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.

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.

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.

Affiliated Times

2013 Midwest League Regular Season at Perfect Game Field (Opened 2002) in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Minnesota Twins Class-A Affiliate Cedar Rapids Kernels hosted the Oakland Athletics Class-A Affiliate Beloit Snappers in the second game of a three-game series. I spent a week in Iowa and realized the Kernels were in town less than a mile away, an offer that I couldn’t refuse. Cedar Rapids Kernels were down 5-1 in the 6th inning when they tied and ultimately won with a walk off double in the 9th inning. They went on to sweep the series.

Here is where naming rights get a bit awkward. Perfect Game USA, the world’s largest scouting service, has naming rights. Just outside the stadium is All Veterans Memorial Park, a memorial of the armed services veterans from all the wars. Local residents call it the “New Veterans Memorial Stadium”, in contrast to the original park that existed 1949-2001. It’s testimonial to the relation between Veterans and Baseball. Historically, over 400 MLB players have dropped their baseball equipment to serve in the military. In a time of war, fit men who could play baseball could contribute to the war effort, a sense of patriotic duty that resonated with the times. Back home, Americans were motivated by the notion that the game should go on because, after all, it was the pastime that lifted the spirits of a country in turmoil. That was also a driving force to the war effort.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels were founded in 1890, tracing it back to the early years of baseball. Since 1962, they’ve competed in the Midwest League. Over the years, the team has had 14 affiliations with MLB teams starting in 1932. Of those affiliations were the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (1993-2012). Among the long list of Alumni who played here are Mike Trout and the late Nick Adenhart. We all know about Mike Trout. Nick Adenhart’s career and ultimately his life was tragically cut short on April 9, 2009 in a car accident, shortly after midnight at the tender age of 22. After a pitching injury in high school and a series of setbacks, Perfect Game Field was a vital part of his road to recovery. He had just reached a milestone when he made his first start to debut in the 2009 Regular Season with the Angels. Just hours after that, Nick Adenhart was traveling with two friends when he was broad sided at the intersection of Orangethrope Avenue and Lemon Street killing all three in the car at the scene. In honor of his memory, there is an image of him and his number on the outfield wall of Perfect Game Field. The family gives a Nick Adenhart Memorial Scholarship every year for a student athlete in the area going into college.  Eric Davis also began his professional career in Cedar Rapids back in the 1980s. He played for this affiliate before going on to stardom and winning the 1990 World Series with the Cincinnati Reds.

Just as the rest of the Minor Leagues, this year was canceled. Needless to say, it’s been tragic for teams this year. And, like many other teams, the Kernels have been innovative in still creating promotions and engaging the community. In addition to the impact of a pandemic, the threat of MLB downsizing and causing teams to lose existing affiliations has been lurking for years now. The news came earlier this month that invitations for affiliations went out to 119 minor league teams. That means that some 43 other teams will need to come to terms with their fate. It’s the biggest change in Minor League history.

The Cedar Rapids Kernels were offered to remain the Class A Affiliate for the Minnesota Twins. In a related story, the St. Paul Saints, a storied and very successful independent team was invited to be the Class Triple-A Affiliate as well for the Minnesota Twins. The Beloit Snappers were offered to be a Miami Marlins Affiliate. Hopefully, the popularity of independent baseball will sustain some of the other teams that are having to reinvent themselves. In the face of crisis, change is no longer a choice.

Crash Davis was Here

Image of Crash Davis number retired at the New Durham Athletic Park, 15 minutes away. The real Crash Davis played for Duke University nearby, three seasons for the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1940s, and later came back to play for the Durham Bulls.

In North Carolina at the Old Durham Bulls Park, site of the movie “Bull Durham” (1988), starring Kevin Costner as Crash Davis. The actor went door to door looking for someone to pick up the script. At the time, Orion Pictures had two baseball movies in the works, “The Scout” and “Eight Men Out.” So, it was unlikely that “Bull Durham” would be picked up. But, it was. The 1980s were the golden age of sports movies. Even more unlikely was Ron Shelton, screenwriter and director of “Bull Durham.” His story is based in-part on his own experiences as a minor league player. Ironically, he’s never been a fan of sports movies, cringing at the typical underdog stories. For him, life is not always based on happy endings. Shelton credits Hollywood studios with looking past concerns with oversees markets where baseball movies traditionally didn’t sell. The iconic advertising, along the outfield wall, is gone. The animated-smoking bull beyond the left field foul pole, the bull that got fans a free steak if it was hit by a home run ball, is also gone. All that remains is a chain link fence and padding on the top rail to protect players. More importantly, it’s always great to see a preventive maintenance plan for places like this. It’s well kept, used as the home field for North Carolina Central University. As of 1995, The Durham Bulls have been playing in their new park 15 minutes away.

In the film, Crash Davis is a 12 year journeyman who is picked up by the Durham Bulls, of the Carolina League, to help Nuke Laloosh (Tim Robbins), a new pitching prospect, to prepare for a future call-up to the Majors. What Crash sees is a Pitcher with lots of talent and no brains, someone who doesn’t respect himself, to each his own. Crash’s main problem with Nuke is he won’t respect the game. Basically, Nuke represents Crash’s years of frustration from loving a game that does not love him back. His lesson number 1 to Nuke? “Don’t think, just throw!” In the end, his best advice to Nuke is to live in fear and arrogance (not ignorance). Crash believed that success depends on a humble belief in yourself.

The viewer is also left to wonder if Crash Davis will ever break the all time record of 247 career home runs. As in life, there isn’t always a game 7 or some milestone moment in your career. Most of the time, a career or a game ends with a weakly hit grounder. In the case of Crash Davis, he reached his 247th record breaking homerun. Uneventful. The real prize was making it to the “big leagues,” such is life. The Durham Bulls had a great season that year. But, no one knows how they finished the season, “The path is the goal,” said Mahatma Gandhi.

Every character in this classic brings something to the table. Over 30 years later, after countless surveys and polls, it’s the most accurate movie on the subject. Its said to have been a 2-hour commercial about life in the Minor Leagues. Who would have thought that this field, in the midst of this downtown Durham neighborhood, would lead to a renaissance in the Minor Leagues and have such a huge impact on American Culture? It all started here.  At the risk of sounding sacrilegious, it’s the Church of Baseball, according to Annie Savoy (Susan Sorandan), the voice of a woman in a man’s world. She was the focal point to the “menage a troi” with Nuke & Crash, struggling with moral behavior while invoking profound thoughts from poets and philosophers. “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game. The American game will repair our losses and be a blessing to us,” Walt Whitman.

Baseball has evolved into a game based on analytics, mathematicians who can scientifically dissect a prospect to predict his development and performance. But, they are unable to look into a players eyes and see the potential for winning or for being a hall of fame caliber player. The fate of the Minor Leagues is currently on hold. In a normal world, the MiLB and MLB would be meeting to renew their Player Development Contract next year. MLB & MLBPA are busy negotiating (or not) to re-open the 2020 regular season after the pandemic. It’s still unclear which 120 teams remain. Some 40 teams are on the chopping blocks to be unaffiliated with MLB. A minor league team can be the economic engine in small towns across the country, not to mention the crushed dreams of over one thousand players released days before the annual MLB draft. “Full many a flower is born to blossom unseen and waste its sweetness in the desert air,” what Annie Savoy would invoke here from Tomas Grey, or William Cullen Bryant? Maybe its from the “Church of Baseball.”

Jackie Robinson Day

On April 15, 1947 Jackie Robinson debuted for the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier, and paving the way for all those who came after him in the MLB modern era. Jackie Robinson Day is a time to remember that afternoon in Brooklyn when Jackie Robinson took the field. On Jackie Robinson Day, every MLB player wears the No. 42. If you wonder who is playing where without names on the back of there uniforms, that is the point. On that day, everyone is Jackie Robinson. Eventually that year, Jackie Robinson also became the first “Rookie of the Year,” in the awards’ inaugural year. The path he took to his MLB career started in Sanford, Florida, 40 miles from Daytona Beach. Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers Club President, had an innovative concept of “farm system development” when he ran the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930’s. Eventually, every other team adopted the idea. His long term relationships with officials in Daytona Beach also helped provide Spring Training facilities for the Brooklyn Dodgers, as well as Montreal Dodgers.

When you sit in those old grand stands, behind home plate of Historic City Island Ballpark (now named Jackie Robinson Ballpark), you are almost transported back to that time in 1946. That small memory is an important part the social fabric of baseball in America. This ballpark is one of an estimate 42 ballparks at risk of elimination in MLB’s recent Minor League reduction Proposal. MLB agreement with MILB is still pending.

Visiting Daytona to see a game at Jackie Robinson Ballpark has been a fun part of summers in Florida. The historical landmark & the exhibit of his life, located right at the entrance, reminds you of the history here. Before 2014, it was the home of the Daytona Cubs. On a “Belly Buster Mondays” promotion (all you can eat Hot Dogs, Hamburgers, popcorn and Papa John’s Pizza for $11) Daytona Cubs lose 8-4 to the Jupiter Hammer Heads. Just days before, the Daytona Cubs lost 2011 1st round draft pick Javier Baez, from Puerto Rico, and Jorge Soler, another top prospect from Cuba, as they were both reassigned to the Double-A affiliate. The team still went on to win the Florida State Championship. Since 2000, Daytona Cubs won it all six times, more then any other current team in the league. This was a vital part of the Chicago Chicago Cubs rebuild that led to the 2016 World Championship Season. Whether players get called to play in the Majors or not, it is great to be young, to live by the beach, and to get to play a game you love. The Chicago Cubs now have the Myrtle Beach Pelicans Advanced-A affiliate in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

As of 2014, this is now home to the Daytona Tortugas, a Cincinnati Reds Advanced-A affiliate. Last Wednesday, Tortugas and their Tortugas Care Foundation announced plans to revive Kelly Field, in the Midtown neighborhood, where Jackie Robinson first trained with his Montreal Dodger teammates. The idea was to have an on site groundbreaking ceremony. nonetheless, they will move forward with a ballfield on the grounds. Tortugas will also create permanent displays to honor the field’s history and the World Series Champions from Daytona Beach. They want to also reach out to the community with sports equipment and programming. More importantly, it will be a place that brings people together. The tradition continues.