Starting Today in a Town Near You; Early Fireworks in the Bronx;

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The game is the same.  9 innings, 3 outs, 4 balls, 3 strikes.  The parks are smaller, the towns are smaller. The travel is by bus rather than charted jet.  The word “hotel” is nearly nonexistent.  Motels mostly house these men and boys on the road.  In their home city many live with host families.  Some are too young to buy a drink, some are in their thirties still hoping for just a chance, just a “Cuppa coffee.”  The salaries are infinitely smaller.  But the dreams in their  hearts are the same. Making the major leagues.   In cities and towns from Portland to Palm Beach, New Hampshire to California, minor league baseball begins today.  Two teams have already played the season’s first game, with Myrtle Beach beating the Charleston RiverDogs 2-0 in a South Atlantic League game last night.  But mostly tonight is Opening Night.  In AAA there are the International League and the Pacific Coast League, playing in cities barely too small to host MLB teams.  The towns get smaller as you get to AA.  There are 3 AA leagues, the Eastern, Southern and Texas League.  In advanced A ball you have the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, the nondescript Carolina League  and the home run happy California League. Finally in low A ball you have the South Atlantic and the Midwest Leagues.  All these leagues begin in the next day or two and play a 140-game schedule.

One of today’s games has already been postponed-an International League AAA tilt between Lehigh Valley and Syracuse.  Presumably they can’t play there until the polar bears have been cleared from the stadium.  Today’s earliest game is a AA Eastern league 1 PM start between Richmond and Hartford.  The only problem is, Hartford’s Dunkin Donuts Park  isn’t ready, and won’t be for the foreseeable future.   today’s game will be played in Richmond, Virginia.  All Yard Goats’ games will be away until further notice, and this week’s awful weather has done nothing to aid the construction crews in cobbling together a usable stadium.  Unlike the days when I broadcast, many teams are starting at 6 and 6:30 PM to attempt to bring in crowds and be able to see their fans  home relatively early. This is true across different leagues and different time zones.

Until the early ’90s, many minor league teams thought nothing about profits or drawing crowds to their games. This fact was most glaring in the Florida State League, where ball parks that were full for spring training had as few as 150 people for a minor league game and the team was unconcerned.  But somewhere between the strikes of 1981 and 1994 at the MLB level, interest began to pick up in minor league games.  The prices were dirt cheap then and, while they’ve increased somewhat they are still far more affordable than major league games.  The new stadiums that have sprung up around the country are comfortable for the fans and there’s rarely a bad seat in the ball park.  Gone are eyesores like Winterhaven and Baseball City where literally nobody attended games.  Before the boom, most minor league teams used the nickname of their parent club. Not so now. Instead of the Albany Colony Yankees, the Yanks’ AA team became the Norwich Navigators and then the Trenton Thunder, where they remain in a little ball park not 10 miles from where I write these pieces. The Port Charlotte Rangers are now the Charlotte Stone Crabs. The Columbia Mets became the Cap City Bombers and are now the Columbia Fireflies.  One may only hope the FireFlies don’t play in the horrid stadium the Bombers played in. Nowadays the teams bearing their parent club’s name are the minority-the Binghamton Mets, the Iowa Cubs, etc. and in those two cases those names have been around as long as the team has occupied the town.  The large crop of new names showed that the teams which  usually had new ownership wanted to build their own identity for the team.  Many of the unusual names were contest winners, such as the Charleston RiverDogs and the Hartford Yard Goats.  Somehow if they were a Cubs’ team I think Yard Goats would have lost out, but the Goats are a Rockies’ farm club. They’ll really wind up with goat horns if they can’t get their park up and running.  I’ve been at half-finished parks in Trenton and Bowie, Maryland  and they’re no funs for fan, player or announcer alike. With the changes made in the last few decades, all you have to do is check your local newspaper or favorite search engine and find out the nearest game to where you live.  www.milb.com   is a good starting place to learn anything minor league you would want to know.

As for the big boys, the Bronx Bombers lived up to their old nickname last night by  destroying the Astros 16-6 at the new  Yankee Stadium. Last year’s 19-game winner Collin McHugh got exactly one out in a 6-run inning where a dozen Yankees strode to the plate.  With his team behind 6-1, George Springer launched the season’s first grand slam to make it 6-5 in the visiting second inning.  But a 3-run home run by Starlin Castro  and another in the third inning by Mark Teixeira put the game out of reach.  Michael Pineda survived an awful outing to get his first win, with Ivan Nova getting a 4-inning save. Pineda gave up two solo home runs to Carlos Correa as well as the Springer salami. With 7 rbis in 2 games Castro joins Babe Ruth, Yogi Berra and Tino Martinez as the only Yanks with 7 rbis in their first 2 games of a season.

The Dodgers and Pirates  have swept their opening series. Were I a betting man I wouldn’t have put a dime on either team doing so.   The Dodgers did it with their third straight shutout, a 7-0 whitewash of the San Diego Padres.  In 3 games the Dodgers put up 25 runs while the Padres put up none. Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda added insult to injury by hitting a home run on his second major league atbat. While not as eye-popping, the Pirates’ 3 wins all count and they came over the prohibitive favorite in their division, the Cardinals. Juan Nicasio was their winning pitcher giving but a run in 6 innings.

Here they go again in Washington.  Last year it was Denard Span, their leadoff hitter who got hurt early and lost most of the season on the DL.  Now it’s Ben Revere, leadoff hitter just acquired from the Blue Jays who’s on the DL with an oblique strain. Meantime the Mets have activated Hansel Robles.  As good as their starters are, they need every man in their bull pen and Robles is one of those who have been effective in the past.

Adrian Beltre is 37 today. He’s been around since 1998 when he joined the Dodgers and has compiled a .285 lifetime average. He’ll certainly make 2800 and just maybe 2900 hits by the end of this year if he’s healthy enough. He was a Dodger until 2004, then spent 5 years as a Mariner, one in Boston and has been a Ranger since 2011.  He’s been an All-Star 4 times, all since 2010. He led his league in hits as recently as 2013. He hit 5 home runs in the 2011 postseason where the Rangers lost the World Series to the Cardinals in 7.

Bill Stoneman is 72 today.  He was as successful a pitcher as the Expos had in their early years until Steve Rogers came along. The Cubs took him in the 31st round of the 1966 draft.  He had played college ball for the University of Idaho and had them a game away from the college World Series, only losing to Arizona in Tucson. He was a Cubs’ reliever until the Expos took him  in the expansion draft. Both of his no-hitters were as an Expo-once beating the Phillies, once the Mets. His one All-Star appearance was in 1972. As early as 1983 he entered the front office with the Expos and served as Angels’ general manager from 1999-2007, then as a consultant since then.

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