unit introduces himself to New York

I think we've seen the true Randy Johnson.

He's certainly a great pitcher and a fierce competitor, but he's no class act. He's no Yankee off the field. His incident with the CBS 2 cameraman in New York was a punk act. Does Johnson really think that he can walk down a Manhattan street and not be photographed? From watching the video, it appears that the cameraman is down the sidewalk, awaiting Johnson's approach. Johnson had enough time to move around him, as inconvenient as that may be. But it certainly looks like Johnson got in the cameraman's face, not the other way around.

If the Big Unit expects to be treated the same way in New York as he was in Arizona, he's severely mistaken. It was one thing last year when he snapped at a New York-area reporter who suggested where he might find a house if he came to the Yankees. Johnson replied that he wasn't a Yankee and he wasn't going to talk about it, which was a reasonable answer at the time. But now he is a Yankee, and cameras on the streets of New York are part of that.

The Yankees are clearly the World Series favorite on paper, as a fantasy team. But can they be a team? Can the various personalities from Jason Giambi to Gary Sheffield to Hideki Matsui to Derek Jeter to Alex Rodriguez to Randy Johnson co-exist as a cohesive unit, the kind of collection of athletes that wants to win for their teammates more than they do for themselves? I'm not so sure of that. It's why I don't ever see Barry Bonds winning a World Series, or Jeff Kent. You also have to be careful when you try to buy winning. It doesn't always work out. It certainly didn't last year, when all seemed lost after the Yankees went out to get Alex Rodriguez, Sheffield and Kevin Brown. But good won out in the end.

I think the one thing we can be sure of is that this will be one entertaining season in New York. Randy Johnson and Brown on the same team (if Brown sticks around) should be good enough for at least two scuffles.

But there's one claim I don't quite buy (yet) about Johnson: This perceived feud with Curt Schilling. I've never seen it written about with any comments from either one to that effect, and we know Schilling's not against talking about players on other teams with whom he doesn't think he'd get along. But Kevin Kernan of the New York Post wrote about it in December:

One of the big reasons the Big Unit wants to be a Yankee, according to several sources, is to take on Schilling head to head in the AL East after Schilling was traded away from Arizona last offseason.


Remember, at the root of every great player is a great competitor and Johnson wants to get back to the World Series and nothing would please him more than beating Schilling, according to insiders, which would make for some classic Yankee-Red Sox battles in 2005. Every year you wonder how the Yankees and Red Sox will turn it up a notch and Johnson taking on Schilling would grow this rivalry again in a big way.

It's one thing if Johnson and Schilling have a friendly, competitive rivalry to see which one can lead his team to a world championship without the other -- oh, wait, Schilling just did that. I can certainly understand Johnson wanting to outdo Schilling, but I don't think it runs as deep as a personal feud.

The most telling thing to me came at last year's All-Star Game. During the workout day, when all the players had their kids on the field with them, Schilling sat along the sideline with his four kids. Next to him was Johnson's son, clearly there to see Schilling's kids, who I imagine were his friends when their fathers were teammates. If there were a feud, I doubt Johnson would want his son hanging out with Schilling. In the event that Johnson put his feelings for Schilling aside so that his son could see his friends who now live in Massachusetts, it still wouldn't explain why he took the time to walk over, get down on one knee and talk with Schilling for 10 minutes while they watched BP.

We all know, though, how the New York media loves controversy and it doesn't take much to get the story into the tabloids. So if the Post and the Daily News want a Schilling-Johnson rivalry, they're going to print one.

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Monday, January 10, 2005

On the 15th day of Christmas, the Mets gave to me ...

It was a few days after Epiphany, the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, but yesterday had that feeling of Christmas morning. Had he come overnight? Had midnight led to the most sought-after free agent toy being laid beneath the Mets' tree? I woke up Sunday morning and rushed to the warm glow of ESPN to see if the midnight deadline for Carlos Beltran to resign with the Houston Astros had come and gone without any word of a deal. Indeed, the morning reports were certain that he wasn't going back to Texas, leaving the Mets as the primary suitor.

The Mets got their Alex Rodriguez. Certainly, they'd be in better shape these days had Steve Phillips not screwed up four years ago with the made-up claims of Rodriguez' and Scott Boras' outrageous demands. Beltran wasn't as big a free-agent as Rodriguez, who is one of the two best right-handed hitters in the game (Albert Pujols) and, at the time, was one of the best defensive shortstops in the game (now a mute point). Beltran is, however, one of the best defensive centerfielders (the Mets now have two, with Mike Cameron likely moving to right) and probably the best switch-hitter in the game today. He's a true five-tool player and the kind of in-his-prime cornerstone the Mets need.

Indeed, they haven't had this kind 0f top-of-the-line impact player since they acquired Mike Piazza in 1998 and two years later, they had surrounded him with the support needed to make a World Series run. Now, Piazza is one of the aging veterans on his way out. The starting rotation has three such pitchers in Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine and Steve Trachsel, followed by two up-and-coming youngsters (Kris Benson, Victor Zambrano) whom the Mets hope turn the corner with that kind of veteran leadership from which to learn. In the field, first base is still a weak link unless Jason Phillips can hit closer to .280 with 15 or (longshot here) 20 home runs instead of .220 with a dozen dingers. But the rest of the infield has relatively young, promising players in Kaz Matsui, Jose Reyes and David Wright. The outfield corners have Cameron and the dangerous but fragile Cliff Floyd, one of whom is a likely candidate to be dealt if any deals happen between now and opening day.

I'm not getting ahead of myself just yet. The Mets aren't going too far this year, not with the bullpen they have. Other than Braden Looper as the closer, I'm not sure any slot in the relief corps is decided. Felix Heredia? Please. He'll be lucky to serve a day as the left-handed setup man. By Memorial Day, he'll be handling long relief mop-up duty in blowouts.

This has been the most exciting, active offseason I can remember in a long time and it just has me more excited for those mid-February pitchers-and-catchers reporting dates.

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Friday, January 07, 2005

Round and round he goes, where Beltran lands nobody knows

Nearly five years ago, Dennis Quaid and Jesus — OK, fine, James Caviezel — starred in a baseball movie that wasn't a baseball movie. Frequency was a father/son tale using the Mets' 1969 world championship as a backdrop. Now, another screenwriter has found inspiration in the other Mets championship, the one they won in 1986.

Game 6, which will premiere later this month at the Sundance Film Festival, appears to be another baseball-as-backdrop movie, despite what the title will have you believe. It also may turn out to be more of a Red Sox movie than a Mets movie, according to that aforelinked description on the Sundance site. (And at least this one won't have the in-production backlash that the sight of Jimmy Fallon and Drew Barrymore filming on the field during Boston's celebration in St. Louis has sparked. About that: depending on how it's edited, how can that be believable? Fans don't rush the field anymore these days — the last I can remember was when the Mets clinched the division in '86 — and when they do, a lot more than two make it to the infield.) But with Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Bebe Neuwirth and Catherine O'Hara, it's got to be picked up and distributed by somebody.

* * *

My gut feeling on Carlos Beltran right now is that he'll go back to Houston. I even signed a petition shortly after the Astros' season ended to plead that he remain in Texas ... before the Mets became a player, of course. I just wanted him to stay far, far away from the Bronx. Obviously, we'll know if he's going back there within he next 31 hours, since he has to sign with the Astros by midnight tomorrow.

But I'm still wary of the Yankees. I won't buy that they're out of it until 1.) Scott Boras names the teams who have made offers, and the Yanks aren't one of them, or 2.) Beltran shows up at a press conference and dons a hat that's not a Yankee hat or a jersey that's not a Yankee jersey.

Murray Chass of The New York Times speculated today that George Steinbrenner might have simply told his staff to say the Yankees had no interest, intending to swoop in at the 11th hour. It was Chass, I believe, who first started the talk last weekend that the Yankees had no interest, and Buster Olney of ESPN.com (and/or The Magazine) has also said he thinks they are going to take a pass. But my thinking is that if they really had made the decision to go after Beltran but try to do it quietly, it would get out somehow, despite Steinbrenner's wishes. There is only a certain number of people who can keep a secret about something before the media gets a hold of it.

There's also been some discussion lately that Beltran's not really worth what Boras is demanding. But a look at the list of similar players (scroll down below the boxes for "Appearances on Leaderboards and Awards") shows one Hall of Famer in Dave Winfield, another power/speed outfielder in Bobby Bonds, and a borderline Hall candidate in Andre Dawson. Most telling, as Tim Kurjian points out in that first link, is that his walks have increased in the last four years while his strikeouts have dipped to the point where he's nearly at a 1:1 ratio. He most likely won't hit 40 home runs as a Met, but he'll get on base and run, and he'll cut off so many doubles in the gap at Shea.

The Mets would probably have to overpay to get him, but that's what they need to do. I'd be happy with it, but I just don't know if it's going to get to that. Houston's my gut feeling, but if we haven't heard of it by Sunday morning, there very well could be a new No. 15 in Queens.

Unless, you know, the Yanks are playing possum.

* * *

Wade Boggs will go into the Hall wearing a Red Sox cap. It wasn't really too hard to predict. It's the right move by the Hall.

Doug Mientkiewicz, however, doesn't understand the concept. He's not giving the Red Sox the ball he caught from Keith Foulke for the final out of the World Series. (Of course, if Foulke were smart enough on his feet, he would've run the ball to first base himself for the final out, keeping it in his glove the whole time.) It would be one thing if Mientkiewicz came up with the Red Sox or maybe even played with them the whole season. I'm more inclined to think that Nomar Garciaparra has more of a claim to the ball than Mientkiewicz, who was only in the game as a defensive replacement. (Apparently Terry Francona learned from John McNamara what can happen when you leave a first baseman in for the final out for sentimental reasons.)

* * *

Since I love to make predictions, here are my quick picks for the NFL's wild-card weekend:

I would like to see the Jets win, but I think with the way they struggled at the end of the season, with Chad Pennington's recovering shoulder and with San Diego at home, it won't happen. Might come close, they might cover, but I think it's the Chargers, 28-24.

In Seattle, I don't like either team. I could go with St. Louis, because they've had the Seahawks' number; or I could go with the home team, because can one 8-8 team beat another three times in one season? If Shaun Alexander can control the clock, Seattle probably wins. But I like St. Louis' weapons and scoring potential as a whole, so I say the Rams, 31-26.

On the semi-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field (gameday high expected to be 35 degrees), I don't have the same misgivings about the Packers-Vikings divisional matchup threepeat. Minnesota has won something like two of its last 12 games outdoors. Daunte Culpepper may do The Roll after a touchdown to Randy Moss, but it's Brett Favre and the Packers who roll on, 38-30.

I'm a fan of the scoring this opening weekend, aren't I? I'm probably not the only one. Take away everything else in the Indianapolis-Denver matchup on Sunday except for three things: Peyton Manning, Jake Plummer and the RCA Dome. Is there any way you can envision Plummer beating Manning inside? Neither can I: Colts, 42-21.

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Newark delivers history lesson

The Bears' den in Newark. Posted by Hello

August 1, 1999

New Jersey's baseball history is rooted in Newark. Sure, one of the first organized professional games was played in Hoboken, but Newark's involvement with the national pastime lasted much longer.

However, in 1949, it all disappeared. The old Newark Bears, at times a Class AAA affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers and then the New York Yankees, were sold to the Chicago Cubs and moved to Springfield, Mass. In 1937, the Bears won the pennant by 251/2 games, went on to win the "Little World Series" and are considered one of the best minor league teams of all time.

The Eagles, Newark's franchise in the Negro Leagues back when too many people felt separation was necessary, also left town, and it took 50 years to bring baseball back.

Baseball's back in Newark with the new Bears playing in the independent Atlantic League at their unfinished park along McCarter Highway and the Passaic River. Officially, it's called Riverfront Stadium, but everyone considers it "The Den." They are the Bears, after all.

Attending a Newark Bears game does have a feeling of history to it, knowing that these players are, in a way, descendants of baseball back in the day when the uniforms were flannel and never included the color teal. My mother came with me on this trip because her family history dates back to Newark's Italian north side, where her grandmother's house was torn down to make way for Interstate 280.

Riverfront Stadium actually borders the McCarter Highway, which runs along the Passaic River. The $34 million park, which makes it one of the most expensive minor league parks in America, is finished enough to play baseball – the concourse and all the seats are complete, as are the clubhouses down the left field line. But the second level – what will become the press and broadcast booths and luxury boxes – is still under construction. A drawing in the program shows what the place will look like, with landscaping and a courtyard surrounding it, when construction is complete. Parking is conveniently close for $4.

These young Bears – who played last season in Bridgeport, Conn., and the first part of 1999 at Skylands Park in Augusta – are owned by former Yankees and Mets catcher Rick Cerone, who was at the turnstiles when the gates opened. Cerone spent much of the game in the stands, signing autographs and even dancing between innings at one point.

Whether or not current players, such as former Yankee Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens, know anything about Newark's history, the game program does a fine job of reminding the fans. Old photos of both the Bears and Eagles appear on the cover and throughout the magazine, along with an article on the history of the current stadium's site as well as team history. It's the best program I've seen after visiting five parks, with detailed player profiles and lots of information about the team history and how Newark got baseball back.

Even the mascot, Rip 'N Ruppert, gets his name from the past – Ruppert Stadium, where those Bears and Eagles used to play in a park named for one–time Yankee owner Col. Jacob Ruppert.

Mom and I settled into our $8 seats just beyond first base, and the first few innings of Tuesday's game went quickly. The Bears' Tim Cain and the Bridgeport Bluefish's Al Sontag battled to a 2–1 Bridgeport lead after four innings. In the fifth, shortstop Cesar Morillo and third baseman Meulens sent back–to–back home runs toward McCarter Highway for a 3–2 Bears lead. Cain couldn't hold it, though, and Bridgeport scored two in the eighth and one in the ninth for a 5–3 victory.

Morillo's homer, because it was the Bears' first of the night, won the couple next to me a free dinner. Later in the night, two more couples competed for Great Adventure tickets. The men tossed up water balloons and the ladies had to hit the balloons with bats. It certainly cooled them off. If you're interested in winning, be sure to sign up for the promotions along the concourse.

As far as food – when it's not under– or over–cooked, it basically tastes the same at all ballparks, with slight differences in selection. I had a decent $2.25 hamburger (again, like the Jackals' game, no cheese) and a great $2 pretzel. Beer – Coors, Coors Light, Sam Adams, Killian's – cost $3.25 to $4. Mom said the hot dogs were good and hot, and the service was very nice. Chicken sandwiches and bags of chips were also available.

The attendance Tuesday was announced at 2,623, but there was a sense that it went way beyond the 6,100 capacity of the Den. With the Bears back in town, Newark has 50 years of baseball to catch up on.

DIRECTIONS: Take the New Jersey Turnplike to Exit 15W. Get on I–280 West to Exit 15A (Route21) Follow signs for Route 21 South– also McCarter Highway. Turn right onto Route 21. At the second light, turn right onto Bridge Street. The stadium will be on the right.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Statistical comparison: Val Majewski and Charles Frazier

I woke up this morning with a weird thought in my head. Somehow, I found myself lying awake, mulling over whether it is better for a player to sign a professional contract straight out of high school or, as Billy Beane prefers, to go to college and develop your skills there to be better prepared for life in the minors -- on the way, obviously, to the majors.

Certainly, you can't just compare two random players, but suppose you had two somewhat similar ones from the same area who were the same age? Clearly this isn't a scientific study; it's merely a look at two former high school stars on the Jersey Shore who have had decidedly different paths since they graduated. I covered a high-school all-star game in which these two played. One, Charlie Frazier, went off and signed with the Marlins to begin his professional career. The other, Val Majewski, attended Rutgers before the Baltimore Orioles drafted him three years later.

Since that all-star game in 1999, Frazier, a sixth-round pick, has bounced around the Marlins' system:

1999 Gulf Coast League Marlins
2000 GCL/Short-season Utica
2001 Utica
2002 Class A Kane County/High-A Jupiter
2003 Jupiter
2004 Class AA Carolina/Jupiter
Majewski didn't have the same hype coming out of high school, so he signed with Fred Hill's program in Piscataway. His college career boosted his profile, and in 2002 he was a third-round Orioles pick. As a result, he's been on a faster track:

2002 Short-season Aberdeen/Class A Delmarva
2003 Delmarva/Gulf
Coast League/Aberdeen/High-A Frederick
2004 Class AA Bowie/Baltimore

Injuries in 2003 led to a one-game rehab stint down in the GCL and four games at Aberdeen, but he finished the year strong, batting .289 at Frederick. This past season, he made the jump to double-A, was named to both the Eastern League all-star game and the Futures Game in Houston, and finished the season as a September callup in Baltimore.

As for makeup, Frazier is a 6-3, 185-pound right-handed (throwing and hitting) outfielder who will turn 25 in July. He's one of three talented boys in the family: Jeff was a power-hitting outfielder at Rutgers until being drafted by the Tigers last June, and Todd was the hero of Toms River, New Jersey's, recent Little League World Series champions. He was drafted by the Rockies last year but could follow in Jeff's footsteps at Rutgers.

Majewski is a 6-2, 200-pound left-handed outfielder who will be 24 in June.

A look at their minor league numbers, however, gives some indication as to why Majewski's path to the majors, though seemingly delayed by a college career, was shorter. (I apologize for the lack of a table showing their stats in the standard format, but my HTML skills aren't advanced enough to make that happen.) In 206 fewer games and 653 fewer at bats, Majewski has a .300 average to Frazier's .244. He's slugged .504 to Frazier's .324 and gotten on base at a .358 clip to Frazier's .333.

Majewski's power is what stands out. In his 946 minor-league at bats, he has 29 home runs, 15 of which came in his 433 at bats last year at Bowie. Frazier has just 14 home runs, half of which came last season at Carolina (1) and Jupiter (6). His highest RBI total, 41 in 2002 at Kane County (38) and Jupiter (3) falls way short of Majewski's 71 in 2003 (48 at Delmarva, 3 at Aberdeen, 20 at Frederick) or 80 last year at Bowie. In the category of doubles, a number often looked at as an indicator of gap power that, somewhere down the line could become home-run power, Majewski has the same number, 66, in less time. Frazier has more speed (125 steals, with a high of 48 in 2002, to 33), but Majewski's been more efficient (a 78 percent success rate in 42 attempts to Frazier's 74 percent in 169). But Majewski's 20-10 lead in triples shows that he can turn those corners -- and indicates his advantage in the power department.

But what really sets the two apart is their strikeout-to-walk ratios. Majewski has 128 strikeouts to 84 walks and an average of one strikeout every 8.2 plate appearances. Frazier has 422 strikeouts to 191 walks and an average of a whiff every 4.4 trips to the dish.

As I said, these are just two players out of the thousands who get to make this decision in their lives. Each slugger or flamethrower has his reasons for taking the path he does, whether the choice of signing immediately is a desire to make the money now or a need to help out his family; or if the college education and experience is deemed the way to go.

From a higher level of competition to the abundance of summer leagues (that use wood bats), there's a strong argument to be made that those college seasons help make projecting a future major leaguer a bit easier.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

One hour until the announcement

Quickly, for the record, my Hall of Fame Class of 2005 predictions:

Wade Boggs, 3B, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He goes in with a Red Sox cap.

Ryne Sandberg, 2B, Chicago Cubs. He came close last year and this year probably puts him over.

I'm not sure what to think of the three closers who are regularly debated: Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith. I think of them in that order, in terms of strength of case, because they were the pioneers of the closer as we know him today. They pitched two or three innings each time out, 70 games a year. It's going to be hard for today's generation of one-inning closers to get there, but we'll leave that discussion for their own retirements.

But for Gossage, Sutter and Smith, I don't know if this is the year. It will be somewhere down the line, but not 2005.

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Monday, January 03, 2005

What's in a name?

At Notre Dame, there's a women's dorm called Lyons Hall which chose as its sports mascot the mighty lion. The Lyons Lions.

A high school in Los Gatos, California, calls its sports teams the Wildcats. Translating the town's name into English gives you The Cats Wildcats.

Add The Angels Angels to the list.

In some sort of marketing move that's a bit above my head, California's Angels have gone and mushed together the team's original and current monikers, calling themselves the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Why didn't they just take a cue from Thornton Wilder's Our Town and go with The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, United States of America, Western Hemisphere, Earth, the Solar System, the Universe, In the Eye of God?

Clearly, the bang-up marketing job done by the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (they're a professional hockey team, if you can remember back to when there was professional hockey) has rubbed off on Angels owner Arte Moreno. Yet as of last January, those fightin' Mighty Ducks were ranked 18th among the NHL's 30 teams in merchandise sales, though the team was once named the best-dressed in professional sports. Why, exactly, would the team with the third-highest attendance last year need a name change to increase its reach? Moreno apparently wanted to change the name when he bought the team two years ago, but surely in that time he must've learned what really brings exposure: winning. The Angels signed Vladimir Guerrero and won the division, and only their neighbors to the north, the Dodgers (of Los Angeles) and the Evil Empire to the East, the Yankees, drew more fans. Oh, and all were playoff teams.

What Moreno really missed out on was a true stroke of marketing genius. How could his marketing people not turn on their TVs to Fox -- baseball's own network, no less -- and miss a souvenir sale gold mine right in their midst?

They should've renamed the team The Anaheim Angels of The OC. Think of the possibilities! Seth Cohen bobblehead dolls. Caps with attachments that make the wearer have bushy eyebrows like Peter Gallagher. Fans in eating contests with Marissa Cooper and Summer Roberts. Imagine what I could come up with if I gave it a full 15 minutes of thought!

For the moment, it seems that the name will be the only change. The Angels will still retain the "A" as their main logo, but by now putting "Los Angeles" out in front and "Anaheim" to the back, it moves the team from first in the alphabetical list of franchises to the middle of the pack. How will the AP list them when it comes to putting out the standings come April? "Los Angeles" seems to be the likely choice, but will it now necessitate "L.A. Dodgers" and "L.A. Angels" to differentiate? Or will they just stick with "Anaheim" for convenience? Will they be allowed to?

As more of a baseball purist than an advocate of change, I prefer classic uniforms with original colors (meaning only teams whose colors have always included black can use it for jerseys), team names on the home shirts and city (or state) names on the road ones. The Angels may stick with "Angels" on the road grays, or go with "Los Angeles," but I'd like to see them try to get "Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim" across the chest. There'd be so much stitching there, the batters would have an unyielding chest protector of sorts getting in the way every time they swung.

The problem is, this change opens the door for so many other teams to go after outrageous geographic marketing takeovers. What stands in the way of the Dallas Cowboys of America, since they already consider themselves America's Team? With the loss of the Hartford Whalers in Connecticut, the Nutmeg State and its siblings to the north -- Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine -- now have to settle for the Boston teams as their own, so we can expect "of New England" to appear behind the names of the Bruins, Red Sox and Celtics (there's no need for the New England Patriots to get redundant).

But there are much bigger regions devoid of professional teams, so that the reach of some teams goes far beyond the hometown area code. The Atlanta Braves of the Southern Atlantic Coast? The Minnesota Twins of the Great Plains? The St. Louis Cardinals of Middle America? The New York Yankees of the Entire Tri-State Area?

Back in September, an AP report talked about New Jersey's attempts to lure a team, starting with the Mets. The Giants and Jets have been in the Garden State for more than two decades, yet the only references to New Jersey come on gameday when 79,000 fans trek to the Meadowlands. Would the Mets drop "New York" for "New Jersey"? Would they trade the interlocking "NY" on the caps for "NJ"? Would they follow their football cousins' lead and stubbornly stick with "New York"? Or would the Angels become a model for the Metropolitans, who could go with the New York Mets of the Hudson?

Does Arte Moreno realize the Pandora's Box he's opened here? I shudder to think of what this will become if the Angels win the World Series this year.

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