Saturday, September 29, 2018

Our Captain My Captain

It was late March 2004 (I don't know the exact date), at the Mets Spring Training ballpark in Port St. Lucie, Florida. It was late in a game (maybe the 7th inning). Art Howe had brought in minor league players to fill out the lineup late in the game because the regular major leaguers don't play all 9 innings of exhibition games. Back then, I wasn't really in tune to the pipeline of prospects in the Mets system, so I didn't really know who I was watching at that point in the game. I was there to root for the laundry and get some March sun, so it didn't matter to me anyway. And someone leaned over to me, pointed towards third base, and said that this kid is going to be the next third baseman for the New York Mets. Not knowing any better, and remembering the ongoing counting of third basemen in Mets history, I kind of laughed this guy off. And I couldn't have been less Wright with that reaction if I had tried.

That was 14 1/2 years ago. For Mets announcer Gary Cohen, that's half of his tenure calling games in Flushing. For me (who became a fan 2 years before Gary Cohen arrived in the Mets booth), that's slightly less than half of my time as a fan. In other words, that's basically an entire generation of Mets fans who have had David Wright in their respective Mets vocabularies. This is also the same new generation of fans that doesn't remember Bob Murphy calling Mets games (like I'm in the generation of fans that doesn't remember Lindsey Nelson calling games). Wright goes back to the end of the Mike Piazza-Al Leiter era. His time in New York dates back to the end of the Art Howe era. John Franco's last decision as a Met (a Loss) was this game, in which David Wright had his first hit.

And now the David Wright era informally comes to a close with his last appearances in the big leagues. He'll serve out the remainder of his guaranteed contract on the 60-Day DL and then officially retire at the end of the 2020 season.

There were definitely times over his career when I wasn't so high on him. Some unclutch hitting, and his throwing mechanics from third base always made me nervous. I can't tell you how many times he got bailed out by a good first baseman. I won't even bring up the one he should have simply put in his pocket on that warm November evening in 2015. But he always smiled. When he would sign autographs (and sometimes there were big crowds so it wasn't for very long or very often), he always gave you quality work. He was the constant (at least until his injuries). He became "The Captain". He was there when the Mets were building up in 2005 (he was definitely part of it) culminating in that Game 7 loss in the 2006 NLCS. He was also there for the "Fool me once" collapse in 2007 followed by the "Fool me twice" collapse in 2008. He was the star of the new ballpark in 2009 and the team fell back into the abyss. And he was still there, a shell of his former self, when the Mets built back up in 2015. He finally got to play in the World Series that year.

It took the Mets a while to catch on, but they should have moved on from him after 2015. That was when I thought he should have hung up his spikes (after that season), knowing his physical quality would never improve. He didn't. They weren't ready to move on and find a full-time third baseman. He tried to play and it didn't last very long. He tried to come back, and it didn't go well the first time. But he kept at it, working hard to improve his baseball physical quality and his general physical quality. And he made it back, even if only for a cameo appearance with the Mets in order to have a proper goodbye.

I have a lot of respect for an athlete who decides to push himself back from a career-ending injury just to be able to take a final bow, instead of simply disappearing in the end. Basically, don't retire from the disabled list. Retire from the field. To use a word that Gary Cohen used on Friday night's broadcast, this is "closure" for David Wright.

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Baseball Bingo

I coined the term "Baseball Bingo" last year (2017) as a way to describe seeing a game at every level of professional baseball. There are a few variants of it.

Mets Baseball Bingo (and 29 other variants)
Seeing every minor league affiliate of the Mets (some organizations have 5 teams, some have 6)

Minor League Baseball Bingo
Seeing any game from each of the 6 levels of affiliated Minor League Baseball (for which tickets are sold). Overall, there are 160 teams, with 30 at each of the first 4 levels (playing April through early September), and 40 more short season teams (mid-June through September), with every organization having at least one team between the two levels, and some having a team at each level.
  1. AAA, broken into 2 leagues across the country
  2. AA, broken into 3 leagues in the Northeast, Southeast, and greater Texas
  3. Class A Advanced (aka "High A" or "A+"), broken into 3 leagues in California, Florida, and the Southeast/Mid-Atlantic
  4. Class A (aka "Low A"), broken into 2 leagues in the Midwest and Southeast/Mid-Atlantic
  5. Class A Short Season, broken into 2 leagues in the Northeast and Northwest
  6. Rookie Advanced (Short Season), broken into 2 leagues in the Appalachian Mountains in TN, NC, VA and WV; and Big Sky/Rocky Mountain regions

Baseball Bingo
Spring Training, Major League Baseball, All 6 levels of Minor League Baseball, Independent baseball

MLB Ballpark Pass-port has a product useful in tracking one's travels. This product includes a fold-out map of the United States (and southern Canada) and marks the locations of all 160 affiliated minor league teams color coded by their classification. The Wikipedia pages for the respective leagues will show you the local map for those teams.

I bring this up because based on geography, these are very difficult feats to accomplish. No matter where you live, travel will need to be involved to accomplish any of these feats. Some of the time, these smaller leagues are in very hard-to-find towns.

And for the second straight season, I can say that it is in the plans for me to accomplish Baseball Bingo. My Minor League Baseball Ballpark Pass-port book will help validate it, something which I didn't think of last year. It's not something I go into the season looking to accomplish. Last year, it happened somewhat organically. This year, it's a bit more forced.

I travel around Spring Training every year. I wish I had bought one of these passport books when I started that in 2004 so I could get stamps from all across the Grapefruit League. Some of those ballparks are now abandoned, so a lot would be lost if I started now. I don't try to get them all in one season.

I see the Mets in New York several times a year. That's my local team (even though I pass Yankee Stadium on the way there).

I went to see the Somerset Patriots of the independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball one night after work looking to get a specific autograph.

A friend had organized a small group to see the Columbia Fireflies (Mets, Low A) play on the road in Lakewood, NJ. It was a bit of a hike, but still doable for an evening after work. Because of a rainout, the night became a doubleheader (of 7 inning games).

We also went into Brooklyn to see the Cyclones (Mets, Short Season A) for a specific promotion over a holiday weekend. That game was suspended by rain but I was still there. Technically, Staten Island (Yankees, Short Season A) is closer. The Hudson Valley team (Rays, Short Season A) is within reason too, given the other local travel.

I had a planned weekend getaway in Binghamton (Mets, AA) that I've done each of the past couple summers. Trenton (Yankees, AA) is a bit closer, but the schedule didn't work out for me to see Binghamton there until the playoffs, after I had already called "BINGO".

I had a road trip planned to see family in Virginia Beach and started looking at other destinations. Misreading a map, I thought, why not Kingsport, TN to see the most obscure Mets farm club and thought it was too far. Then, on a whim, I asked, where are the Las Vegas 51s (Mets, AAA) playing, not really thinking they'd come that far east. They were in Nashville, and Kingsport could be a stop on the way home. The scheduling gods were working with me. With some non-baseball stops included, it was destination: Nashville (Oakland, AAA) to see the 51s and then Kingsport, TN (Mets, Rookie) before heading home. I passed a few other towns that have minor league ball but didn't think to fit in a game.

After that, I realized I'd see every Mets affiliate except for the St Lucie Mets (High A) in Florida. I found an equivalent team 2 hours away from home in Wilmington, DE (Kansas City, High A).

And that got me Baseball Bingo.

2018 has some different stops planned. A different road trip to Raleigh to see family. Different stops to and from. And the plan became to get Baseball Bingo again once I saw that I was close enough to the Appalachian League to start looking at maps and schedules.

Spring Training again. Already a few games at Citi Field.

The minor league adventure started in Trenton (Yankees, AA) last night to see Binghamton (Mets, AA). A return engagement in Binghamton is in the works. So are Brooklyn and Lakewood (when the Fireflies visit). AAA will be different (and still not seeing any of the nearby teams in Pennsylvania) and so will High A and Rookie ball. Seeing the Columbia Fireflies at home is the big stop on the road trip. There are also other independent teams near home and a Mets trip planned for California.

Some of these local games don't need to be done every year (but it's still fun). It's usually not worth the travel to see two teams that I don't know unless getting Bingo is in mind. All of it can be done within 2 hours except for Spring Training (never a problem going there) and Rookie ball. But once a Rookie league is within the cross-hairs (and it's just too obscure to be a destination on its own), the others come into focus quickly.

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