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.
Delvecchio-Bobblehead-Cutout_2
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.”

Indeed.

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.
Disco_Demo_Nite_PIC

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.

More questions than answers to baseball’s fragile arms race

By most accounts, Tommy John surgery has become as commonplace in baseball as an umpire brushing dirt off of home plate.

Loons pitching coach Bill Simas had it. So did Loons right-hander Scott Barlow – and hundreds, if not thousands, of others. It has been estimated that the procedure has increased by 700 percent in the last 10 years, an alarming statistic that compares with the NFL’s concussion epidemic.

The problem is, no one is quite sure what to do about it. Who knew that the then-radical surgery performed on former MLB pitcher Tommy John in 1974 would become so commonplace 40 years later?

“It’s hard to explain why they’re having more surgeries,” said Simas. “Maybe they’re diagnosing it better, and maybe it’s because of the success they’ve had with the surgery that more people are willing to have it done.”

Yahoo Sports columnist Jeff Passan wrote, “Researchers and doctors believe the correlation of high velocities and arm injuries may well be causative, and pitchers today throw harder than ever.”

But, as Passan notes, it’s not that nearly that simple. There are pitch counts, types of pitches thrown, and the fact that pitching, by its nature, causes unusual, repetitive stress on the arm.

Former big league pitcher Tommy John had UCL surgery on his left elbow in 1974, and has forever been linked with the procedure which now bears his name.

Former big league pitcher Tommy John had UCL surgery on his left elbow in 1974, and has forever been linked with the procedure which now bears his name.

For the record, Tommy John surgery is less commonly known by its medical definition, which is Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction. It’s a surgical graft procedure in which the UCL in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from somewhere else in the body. Holes are drilled in the ulna and humerus bones of the elbow to accommodate a new tendon.

Barlow, who had Tommy John surgery in 2012, was a shortstop in high school until his coach realized he had more potential as a pitcher. After that, Barlow admits, he pretty much threw year-around – not that he’s pinpointing a specific cause for his own elbow breaking down.

“It was actually a gradual thing,” said Barlow, a sixth-round pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 2011 draft. “I felt that something wasn’t quite right in the off-season, then in the spring (of 2012) I threw a couple of bullpens and it still didn’t feel right.

“Then I was pitching in extended spring training – second batter, second inning – and it just went on me. I just knew there was no way I could throw another pitch.”

Barlow, then 19, had his surgery on May 3, 2012 and didn’t pitch again for a year. But that’s the standard recovery time for anyone who’s had the surgery.

“You spend one month just straightening your arm out,” he said. “They put you in a brace and your arm is kind of locked in that position, so you have to make it straight again. You gradually get it straight, but at the end it’s so tight it feels like you can’t get through it.”

Loons pitcher Scott Barlow is working his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2012.

Loons pitcher Scott Barlow is working his way back from Tommy John surgery in 2012.

Barlow appeared in 15 games (all starts) for rookie-level Ogden last season, pitching 69 2/3 innings. He was 4-3 with a 6.20 ERA. He’s made 16 appearances for the Loons this season – 14 of them starts – and has thrown 76 innings while compiling a 4-5 record and 4.74 ERA. He’s averaging over two more strikeouts per nine innings this season than last.

“I actually think next year is when you’ll really see the increase in velocity (for Barlow),” said Simas. “In his case I think it’s just going to take a little longer.”

In Simas’ case, the injury to his right elbow originally occurred when he wasn’t even pitching.

“I was trying to stop a door and I felt it,” said Simas, who pitched six seasons in the major leagues, all with the Chicago White Sox. “I’m not sure if I tore it then, or when I pitched a whole year with it. But I basically pitched the whole (2000) season with a torn ligament.

“It would take me about an hour and a half to get ready for a game.”

Oddly enough, it was one of Simas’ best seasons statistically in the majors. It was also his last.

“I was throwing 84 to 86 miles per hour,” he said. “It was just a little below the hitting speed and I could command the ball.”

Simas was still under contract with the White Sox in 2001, but didn’t pitch as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. He said it took him two years for his velocity to return, but he never made it back to the MLB.

Now in his second season as the Loons pitching coach, Simas has been around long enough as both a player and a mentor to young pitchers to develop his own theories on why so many arms are breaking down.

“I think there are three or four factors, for me, that need to be looked at,” he said. “First, kids when they’re young, at 12 and 13, are throwing curveballs and stressing their arms just to get batters out. Little League has done a good job looking at pitch counts, but kids are also stressing their arms pitching all year around.”

Recent studies aren’t encouraging. Famed orthopedic surgeon James Andrews and his colleague, Glenn Fleisig, say that the group with greatest increase in Tommy John surgeries is high school age players. Andrews also said the success rate of surgery on youth players is lower than for adults.

“I would also look at weight training and pitching deliveries,” Simas said. “I mean, everyone has a guru in their town that knows everything, and kids are going to them at an early age. Parents are paying thousands of dollars to send them to these clinics, but are they really learning the right techniques in the weight room and with the throwing motion?”

Professional baseball lowered the pitcher’s mound from 15 to 10 inches in 1969 as a way to increase offensive productivity. They’ve also – unofficially – lowered the strike zone, and Simas said the combination of the two is taxing on a pitcher’s arm.

“Now we’re throwing pitches that are starting low and have to go lower, with some bite and angle on it,” he said. “Your fingers have to be right on top of the ball and you’re putting a lot of pressure on your arm to keep the ball low with some movement.”

And there are many other factors that Simas touches on, including the idea that young pitchers would be better served by working in manual labor occupations in the off-season to strengthen themselves. After all, Nolan Ryan – who threw 95-mph fastballs in his 40s – spent his down time working on a cattle ranch.

There’s also the matter of proper delivery. A pitcher’s windup and delivery is a carefully-timed, rhythmic sequence of events in which stress is distributed in various areas of the body during the often violent throwing of a pitch.

“You can see pitchers with certain deliveries and at least have an opinion that they’re going to have (arm) problems down the road,” said Simas. “If there’s a red flag on a guy, then we as an organization can say, hey, we need to address this. Is it something we can tinker around with?

“If it’s arm action, it can be kind of hard to fix. If it’s a delivery flaw, then you can do something about it.”
But like teaching different tackling techniques in football to help lessen the risk of concussion, breaking old habits is easier for some than others.

“A lot of the guys we see at this level our 18, 19 and 20-years old, sometimes right out of college, and they’ve been pitching like that for years,” said Simas. “You want them to show you why they were drafted, and they want to show you.

“It’s tough to change a guy when they’re trying to show you that they were drafted for a reason.”

Loons pitching coach Bill Simas shows the scar from Tommy John surgery he had in 2000.

Loons pitching coach Bill Simas shows the scar from Tommy John surgery he had in 2000.

A Baseball Life: Tarp Pulls, Sleep Deprivation And The Coolest Office There Is

As a minor league baseball employee, I’m both a newbie and an oldie.

So old, in fact, that I’m not even sure if anyone says “newbie” anymore, but so new that it wasn’t until the eve of our team’s first homestand that I truly understood what “Tarp Pull” meant.

But more on that later.

I’ve now been with the Loons for seven months after having decided to leave my fledgling financial career – after several hundred house calls and annuity sales pitches, few of which I remember now for some reason – for a gig in baseball (which, even if it ended tomorrow, I doubt I’d forget any of it).

Not that I’m new to the sports business. I’ve spent more than half of my life as a sports writer and editor. There are some similarities – with the emphasis on some. At least now I can hope the home team wins (although not outwardly), disregarding my journalism school mantra of Objectivity, Objectivity and More Objectivity.

What follows below is a very brief list of various aspects of this job. Not all of them, of course, but some of the main ones that seem to define the in-season experience, at least from my own rookie’s perspective.

Tarp Pull

 Oh, naïve me, I took this job while thinking nothing about things like how a tarp gets on an off the field – at least not at this level of pro ball. There must be a grounds crew of a few people who handle that, right?

Nothing to it? Well, kind of. Reveling in the aftermath of a rain-soaked tarp pull.

Nothing to it? Well, kind of. Reveling in the aftermath of a rain-soaked tarp pull.

It wouldn’t involve me, of course.

And then one day word spread through the office: “Tarp Pull in 15 minutes.”

“This will be cool, “I thought. “I’ll go out and see how they do it.”

And, yes, the grounds crew is there. But so are we – every other able-bodied employee in the building – to help drag that tarp on and off the field.

Tarps aren’t light. Or, small. You could get rolled up in one and no one would have a clue where you were. The Greek word for tarpaulin means “Large Canvas Covering Half The Earth.”

“Tarp Pull” means all-hands on deck. Veteran employees hear the phrase and reach under their desks for boots, or cheaper shoes. It can be a messy job. And when the wind blows … well, I’ll let this video do the talking.

Last month, the Tarp Pull was rudely inundated by a sudden thunderstorm. Rain fell in relentless waves. Soaked to the bone, we trudged back to the office. We borrowed T-shirts and shorts from our team store while our clothes were sent to the home clubhouse dryers. We sat back down at our desks and wondered if any of us had been lost at sea.

Or, in the tarp.

Game Day

 As a fan, I came to Loons games every summer, usually with my son. One of his birthday parties was held here, and he and his friends roamed the park, over-indulged in hot dogs and Dippin’ Dots, before proclaiming it one of their best times “ever.”

Moreover, I knew a few things about the organization because of my previous life in sports journalism. But I really hadn’t put a lot of thought into how it – the game, the event, the everything – came together.

Now I know. And it’s an amazing thing to watch unfold. I have neither the space nor time to mention all of it because there are a million steps leading to an event that involves so many different aspects. Think of it as putting on a party for several thousand people, several nights in a row.

It starts early and ends late. Same for the players – who are typically at the stadium by 1 p.m. for a game that won’t be played for another six hours.

Even when the gates open, an hour before game time, the pieces are still coming together. What the fans see is already in place. What they don’t see is the promotions planning, the video production and stadium sound prep work, or the crew of people in our kitchens. I’m missing several dozen other jobs and tasks here, not by lack of importance, but because it’s a list too long.

Somehow it all gets done.

The Hours

“That’s cool,” people often say to me, “You show up for the game, ‘work’ (they use the two-finger quote marks here), and go home. Nice gig.”

It’s time to dispel that myth.

During the off-season, we work from 9 to 5, just like millions of others. “Bankers hours.” We also start at 9 a.m. on game days. The only difference is that we work until the game is over, and beyond. Most games start at 7:05 p.m.

So, your typical 9 to 5 becomes 9 to, say, midnight during a homestand. You drive home, collapse into bed (at least I do, but I’m older – considerably – than most of my co-workers), wake up, shower, and do it all over again.

In the area where I sit in our office, we talk about coffee as if it is a magic elixir, with each cup accompanied by angels singing. That’s because it is. Coffee is serious business over here. Go ahead, steal our pens, notepads, laptops, car keys, identities. But don’t you dare touch our coffee.

On the other hand, it’s baseball. When the 9 to 5 part of the day ends, the baseball is soon to begin.

Your workplace becomes a stadium.

Your background noise is the incomparable sound of a wooden bat cracking into a baseball.

And fans cheering.

Nice gig, indeed.

- Bruce Gunther

At the office: Game night at Dow Diamond.

At the office: Game night at Dow Diamond.

Former Loon Farmer Had His Moment On The Big Screen With Role In “The Blind Side”

Kyle Farmer has made a smooth transition from college shortstop to professional catcher – smooth enough that he’s just earned a promotion.

But the former Great Lakes Loons catcher, now with Rancho Cucamonga, also has another transition under his belt, that of real-life high school football quarterback to a fictional one.

Even if it was only for a day.

Kyle Farmer was batting .310 with the Loons before being promoted to Rancho Cucamonga.

Kyle Farmer was batting .310 with the Loons before being promoted to Rancho Cucamonga.

Farmer had a cameo role in the 2009 movie “The Blind Side.” A prep football star at the Marist School in Atlanta, Ga., Farmer played quarterback during a scene that depicted a practice session.

“I was at my friend’s house when another friend of mine who was in the movie called and said they needed a quarterback. I guess the guy they had didn’t know what he was doing,” Farmer said. “He told me they were shooting a scene the next day at a high school near my house and asked if I wanted do it.

“I told him I did and he told me to be there at 6 a.m.”

Farmer was a recent high school graduate and had signed a baseball scholarship with the University of Georgia. He had no acting experience, but he knew what a quarterback should do after running Marist’s potent wishbone offense.

“I showed up and they gave me a playbook and told me to learn the plays,” said Farmer. “There were like six plays, and I had to get them down in a hurry.”

Written and directed by John Lee Hancock, “The Blind Side” is about the life of Michal Oher, following him from his impoverished upbringing to his adoption by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. Oher, went on to star at the University of Mississippi and now plays for the Tennessee Titans of the NFL.

The movie stars Sandra Bullock, who went on to win an Academy Award for Best Actress, and grossed over $300 million.

Not that Farmer got a penny of it.

“I couldn’t get paid because of NCAA rules,” he said. “I told them that right up front. What’s funny is that, while we’re shooting the scene, a woman comes running down the hill and she’s yelling.

“Well, it was my mom. She wanted them to know all about the NCAA stuff.”

Those rules prevented Farmer from showing his face during filming, even when he was wearing a helmet. So when the “quarterback” is pulled aside by Bullock during the scene, it’s actually another actor.

Farmer said filming went from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and the hitting between players was real.

“We were there all day and it was a grind, just like a real practice,” he said. “And guys were just laying wood out there. The hitting was pretty intense.”

Farmer also got to meet Bullock during a break in filming, albeit briefly.

“She walked by and tapped me on the shoulder pads and said I looked a little big to be a quarterback,” he said. “I was just an 18-year-old kid and I didn’t know how to react, so I kind of blushed and smiled at her.”

The movie premiered in November, 2009, and Farmer went with his father to watch it when became available to theaters in Atlanta.

“I had no idea when my scene was going to be, but all of a sudden I hear my voice on the big screen and it’s just awesome,” he said. “My dad couldn’t get over it. He couldn’t believe it.”

You won’t find Farmer’s name in the credits as there’s just a word of thanks to all of the area high school football players who participated.

It’s been a lot harder to hide Farmer from the public eye as an athlete, however. A four-year starter at shortstop for Georgia, Farmer signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers after being drafted in the eighth round of 2013 MLB Amateur Draft.

The Dodgers immediately converted Farmer to catcher, and the transition has been a smooth one. Loons manager Bill Haselman, who played 13 seasons in the MLB, said that Farmer is farther along defensively than he was at the same stage of his career.

The position switch certainly hasn’t hurt his offense. Farmer hit .347 in 41 games with Rookie-level Ogden last summer, and he was hitting a team-high .310 with the Loons before being promoted to Rancho on June 20. He was the starting catcher for the Eastern Division team in the Midwest League All-Star game.

But if baseball doesn’t work out, Farmer could have a fallback plan, given his experience on the big screen.

“Who knows?” he said, smiling. “Maybe I could get into movies, or soap operas, or something.

”But I doubt it.”

- Bruce Gunther

The Loons so far: Young, talented, and restless on the basepaths

Even after over 40 games and four homestands, it’s hard to form definitive opinions about the 2014 version of the Great Lakes Loons.

Yes, we’re already well into May, but things really haven’t heated up – weather or baseball-wise. Especially the weather, as our loyal but bundled-up fans can attest.

Yet it’s time enough to have formed a few impressions of this year’s team, which started fast with a flurry of offense, hit a lull, then has battled to stay in contention for a first-half divisional playoff spot.

That said, here are a few observations:

The starting pitching is about potential and promise
With a youthful rotation that has, at times, included at least three 19-year-olds, we’re seeing some works in progress. That’s made for a few bumps in the road, but it has also demonstrated a serious upside.

Impeccable control: Loons starter Jonathan Martinez can nearly count on one hand the number of walks he's allowed this season.

Impeccable control: Loons starter Jonathan Martinez will give up a walk – just not very often.

Opening Day starter Jonathan Martinez has been a strike-throwing machine. The Venezuelan right-hander walked just six batters in his first 51 innings while also leading the team in strikeouts. Not a bad combination.

As one visiting scout put it, “All he (Martinez) does is throw strike one.”

Zachary Bird, another 19-year-old righty, has had his ups and downs, but he’s also demonstrated the ability to pitch out of serious trouble – or at the least, a propensity for damage control. Bird may work his way into messy situations, but’s been good about not letting them turn into full-blown disasters.

Best starting pitching performances, 1A and 1A
It’s hard to say which start was better – Martinez’s Opening Day shutdown of Fort Wayne, or Scott Barlow’s near perfect outing against Dayton on May 5.

Despite winter-like weather, Martinez got the season started with six shutout innings against Fort Wayne on April 3. He allowed just two hits, struck out 11 and – of course – walked none.

Barlow, a former 6th round pick of the Dodgers who underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012, made his first start for the Loons against Dayton, and breezed through five perfect innings. The Dragons’ led off the sixth with a single, but Barlow wrapped up his night by retiring the next three batters in order.

If all Martinez does is throw strikes, then all Joey Curletta does is get base hits
Curletta has acted like he’s been here before in his first season in the Midwest League. The rightfielder from Arizona has either led, or ranked among the leaders, in the MWL batting race all season.

Curletta hit .345 through his first 42 games while leading the league in hits.


He wasn’t kidding
Loons manager Bill Haselman emphasized from the start that he wanted his players to be aggressive on the basepaths, and that it was important for them to learn how to steal bases at this level of their development.

He’s meant what he said – and then some. The Loons stole a record number of bases in April and have led the MWL in that category virtually from the beginning.

Malcolm Holland led off the season by drawing a walk against Fort Wayne. He immediately stole second. The next night, the Loons stole four bases. The night after that, they stole four more. And on it went, until they set a franchise single-game record with eight steals against Fort Wayne on April 22.

The infielder turned catcher is the real deal
Kyle Farmer holds the University of Georgia record for games played as a shortstop. But pro scouts projected him as a catcher, and he hasn’t been seen in the infield since his college days.

Like most young catchers still learning the position, Farmer’s biggest challenge has been pitches in the dirt, but overall he’s been very good defensively. His arm certainly ranks among the strongest in the Midwest League.

“He’s farther along defensively than I was at the same level,” said Haselman, who played catcher in the major leagues for 13 seasons.

And, don’t forget, Farmer can hit. He’s ranked among the league leaders in RBI and batting average almost the entire season.

Brandon Trinkwon can pick it
Trinkwon was a slick-fielding second baseman at UC-Santa Barbara, but has been used all around the infield as a pro. He’s already made some highlight-reel defensive plays, none more impressive than his no-time-to-react diving stab of a rocket down the third base line against Bowling Green on May 17.

Trinkwon was playing in for a bunt, but Bowling Green’s Johnny Field swung away. Field’s ensuing laser shot should have been a run-scoring double, but Trinkwon turned it into a force out at second instead. Not bad for a guy who never played third base professionally until this season.

Likes His Yard
While Paul Hoenecke’s batting average has been higher on the road, it seems that no one has made more solid contact at Dow Diamond than he has. If nothing else, Hoenecke has had more loud outs – line drives directly to an outfielder, or to an outfielder who catches up with his drive on the warning track – than anyone.

But not everything he hits at home as been an out. His three home runs at Dow Diamond (through May 18) led the Loons.

They’re just kids, or are they?
Martinez and Josmar Cordero both wear braces and both have the (very) youthful appearance of someone who should be preparing for driver’s ed rather than a game of pro baseball.

Martinez’s impeccable control and poise are beyond his years, however, while Cordero came to town in May and delivered a hailstorm of line drives across the horizon.

As the song goes, the kids are alright. Indeed.

Loons skipper Haselman was part of history as Rocket Man’s catcher

Loons manager Bill Haselman caught a perfect game but can say it wasn’t the best pitching performance he was part of.

Haselman, after all, was behind the plate when Boston Red Sox pitcher Roger Clemens struck out 20 Detroit Tigers on Sept. 18, 1996. Clemens allowed five hits in a 4-0 win, but the way Haselman describes it, the Tigers really didn’t have a chance.

Loons manager Bill Haselman spent 13 seasons in the big leagues, primarily as a catcher.

Loons manager Bill Haselman spent 13 seasons in the big leagues, primarily as a catcher.

“He had it all going that night,” said Haselman. “He had a 96 mph fastball and a split finger that was just nasty. I mean, that thing came to the plate and just dropped. It was basically unhittable.”

Haselman caught a perfect game thrown by Bronson Arroyo of the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2003. Arroyo was so sharp that day that he only went to a 3-ball count three times. Haselman certainly doesn’t diminish Arroyo’s gem, but he still thinks Clemens’ masterpiece at Tiger Stadium seven years earlier was a cut above.

“Don’t get me wrong, (Arroyo’s perfect game) was special,” Haselman said. “But I think Clemens was more dominant even though he gave up some hits.”

The 20-strikeouts in nine innings tied Clemens’ own MLB record that he’d set 10 years earlier. It would be tied again by the Cubs’ Kerry Wood in 1998, as well as lefty Randy Johnson , who also struck out 20 in nine but in a game that went into extra innings.

Clemens had 19 K’s entering the ninth against the Tigers. He’d struck out at least two batters in every inning, and fanned the side twice. The game meant nothing in the standings – both teams were out of playoff contention – and only 8,779 fans were in attendance, but a dialed-in Clemens had plenty of incentive.

“It was an emotional time for him,” Haselman said. “He was a free agent and I think he knew that the Red Sox didn’t plan on bringing him back. He also knew that he was closing in on some records held by Cy Young.”

Clemens entered the game one win and one shutout shy of Young’s Red Sox records. He was also looking to throw his 100th complete game. The possibility of breaking his single-game strikeout game probably never crossed his mind, says Haselman.

“I don’t think he knew how many strikeouts he had,” Haselman said. “I didn’t know until after the eighth inning when someone told me he had 19. But I didn’t want to tell him and blow his focus.”

Haselman said he’s convinced the Tigers knew. The possibility of being involved in a record they wanted no part of affected their hitting approach in the ninth.

The Tigers Travis Fryman was Clemens' 20th strikeout victim.

The Tigers Travis Fryman was Clemens’ 20th strikeout victim.

“I’m pretty sure they knew. It sure seemed like it,” said Haselman. “They were just trying to put the bat on the ball.”

Detroit’s Alan Trammell led off the ninth by popping out to first base. Ruben Sierra followed with a single to center, and then Tony Clark flied out to left. That left it up to Travis Fryman, who’d already struck out three times. Clemens made it four with a split-finger – and 20 overall.

“When I went out to the mound he said, ‘I think we got it,’” Haselman said. “But he was talking about the shutout. So, I said, ‘Do you realize what you’ve done? You’ve struck out 20 batters.

“And he’s like, ‘I did?’”

Haselman, who caught 13 years in the majors, worked well enough with Clemens that he became the right-hander’s only catcher for the second half of the ’96 season.

“He was an intense guy, very well-prepared, and a very emotional type of person,” Haselman said. “He went after guys, I tell you. He was comfortable working with me and we really worked well together.”

He was also, said Haselman, the kind of guy you wanted on your side.

“He was an awesome teammate – one of the best I’ve ever had,” said Haselman. “With him, it was always ‘we.’ It was, ‘We did this.’

“After the 20-strikeout game he called me out to do an interview with him. That’s how he was.”

Haselman also did his part that night on offense. He went 3-for-4 and drove in two runs against a team he would join three years later.

“I did OK,” he said. “I always hit well in Tiger Stadium. It was one of my best ballparks to hit in.”

Clemens finished the ’96 season with a 10-13 record, 3.63 ERA and a league-high 257 strikeouts. He signed with Toronto after the season, and won 20 games in each of the next two years.

“He was probably the best I ever caught,” said Haselman. “Him and the Big Unit (Randy Johnson). Those guys were something else.”

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