Minor League memories and six degrees of a left-handed reliever.
Random thoughts during a two-hour flight and one-hour layover in Houston on the way to Lancaster (coming soon: feature story on first base prospect Telvin Nash)…
Every time I go on one of these minor league tours, it takes me back to the old days, 15 years ago, when I worked for the Double-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians. This was 1996, the last year the team played in Canton before it moved up to the new ballpark in Akron.
As anyone who has worked for a Minor League team knows, you can usually land a nice fancy title when you’re hired, but your actual responsibilities don’t even come close to syncing with what’s on your business card.
I was, by my best recollection, the Canton-Akron Indians’ Director of Advertising and Publications. I was also a beer pourer, hot dog distributor, stadium cleaner, Dizzy Bat Race coordinator, and — most visibly in my mind all of these years later — tarp puller.
For those not familiar with Northeastern Ohio, in the spring, it rains. A lot. Some years, every day. In the big leagues, the grounds crew pulls the tarp. In the minors, “tarp crew” and “front office staff” are synonymous.
Tarp pulling had two shifts. The easy shift, obviously, was the one that occurred while we were at work. The rain would start, someone would yell out, “TARP!” and everyone would bolt out of the offices. If it started raining during a game, everyone would simply drop what he or she was doing, pull on the tarp clothes — warmup pants, a pullover jacket and team-issued really dorky gym shoes — and head to the field.
The other shift was not so well-received. It began loosely at 6 a.m., because the tarp has to come off the field before the sun comes up, or the grass below it will burn. That was the really fun part — working until midnight on a game day and heading back to the field at six to remove the tarp.
The Canton-Akron Indians had a ton of prospects on that team in 1996. I think 11 eventually made it to the big leagues, an abnormal amount when considering only around four percent of all Minor Leaguers ever reach the Majors. A couple of those Tribe prospects ended up pitching in the NL Central division as relievers in the years following, including two lefties, Mike Matthews and Steve Kline.
When I’d see them during batting practice at the Astros’ ballpark, we’d say hello, chat a bit, and, inevitably, the tarp situation would come up in conversation. Both had vivid memories of sitting in the dugout during rain delays at old Thurman Munson Stadium, laughing at the “tarp crew” — and by “tarp crew,” I mean, one very unhappy Director of Advertising and Publications who had more bad hair days in a single Minor League season than the past 14 years combined.
Kline stuck around the big leagues for more than a decade, pitching for the Indians, Expos, Cardinals, Orioles and Giants. He’s one of those unique characters who loved people, loved talking with people and never, ever forgot a face. He retired from pitching three years ago. Yesterday, as I was walking from the parking lot into the Lexington Legends ballpark, who’s standing there, but Steve Kline. He’s the pitching coach of the Augusta GreenJackets, who were in town playing the Legends.
In baseball, if you stick around long enough, it’s not six degrees of separation — it’s more like one or two.
(Sadly, this time, Kline didn’t mention the tarp.)
Visiting Minor League affiliates reminds me a lot of being at Spring Training — the small ballparks, the quietness that blankets the field as the team begins its warmups, the simplicity of the whole operation. Working in the Major Leagues is fantastic, don’t get me wrong, but there’s never a quiet moment from the time you arrive to the ballpark to the time you leave. Going to a Minor League ballpark is a wonderful diversion during a long (and, as the case this year, somewhat excruciating) season.
Interviewing Legends players and coaches near the dugout while making sure not to be hit by wide throws while the players warmed up sparked another Spring Training memory, from many moons ago. I remember sitting on a bench, directly behind a dozen or so Astros as they played catch before the daily practice began. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought that was a good, or safe, idea. Fortunately, then-manager Jimy Williams had my back (and my front) as he let me know, in his own special way, that my location was perhaps ill-advised.
He walked over, took out his front teeth and held them up in the air.
“Footsie,” he said. “You think maybe you should move?”
Images from a fun two-day visit with the Lexington Legends:
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