11th and Washington

11th and Washington: April 2013

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

News, notes and rumblings around the minors

Sun sets in Sussex County
Skylands Park, 2005
I don't know what it is about expansion and relocation when it comes to sports teams, but it always piques my interest. It doesn't even matter if the team leaving is hundreds of miles away, or if it's moving to somewhere else that's also hundreds of miles away. I guess I just love the newness of it -- new uniforms, colors, logos, identity. A new community, new fan base, new history. There's not a league I could care less about than the NBA, but I still read all about the New Orleans club dropping the Hornets nickname for Pelicans (and I think it'd be boring, lame and a bit disingenuous for the Charlotte Bobcats to change their name to Hornets; it's been done).

So when there's talk of expansion or relocation in the minor leagues -- the latter of which brought affiliate minor league ball back to New Jersey in the '90s (to Trenton) and 2001 (to Lakewood); perhaps that's where the interest comes from -- my ears perk up. And there's been quite a few rumblings in recent weeks involving leagues -- and one site -- that play in or near New Jersey.

 The New York-Penn League plans to move a club to Morgantown, W. Va., to share a ballpark with West Virginia University. The rumored team to make the shift is the Jamestown Jammers, who were next-to-last in NY-Penn attendance in 2012 (36,078 total, 1,031 per game), besting only their upstate New York neighbors, the Batavia Muckdogs. This would make the New York-Penn League the New York-Penn-Connecticut-Massachusetts-Vermont-Maryland-Ohio-West Virginia League. New Jersey used to be in there, too, before the Cardinals left Sussex County for State College, Pa.

 Speaking of Skylands Park up in Augusta, the new owner is exploring all avenues for a tenant, including summer collegiate leagues. But the ever-expanding Atlantic League may have some interest, too.

 As for the Atlantic League, it could soon find itself with franchises in Fort Worth, Texas (giving the Sugar Land Skeeters a neighbor), and in Virginia Beach and Loudon, Va.

 And, finally, Ottawa mayor Jim Watson continues his push to bring a Double-A Eastern League team to his city to be a Blue Jays affiliate, which will only revive speculation that Binghamton, N.Y., could lose its Eastern League club (and its Mets affiliation, which currently runs through 2016). It appears unlikely that Binghamton would lose affiliated baseball completely, because there remains speculation that NYSEG Stadium could then receive a New York-Penn League team, likely Batavia. This one particularly fascinates me because of the added layer of player development contracts. I looked at some affiliations last February, and though the expiration dates are, well, out of date, few if any of the affiliations changed. I'm curious if PDCs have ever been broken, renegotiated, bought out or even traded before. I'll try to get in touch with some contacts for some background.

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Friday, April 12, 2013

Brief thoughts on '42'

Jackie's 42 I'm no critic and I don't aspire to be one. I don't have a technical eye. I don't go to movies looking for flaws, inconsistencies or mistakes. I've never walked out on a film because, if I've paid money to be there, I might as well get the full value from the pretty people and bright colors on the screen. So if you're looking for a review of "42," move along.

Simply as a fan -- of baseball, of movies, of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers (I realized years ago that there's something about that team that would've drawn me to it -- I loved it. I loved the costumes and the cars, the reproduced uniforms (even if they got the Brooklyn caps wrong), the computer-generated ballparks from Florida to Jersey City to Brooklyn and Pittsburgh. I thought it was wonderfully acted, even if Harrison Ford seemed like a caricature. Chadwick Boseman was stellar and Nicole Beharie devine. I can only imagine what Rachel Robinson thought seeing a part of her life dramatized on screen.

But what I think I loved most were the baseball scenes. (I don't know who choreographed them or what former players, other than C.J. Nitkowski, may have suited up.) This may be the best, the most realistic baseball choreography I've ever seen on film. It's heavy on game action, and maybe once -- one swing -- out of all those recreations did I think it looked awkward. The first time Boseman steps into the batter's box as a Montreal Royal to face the Dodgers in a spring exhibition and the pitch comes in high and tight felt so real. It sounded just like when you're playing catch and you lift your glove to catch a hard one at your ear -- that sound of the air whooshing around the seams and then the smack of the ball into the glove: Fffffffffssss-THWACK!

Digital reproduction of real -- and long-gone -- places has advanced so much that scenes in the old ballparks looked more like they were filmed on location with a soft lens than with an actor in front of a green screen. Maybe it's me, but I thought some of the scenes at Ebbets Field or Forbes Field make "Titanic" look like it was filmed in a bathtub. The ballparks looked familiar, like I'd remembered them from visits even though they were all gone more than a decade before I was born. But I love to look at (and sometimes collect) photos of these long-gone cathedrals, and I've "played" a few games at Ebbets and Forbes and the Polo Grounds on various versions of Xbox and PS3 baseball games. The movie brought the pictures to live and put the video games to shame, even if they gave Forbes Field a wooden (?) green outfield wall -- not brick, and no ivy -- and put the flagpole behind the center-field fence instead of on the field of play.


I thought -- minor spoilers in this paragraph -- that limiting the setting to 1945 through the end of the '47 season provided the perfect window to squeeze Jackie's story into a manageable 128 minutes. There is little politicalization -- there's no dialogue about what Jackie's trailblazing will mean for society as a whole. Other than the voiceover intro and just a few off-field scenes of segregation and racism, nearly all of that discourse is presented in the context of a ballgame. We didn't need to see anything before 1945, and ending the film with a key home run may have been hokey, but it worked for me. I'll let that slide. And yes, I realize the Dodgers didn't clinch the 1947 NL pennant in Pittsburgh and that the game that day didn't play out as depicted, but I found that out only after coming home to look it up. I doubt anyone not alive that day to remember it didn't realize the artistic license until they got home and delved into baseball-reference.com, either.

The epilogue -- a few more spoilers -- captivated me. In typical biopic fashion, we're given updates on what happened to the real-life people after the timeframe of the film. The characters are shown one by one, with text on the screen listing their accomplishments. We see several actors, in scenes not shown earlier in the film, in action until the image freezes and the text appears. The splendid "Life Is A Ballgame" by Sister Wynona Carr plays, and after several actors in character have flashed by, up pops a black-and-white photo of Rachel and Jackie -- the people, not the actors. Jackie's accomplishments are displayed alongside photos of the man himself. It was actually a bit emotional and very well done. The slideshow then transitions into recent MLB footage of current players wearing No. 42, with text explaining how the number was retired throughout Major League Baseball and is worn by everyone on April 15 each year. And with that, events that happened nearly 70 years ago, to and by a man who died 40 years ago, are put into the context of today's game.


Whatever its flaws, "42" did it for me -- as a baseball movie, a biopic and a dramatization of historical events. There was even a moment in the film, when Branch Rickey tells Robinson that he saw a white boy in a sandlot pretending to be Jackie Robinson, that sounded a lot like what I wrote  in a short story for a college class in 1997. If I had ever tried to write a screenplay, this subject would've been one I wanted to write about and parts of this movie would've been how I wanted to write it. And that's when I know I've loved a film.

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Monday, April 08, 2013

BlueClaws helping to restore the Shore

Brady delivers

The Lakewood BlueClaws completed their opening-weekend series yesterday, but their record in the four games doesn't matter. What matters is that they raised $15,000 for the BlueClaws Charities Restore the Shore initiative after auctioning off the special jerseys worn throughout the weekend. Each jersey featured the name of a Shore-area town on the back, making some shirts more attractive to bidders and leading to some high-priced last-minute bidding as the auction came to an end after the eighth inning on Sunday. The money raised -- both from the auction and on related purchases in the team store -- will go to fund grants that will go to Sandy victims who apply. And though the game-worn jersey auction ended yesterday, I'm told that there will be a few additional jerseys going up for auction online soon.

Charles at first I wasn't sure if I'd get in on the bidding, but after seeing my hometown, Little Silver, on the back of catcher Chad Carman during pregame warmups, two things stood out: First, he wasn't huge, and second, he wore No. 18. The number actually didn't matter much to me, though it helps that 18 isn't an unattractive number (worn by Darryl Strawberry and any number of Japanese aces not named Yu Darvish). But Carman's size (5-foot-10, 189 pounds) did. If my hometown had been on the back of 6'6", 220-pound first baseman Art Charles, for example, there's no chance I would have bid on that bedsheet.

After placing my initial bid -- and only the third on the sheet overall -- around the fifth inning, I went down to check on its status with one out in the bottom of the eighth. Someone had outbid me by the minimum $25, so I raised it another $25, but was willing to go only another $50 higher. Then I stepped back among the crowd of bidders to watch the game from the concourse. Another out; I was now one more from winning the jersey. Then a BlueClaws batter hit a fly ball into right-center, and I'd never wanted a ball hit by the home team to be caught more (at any game I've attended) than this one. But the diving right fielder came up short. We had to wait out another batter.

Little Silver on to warm up the pitcher But then it happened: The next batter struck out and the BlueClaws staffers manning the tables quickly pulled up the tablecloths with the bid sheets taped to them and disappeared into the offices to sort through the bids. After the game, they collected the jerseys from the players and distributed them to the fans who returned to the concourse to pick them up.

Carman had the day off Sunday, so I didn't get to see my jersey in action, except for the innings when he came out to warm up the pitcher while yesterday's starter, Chace Numata, put on his equipment. But that was actually better, because when I picked up the jersey, it was clean and still smelled like laundry detergent.    In fact, the jersey's final play in a game came on Saturday evening, when Carman fielded a throw from right fielder Brian Pointer and tagged out Kannapolis' Kale Kiser as he attempted to score the tying run to preserve Lakewood's 3-2 victory (its only win so far this season).

It had to have been interesting -- and perhaps educational -- for these players (only four of whom played in Lakewood last year) to join their new team but not wear the actual team name on their chests until the fifth game (which is tonight). I don't know if Chad Carman bothered to ask where Little Silver is or if any players inquired about the amount of damage sustained to any of the towns, but I'm sure some thought about it.

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Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Opening Day thoughts

The Captain

Well, we're two days past Opening Day now, but I figured as long as I get this post up before the Mets play Game No. 2 tonight, I'm good. I just had some thoughts throughout the day -- both Mets-related and MLB-wide -- that I couldn't shake ...

 I love Opening Day ceremonies. I slept in last year and arrived at my seat just as the Mets were running onto the field, and it just didn't feel like Opening Day. So we made sure to catch a train an hour earlier from New Jersey and were walking into the Rotunda right around noon. I love seeing all the players lined up along the baselines, the new guys getting their first exposure to the fans, last year's mid-season callups (Hey, Matt Harvey!) getting the Opening Day treatment. The national anthem gets star treatment (Emmy Rossum!), there's usually a huge flag stretched across the outfield (though nice touch this year with the NY heart and Hurricane Sandy support crews) and the first pitch is often a VIP (Rusty!!!).

The 7 Line Army
 Opening Day crowds. They may struggle to break 15,000 tonight in Queens (heck, it's supposed to be in the 20s -- 10,000 might be pushing it), but on Opening Day, no matter what the prospects for the season are, the crowd is full and enthusiastic. There's hope. Look at Houston -- I'm not sure you'll find 10 people outside the clubhouse who think the team can win 62 games, but those fans were jazzed on Sunday night. Sure, it helped to have the Rangers in town for the first American League game in Astros history, but that crowd was into it. I don't care who your team is or what the expectations are, 1-0 feels a lot better than 0-1, especially if you're in attendance.

 Ballpark exploration. Each winter, teams take a look at what they offer their fans and ditch what didn't sell and come up with new offerings and upgrades. Some even release the new additions to great fanfare. Though the Opening Day crowds often make it a tough slog, I do enjoy taking a lap around the concourse to see what's new. Even if I don't get in line that day, I make a note to come back during the next (less crowded) game. But on Monday, when we realized Mom had bought tickets in the last row of the upper deck and the wind was blowing through us, we descended to the food court behind home plate to try Pat LaFrieda's steak sandwiches and Parmesan garlic fries and Oh. My. God. Shake Shack, you have competition. (And dammit, I saw Danny Meyer out in DannyMeyerLand before the game but didn't realize it was him before he walked off, so I didn't have a chance to thank him. Or more.)

 I was happy to see the Padres line up in their road gray jerseys. I'm OK with alternate jerseys (used to be a fan, but now they're such a gimmick, I've come down with my enthusiasm), but not on Opening Day. Opening Day -- like the All-Star Game and World Series -- is a showcase. Come out in your finest, your dress whites (or grays), your primary look. Leave the black/blue/red tops in the clubhouse for the next game. (I'm looking at you, Pirates, Marlins and Rockies.)

 Small sample sizes. The numbers are so much fun to play with. David Wright is going to steal 324 bases! Collin Cowgill will drive in 648 runs!

 Changing addresses/new stars/absent stars. Maybe this was just the beginning of something special for Jackie Bradley Jr. or A.J. Pollock. It's also weird to see others in new uniforms. We got used to Kevin Youkilis in pinstripes, but not those pinstripes. And how strange (but nice, as a Mets fan), to see Chipper Jones throwing out a first pitch and not swinging at one?

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