“Back to the Future” coming to a ballpark near you – in the future, of course

Here it is, the year 2015, and we’re still without flying cars, power laces and self-drying jackets.

Or, for that matter, automatic dog walkers.

Never mind what the movie trilogy “Back to the Future” told us we’d have by now; clearly our technology has not kept pace with the forward-thinking of its creators. But, hey, we do have Skype, which is kind of like the “phone glasses” the BTF folks showed in its portrayal of 2015 life.

This summer will mark the 30th anniversary of the original “Back to the Future,” which was released in the U.S. on July 3, 1985. We’ll celebrate it at Dow Diamond a day early (Thursday, July 2) with a special “Back to the Future” theme night – a road/promotion not yet taken by the Loons.

But to quote the movie’s very own Doc Brown: “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”

A quick word of caution: Don’t try that at home.

And, yes, we’ll have the DeLorean Time Machine on hand for fans to ogle (but not take for a spin). It’s hard to beat a stainless steel car with gull-wing doors and a rear-mounted 2.85 litre engine.

Of course, it will also include the one and only flux capacitor, the core component of the time machine and what makes time travel possible. The flux requires 1.21 gigawatts of electrical power to operate, which is roughly the equivalent of 15 regular jet engines.

In the original movie, the only power source that would enable Marty McFly to return to the future was a lightning bolt capable of 1.21 gigawatts of electricity.

Don’t try that at home, either.

For general baseball purposes, it’s worth noting that McFly inadvertently went back in time to 1955, when there was no Dow Diamond, Great Lakes Loons, or a Midwest League (it was known as the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League) for that matter.

The Dubuque Packers

The Dubuque Packers

For those keeping score, the Dubuque Packers won the ’55 league championship; the next year the circuit became known as the Midwest League.

McFly never made it to Dubuque, of course, but there’s most likely no shortage of resemblances between ’55 Dubuque and the movie’s fictional ’55 Hill Valley.

The movie itself quickly resembled a blockbuster: It was the highest-grossing film of 1985 and earned a 96 percent on the Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” – no small feat. It also spawned two “Back to the Future” sequels, an animated series, theme park ride, video games, and a forthcoming musical.

It’s been ranked as the 10th best science fiction film ever by the American Film Institute, and among the top 100 best movies of all time by Total Film.

Other than that, it was just another 1980s movie. Ahem.

And just a reminder to Loons fans, “Back to the Future Night” is just one of many exciting promotions we’ll have in store for the upcoming season. Stay tuned, as in coming days we’ll announce the 2015 promotions schedule.

Hope to see you at the ballpark!

Q & A: Loons skipper talks managing, the HOF, and the Super Bowl

Bill Haselman will return for his second season as Loons manager in 2015.

Bill Haselman will return for his second season as Loons manager in 2015.

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Dodgers revealed their minor league coach staffs for the 2015 season, including the announcement that Bill Haselman would be back for his second season as manager of the Loons.

Haselman, who played 13 seasons in the major leagues and had previous minor league managerial experience before coming to Midland, guided the Loons to a 66-73 record in 2014 but kept the team in the Midwest League second-half playoff hunt until the season’s final game.

Under Haselman, the Loons were a team built on pitching, speed and defense, but were often offensively-challenged. They set a team record – and led all minor leagues – with 1,256 pitching strikeouts, they led the league with 183 stolen bases, and they tied for the league lead in fielding percentage. But their 551 runs scored ranked near the bottom of the MWL.

We recently caught up with Haselman, whose big league career included a stop in Detroit, via phone from his off-season home in the Seattle area. As always, he was open and thoughtful on a variety of topics.

First of all, your thoughts on coming back to the Loons … was it something you anticipated?
Well, you know it’s so hard to tell what’s going to happen from year to year in this line of work. It was hard to tell how things were going to wind up. For me, it’s not like being a player where you necessarily want to move up every year. The bottom line is that I’m really happy to be coming back. It’s a great place with great people and a great stadium. I really enjoyed it there last year.

So, your focus isn’t just on getting to the major leagues?
No, I’m not that concerned with it to be honest. I coached in the big leagues (with the Boston Red Sox), so it’s not like I haven’t been there. My attitude is that I just want to do what I can do, to work as hard as I can, and to help these kids develop and go from there.

Now that you’ve had some time to reflect, what are your thoughts on last season?
I mean, we had a dominant bullpen, we played great defense, that’s what kept us in it to the end. We just didn’t have a lot of ways to score runs. That’s what it came down to for us – scoring runs. Fortunately, we were able to get as far as we did without having an offense that you could consistently count on. Our pitching kept us in it almost every night. You just, at some point, have to put up some runs, too.

It’s always easy to say what might have been, but looking back on the way the team was playing at the end of the season – and with its pitching staff – do you feel like it could have done some damage had you made the playoffs?
Haselman 5We’ll never know, because we didn’t get in, but with the pitching we had, I know there were a whole lot of teams who wouldn’t have wanted to play us. It was the opposite of my previous season with Inland Empire (which won the California League championship in 2013) where we scored a lot of runs during the season but got better pitching in the playoffs. But, again, with the way we pitched, if we could just find a way to score some runs. I’m not necessarily saying teams would have been scared to play us, but the only team that really beat us up all year was South Bend. I mean, we swept Kane County (at Dow Diamond in August) and they won it all.

With all the changes in their front office, especially with Gabe Kapler as the new Director of Player Personnel, the Dodgers seem to be taking a new approach to a lot of things. Does it change anything about how you do your job?
Maybe a little bit, depending on how they want to develop these guys. I know Gabe very well, I’ve spent a lot of time with him, and I’ve got a great relationship with him and a ton of respect for him. But anyone who comes in new has different ideas and strategies. I don’t think it’s going to change dramatically, but they’ll have new ideas and that’s great.

One of the areas Kapler has talked about is nutrition and players taking better care of themselves physically.
That’s always important; as an athlete you always have to conscious of what you’re putting in your body. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a clubhouse and guys are eating Jack in the Box before a game. As long as we have the great spread after the game, like we did with the Loons, things are OK. But let’s face it, you might be in a place like Fort Wayne, and these guys don’t have the money to go eat at a really nice place so they’ll eat junk food instead. It’s hard to avoid that sometimes.

They’ve added another coach (Luis Matos with the Loons) at every level to, in part, help Latin players better assimilate. Your thoughts?
I think it’s great to have a fourth coach. I mean, it helps with a lot of things – you have another guy to hit ground balls, to throw batting practice, to work with guys. But to your point, none of us (coaches) last year spoke Spanish and that can be hard. We did have Val (Jesmuel Valentin) and (Alex) Santana who could help us, but this will make things even easier. I think it’s a really good thing.

Last year you emphasized fundamentals like bunting and stealing bases and it showed with the team leading the league in both categories. Will the emphasis remain the same?
I think personally it’s important to teach guys fundamentals like bunting. How many times in the (MLB) playoffs do you see a guy who can’t get a bunt down in a key situation? That’s why I think it’s important to learn those things because there’s going come a time when you’re asked to do them. But I want to be careful in saying we’re going to emphasize certain things, because I need to be in spring training and really hear and understand what (the Dodgers) want us to do. As far as the little things, that’s how I was taught as a player, but we’ll see what their approach is first. I think I’ll always want to emphasize some things, but I understand that I have to work within the realm they set out for us, and that’s the way it should be.

Have you worked with (Loons pitching coach) Glenn Dishman or (hitting coach) Jay Gibbons before?
Just in spring training last year with Dishman. I got to know him in spring training and we worked together one game. He’s a nice guy with a lot of knowledge. I haven’t coached with Jay Gibbons but I remember coaching against him when he was with the Orioles. I haven’t met him, but I remember him as a player.

Minor League Baseball is adopting a pitch clock at Double-A and Triple-A. Do you think it’s a good idea, or are there other ways to speed up the game?
I don’t know … it’s such a subjective type thing. You’re always going to have a pitcher who needs more time, while some just want to get the ball and throw without much of a delay. It’s what each guy is most comfortable with. I think the hitter should be allowed to take one step out of the box between pitches, because hitting is about planning and getting an idea of what pitches you’re looking for. By just making them stay in the batter’s box the whole at-bat would take away from that preparation. You need time to gather yourself. Baseball just isn’t a game that’s going to be sped up the way some people might like it to be. Yes, I think you have to be conscious about the pace of games. Our games (in the minors) go quicker because there are no commercials between innings, but you’re always going to have that in the majors. You could try and speed up things between innings, but with the Loons and a lot of teams at our level there’s a lot of stuff going on between innings, and that’s great. So, I don’t know that there are really easy solutions out there.

Your thoughts on this year’s Hall of Fame class?
It’s a great class. Obviously Big Unit (Randy Johnson) won a couple of championships and accomplished all kinds of things. He’s as well-deserved as anyone. I was a coach in Boston when Pedro (Martinez) pitched there and you want to talk about dominant? That was ridiculous. (John) Smoltz had a great career as a starter and then became a great reliever, which not many have done, and (Craig) Biggio got 3,000 hits. They all deserved to get in.

You had a chance to catch Randy Johnson, as well as Roger Clemens. How do the two compare?
I think you’re looking at two pitchers who had the best stuff in the game at different periods of time. Both of them were from the same mold. They competed like crazy, they worked harder than anyone, and they kept their teams in games every time they were out there. They were special players, no doubt.

Tiger fans get frustrated when Alan Trammell comes up short in HOF voting. Is he deserving?
Trammel was a huge name. He played the game right way, he went about his business the right way and at heart he was a pure baseball player in every sense of the word. At some point though, you have to look at numbers. Three-thousand hits is kind of the benchmark for hitters. I just don’t think you can start lowering numbers to let more guys in, because then it doesn’t mean as much. As a teammate, (Trammell) was a Hall of Famer. The way he went about his game – he’s a Hall of Famer. But that doesn’t necessarily get you in the Hall of Fame. It’s all about numbers. The same thing comes up here in Seattle with Edgar Martinez. But he was a DH most of his career and that hurts him.

You live in the Seattle area, who are you pulling for (Super Bowl) Sunday?
Easy answer – the Seahawks. I’m not going to lie, I grew up a Raiders fan and I still think of them as my team, but my kids are big Seahawks fans and we’ve gone to games. The team’s training facility isn’t far from where I live. This whole place up here is nuts (about the Seahawks). The number 12 is everywhere, on every house it seems like, and it’s great how people here support the team. And it seems with the Patriots it’s always something – they had Spygate and now (DeflateGate), and the way they respond in press conferences sometimes. That just gets old. So, yeah, I hope the Seahawks crush them.

– Bruce Gunther

Off-season deals have many former Loons on the move

The baseball off-season has been a time of transition for several Great Lakes Loons, including many of whom have had a change of address:

Dee Gordon, a National League All-Star with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, is now a Miami Marlin.

Nathan Eovaldi, who might have been re-united in Miami with Gordon – his former Loons teammate – will wear New York Yankee pinstripes in 2015

Former Loon Allen Webster is now with the Diamondbacks.

Former Loon Allen Webster is now with the Diamondbacks.

Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa, former Loons who were considered promising young pitching prospects for the Boston Red Sox, will report to spring training with the Arizona Diamondbacks instead.

The list goes on as several ex-Loons face the prospect of starting over with different teams.

The most notable of all these transactions involved Gordon, who had a career year with the Dodgers last season and seemed to have cemented his role as the team’s everyday second baseman. In 2014, Gordon easily exceeded his previous career highs, and in the process led the majors in stolen bases (64) and triples (12).

But on December 11, the Dodgers traded Gordon and pitchers Dan Haren and Miguel Rojas to the Marlins for four players. Just like that, Gordon – drafted by the Dodgers in the fourth round of the 2008 draft – was part of a new organization.

Gordon suddenly became expendable because, that same day, the Dodgers acquired Angels second baseman Howie Kendrick in a separate deal. While Kendrick couldn’t match Gordon’s speed numbers in ’14, he’s a .292 career hitter who tied a career-high with 75 RBI last year and had an on-base percentage that was 30 points higher than Gordon’s.

Kendrick’s Wins Above Replacement number (5.4) also ranked fourth among all major league second basemen.

Nonetheless, Gordon, still only 26, landed on his feet. The Florida native recently bought a townhouse in Windermere, Fla., about three hours from Miami. While he said he was surprised by the trade, he’s excited to play closer to home.

“I’ve got grandmothers who haven’t been able to see me play,” he told the Los Angeles Times.

Eovaldi and Gordon were teammates on the 2009 Loons team which finished 81-59 and made the Midwest League playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The right-handed Eovaldi, an 11th round pick of L.A. in 2008, made 16 starts for the Dodgers over two seasons, but was traded to the Marlins in 2012 in a deal that brought shortstop Hanley Ramirez to Los Angeles.

After three seasons in Miami – where the hard-throwing Eovaldi had mixed results – he and two other Marlins were traded to the Yankees in a deal that brought David Phelps and Martin Prado to South Florida.

Eovaldi is seen as the key to the deal for the Yankees, whose starting rotation will be a question mark entering spring training.

“He’s got a great gift – there’s no doubt about that,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman told the New York Times. “Now it’s just a matter of harnessing that gift.”

Eovaldi’s fastball has been clocked in the upper 90s but he struggled last season with a 6-14 record and 4.36 ERA for Miami. However, he pitched more innings (199 2/3) than any Yankee.

De La Rosa and Webster were ranked among Boston’s top young arms but were traded in December for Diamondbacks’ lefty Wade Miley. But they likely have an advocate in Arizona’s senior vice president of operations, De Jon Watson, who served as the Dodgers director of player development until this fall.

Both De La Rosa and Webster were originally drafted by the Dodgers but were traded to Boston in 2012. De La Rosa made 18 starts for the Red Sox last season, going 4-8 with a 4.43 ERA, while Webster started 11 MLB games in ’14, going 5-3 with a 5.03 ERA.

Another former Loon will join De La Rosa and Webster in Arizona’s spring camp – outfielder Nick Buss. A Michigan native, Buss appeared in eight games with the Dodgers in 2013, but was claimed on waivers by Oakland last May. He was granted free agency in November and signed with the Diamondbacks a few weeks later.

Buss was with the Loons for all of 2009 and also for part of the 2010 season. He hit .260 with 10 home runs and 63 RBI on the Loons ’09 playoff-qualifying team.

Jerry Sands will go to spring training camp with Cleveland.

Jerry Sands will go to spring training camp with Cleveland.

Oft-traveled former Loon Jerry Sands now hopes to keep his career alive with Cleveland. Sands, who made his MLB debut with the Dodgers in 2011, has since been with the Boston, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay organizations. He appeared in 12 games with the Rays last summer – and hit his fifth career MLB home run – but elected free agency after he was out-righted off Tampa’s 40-man roster.

Sands may forever be part of Loons lore for the blazing half-season he had in 2010. In 69 games, Sands batted .333, crushed 18 home runs, and drove in 46 runs before being promoted to Double-A Chattanooga (where he hit 17 more homers).

Matt Magill, who started 20 games for the Loons in 2010, is now a Cincinnati Red after a December trade in which the Dodgers acquired Chris Heisey. Magill made his MLB debut with the Dodgers in 2013 but spent all of last season with Triple-A Albuquerque.

He’s expected to compete for a spot in the Reds starting rotation.

Left-handed pitcher Tom Windle, a 2013 Loons alum who was a second round pick of the Dodgers that summer, is now part of the Phillies organization after being included in a trade which brought longtime Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins to Los Angeles.

Windle spent all of last year with High-A Rancho Cucamonga, where he made 25 starts and finished 12-8 with a 4.26 ERA.

Another former Loons lefty, Jarret Martin, was designated for assignment in November by the Dodgers, and then traded to the Milwaukee Brewers a month later. Martin, who made 16 starts for the Loons in 2012, spent all of last season with Chattanooga, where he was used strictly in relief.

Josh Lindblom has had an eventful off-season, to say the least. The right-handed Lindblom – who pitched for the Loons in 2008 – was put on waiver by the Oakland Athletics December, only to be claimed by the Pittsburgh Pirates not long after.

But Lindblom, who has appeared in 110 career MLB games with the Dodgers, Phillies, Rangers and A’s, signed a contract with the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization. The deal is reportedly worth $850,000 in U.S. dollars.

Lindblom won’t be the only ex-Loon in the KBO this year; Josh Bell (Loons ’07) is a member of the LG Twins – a team he signed with last season. Bell batted .267 with 10 home runs and 39 RBI for the Twins in 2014.

– Bruce Gunther

Longtime Loons broadcaster will be missed

Brad Golder is stepping down after eight seasons as the Loons play-by-play broadcaster.

Brad Golder is stepping down after eight seasons as the Loons play-by-play broadcaster.

Without question, The Best of Brad Golder will always include what may have become his signature call.

Golder, the Loons play-by-play broadcaster since the team’s inception in 2007, would sneak it in from time to time – always when he disagreed with the umpire. But if you weren’t playing attention you might miss it.

The situation was this: A Loons pitcher would throw a pitch that Brad thought was in the strike zone. The home plate umpire thought, and ruled, otherwise.

“And that pitch is right down the middle for ball one,” he’d say, so subtly that it took a split second to register. There was no anger in his voice, and while I heard it several times over the course of last season, like the same punch line to a good joke, it still made me laugh.

I liked to visualize the reaction of his listeners: “Wait … what did he say? Those umps must be awful!”

“(Former Atlanta Braves announcer) Skip Caray used to say, ‘The umpire has a portable strike zone,’ which I thought was great,” said Golder. “I think early in my career, one of my weaknesses was being a little too outspoken in my criticism of officiating. But I became far more subtle over the years.”

Over the years, Golder also created the template for Loons play-by-play. He’s covered over 1,100 Loons games and his voice has become part of the team’s very fabric. Indeed, no history of the Loons to this point would be complete without serious mention of the man behind the mic.

But after eight years, he’s moving on. Golder recently announced that he’s stepping down as the Loons play-by-play broadcaster to pursue other opportunities. He plans to move to the metro Detroit area and explore other fields, including communications and public relations.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It could very well be that I end up in another field and do play-by-play broadcasting as a hobby. It’s hard to say. But I love doing play-by-play and it would be great to keep doing it in some format.”

His vocation would be better for it if he did.

I don’t pretend to understand the nuances of sports broadcasting, the subtle intricacies that keep things interesting and relevant over the course of three hours, but I’ve listened to enough of it over the years to recognize the true professionals of its craft. And, to me, that was Brad – a pro who proved it every time he sat down in front of the mic.

As former Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland liked to say about a player who really impressed him, “He’s a professional baseball player.”

That’s high praise, when you really think about it.

But after eight summers characterized by a relentless work schedule and time away from home, Golder simply needs a break.

“I would say it’s not very common that a play-by-play guy would spend eight seasons in the minor leagues,” he said. “In our league I was probably the third or so longest tenured announcer. I loved what I did but it does become a grind.

“(Stepping down) is something I’ve thought about for a couple of seasons. Now is the right time.”

Golder joined the Loons in January, 2007, when team offices were located on the third floor of a downtown Midland bank and Dow Diamond was still under construction. He’d spent two seasons as the No. 2 guy in the booth for the Nashville Sounds; before that he worked for the Atlanta Braves – his hometown team.

On April 5 of ’07, Golder settled behind the mic in South Bend for the Loons first-ever game. The weather was brutal – winter-like brutal – and Loons leadoff hitter Trayvon Robinson stepped in to the batter’s box wearing a ski mask.

Brad Golder (2)And, on the first pitch, Robinson dropped a bunt and legged it out for a single. Golder was as surprised as everyone.

“I blew it,” he says. “I was pumped up, all ready to announce, ‘And the first pitch in Loons history is a strike!” and Trayvon bunts the ball. I wasn’t expecting it – no one was expecting it – and the catcher blocked my view. It was an awesome play and I basically missed it.”

The pitcher that day was a young lefty named Clayton Kershaw, who labored through 2 1/3 frigid innings while walking six batters (“He wasn’t very good, but those were impossible conditions,” said Golder). But Kershaw pitched his way into the majors just over a year later, and became the first of 35 Loons that went on to the major leagues during Golder’s tenure.

He also remembers returning from that road trip and the stark contrast of cold, sparsely-attended games in South Bend and the absolute buzz surrounding the Loons franchise home opener at gleaming new Dow Diamond.

“It was like coming home to Mardi Gras,” he said.

“Home” for Golder is Marietta, Ga., where he grew up, attended school, and spent time listening to Atlanta Braves broadcasts. Summer weekends were often spent on a lake, and after the Golder family had water-skied in the morning, they’d turn on a radio and listen to the Braves.

“My mom is a huge Braves fan and she rarely misses a broadcast,” he said. “My dad is a Braves fan, but he’d be more apt to play a round of golf and then come home and find out how the Braves did.”

Golder went on to Vanderbilt University, where he worked for the campus newspaper – including as editor – while calling Commodore baseball games.

“There’s a rush to calling a game live that I think is almost equitable to the kind an athlete feels during a game,” he said. “That’s especially true if it’s the ninth inning of a close game and you’re anticipating that a game-changing moment could happen anytime.”

That rush was particularly strong in 2009, when the Loons made their first run to the postseason. One day after clinching their first-round series against West Michigan with a walk-off home run by Jaime Pedroza, the Loons defeated Fort Wayne in Game 1 of the second round after a game-tying three-run homer by Pedroza in the bottom of the ninth.

“That will always rank among my favorite games with the Loons,” Golder said. “We kept rallying and Pedroza’s home run was huge. Then we won it in extra innings. Amazing game.”

Brad Golder & Tommy Lasorda (13)There were more than just game-winning moments, however. The Loons have turned four triple plays in franchise history – all on the road – and one of those in 2011 is forever etched in Golder’s mind.

“It started with Joc Pederson catching a fly ball and throwing to second to double off a runner,” he said. “The runner on third broke for home and the throw came to the plate. Our catcher was a guy named Keyter Collado, and it was his first play of his first game with the Loons.

“There was a huge collision, but (Collado) held on to the ball. But he was also injured on the play and never played for the Loons again. I don’t think he ever played pro ball again, for that matter.”

Other moments stick with him, including the time a fire alarm went off at the Quad Cities stadium, forcing a ballpark evacuation and Golder to do his pre-game show in the parking lot. Or, the time when his board operator back at the station – before the Loons bought ESPN 100.9-FM and took control of their broadcasts – got arrested mid-game.

He was behind the mic last summer during the “Geyser Game” in Fort Wayne, when a TinCaps fielder set off a sprinkler head while chasing a fly ball. Water shot some 15 feet in the air, forced a game delay of nearly a half-hour – all of which made the national news.

He’s interviewed numerous athletes and celebrities, from Steve Garvey to Alfonso Ribeiro, and of course, Kershaw, while working with a variety of broadcast partners. He’s called local high school football and basketball games, college football and basketball,and even pro tennis.

All along, he remained faithful to his craft and to his belief in the effectiveness of radio play-by-play.

“There’s something really good about listening to a game live on the radio,” said Golder. “You can do other things if you want, with the game as a kind of background, and you get a more detailed description of the game.

“I think it’s kind of a foreign concept to younger people these days, but I still listen to games on the radio and always enjoy it.”

Loons fans enjoyed Golder for eight seasons. They’ll likely never forget him.

– Bruce Gunther

All I want for Christmas is …

These days, when friends and family ask what I’d like for Christmas, my usual response is a shrug of the shoulders and indecipherable mumbling.Santa

No, I’m not a Scrooge. Far from it. But, like others my age, the question isn’t what I would like as a gift, but do I really need one? At some point, I reached a stage when I stopped thinking in terms of a stack of gifts under the tree, just for me.

‘Tis the season for me means getting together with family. Buying gifts for my son. Good food. Going to bed without setting the alarm clock during our time off. Going to movies.

But, while I honestly don’t need anything, if I had to put together a wish list – mostly work-related, but also some personal stuff – this is what it would look like:

The Loons In The Postseason

It’s a gift we nearly received last year thanks to an unlikely battle for two playoff spots between six Midwest League Eastern Division teams with overall records below .500.

The Loons weren’t officially eliminated until the regular season’s final day, and could partially blame a rainout that wasn’t made up for keeping them out. While that was fun, and required careful study of the division standings each day, a smooth cruise into the playoffs could be even more fun.

A Midwest League Championship

 And if you’re going to ask for the moon, why not include the stars, as well?

The Return Of The Pig Mac

Pig MacThere may be no such thing as the perfect food, but Andrea Noonan, our Director of Food and Beverage, came close last summer.

Noonan created The Pig Mac, a mouth-watering concoction consisting of deep-fried mac n’ cheese, barbecue pork, cole slaw, and barbecue sauce. We watched with awe as she unveiled it in one of Dow Diamond’s kitchens.

Angels were singing.

A 2015 Loons roster filled with top prospects

While last year’s roster lacked the star power of previous versions, it certainly included some names that could show up on a Los Angeles Dodgers (or other MLB team’s) lineup card down the road. And three of them – Jose De Leon, Zachary Bird and Kyle Farmer – can be found on MLB.com’s list of Top 20 Dodgers prospects.

But it’s always a treat when the “can’t miss” types are in town, i.e., Corey Seager, Julio Urias, Clayton Kershaw, as they hone their craft on the way up the ladder.

A football game at Dow Diamond

Back in the day: Football at Fenway

Back in the day: Football at Fenway

This is part of my own personal wish list and is no indication whatsoever of future events coming to the ballpark. And I know outdoor hockey is what everyone clamors for (never mind the price tag).

But, football here in the fall, with local high school or college teams involved? Now that would be cool.

And, after all, they even played football at Boston’s iconic Fenway Park, a long, long time ago.

A true emphasis on speeding up games

Baseball is trying, or least paying lip service to, reducing the amount of time it takes to play a game. It’s time they did more than just talk about it.

So, eliminate the four pitches needed for an intentional walk. Make batters stay in the batter’s box between pitches. Put pitchers on a time clock. Have timed breaks between innings.

Players will grumble, but they’ll get used to it.

A Detroit Lions Playoff Win

OK, OK, nothing to do with baseball (again). But for those of us hopelessly hooked on the Honolulu Blue and Silver, this gift could supersede all others.

I was at the Lions’ last playoff win. That was 1991. My colleague in the cubicle next to me was a year old at the time.

I’d say they’re due.

But for those who don’t remember, or we’re too young to remember, here are some highlights of former Lions running back Barry Sanders. He was around in ’91. And he was good. Really, really good.

Warm Weather, Early And Often

Last winter’s Polar Vortex was bad enough. When the thermometer reads nine degrees and it feels normal, you begin to think you’re part of some sadistic endurance test.

But then cold weather lingered into spring, with fans flocking to Dow Diamond while bundled in winter gear, and that ol’ chill in the bones never seemed to go away.

 So, a nice, neatly-wrapped box of 70-degree weather under the tree sure would be nice.

Another Day At A School With Lou E. Loon

It was my good fortune last May to attend a Career Day at an area elementary school with our mascot extraordinaire. I was the guy who gave the talking-head intro – filled with info about the team, a brief video clip, some question-answer type stuff.

But Lou E. was The Show. And by the looks on fourth grader’s faces, and their laughter (and, yes, some learning, too), I’d say the show was a smash hit.

 No More Talk of the Bad Old Days


Time to rant: As a baseball fan, I’m not sure if anything bothers me more than hearing other fans – and media members – say that the Steroid Era of baseball was more exciting because of all the home runs and offensive production.

Stop it.

That wasn’t baseball. That was a modified version of slow-pitch softball dominated by guys who looked like Lou Ferrigno. Home run numbers were skewed in a way that made no mathematical sense.

It was like watching a monster truck crush a bicycle – perhaps entertaining at first, but mind-numbing after awhile.

A Manager And Coaching Staff As Accommodating As Last Year’s

This question was posed to Loons manager Bill Haselman during a post-game interview last season: “Bill, after a long road trip it has to feel good to come home and win.”

 (Pause. Uncomfortable Pause).

 “Well, it’s always better than coming home and losing,” said Haselman, who then smiled.

Indeed, it was an obvious question begging for an obvious answer. But Haselman handled it perfectly – with a tad of sarcasm, without malice, followed with a smile.

That was typical Haselman: Patience in a situation that might have triggered the wrath of other men. His coaches, Bill Simas and Johnny Washington were the same. And talking pitching with Simas was always a treat.

Rehab Assignment At Dow Diamond

Not that I’m hoping that some MLB player gets hurt, but wouldn’t it be fun to have one player take part in a game or two for (or against) the Loons at our park as they rehabilitate from an injury?

Rancho Cucamonga had a guy named Clayton Kershaw pitch for them last year as he prepared himself to dominate the National League. I can only imagine what the excitement – and build-up – would be like if that happened here.

Ten Minutes With Roger Angell

A Hall of Fame selection last summer, Angell would be on a Mt. Rushmore of baseball writers if there was such a thing. His chapter on MLB catchers in his book “Season Ticket” is some of the most informative, and interesting, sports writing I’ve ever read.

In the same book, he also wrote about Dan Quisenberry, the late, great submarine-style reliever of the Kansas City Royals. Quisenberry, wrote Angell, “was funny-looking and profoundly undramatic, and he went about it like a man sweeping out a kitchen.”

Three Umpires

I get it. Having just two umpires work minor league games is a cost-cutter. Plus, it’s a hard-knocks kind of experience that prepares them for higher levels.

Still, why not throw a few bucks at a local college umpire, or an experienced high school ump, to lend a helping hand? I’m not suggesting that MWL umps are regularly missing calls – far from it.

But in a sport where decisions often need to be made in the blink of an eye, a third person on the crew certainly couldn’t hurt.

 And Of Course …

Here’s wishing a happy, safe, holiday season filled with cheer to our greatest gift – our fans. We’ll see you at the ballpark!

- Bruce Gunther

Giving Thanks For a Memorable 2014 Loons Season

Dow Diamond 6,191 RecordWith Thanksgiving upon us, it’s time to shift the focus of this blog from the serious and not-so-serious elements of baseball to even more important matters: We’d like to give thanks.

What follows is a semi-complete list that this blog and the Loons are grateful for. It can never be fully complete, because to list everything and everyone could make for a small novel. Of the many listed here, many more are just as deserving.

So, here’s just an overall ‘Thanks!’ to everyone who has supported our team and efforts in the past year – and years – and know that you’re in our hearts and minds as we enjoy this week of thankfulness.

First, we’d like to give thanks to the 230,019 fans who attended Loons home games last season. You’re the most important piece of a large puzzle, and one of the highlights of 2014 was welcoming our 2-millionth fan to Dow Diamond.
Another fan shot

– Thank you to our social media friends; as of this writing that includes over 6,000 followers on Twitter and over 25,000 on Facebook. We’re always looking to add more!

– Thanks to Loons pitchers, who had a team-record 1,256 strikeouts, which meant a total of $6,280 was donated by Deloitte to K’s for Kids organizations throughout the Great Lakes Bay Region.

– A big shout-out of thanks to George Spelius, who retired as president of the Midwest League after 28 seasons. He leaves behind a league that’s strong and vital as ever.

– Thanks to Loons manager Bill Haselman and his coaches, Bill Simas and Johnny Washington. They were always accessible, always patient, even after the tough losses. And they molded a young team that remained in playoff contention right up to the final day of the season.

– Thanks to our grounds crew, masterminded by the incomparable Nick Wolcott, who keep Dow Diamond’s playing surface and surrounding grounds gorgeous. Nick’s field was covered in snow in March, but looking as good as ever by Opening Day.

Loons staff (2)- Thanks to the hundreds of seasonal employees who make every home game possible. A homestand is like hosting a party for several thousand people, several nights in a row, yet it comes together seamlessly thanks to the hard work and energy of the great people who work here every summer.

– Thanks to the City of Midland, an ideal host and partner of this franchise. It’s ranked among the best minor league baseball cities for a reason.

– Thanks to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who’ve been with us for the start and will be with us for at least another two seasons. You’ve sent us a host of future stars, including the likes of three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and 2014 All-Star Dee Gordon. Here’s to a great future.

Lou E Loon- Thanks to the one and only Lou E. Loon, our iconic mascot who attracts a never-ending flock of followers. And to watch him work away from the park – say, in an elementary school classroom – is priceless.

– Thanks to our Voices of the Loons, Brad Golder and Jerry O’Donnell. A Loons game wouldn’t sound the same without Brad describing the action and Jerry’s entertaining and informative P.A. work.

– Thanks to the construction crews for their work in getting West Michigan’s beautiful Fifth Third Ballpark ready for Opening Day following a devastating fire last winter. And it provided the perfect venue for the 2014 Midwest League All-Star game.

– Thanks to the two area leagues who allowed us to stage our “Little League Takeover,” a popular event in which we get to re-create the fun and magic of an actual Loons home game on a smaller scale.

– Thanks to Mother Nature, who sent us only one rainout all season. Yes, it was a cooler than normal summer, but we got all 70 home games in with almost no disruption of the schedule.

Alfonso for blog- Thanks to all the celebrities who were part of Dow Diamond’s entertainment and promotions schedule of 2014. Interacting with Alfonso Ribeiro, who played Carlton on ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,’ was a highlight. A former baseball player and all-around good guy, he warmed up for his first-pitch duties by playing catch in our indoor batting cage, then took a few swings off the batting tee. Fun times.

– Thanks to all of our National Anthem singers and performers who so expertly set the stage for the night ahead. That includes David Kennedy, who’s booming voice and delivery may stay still be ringing over Dow Diamond. The man makes you stop and listen.

– Thanks to the colleagues who sit closest to me: Amber Ferris, Ann Craig, Dave Gomola and Chris Mundhenk. A day never goes by without a few laughs, good-natured teasing, and comments which become potential punch lines.

– Thanks to all the young ballplayers who showed up for our clinics and camps throughout the season. We hope to see you here again in 2015!

– Lastly, but not least, thanks to all of our families and friends, whose support is our lifeblood. May you have a happy, and safe, holiday season.

Bruce Gunther

Baseball promotions: The good, the bad, the absurd

If promotions can be considered the lifeblood of minor league baseball, then you can assume that the ones that go wrong can be hazardous to a team’s health.
Hat-Giveaway-Cutout_2In terms of the Cleveland Indians Ten Cent Beer Night in 1974, that was literally true. There may be no more volatile of a mix than inebriated fans jumping onto the field and engaging with players in a good old fashioned bar fight – minus the bar.

Here at Dow Diamond, promotions are always a hot topic, especially with our 2015 promo lineup being hammered into shape by Chris Mundhenk, Vice President of Marketing and Entertainment, and Amber Ferris, Promotions Manager. It’s hard to get any work done with all the brainstormin’ going on.
We can’t reveal our 2015 promotions schedule just yet, but stay tuned. As the ballpark settles into its yearly hibernation, it’s still not a stretch to imagine a future filled once again with baseball, promotions, and more baseball and promotions. It’s out there, somewhere beyond the Polar Vortex.

But that doesn’t stop us from talking about promos of the past, especially the ill-fated ones that live on as both a means to show how the right conditions – like a perfect storm – collide to create an epic system failure, and also as a source of continual belly laughs. No, it’s really not funny that fans stormed the field after downing three too many dime beers, but some of the tales (and grainy video) of that evening … well, enough said.

So here’s a look back at some of wackiest and misguided sports promotions in history, starting with the aforementioned night in Cleveland:

Ten Cent Beer Night

First, some background: 1) The Indians weren’t much of a draw in 1974, or for more than a decade, for that matter; 2) The week before, the Indians 10-cent-beer-nightand Rangers had brawled in Texas; 3) The Rangers’ manager was Billy Martin, whose combative, combustible nature was legendary.

So, when a Cleveland reporter asked Martin, after the brawl in Texas, whether he should be worried about the reaction of Indians fans in Cleveland the following week, Martin replied thusly: “Naw, they won’t have enough fans there to worry about.”

Until the Indians offered up 12 oz. cups of beer for a dime, that is.

While Municipal Stadium didn’t sell out, the announced attendance of 25,134 was twice the number expected. Many patrons predictably loaded up on cheap beer, and the train soon went off the track. Fans interrupted the game by running onto the field, including a father and son who mooned the crowd (oh, how lifelong memories are made). Some concessions workers, over-run by thirsty fans, simply abandoned their stations.

With the game tied 5-5 in the ninth inning, an Indians fan hopped onto the field and tried to steal Texas outfielder Jeff Burroughs’ cap. Martin, thinking Burroughs had been attacked, led his team on the field, some wielding bats. The Cleveland Police Department was finally called in to restore order, but the game was forfeited to the Rangers.

The understatement came in the aftermath. Said American League president Lee MacPhail: “There was no question that beer played a part in the riot.”


Disco Demolition Night

Ah, there’s nothing quite like filling a crate with disco records and blowing it up on the field. At least the Chicago White Sox thought so on July 12, 1979, when they partnered with a local DJ for Disco Demolition Night.

Attendees were allowed into Comiskey Park for 98 cents if they brought a disco record to be tossed into the crate between games of a twi-night doubleheader between the ChiSox and Detroit Tigers. Like the Indians with Ten Cent Beer Night, the White Sox hoped for a modest crowd; instead more than 50,000 fans jammed the park.

While the crate would be filled with records, many remained in possession of fans – who hurled them Frisbee-style onto the playing field. White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who’d been hospitalized to undergo tests, checked himself out because of concern that the promotion might turn into a disaster.

Boy, was he right.

D.J., and anti-disco campaigner, Steve Dahl set off the explosives, which left a large hole in the outfield grass, and scattered thousands of shards of broken vinyl everywhere. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 fans stormed the field, ultimately forcing the Sox to forfeit the nightcap.

Like promotions manager Mike Veeck – Bill’s son – who said of fans that evening, ‘This is the Woodstock they never had,’ Tigers manager Sparky Anderson sensed that participants were fueled by more than a dislike of disco music.

“Beer and baseball go together, they have for years,” Anderson said. “But I think those kids were doing things other than beer.”

Derek Lowe Poster Night

Lowe was the Boston Red Sox closer in 2001 and featured on a poster produced by the Massachusetts Teachers Association promoting literacy for their Red Sox Reading Game.

That spring, the MTA handed out 10,000 of the posters at a Red Sox game. Lowe, who was off to a shaky start that season, entered the game with a two-run lead against the Royals and gave up four. Frustrated fans responded by tossing posters on the field, forcing a game delay of 15 minutes.

Clearly it wasn’t a night for Lowe or literacy.

Jeffrey Hammonds Bobblehead Night

Jeffrey-Hammonds_2In 2001, free agent Jeffrey Hammonds signed the biggest contract in Milwaukee Brewers history. Beset by injuries and on-field struggles, Hammonds then limped through two forgettable seasons with the Brewers.

But that didn’t stop the Brewers from having a Jeffrey Hammonds Bobblehead Night in 2003. And, by most accounts, it went off without a hitch.

There was one small problem, however: Hammonds had been cut from the team a couple of days before.

And Some Other ‘Fun’ Ones

– The Vero Beach Devil Rays tried to liven things up with their 2008 Anti-Doping Night, in which the first 200 fans received free urine sample cups. A rumored appearance by Alex Rodriguez never materialized, however.

– Providing further proof that giving fans things they can throw is always a high-risk, low-reward proposition, the Minnesota Twins tried a “Minnesota Road Map Night.”

As it turned out, many fans made travel plans right there and launched their maps – folded into paper airplanes – onto the playing field below.

– Sometimes wiser heads prevail. That was the case in the West Virginia Power’s promotion, “Salute To Indoor Plumbing Night.”

The Power planned to shut down all bathrooms in the stadium and force fans to use port-o-pottys. Fortunately, it never went down, however, because it presented a massive health code violation.

– The Reading (Pa.) Phillies certainly salute and appreciate indoor plumbing on Gluttony Night, a gorge fest in which fans can consume all the cheeseburgers, pizza, soda, funnel cakes, ice cream, French fries, hot dogs and pizza from 5 p.m. through the 7th inning for only $10.

– The Hagerstown Suns have never been shy when it comes to thinking outside the box in terms of promotions, but their thinking was decidedly inside the box for their 2003 Pre-Planned Funeral Night.

For that promotion, one “lucky” fan received a funeral package for $6,500.

Guess it never hurts to plan ahead.

The former Loons, including a guy named Kershaw, who played in the major leagues in 2014

A total of 23 former Loons played in the major leagues this season, including some guy named Clayton Kershaw. You know, the guy who hit host Jimmy Kimmel in the face with a baseball on national TV.

OK, he’s hardly “some guy.” And maybe it wasn’t a real “baseball” that he threw at Kimmel, who had an apple resting on his head as a target, William Tell-style.

Kershaw, a two-time Cy Young Award winner and, now, a four-time ERA champion, had another other-worldly regular season to lead the list of Loons who saw big league action in 2014.

The starting pitcher in the Loons inaugural game on April 5, 2007, Kershaw may have even topped himself during the ’14 regular season by finishing 21-3 (in 27 starts), by winning another National League ERA title (1.77), by completing a career-high six games, and by compiling a career-low 0.857 WHIP.

Former Loon Clayton Kershaw celebrates his no-hitter against the Rockies on June 19.

Former Loon Clayton Kershaw celebrates his no-hitter against the Rockies on June 19.

Kershaw was the only starter in the MLB to finish with an ERA below 2.00, and if you take away his inexplicable start on May 17, when he allowed seven earned runs in 1 2/3 innings against Arizona, and replaced it with even a middling to below average performance (say, six innings, three earned runs), that number dips to 1.54.

And to find a figure that low you’d have to go back nearly 30 years, to when Dwight Gooden posted a 1.53 ERA for the 1985 Mets. As Kershaw’s teammate A.J. Ellis told the Los Angeles Times: “He’s the highest paid pitcher of all time, and it still feels like he’s underpaid.”

Meanwhile, former Loon Dee Gordon made slightly over $500,000 this season (according to Baseball Reference), which qualifies as a working man’s paycheck in the MLB. But Gordon positioned himself for bigger paydays with a breakthrough 2014 season that saw him competing with a cast of thousands for a starting job at an unfamiliar position in spring training.

But Gordon, a shortstop for most of his professional career, not only claimed the Dodgers second base gig, but seized control of it. He was named to the NL All-Star team while leading the majors in stolen bases (64) and triples (12), and while batting .289 and scoring 92 runs. He’s even pretty dominant in MLB 14 The Show:

For Gordon, whose MLB future seemed in doubt prior to spring training, his 2014 turnaround was a matter of resilience.

“Struggles are good because they help you learn,” Gordon told ESPN.com. “I remember my dad telling me how to be professional and saying, ‘Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.’ I’m more tough-minded than I used to be.”

Also making a position switch, albeit briefly, was Cleveland’s Carlos Santana (Loons ’07). The longtime catcher started the season at third base but committed six errors in 26 games and slumped offensively. His struggles coincided with the emergence of third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall, and Santana was moved away from the hot corner to play primarily at first base, and as a designated hitter.

The move appeared to help Santana regain his power stroke, as he finished with 27 home runs and 85 RBI. It was the third season in Santana’s five-year MLB career in which he finished with 20 or more home runs.

The 2014 MLB regular season was also one in which several former Loons made their big league debuts. While Joc Pederson – regarded as one of the elite prospects in minor league baseball – was called up to the Dodgers in September with no shortage of fanfare – Jumbo Diaz and Pedro Baez debuted after long, hard, often anonymous journeys.

Diaz, a 12-year minor league veteran, finally made it to the bigs on June 20, at age 30. But, pitching out of Cincinnati’s bullpen, he stuck around for the rest of the summer and appeared in 36 games while averaging 9.6 K’s per nine innings.

A slimmed-down Jumbo Diaz made his MLB debut with the Reds this season.

A slimmed-down Jumbo Diaz made his MLB debut with the Reds this season.

It didn’t hurt that Diaz, who once weighed 347 pounds, shed 70 pounds in the off-season.

“I can’t say if that held him back or not. I have no idea,” Reds manager Bryan Price told Sportsonearth.com. “All I know is that we saw a guy who was greatly committed to being ready, to being in shape when he came to spring training for us in 2014. And it impressed us greatly.”

Baez was summoned to the Dodgers in May after eight seasons in the minors – including in 2008 with the Loons – and after a position switch of a more radical variety. Primarily a third baseman in the minors, Baez was converted to pitcher in 2013 and has resurrected his pro career.

In 20 regular season games, Baez had a 2.63 ERA and 0.875 WHIP and became a source of consistency in a turbulent Dodger ‘pen. Worth noting is that L.A. included Baez on its postseason roster.

Shawn Tolleson, who was lights-out for the Loons in 2011, had his best MLB season yet in 2014. Pitching out of the Texas Rangers bullpen, Tolleson was 3-1 with a 2.76 ERA in 71 innings (the most of any Rangers reliever).

Tolleson was particularly tough in the season’s second half, when opponents hit just .193 against him and his ERA was 1.48. Of course, even those numbers don’t compare to Tolleson’s here-and-gone stint with the Loons in 2011, when he didn’t allow an earned run in 14 games while recording 10 saves and 33 strikeouts in 15 innings.

No talk of bullpen proficiency would be complete without mentioning another Loon, Dodger closer Kenley Jansen.

Jansen, who was a catcher with the Loons over two seasons before making his own conversion to pitcher, finished with a career-high 44 saves while striking out 101 hitters in 65.1 innings. He’s averaged 14 strikeouts per nine innings during his career.

Here’s a briefer look at the other Loons who played in the MLB in 2014:

Nathan Eovaldi, Marlins: While Eovaldi’s final numbers don’t exactly pop, he was one of only 15 pitchers who allowed no home runs in at least 20 starts and walked only 1.9 batters per nine innings. Was 6-14 with a 4.37 ERA.

Rafael Ynoa, Rockies: Ynoa made his big league debut in September after nine seasons and 773 games in the minor leagues. The versatile infielder made a strong first impression, batting .343 with 13 RBI in 67 at-bats. He became just the third Rockies rookie to record three or more hits in his big league debut.

Bryan Morris, Pirates, Marlins: Morris was a combined 8-1 with a 1.82 ERA in 60 games with Pittsburgh and Miami. His career MLB record is 13-8 with a 2.61 ERA.

Paco Rodriguez, Dodgers: Rodriguez appeared in 19 games with the Dodgers, all in relief. Was 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA and 1.143 WHIP.

Scott Van Slyke, Dodgers: Has settled nicely into his role as a vital utility player for L.A. He had 212 at bats – a career-high – and batted .297 with 11 home runs – including the first home run of the 2014 MLB season when the Dodgers opened with the Arizona Diamondbacks in Australia. Van Slyke played all three outfield positions and first base.

Red Patterson, Dodgers: The Dodgers called for Patterson on May 1 when they needed an emergency starter against Minnesota. Patterson pitched 4 2/3 innings and gave up just one earned run in what was his MLB debut, and only big league appearance to date.

Jose Dominguez, Dodgers: Dominguez broke spring camp with the Dodgers but struggled in five games, as his 11.37 ERA would attest.

Carlos Frias, Dodgers: Made his MLB debut on Aug. 4 and appeared in 15 games, including two starts. His 6.12 ERA was skewed by a disastrous start on Sept. 17 when he gave up eight runs and 10 hits in two-thirds of an inning.

Yimi Garcia, Dodgers: A September call-up, Garcia relieved in five games and finished with a 1.80 ERA and nine K’s in 10 innings pitched. He nearly made L.A.’s postseason roster.

Daniel Coulombe, Dodgers: Made his MLB debut on Sept. 16 and appeared in five games, all in relief. Finished with a 4.15 ERA and four strikeouts in 4 1/3 innings pitched.

Andrew Lambo, Pirates: A late-season call-up by Pittsburgh, Lambo batted .256 and one RBI in 39 at-bats. Was part of the first triple play in PNC Park history on Sept. 14.

Jerry Sands, Rays: Tampa Bay added Sands to its roster in June and he played in 12 games before a wrist injury sidelined him for the season. Sands homered against Baltimore on June 16, his fifth career big-league dinger.

Rubby De La Rosa, Red Sox: De La Rosa started 18 games for Boston and finished 4-8 with a 4.43 ERA. He struggled in September with a 7.79 ERA.

Allen Webster, Red Sox: Webster made 11 starts for the BoSox and it was his last three – when he allowed four runs total over 18.2 innings (while walking only three) that placed him in the discussion about the team’s 2015 rotation.

Josh Lindblom, A’s: Lindblom was summoned to Oakland in April to make a spot start. He pitched 4 2/3 innings against Cleveland, allowing five hits and a home run. He spent much of his season on the disabled list.

By Bruce Gunther

The 2014 Loons: So close, so many highlights

The 2014 Great Lakes Loons season could be defined by what might have been, but that wouldn’t provide a complete picture.

Yes, the Loons came within a half-game of qualifying for the Midwest League playoffs, and it’s a half-game that might not have existed except for a late-season rainout, but it was also a season filled with peaks and valleys, individual and team accomplishments, and, of course, highlights.

So what follows is one observer’s list of highlights, while knowing full well that a host of others could have qualified, as well.

The Wild Chase For A Wildcard
With West Michigan and South Bend having already clinched Eastern Division playoff berths in the first half, the second half became a battle among six teams for two remaining postseason spots. And what a battle it was.

The chase for the final wildcard spot went down to the final day, with the Loons trailing Fort Wayne by a half-game and needing a win against West Michigan and a Fort Wayne loss to Bowling Green. The Loons took care of their business by beating the Whitecaps 3-1, but Fort Wayne defeated the Hot Rods 4-0 to advance to the postseason.

As mentioned, a rainout in Bowling Green on Aug. 23 didn’t help the Loons’ cause. They were leading 4-0 when the game was called before it was official, and because they were heading to Dayton the next day – and weren’t scheduled to play Bowling Green again – there was no chance of finishing the game. And that’s how the half-game difference between the Loons and Fort Wayne was created.

Special K
Pitching coach Bill Simas talked about his staff “pitching to contact,” and it made perfect sense considering the Loons had one of the league’s best defenses. But with Loons pitchers piling up strikeouts at a record pace, contact was often non-existent.

The Loons staff led all full-season minor leagues with 1,256 K’s, which easily eclipsed the previous franchise record of 1,177 set in 2010. The bullpen played a huge part, but it was an all-hands-on-deck effort.

How good was it? In July and August combined, the Loons struck out at least 10 batters in 32 of 57 games.

Welcome Aboard
Right-handed pitcher Jose De Leon joined the Loons in mid-August after dominating the Pioneer League with Ogden. He didn’t miss a beat at the next level.

Pitching at Fort Wayne on Aug. 19, De Leon set a Loons record with 14 strikeouts, eclipsing the old mark of 12 held by two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw and two others. De Leon struck out nine consecutive batters at one point, which was just one shy of tying the Midwest League record.

De Leon finished 2-0 with a 1.19 ERA with the Loons and struck out 42 batters in 22 2/3 innings. He struck out a total of 119 in 77 innings between Ogden and Great Lakes.

Temper, Temper
By the time South Bend’s Daniel Palka took the field at Dow Diamond on July 3, he’d hit eight home runs off of Loons pitching. And while it may or may not have been a coincidence that pitcher Scott Barlow plunked Palka on the batting helmet, it set the tone for what became a very contentious evening.

In all, Loons pitchers hit five Silver Hawks batters – South Bend’s Stryker Trahan broke his bat on the ground in frustration after getting hit – before things came to a head in the bottom of the eighth. South Bend reliever Tom Jameson threw behind Loons batter Jesmuel Valentin, and then hit him with the next pitch.

Valentin and Jameson, apparently discussing the latter’s sudden inability to throw a baseball anywhere near the strike zone, exchanged opinions as both benches emptied. No punches were thrown, but five participants were dismissed for the night, including both managers.

The benches cleared on July 3 after the Loons Jesmuel Valentin was hit by a pitch against South Bend.

The benches cleared on July 3 after the Loons Jesmuel Valentin was hit by a pitch against South Bend.

Wait, They Won How?
The Loons were down to their last breath against Lansing on Aug. 3 at Dow Diamond. Trailing 3-2 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Josmar Cordero whiffed on a third strike, but the ball sailed past Lugnuts catcher Daniel Klein to the backstop.

With Cordero, not to be confused with Usain Bolt, running to first base, Klein calmly retrieved the ball, and fired it … into rightfield (Cordero would have been out by a step). That allowed Jacob Scavuzzo to score from the second base, while Brandon Trinkwon moved to third.

That brought up Jesmuel Valentin, in his first game back off of a stay on the disabled list, and he rapped a single up the middle for the win.

And They Missed A Field Goal
The Loons returned home on May 12 from a three-game sweep at the hands of South Bend and took out their frustrations on West Michigan. They scored six runs in the fourth inning and five in the seventh on their way to a 17-1 win.

The 17 runs were one run shy of the team record while the 16-run margin of victory set a record. Every player in the Loons lineup had a hit while six players had at least two. Newcomer Josmar Cordero went 4-for-5 to raise his average to .550.

Star Power
The Loons were represented by three players at the Midwest League All-Star game played at West Michigan’s Fifth Third Ballpark: Catcher Kyle Farmer, rightfielder Joey Curletta, and reliever Mark Pope.

Farmer and Curletta were starters while Pope – at the time the Loons closer – entered the game in the early innings and retired both batters he faced. Farmer was hit by a pitch and walked in his two plate appearances, while Curletta was 0-for-2.

Let it Rhame
For almost the entire second half of the season, Loons reliever Jacob Rhame was like a hired gunslinger brought in to clean up a corrupt town before riding off into the sunset.

Seems only fitting, since Rhame is from Texas, but also for how lethal he was for enemy batsmen. The hard-throwing right-hander set a Loons record with 32 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, and piled up strikeouts with a fastball that topped out at nearly 100 mph.

Rhame finished the season with 90 strikeouts in 67 1/3 innings – while giving up only 14 walks – an ERA of 2.00, and a 0.921 WHIP.

Best In Show
Again, they represent only one person’s opinion, but here are my individual awards of 2014:

MVP – Jesmuel Valentin
Traded to the Philadelphia Phillies organization during the heat of the playoff race, Valentin led the Loons in runs scored and triples, was second in batting average, OPS and stolen bases, and was third in hits, RBI and total bases despite playing only 108 games with the Loons. Was also a solid defender at second base.

MV(Pitcher) – Jacob Rhame
Tough call here, because several pitchers – especially those in the bullpen – had excellent years. Starter Jonathan Martinez was consistently good before being traded to the Cubs’ organization in late July, but the nod here goes to Rhame. He tied for the team lead in saves, led all non-starters in strikeouts, and didn’t give up an earned run for nearly the entire second half of the season.

Best Defender – Brandon Trinkwon
A natural shortstop, Trinkwon also played second base and third. He had a flair for the spectacular but made the routine plays, too.

Player(s) to Watch – Curletta and De Leon
Curletta cooled off some after ranking among the league leaders in batting average for the first two months of the season but still led the team in hits and RBIs. But he’s a beast physically and has a gun for an arm in the outfield.

De Leon provided only a small sample size with the Loons, but what a sample it was. He was named the Pioneer League’s Pitcher of the Year for his work in Ogden, and he’s averaged 11.9 K’s per nine innings in two professional seasons.

Bright Beginnings
The Loons won their first game of the season, at Fort Wayne, 9-0, and then again on Opening Day at Dow Diamond (April 8) with an 8-4 victory over Cedar Rapids.

Jonathan Martinez pitched six shutout innings in the season opener and struck out 12 batters, while Greg Harris gave up one earned run in five innings in the home opener and Justin Chigbogu homered.

It’s worth noting that the Loons’ Malcolm Holland led off the season with a walk and promptly stole second base. That was the first of 65 steals the Loons had in April to set a new team record.

Saying Goodbye In Style
The last of the Loons’ 70 home games may have been the best.

Playing in front of a record crowd of 6,191 at Dow Diamond, and in the final sprint of the wildcard chase, the Loons posted a dramatic 2-1 win over Lake County when Alex Santana delivered a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth.

The win temporarily gave the Loons a half-game lead in the wildcard race, and was followed by not only a Fireworks Loontacular, but also Loons players greeting fans as they exited the stadium.

“No matter what happens from here on out, it’s been a great summer with a lot of great memories,” Loons manager Bill Haselman said after. “The ballpark is one of the best, if not the best, in the minor leagues, and the fans came out in droves once the weather warmed up.”

– Bruce Gunther

Loons players greet fans as they exit Dow Diamond following the final home game.

Loons players greet fans as they exit Dow Diamond following the final home game.

From the Ivy League to the pros: Loons’ reliever makes smooth transition

Michael Johnson has averaged nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings as a key member of the Loons' bullpen.

Michael Johnson has averaged nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings as a key member of the Loons’ bullpen.

Professional baseball players don’t typically come from the Ivy League which is why the question has to be asked to Loons reliever Michael Johnson.

But what’s the question to ask?

– What’s it like to be from the Ivy League?

– Is baseball very good in the Ivy League?

– What’s a smart Ivy League guy like you doing in a sport like this?

But, rather than appearing dumber than you really are, you fumble out something along the lines of: “You’re from the Ivy League. Not a lot of guys come from the Ivy League.”

Johnson pitched four seasons at Dartmouth and then was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Johnson pitched four seasons at Dartmouth and then was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Johnson, who’s low-key in conversation but to the point, gives a low-key, to-the-point answer.

“Well, there are definitely guys that can play (at Ivy schools),” he says. “Kyle Hendricks, one of my teammates (at Dartmouth) is playing for the Cubs. Joe Sclafani is a shortstop at Triple-A for the Astros.

“The overall talent might not be the best, but there are guys that stand out, too. I mean, I think all us had the idea that we wanted to play in the major leagues.”

Johnson played four years at Dartmouth, earning All-Ivy honors, before being selected by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 14th round of the 2013 draft. He’s a left-hander with a good fastball and slider who has pitched very, very well at the Single-A level.

He’s been a key component in a Loons bullpen that has been one of the team’s strengths all season, if not the No. 1 strength. He’s contributed heavily to the Loons strikeout assault on opposing hitters (the Loons rank near the top among all minor league teams in K’s).

But there’s still the Ivy thing. The Ivy is all but academic excellence. Presidents and other world leaders went to Ivy League schools. Business leaders. The guy who invented Facebook.

But baseball? Consider this: The Ivy League has produced, according to unofficial research, 555 professional baseball players (major or minor league). Arizona State University has produced 433 all on its own.

It is worth nothing, however, that Lou Gehrig went to Columbia. Current Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus, like Johnson, went to Dartmouth. And there are others. Currently, there are five players in professional baseball that played at Dartmouth, Harvard also has five. It just might not be what you think it is.

A guy named Lou Gehrig played for Columbia of the Ivy League.

A guy named Lou Gehrig played for Columbia of the Ivy League.

Johnson graduated with a degree in economics from Dartmouth and made the dean’s list. He also pitched four seasons on the varsity and went 7-0 with a 1.82 ERA his senior season.

“I loved it there,” he said. “Those were some of the best days of my life.”

Before that, Johnson went to the private Brooks School in North Andover, Mass, where he played baseball, hockey and ran cross country. The school’s motto, translated from Latin, is “We, who are about to be victorious, salute you.”

Johnson has been able to back that up, even on the pro level.

In 67 professional games, all in relief, Johnson has a 2.35 ERA and has averaged 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings. He’s struck out 86 batters in 61 1/3 innings for the Loons this season.

“Every league you move up to there are going to be guys who can hit your mistakes,” he said. “So you have to adjust and adapt to the level of competition.

“I think one of the bigger things is that I’ve been able to do is throw my slider for strikes against lefties. I have a much better command of that pitch and it’s helped.”

Johnson’s focus on consistent improvement paid off in college as he gradually became a player who showed up on MLB scouting reports. He worked with a strength and conditioning coach between his junior and senior seasons with an emphasis on better flexibility.

“The things I did then really helped get my velocity up,” he said. “I’d had a pretty good junior year and I thought I might have a chance to get drafted. Then I had a good senior year, so it was definitely in the back of my mind that I had a shot.”

And if baseball doesn’t work out? Well, Johnson will have his Ivy League degree to fall back on.

Not that he’s thinking that far ahead.

“I’m really not sure what I’d get into,” he said. “I guess I haven’t thought about it.”

Given his success in his current profession, it might be something Johnson won’t have to think about it for a while, anyway.


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