Kauffman Stadium

2016 Regular Season. Kansas City Royals hosted Baltimore Orioles at Kauffman Stadium (Kansas City, Missouri), home of the 2015 World Champions. A capacity crowd of nearly 40,000 came to see the home team and it was a perfect day for a twilight game; clear skies, a temperature of 78 degrees, and featuring hues of the sunset beyond words. For this time of year, you couldn’t ask for more. Both teams came into the game with 11 wins thus far in the season. On this day, Baltimore Orioles outperformed the Kansas City Royals 14 hits to 7. Royals starting pitcher Kris Medlen went 3 & 2/3 innings and gave up 9 of those Oriole hits. Baltimore Orioles beat Kansas City Royals 8-3. But, its early and, until someone proves different, the Royals are kings of baseball. 2015 was the first World Championship for the Kansas City Royals since that magical year in 1985 and the second in franchise history. Salvador Perez, as well as outfielder Jarrod Dyson and pitcher Danny Duffy are the only players from that 2015 Royals team that are on the current active player roster. Pitcher Greg Holland was traded away, re-signed, and is also on the 2021 Kansas City Royals. Orioles third baseman Manny Machado and Royals first baseman Erik Hossmer would eventually enter free agency and are now teammates for the long term with the San Diego Padres.

2016 was the 50th anniversary of the Astro Turf. When it was introduced in the Astrodome (1966), it was merely replacing the natural grass that was dying from lack of sun light through the opaque panels that enclosed the ballpark. As we all know, Astro turf took on a life of its own after that, a viable low maintenance material that became the kneejerk selection for the post-modern designs, the cookie-cutter stadiums of the 1960’s & 1970’s. Kauffman Stadium took a role in that history (1973-1994). Before that, the Royals played at Municipal Stadium (1969-1972), a year after the Athletics moved to Oakland, California. I visited Kauffman Stadium in 1993 and, from a fans point of view, it’s a different game now. It seemed like a much smaller ballpark back then; Maybe it’s the renovations and better use of space. Or, maybe it’s just because, after many years, places tend to look smaller than we revisit. Or, is it the other way around?

When in town, fan loyalty is not hard to find at all, banners on display and fans wearing their teams gear wherever you go. The great thing about being defending champions is you can relive the highlights of that magical season every day. As an added bonus, the fanbase enjoys a repeat appearance in the World Series (a feat in itself) to win it all after losing a hard-fought series to San Francisco Giants in 2014. This also means that, with rising ticket prices, loyalty is more expensive the year after. Still, there was a genuine feeling of a franchise and baseball family coming full circle from those pennant years of the 1970s & the 1980s. What happens at “The K” is held close to the cuff. Kansas City is the city with a thousand nicknames and they all describe royalty.

Kansas City Royals are one of four new expansion teams in 1969; Kansas City Royals, Seattle Pilots (later known as Milwaukee Brewers), San Diego Padres, and Montreal Expos later known as Washington Nationals). So, what’s the association with Kansas City and Royals? The franchise name is in honor of the “America Royal,” an annual event held throughout town since 1899 that features a livestock show, a horse show, a rodeo, and bar-b-que competition. It tends to get lost in translation but the honor was either “for cows” or “for an industry that helped create a strong economy in Kansas City and built by a strong working class, depending on how you look at it. But, the concept of royalty has evolved, identifying with every aspect of life in Kansas City; titles like the football Chiefs, the once basketball Kings, the Kings of Jazz, etc. The storied franchise of the Kansas City Monarchs was royalty in the Negro Leagues. And, speaking of royalty, there is one red seat in Kauffman Stadium that marks the spot where the Legendary Buck O’Neal sat for decades to watch and keep score of the Royals home games; a man with too many titles to mention them all. In short, he’s the soul of the game. And, if you don’t know who Buck O’Neal is, then you don’t know Kansas City.

Baltimore Orioles @ Kansas City Royals

Baltimore Orioles beat Kansas City Royals 8-3. Photos taken on Saturday April 23, 2016 by Miguel A. Sanchez.

Home Town Bats

2016 Minor League Season. Louisville Bats (Cincinnati Reds Triple-A affiliate) host Indianapolis Indians (Pittsburgh Pirates Triple-A affiliate) at Louisville Slugger Field (Louisville, Kentucky). It’s a slow Thursday night in “Derby City” but the low turn-out at the ballpark has a calming effect. Its easy to confuse this newly found peace with boredom. For some, its Church. Here in the town of Bats, this is more like the calm before the storm as Louisville has festivals planned throughout the month of May in celebration of the Kentucky Derby and Bourbon. They come from around the country with their own reasons to party.  Louisville is mostly known for the Kentucky Derby, Bourbon, and the University of Louisville Cardinals. The Louisville Bat Factory, another icon on Main Street, has been filling bat orders for virtually every Major League Baseball Player. The business started with Hillerich & Bradsby, first bat was made for Pete Browning of the Louisville Eclipse in 1884.

Major League Baseball roots runs deep in Louisville. Ballclubs met here to eventually form the National League (1876). Louisville Grays were one of eight charter members, folded in 1877 when four players were banned for gambling. In the early years, the Louisville Eclipse (1882-1884) also known as the Louisville Colonels (1885-1899) were a part of the American Association and later joined the National League in 1899. Ownership problems led to massive losses, many of them against the upstart Baltimore Orioles. 1900 was the end of Major League Baseball in Louisville, as the new owner of the Pittsburg Pirates signed 14 of the Colonel players, including Honus Wagner. The American League was formed in 1901. After that, the National League would be better known as the “Senior Circuit.”

For minor league affiliates, Cincinnati Reds have Arizona League Reds (Low-Rookie), Daytona Tortugas (Low-A), Dayton Dragons (Advanced-A), Chattanooga Lookouts (Double-A), and Louisville Bats who play here at Louisville Slugger Field. It’s a mile and a half from Louisville to Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, Ohio. For a Cincinnati Reds prospect, this is typically the last stop before being called to “The Show.” They can probably smell Cincinnati from here. Its quiet nights like this when the work gets done. On this same day, Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter against Cincinnati Reds, at Great American Ball Park while the Cubs line-up scored 16 runs in the game, a sign that these Reds Triple-A affiliate players may get a call sooner than later.

Indianapolis Indians @ Louisville Bats

Louisville Bats defeat Indianapolis Indians 6-5. Photos taken on Thursday April 21, 2016 by Miguel A. Sanchez.

NCAA Regionals

2014 NCAA Regional Tournaments. McKethan Stadium, in Gainesville Florida, is the home field for the University of Florida Gators baseball team and, once again, they host an NCAA regional tournament this year, the “Gainesville Regionals.” All eyes were fixed on the road to Omaha, Nebraska and the site of the NCAA Div. I Baseball Championship, the final destination for college baseball teams across the country. During the regionals, a total of (64) schools qualify to compete in pools of 4 teams. (30) teams are automatically given a birth for winning their respective conferences. NCAA committee is tasked with selecting the (34) other seats at large based on rankings, records, etc. They all have a tangible path to the College World Series. NCAA has used this regional format since 1975. During the Memorial Day weekend, there are (16) regional tournaments altogether. The winner of each regional tournament advances to the super regionals, a best of three series. And, those winners punch their ticket to Omaha. The College World Series is a 2-week event and only (8) can go. There are 299 Div. I baseball programs across the country.

In Game 1, it was #3 University of North Carolina vs. #2 Long Beach State, a fundamentally sound game through the (4) innings until Long Beach State broke through with a 6-run rally. It all simply started with an infield grounder and a batter outrunning the throw to first, a little hustle and a not so clean play by the shortstop undid what would’ve been a routine putout. Before the game, Tar Heels had concerns about their short stop Michael Russell’s absence on regional day. He had been sidelined with back spasms. Long Beach State Dirtbags beat University of North Carolina Tar Heels 6-1.

The other (2) teams in the “Gainesville Regional” were College of Charleston and University of Florida. The Florida Gators were heavy favorites but were upset in double elimination without winning a single game. The least likely to advance, the Charleston Cougars, did what the Florida Gators were heavily favored to do. Anything can happen in baseball and it usually does. The upsets continued when the Florida State Seminoles also went home early. They were hosting the “Tallahassee Regional” and did not win a single game. In fact, the Miami Hurricanes were the last team standing to possibly represent Florida in the College World Series. They hosted the “Coral Gables Regional.” Texas Tech Red Raiders would stage another upset at “the U” to eliminate the Miami Hurricanes as well. The Charleston Cougars went on to meet those Texas Tech Red Raiders in the “Lubbock Super Regionals.” The Raiders would host it, sweeping the best of 3 series. They won both games with a final score of 1-0, a true battle of underdogs. By advancing, Texas Tech was (1) of the Omaha (8). In 2014, the “Road to Omaha” ended with the Vanderbilt University Commodores meeting the University of Virginia Cavaliers in the best of (3) series 2 games to 1. Unbeknownst to anyone, these two teams would face off again in the final series of the 2015 College world series and this time University of Virginia Cavaliers returned the favor and won 2 games to 1. As they say, baseball can humble you in a hurry.

Long Beach State Dirtbags @ University of North Carolina Tar Heels

Oakland Coliseum

Los Angeles Angels @ Oakland Athletics

2018 Regular Season. Oakland Athletics host Los Angeles Angels in late September and there are high hopes that the Athletics will reach the post season this year. October had become a time for Oakland Raiders football at the Coliseum. This year was different, there was a buzz in the air and it shined green and gold. On this day, the Athletics pitchers held Los Angeles Angels to a shut-out and the A’s line-up massed 10 hits and 10 runs. Athletics clinched a wild card spot the next week in Seattle to face the New York Yankees in New York. This, after coming off three straight last place finishes. Athletics would lose that wild card game in New York. But it helped to generate needed support for the future of a franchise who continues to find ways to compete in an elusive free agency market, a money ball team vs big money players. Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Bean’s version of the financially handicap “Swinging A’s” has been an experiment in development since the late 1990’s. Soon after becoming General Manager, he started getting results, going to the playoffs 4 consecutive years between 2000 and 2003. In 2002, the Oakland Athletics set an AL record with 20 consecutive wins late in the regular season. His application of sabermetric principles helped evolve the game to what we see today. Innovation has been the common thread in the team’s history.

In 2018, the Oakland Athletics also celebrated their 50th anniversary on the west coast. Before 1968, They were the Kansas City Athletics (1955-1967). And, before that they were the Philadelphia Athletics (1901-1954), one of seven charter franchises established with the American League in 1901. The team’s history is clear-cut yet has years of success that have put them in a position to be innovators of the game. Connie Mack’s tenure with the Athletics, along with his previous years with the Pittsburg Pirates, made him the winningest manager in Major League Baseball. His record still stands with 3,731 managed wins. In the early years of the modern era, those Athletics won 5 of the first 26 World Series titles, despite the naysayers who viewed the Athletics as having no potential of winning. New York Giants Manager John McGraw was among the critics who, from the beginning, dismissed them as nothing more than a White Elephant. Connie Mack was amused McGraw’s comments and decided to use the mascot for a logo on the Athletics uniform. And, that’s the way it was for 50 years until Charley Finley, the new Athletics owner, wanted to change the mascot to a mule which was more representative of the democratic party. This, in order to appeal to a democratic dominant Kansas City. When folks say “keep politics out of baseball,” they are left with the burden of prove that it was never there. Baseball history is littered with politics every step of the way. For better or for worst, Charlie Finley is an innovator of the game who moved the team to Oakland and managed to build the franchise to the success and dominance he enjoyed before free agency would liquidate the Athletics potential. The early years in Oakland are also considered dynasty years as they won three consecutive titles (1972, 1973, 1974). Charley Finley would not flex his buying power like George Steinbrenner did. As a result, the New York Yankees would enjoy the advantages of free agency with their own dynasty later that same decade. In the 1980’s, Athletics enjoyed some winning years but, with just one World Championship, it is debatable whether they can be called a dynasty. With (9) World Championship, the Athletics are tied with Boston Red Sox at having the 3rd winningest record in baseball, behind the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals, in that order, a silent race to see who will win a 10th title first.

The Oakland Coliseum is the fifth oldest active MLB ballpark after Fenway Park (1), Wrigley Field (2), Dodger Stadium (3). and Angels Stadium (4). As an observation, it’s hard to embrace that those ballparks in Los Angeles are older than the Coliseum, perhaps because of the industrial feel to the Coliseum, built from massive concrete formwork and surrounded by a subsequent industrial zone. Or, perhaps because the intent of the Oakland Coliseum has been more for football than baseball, a relic of the multi-sport cookie cutter stadium. It’s easy to get lost in this cavernous venue, a stadium that shuts downs its concessions in the upper deck to consolidate foot traffic. Besides the Moneyball problems, that is the other recurrent issue with the franchise’s future. Where is home? Major League Baseball has a vested interest in a state-of-the-art stadium that best represents the MLB brand. It seemed as though all parties were playing nice in formulating a development plan for a new stadium in the bay area. That is no longer the case.

Among the cities they can move to are the usual suspects waiting for an expansion team. After a lengthy process that had the optics of a bright new stadium, the team is left with a lease at the Oakland Coliseum that expires in 2024. Opponents to the plan preferred that the future site be at the current location of “The Coliseum” instead of the downtown waterfront site. Besides the site, there’s disaccord about who should pay for the needed infrastructure.  That is a slippery slope for Athletics Owner John Fisher who is worth $2.4 billion and is asking for a massive welfare assistance from government officials, in a climate where the NFL Raiders and the NBA Warriors have already left town. Between now and 2024, we shall see where the levers land, a push for project approval while looking for greener pastures?

Busch Stadium

2010 Regular Season. St. Louis Cardinals host Milwaukee Brewers at the new Busch Stadium (St. Louis, Missouri). to see two NL Central Division teams matched for the standings. Its the fourth of July game, when all players wear the specialty uniforms on the field for 4th of July weekend. Also included this year was the white cap with the team’s logo embroidered in the front with the stars and stripes of the red, white, and blue colored yarn. The Independence Day editions would also be worn on Memorial Day and on September 11th.

Public transportation will easily get you from Lambert–St. Louis International Airport straight to the trendy Union Station mall, to Busch Stadium, to The Arch, among other stops on the Metrolink train system. Stadium Station is across the street from the main entrance of Busch Stadium. If you’re a diehard Cardinals fan, you probably remember the first time you went up the escalators of the train’s platform to the street level and slowly started seeing the red brick architecture of the stadium. And, if you’re not aware of the baseball history that comes with the St. Louis Cardinals, look no further than the array of statutes in front of the main entrance. There are about ten of them.

This is actually Busch Stadium III (opened 2006). Busch Stadium I (1953-1966) was previously known as Sportsman’s Park III. And you guessed it, there was another lineage of fields named Sportsman’s Park. Baseball games on the site of Busch Stadium I, alias Sportsman’s Park III, can be traced back to the 1860’s. Busch Memorial Stadium, or Busch Stadium II (1966-2005) was among the cookie cutter parks built in the 1960’s & 1970’s. Baseball tradition in St. Louis is better known as the “Cardinal Way,” regardless of where home has been. St. Louis Cardinals are one of the winningest MLB franchises with (11) World Championships, second only to the New York Yankees with (27). They enjoy the loyalty of fans who know the history of baseball in St. Louis. They and the Boston Red Sox tend to have the better local market Nielsen ratings.

Prince Fielder, Ricky Weeks, and Carlos Gomez were still playing with Milwaukee Brewers. Lorenzo Cain was debuting with the Milwaukee Brewers before he was traded away to the Kansas City Royals. He won a World Championship with the Royals in 2015 and eventually found himself back in Milwaukee with another trade in 2018. He still plays with the Royals in the 2021 regular season. Craig Counsel, the current Manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, was still playing the last couple years of his 15-year career. Although the 2010 regular season ended with a losing record, they would keep grinding to win the NL Central Division the following year.

In this game, Albert Pujols went 1 for 3 with a run scored. The 2010 Cardinals did not play in the post season. But Albert Pujols would blaze a path to a historic free agency, after meeting these same Milwaukee Brewers in the 2011 NLCS and defeating them 4 games to 2, then winning the 2011 World Series where the Cardinals faced the Texas Rangers in one of the more memorable World Championships. In that series he would secure a place in history with Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, hitting three home runs in Game 3.

Hard to believe it’s been 10 years and that Albert Pujols is at the tail end of that 10-year $240 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The 2021 season was his farewell tour. That is no longer the case. Associated Press reported on May 7th that the Los Angeles Angels abruptly ended the future Hall of Famer’s tenure with the team. Apparently, Albert Pujols was dissatisfied with the irregular playing time and his demands did not mix well with his slumping offensive numbers. He was recently declared a free agent, the rumor is that of the possible teams looking at Albert are Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals. Officials from Dominican Republic also reached out to have Albert play for the Olympics qualification team. Its obvious that he still wants to play. Only Albert knows what he has left in the tank. What we do know is that Albert Pujols will go into the Hall of Hame, in a league of his own and wearing the St Louis Cardinals cap.   

      Milwaukee Brewers @ St. Louis Cardinals

Wrigley Rebuild

Wrigley Field 1060 Project is a 5-phase $575 million renovation plan. Chicago Tribune reported in July of 2014 that $375 million were for the stadium overhaul and $200 million for surrounding areas, including a hotel, an office building, and the plaza. Phase one started in the 2014-2015 off season and phase five completed during the 2018-2019 off season. The vision for the Chicago Cubs organization was to “ensure the viability of the ballpark for future generations of Cubs fans, while preserving the beauty, charm and historic features fans have come to know and love.” Photos were taken during phases one and two.

Phase one visit on October of 2014:

With the exception of the scoreboard beyond center field and its supporting structure, the surrounding bleachers along right field and left field were completely demolished and removed, making way for the design of a new infrastructure that completely rethinks the use of space behind the ivy. The cold days of fall in Chicago are also short, as the sun starts to set 4:30-5:00pm. Not only is it a challenge to see the work in progress, it’s a challenge do get it done in a busy timeline. Both Sheffield and Waveland Avenues were fenced off to the side walk across the street. Cautions were taken to protect the brick wall that is traditionally covered in the iconic ivy that we all associate with Wrigley Field. Something universally true about a renovation plan of this scale is that every step of the way is critical, a path if you will. But this was an especially fragile part of an otherwise crude site, as the only thing supporting the freestanding brick wall during construction was a system of forms and braces. Meanwhile, huge holes were bored into the ground for improved foundations, not to mentioned all the secondary vibrations from the heavy equipment. The braces in the photos represent the back of that iconic ivy-covered wall. The only elements still visible were the manual score board behind center field that towered over the ground where bleachers once stood, waiting out the frigid winter with short days to rebuild its bleachers.

The weather created delays from the beginning that would complicate the start of the 2015 regular season. Installation of some 5,000 missing seats wear eventually completed in May of 2015. Aside from making state of the art accommodations, the newly reconfigured bleachers would house the new bullpen locations under the bleachers and give every visitor a great view of the game regardless of where he or she is sitting. By the end of phase three, the iconic bullpen locations along the foul lines would also be gone.

Phase two visit on April of 2016:

Taking the official Wrigley Field Tour on another cold Tuesday morning to see the recent changes. This was somewhere midpoint of the five-phase timeline. Future tours will allow more access to all new areas after construction is complete. Due to work in progress, the clubhouse was not available for touring. Overall, the upgrades were seamless with the historic elements of ballpark. A walk through the hallways under the bleachers was especially interesting, an up-close look at a re-purposed space. It was surreal to listen to the tour guide discussing life in the Wrigleyville neighborhood during the 1970’s and 1980s, like something from urban legend. Hearing the tour was like thinking out loud. For anyone who grew up in Chicago, Wrigley Field is the story of us. From the “Bleacher Bums” who all knew each other, going to the home games all summer watching their cubbies, to the guys on the corner of Waveland Avenue & Kenmore Avenue who would all claim a part of that corner to catch the home run ball on game day, we all have a story about Wrigley Field, where we’ve been there or not. “As you look out to the buildings across the street, you will see that most of them have rooftop bleachers available for rental with Wrigley Rooftops,” she said. As I remembered how rare it was to see someone on the roof back in the day, she quickly mentioned that it wasn’t always like this.

This ballpark first opened in 1914 as the home of the Chicago Whales of the Federal League. Chicago Cubs first played here in 1916. The evolution of Wrigley Field has been one rebuild after another over the years. Yet, there is still a timeless connection to this ballpark once known as Weeghman Park. Like the history of baseball that’s been played here, it’s been the mark of time.

Bull City

Gwinett Braves @ Durham Bulls

2014 Minor League Season. Gwinett Braves visit Durham Bulls Athletic Park (Durham, North Carolina) for the last home stand of the 2014 season with the Durham Bulls, Triple-A affiliate for the Tampa Bay Rays. This is the last stop before being called to the big leagues. Just days before, outfielder Wil Myers completed his rehab assignment here and was called back to the Tampa Bay Rays. Charlie Montoya was managing The Durham Bulls, for an 8th and final year, as he was promoted the next season, helping to coach the major league team. In 2014 Charlie Montoya also passed Coach Bill Evers as the all-time winningest manager for the Bulls with win 618. He would get 633 before moving to Tampa, Florida. Tampa Bay Rays first expanded in 1997. Charlie Montoya had been working in the organization since then, from managing the rookie league team that year to the winningest manager for the Triple-A affiliate. That streak would come to an end when he accepted the opportunity to be Toronto Blue Jays Manager starting in the 2019 regular season. He is the current skipper of that young team.

In the game, every Durham Bulls player wore high stockings as part of their new look that year. “High socks 4 lyfe” was the slogan. Apparently, all Rays minor leaguers had the same mandate. The Tampa Bay Rays has one of the best (if not the best) player development programs. At every level, players are given the same routines to prepare for competition. When they are finally called to the big leagues, they are surprised by very little as they find themselves doing the things they’ve been doing from the beginning. Historically, Durham Bulls are one of the more successful minor league teams. At the time, they won 7 of the last 8 division titles while going all the way to win the Governor’s Cup 3 times. This prestigious trophy has been awarded to the winner of the International League since 1933. Durham Bulls eventually lost the championship to the Pawtucket Sox in 2014.

It’s been 32 years since the movie “Bull Durham” was first released. There’s a new ball park now. The old one in the movie is still there, its available for rentals, just under a mile north of this one. The Durham Bulls also appeared in a second Baseball movie, “The Rookie” Staring Dennis Quaid. It’s the true story of Jim Moris, a high school teacher who tried out and made it to the Major Leagues late in life to pitch briefly for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, making his Major League Debut at the age of 35. He also played for the Durham Bulls on his way to the big leagues.

Durham Bulls Athletic Park was opened in 1995. Among the retired numbers is (8), worn by the fictional character “Crash Davis,” played by Kevin Costner. The real Crash Davis played for the Philadelphia Athletics from 1940-42. Duke University Blue Devils also play here. The ballpark is located in the midst of office buildings that gives it scale and helps enclosed the stadium. Durham Bulls Athletic Park is a cozy baseball experience while reminding visitors of the greater Raleigh-Durham Research Triangle area. Its an envious position to be in when you work with a view of a game. You will still find the animated-smoking bull beyond the left field foul pole, the bull that would get fans a free steak if it was hit by a home run ball. It all started with overzealous 19th century marketing by the Bull Durham Tobacco Company that convinced folks across America to buy their product over all others.” Bull City” is a testament to that successful campaign.

There may be nicer Triple-A ballparks in the minor leagues. But, the “Bull City” relationship between team and fans is as unique as Chicago Cubs to “Wrigleyville” or Brooklyn Dodgers to “Pig-town.” Trying to repeat it somewhere else is futile. City of Durham is synonymous with the Bulls. It’s impossible to separate the two. For better or for worst, it’s their town and their team. It helps that +50 games are locally televised on Me-Tv, making it easy to watch games from anywhere on the lazy summer day. The 2021 season is set to start May 4th. While in Bull City, it’s the only baseball that matters.

Durham Bulls lose to Gwinett Braves 4-7. Photos taken on Friday August 23, 2014 by Miguel A. Sanchez.

Leesburg Lights

Korean University @ Leesburg Lightning

2014 Florida Collegiate Summer League (FCSL). Since 2003, its given selected college players a chance to compete at a top level, to get scouting exposure, and to help get ready for the possibility of a professional career. Over 200 players from here have been drafted by MLB. This year, marks a new milestone for the FCSL. They gained international recognition by receiving an invitation from Korean University Baseball Federation (KUBF) for a “meet and greet” tournament. Accepting this invite meant another week in the baseball schedule for some players, a 5-game series with the Korean College All Stars, some of the top amateur athletes in South Korea. Normally, kids from FCSL would have gone back to their homes by now.

The 2014 Season came to an end August 3 with Winter Park Diamond Dawgs becoming the league’s first back-to-back champions when they defeated the Sanford River Rats 6-4 at Tropicana Field (St. Petersburg, Florida). FCSL is a wood bat league that had (6) teams in 2014; Winter Park Diamond Dawgs, Sanford River Rats, Leesburg Lightning, Winter Garden Squeeze, Deland Suns, & College Park Freedom. They finished in that order.

So, the Korean College All Stars toured FCSL. Sanford River Rats hosted Aug. 5 and Aug. 9 at Sanford Memorial Stadium. Deland Hosted Aug. 6 at Conrad Park. And, Leesburg would host Aug. 8 & Aug. 10 at Pat Thomas Stadium/Buddy Lowe Field. That was a busy schedule. It only left Thursday Aug. 7 for the young Korean athletes to enjoy the theme parks that Central Florida is known for. Selected players from FCSL were also recruited to join one of the host teams that played KUBF. 

Late in the game, it was clear that the Korean College All Stars came to play. Strong pitching and good discipline on offense proved effective. This was the first lighted baseball stadium in Florida, home to several minor leagues both affiliated and non-affiliated, as well as several spring training camps over the decades. “Baseball America” featured this field in their “2012 Great Parks” calendar.  In this first game against the Lightning, “Friday Night Lights” in Leesburg took on double meaning. By the time the lights came on, it was a cool 86 degrees, a perfect night for a ball game in the historic Pat Thomas Stadium/Buddy Lowe Field, once called “The Ballpark at Venetian Gardens.” First game played here was March 21, 1937. In the 2000’s, City of Leesburg made an effort to save this gem of a ballpark. It was dormant for most of 35 years.   

Orlando Sentinel reported that Leesburg City Commissioner Elise Dennison was thrilled about the exposure the games will provide. FCSL President Rob Sitz made a statement. “We are excited to host the Korean National Collegiate Team this week,” said President Rob Sitz. He followed up by saying “It’s the first time that we’ve had an international team come over to play us. It’s something we’re very excited to do.” Once again, baseball shows us that it is successful when politics and religion fail to bring people together.

Korean University (KUBF) beat Leesburg Lightning (FCSL) 3-1. Photos taken on Friday August 8, 2014 by Miguel A. Sanchez.

A Braves’ New World

Milwaukee Brewers @ Atlanta Braves

2017 Regular Season. Atlanta Braves hosted Milwaukee Brewers at Sun Trust Bank in its inaugural year. It’s a hitter-friendly park. Wind was blowing out and Milwaukee Brewers brought their hitting sticks. On this day, the Brewers mustered runs in the first four innings to win 7-0 and ultimately salvage the last of a 3-game series with the Braves. They’ve been hot on the trail in the NL Central Division since, a thorn on the side of the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. Something unique to Truist Park has been “The Freeze.” Otherwise known as Nigel Talton. He is an Olympic sprinter who races a fan every game in the seventh inning along the outfield warning track. Volunteers are given a head start and can win $100 if they beat “The Freeze.” His plans to compete in the 2020 Olympics were cancelled in the process of qualifying. Maybe he will surface in Tokyo for this summer’s game. As for the Atlanta Braves, they went on to earn a wild card in the 2017 Play-offs and clinched the NL East Division the following 3-years after that. In their short time at Truist Park, Atlanta Braves have been in the Post Season all 4-years. 

Turner Field, the old home field in downtown Atlanta, was only 20 years old. But, the positive economic impact of a baseball stadium on any surrounding development is hard to ignore. Globe Life Field in Texas is the latest example of that. Construction of a new stadium is also a contentious issue in the communities they are built in. Those attractive growth numbers on paper do not always translate well to the bricks and mortar. Tensions bemoan the question “who will pay for it.” But that hasn’t been a deterrent by no means. The trend is that we see more ballparks going up more often. Hence, the case in Cobb County. SunTrust, the naming rights owners, merged with BB&T Bank in 2019 to form Truist Bank. The home of the Atlanta Braves is now known as Truist Park serving as the catalyst to the “2040 Comprehensive Plan, a vision for a new era.” Much energy went into this area 18 miles north of downtown Atlanta. making it a place to live, work and play, a place to attract visitors, residents, and businesses for the next 25 years.

For generations, fans have followed this franchise steeped in history, to the near inception of baseball itself. This oldest continually operating a professional baseball team in America can be traced back to the Boston Red Stockings, established 1871 and evolving to 10 different teams, in 3 different U.S. cities, and in 9 different ballparks. If baseball is still America’s pastime, then this may be the face of the pastime. In that timeline, they’ve won 17 NL Pennants, 20 Division titles and 2 Wild Card berths. Since the inception of the World Series in 1903, they’ve won 3 World Championships; one in each city they played in (1914 Boston Braves, 1957 Milwaukee Braves, and 1995 Atlanta Braves). And in the age of Ted Turner, the Atlanta Braves became “America’s Team” in the eighties and nineties, thanks to the innovations of cable and TBS Superstation. They would broadcast games beyond regional restrictions and across the country.

Four legends of the Atlanta Braves family, who recently passed away, were honored in the 2021 home opener. They all have had an impact on the franchise as well as the game.

  • Bill Bartholomay (1928-2020)

“Mr. B” a pioneer who brought Major League Baseball to the deep south. He was a Chicago Business Executive who joined a consortium that would buy the team. Despite a successful run in Milwaukee, his vision for the future of the franchise was in Atlanta. After legal battles and death threats, there would be a National League team in Atlanta. Bill Bartholomay was instrumental for over 50 years in this endeavor, ultimately partnering with Ted Turner in the 1970’s, the genesis of “America’s Team.” He will be honored throughout the 2021 regular season.  

  • Don Sutton (1945-2021)

In his 22-year Hall of Fame career as pitcher in the Big Leagues is well known. He never played for the Atlanta Braves. But, his first years in broadcasting was in Atlanta (1989). He would eventually become the voice of “America’s Team” for decades on TBS Superstation. Dependable, durable, and consistent are the words the Atlanta Braves use to define Don Sutton. He will be honored throughout the 2021 regular season.  

  • Phil Niekro (1939-2020)

The greatest knuckle ball pitcher of all time, an ace on the staff, a true great on and off the field, a brave to his core, he was an intense competitor who forced his hitters to swing at junk. He pitched 23-years in the big leagues that included 2-tours with the Atlanta Braves. In his first tour, he debuted in 1964 with Milwaukee Braves and was part of that historic move to Atlanta, Georgia. His number 35 will be worn on the caps of the Braves players this year.

  • Hank Aaron (1934-2021)

Model of dignity, an example of excellence in the face of adversity for all Americans to celebrate. April 8th, 2021 marked the 47th anniversary of his all-time home runs record at 715. This was the first time we remembered it without him. In his story, there is a 24-year Hall of Fame career with statistics that will give you brain freeze; just dominant. Through it all, his answer was simple, “keep swinging.” He was a humanitarian whose actions spoke louder than his words, a sense of courage and nobility that went beyond the diamond. His number 44 will be worn on the caps of the Braves players this year.

After a busy winter, Atlanta Braves are still ranked at the top of the NL Eastern Division this year, expected to win +90 games and putting them in a good seed for the post season. But, the elephant in the room will be the recent decision by MLB to move the All-Star Game and MLB Draft out of Atlanta due to recent legislation aimed at voter restrictions to the ballet box. In a statement by Commissioner Rob Manfred (released April 2, 2021) he wrote, “We will continue with our plans to celebrate the memory of Hank Aaron during this season’s All-Star festivities. In addition, MLB’s planned investments to support local communities in Atlanta as part of our All-Star Legacy Projects will move forward. We are finalizing a new host city and details about these events will be announced shortly.” Opinions are split on the issue, a reflection of the polarized society that we live in. But, its simple.

Baseball reflects American culture in many different ways. In hindsight, there have been more than just a few crossroads along the way where social issues were merged with the game. James Earl Jones once said as Terrance Mann in the film Field of Dreams, ‘America has been erased like a blackboard and rebuilt again. But baseball has been the mark of time.” For the most part, the Braves have been a witness to that. Coincidence is more than just ironic that the Braves are in the midst of another contentious moment. In a Braves’ new world, they celebrate the life of  four legends while having the All-Star game and MLB Draft moved out of town on short notice, yet another model of a country divided.

Charlotte Knights

Chicago White Sox @ Charlotte Knights

2015 Spring Exhibition Game at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte, North Carolina. Chicago White Sox visit Charlotte Knights, of the International League. After the 2021 minor league re-alignment, Charlotte Knights are now in the Triple-A East League. This addition to the schedule was part of an affiliation agreement with the Charlotte Knights, their Triple-A representative. For a Chicago White Sox prospect, Charlotte is usually the final step before a call to the show. It was a genuine opportunity for Charlotte Knights players to collectively show the major league team how much of a mistake they were making to cut them from the roster. Of the current 2021 Chicago White Sox active roster, players listed below have gone through player development with the Charlotte Knights.

  • Dylan Cease – Pitcher
  • Carlos Rodón – Pitcher
  • Aaron Bummer – Pitcher
  • Matt Foster – Pitcher
  • Michael Kopech – Pitcher
  • Zack Collins – Catcher
  • Yermin Mercedes – Catcher
  • Nick Madrigal – Infielder
  • Danny Mendick – Infielder
  • Yoan Moncada – Infielder
  • Leury García – Outfielder
  • Luis Robert – Outfielder

Pitcher Garrett Crochet was signed by the Chicago White Sox in 2020 and is the first from his draftee class to reach the Major Leagues. He did not play with Charlotte Knights. In hind sight, this glorified scrimmage game was a red flag to Manager Robin Ventura and the Chicago White Sox of a struggling season to come. They finished with a less than .500 record of 76-86 in the 2015 regular season. After this game, Chicago White Sox would start on the road, as usual, to Kansas City where they played the defending the American League Champion Kansas City Royals for a 3-game series. Then, they went home to Chicago for their home opener, hosting the Minnesota Twins. A charter bus was waiting outside BB&T Ballpark to start that journey. For the Kansas City Royals, that team still smelled blood from their loss to the San Francisco Giants in the 2014 World Series. Kansas City Royals went on to a repeat appearance in the 2015 World Series and won it all this time vs the New York Mets.

BB&T Ballpark opened in March of 2014. Seating Capacity of 10,200 makes it larger than the average Minor League Park, one of the recent renovations in the Uptown Charlotte area. Across the Street is Romare Bearden Park, a 5.4-acre public park that opened in late August 2013. From here, there are numerous viewpoints to the game. You can get a good enough idea of what’s happening in BB&T Ballpark just from sitting there. People come here with no intention of going in the park; bringing a picnic blanket to do just that. After a merger in 2019, BB&T Ballpark was renamed Truist Field. Without a doubt, this ballpark, in the middle of a thriving community, is the closest venue to MLB standards in the minor leagues. There is plenty of evidence to suggest that a professional baseball team in Charlotte is viable.

Charlotte, North Carolina tends to be in the conversation when talking about MLB future expansion cities. Two additional teams would bring the total of 32 MLB teams, an advantage in scheduling that offers the option of regional play to ease travel as they did in 2020. At approximately 900,000, Charlotte is the most populous city in North Carolina. Charlotte Knights home field is not the only venue in the Uptown area. Bank of America Stadium is home to Carolina Panthers (NFL) and Spectrum Center is home to the Charlotte Hornets (NBA). The NASCAR Hall of Fame is also nearby.

Enos Sarris of “The Athletic” reported on January 25 of this year that Commissioner Rob Manfred discussed possible finalists for MLB expansion. Portland, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Nashville in the United States, certainly Montreal, maybe Vancouver, in Canada,’ said Rob Manfred. He also told hosts at an FS1 show, “we think there’s places in Mexico we could go over the long haul.” MLB expansion is long overdue. The last time it happened was 1998. It’s only inevitable, only time will tell the story. Still, those Friday night lights in Uptown Charlotte will call you back for more.