They play in towns of various sizes, connected by a loose network of long roads that stretch across a large continent. We are all chasing dreams, whether we are conscious of this fact or not. Some of us arrive at our intended destination, others end up elsewhere. Either way, the journey is unique and unforgettable.
May 16, 2004
My buddy Jeff and I are visiting all ten California League ballparks. The fourth stop on our tour is Rancho Cucamonga, fortysomething miles east of Los Angeles. After wolfing down Chinese buffet and watching a softball game at one of the fields that surround the Epicenter, we buy front-row seats behind home plate to watch the hometown Quakes take on the visiting Inland Empire 66ers from just down the road.
The 66ers have an 18-year-old kid on the mound. The average age in this league is 23, and he’s dominating it, despite the hitter-friendly ballparks. He is the object of significant praise from those who know about baseball. Baseball America ranked him the second overall prospect behind Minnesota catcher Joe Mauer coming into the season.
The kid’s name is Felix Hernandez, and here’s what Baseball America said about him at the time:
Hernandez has the best fastball in the system and commands his mid-90s heat well. He regularly touches 97 and could reach triple digits as his skinny frame fills out. Hernandez’ curveball is also unparalleled among Mariners farmhands and gives him the possibility for two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. Though he’s young and can easily overpower hitters at the lower levels, he understands the value of a changeup and is developing a good one… It’s easy to get overexcited about young pitchers, but Hernandez has the legitimate potential to become the best pitcher ever developed by the Mariners.
Scouting reports don’t get any more accurate than that.
On this Sunday afternoon, however, he is terrible. The scoreboard has his fastball at 91-94 mph, occasionally touching 95. His command and secondary pitches are missing in action, resulting in his worst performance of the season: 4 IP, 8 H, 7 R, 5 ER, 3 BB, 3 SO, 2 HR.
Several other players who eventually reach the big leagues see action as well. Most notable among them are Inland Empire’s Erick Aybar and Mike Napoli.
As for Hernandez, he bounces back from the disastrous outing and is promoted to Double-A later in 2004, reaching Seattle the following year as a teenager. From there it’s just a matter of time until he wins a Cy Young Award, is named to six All-Star teams before he turns 30, tosses a perfect game, and fulfills his destiny as “the best pitcher ever developed by the Mariners.”
July 24, 2007
I’m driving from San Diego to Cooperstown to see Tony Gwynn (and Cal Ripken) get inducted into the Hall of Fame. Due to a colossal operator error, I’ve managed to miss the previous night’s game in Albuquerque. Fortunately, Oklahoma City is a short 540-mile drive east, and I arrive well before first pitch despite stopping in Amarillo to grab lunch and withdraw cash from the bank.
I’m wearing a Padres cap when I walk into the bank. The teller notices it, and mentions that her cousin just married one of their players, but she can’t remember his name. As she’s counting out twenties, I’m tossing out names. Khalil Greene turns out to be the correct one. So yeah, I’m dropping names: I got money from Khalil Greene’s wife’s cousin in Amarillo.
Meanwhile, in Oklahoma City, Edinson Volquez is pitching. Backed by three home runs, he leads his team to a 6-1 victory over the visiting Portland Beavers.
Years later, I will struggle to recall any of this, exhausted as I was from a long day’s drive. My notes tell me that I listened to Jimmy Eat World and Jeff Buckley while driving, welcome companions on a lonely highway.
My memories from the ballpark are of statues outside (Johnny Bench, Warren Spahn, Mickey Mantle—the best players Oklahoma has yet produced) and of a curious local tradition. In the middle of the fifth inning, most of the 7,144 fans in attendance broke into a rousing rendition of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. It makes perfect sense now, given that it is the official state song, but I have never before or since heard anyone sing Broadway at a ballgame.
As for Volquez, he has gone on to enjoy a successful big-league career. He was an All-Star in 2008, his first full season, which probably raised unrealistic expectations. And although he has never attained that level of success since, he did start two World Series games for the champion Kansas City Royals in 2015, including a memorable Game 1 that saw him work six strong innings mere hours after his father had died in the Dominican Republic.
May 27, 2011
My wife and I are driving around the southwest: Las Vegas, Zion, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson. On our first night in Tucson we watch the hometown Padres take on the visiting Salt Lake Bees.
Most of the players on both teams are retreads or fringe guys—Andrew Romine, Efren Navarro, Paul McAnulty, Aaron Cunningham, Jesus Guzman, Brian Lawrence, and so forth. Tucson’s leadoff man, Will Venable, has enjoyed a substantial big-league career. He hit two homers that night.
And Tucson’s cleanup hitter has blossomed into one of the National League’s bright young stars. Anthony Rizzo shined in his team’s 11-1 victory. From my notes on the game:
Anthony Rizzo looked comfortable, too. He doubled, homered, walked, and flied out twice. The double was a smash that caromed off the first baseman’s glove and down the right field line. The home run was legit.
The second fly out was impressive. After falling behind in the count, Rizzo worked it full. I turned to my wife and said, “If this is a strike, he’ll smoke it.” It was, and he did. The ball died on the warning track in center, but in Rizzo’s defense, he hit it off the end of his bat.
The other impressive aspect of Rizzo’s offensive game is that, at least in the two games I saw, he didn’t venture out of the strike zone. He seemed to have a clear grasp of what was hittable and what wasn’t.
Rizzo’s performance at Triple-A is so dominant that it forces the Padres (whose first basemen stink) to bring him up to San Diego prematurely. There, as one of the key pieces in the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston, expectations are too high. Rizzo struggles and is later shipped to the Cubs for Andrew Cashner.
There were holes in Rizzo’s swing, which hinted more at Kent Hadley than Kent Hrbek. It was easy to envision him as a .240 hitter with 25-homer power in the spacious parks of the National League West (the triple he hit at Petco Park in his debut would have left nearly every other stadium), but there was no questioning the talent.
Rizzo has been an All-Star and legitimate MVP candidate each of the last two seasons. Entering his age-26 campaign, he likely hasn’t shown his best yet, which is a scary thought for opposing pitchers. He appears to be on the verge of stardom.
Here’s the truth about minor-league baseball. Sometimes an 18-year-old phenom has a bad day while guys twice his age play slow-pitch softball next door. Sometimes a great pitching performance is obscured by exhaustion from a 540-mile drive and the distraction of Rodgers and Hammerstein. And sometimes a guy makes it look easy squaring up on baseballs all night.
Meanwhile, most of the players on the field never make it to the bigs. Many never even make it to the next level. But they’re all chasing a baseball career that requires a combination of talent, hard work, and luck to come true.
We follow them around on back roads, cheering them on in the hope of better days to come. And if those better days never come, we at least hope for a good ride along the way. If we’re paying attention, we’re pretty much guaranteed to get it, and that’s not so bad.
Geoff Young is a writer and a baseball vagabond. You should follow him on Twitter.