Last month the all stars from two Class-A leagues clashed at the Lake Elsinore Diamond to display their talents and bring victory to their league. My wife and I left work early and drove the hour or so up I-15 to the check out the game.
We parked in a dirt lot (overflow parking for the big crowd) adjacent to the stadium, and as we made our way into the state-of-the-art facility, the home run hitting contest was just getting underway. After the obligatory stop at the gift shop to pick up a Lake Elsinore Storm cap, we stood in the concourse and watched Chin-Feng Chen, of the San Bernardino Stampede (Dodgers), knock a ball out of the park. Visalia Oaks (Athletics) first baseman Todd Mensik ended up winning the contest.
We bought hot dogs and a soda, and made our way to our seats, about five or six rows back of the third base dugout. The atmosphere was festive — more like a parade than a ballgame, with all the players from both squads getting together and talking with one another and with the fans. Lots of autographs and smiles.
During the pregame introductions, when players were announced they’d emerge from the dugout and throw a commemorative cloth baseball into the crowd. I almost caught one but some guy came over my back and snatched it out of my hands. He was a season ticket holder, and what the heck was I going to do with a cloth baseball, anyway?
After the teams were introduced, The Cowsills, a pop group from the 1960s and 70s, came out to sing the National Anthem. What was interesting about this is that Brendan Cowsill, who pitches for the Storm, joined his family at the microphone. Usually I have pretty low expectations for singers of the National Anthem — I’m happy when they doesn’t completely botch it or do that horrible diva thing — but these guys were outstanding.
Next came the honorary first pitch, which according to the game program was to be thrown by three legends of Southern California baseball, former Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, former USC coach Rod Deadeaux, and former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. As it turned out, only Garvey and Deadeaux made it, with the latter lobbing the ball 20 feet or so to the former, who relayed it to the catcher. I later noticed that Lasorda was the featured speaker at the All-Star luncheon earlier that afternoon, so maybe he’d eaten too much pasta. Or maybe he was on the horn with Kevin Malone, trying to convince him to deal Adrian Beltre to the Rockies for Dave Wainhouse and some Rocky Mountain oysters. Whatever the reason, Lasorda was a no-show.
As for the game, it was won, 10 to 6, by the visiting Carolina League. Both teams featured a mix of prospects and minor league veterans who were taking out years of frustration on younger players, hoping for one last shot at glory or whatever else life might hold for them.
Of the prospects (two whom I’d hoped to see, White Sox righthander Kip Wells and Royals outfielder Dee Brown, were promoted just prior to the game), more than a few caught my eye. Of course, it’s impossible to get a good read on someone after seeing him only once, but here are my impressions of several promising young players I saw.
Among pitchers, Rancho Cucamonga’s (Padres) Wascar Serrano and Wilmington’s (Royals) Jeff Austin, a couple of righthanders, were the most impressive in terms of pure stuff. Both hit 94 MPH on the gun with regularity and spotted the ball well. Austin, Kansas City’s first round pick in the 1998 first-year player draft, is by far the more polished of the two, as he is able to change speeds fairly effectively. Others worth mentioning are Modesto’s (Athletics) righthander Jim Brink and southpaw Chris George, of Wilmington. Brink and George were both selected in the 1998 draft, the former being taken in the ninth round and the latter in the first. George, just 19 years old, hit 92 on the gun and showed a nice assortment of pitches, though he had trouble locating them this night and was touched for 3 runs on 3 hits in his only inning of work. Lefty Randey Dorame and righty Marcos Castillo, both having outstanding seasons at San Bernardino, didn’t show much in terms of velocity but both are only 20 years old and have had good results at a young age, in a tough league for pitchers, so they’re worth keeping an eye on. If they can add a 3-5 MPH to their fastballs and successfully negotiate the jump to Double-A, they might show up in LA one of these years.
Behind the plate, both prospects played for the Carolina League squad: Frederick’s (Orioles) Jayson Werth and Lynchburg’s (Pirates) Yamid Haad. Both have since been promoted to Double-A, with Haad even jumping up to the big club for a few games after Jason Kendall’s horrific injury while the Bucs figured out what to do with their catching situation. Werth, as you may know, is the son of former big league backstop Dennis Werth. The younger Werth is a tall, rangy kid who looks like a terrific athlete but somewhat miscast as a catcher. It looked like he was swinging a lot with his arms in this game, sort of like Dan Wilson in his days with the Reds. But he does run well, and if he adds 15-20 pounds to his frame, he could develop power. Just based on what I’ve heard and seen of him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him move out from behind the dish, a la Dale Murphy, and become a star at a less demanding position. Haad, from Colombia, replaced the more heralded Werth in the 7th inning and singled in his two at bats, once to right and once to left. The right-handed hitter is built like a fireplug and has a slashing line drive swing that should generate tons of doubles and, if he alters the angle of his swing a bit, eventually 15-20 homer power. I hadn’t heard much about him prior to the game, but he sure looks like he knows what he’s doing at the plate.
On the infield, Lynchburg’s sweet-swinging first baseman Eddy Furniss showed a decent eye but little else. He’s also a bit old (23) for the league. San Diegan sensation Marcus Giles, of Myrtle Beach (Braves), also showed good patience and a short stroke. Given his size and his hitting approach, I find his 37 homers of last year more than a little mystifying. But clearly the guy can hit, and he didn’t embarrass himself at second base by any stretch. On the California League side, High Desert (Diamondbacks) second baseman Belvani Martinez displayed a nice stroke. He’s hitting well this year and he’s very fast but his plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired. Still, he’s young (20) and he’s big (5’11″, 172 lbs.) for a middle infielder, so he bears watching.
In the outfield, the Carolina League featured three youngsters who could make it to the Show. Lynchburg center fielder Kory DeHaan, a 1997 draftee, has a slashing swing with gaps power and good speed. On defense, he was getting good jumps and covering a lot of ground. DeHaan is a lefty swinger, with a lean body and an aggressive approach. He reminds me a bit of a young Andy VanSlyke. Salem’s (Rockies) Jody Gerut (pronounced “Garrett”) has a compact stroke and looks like he has a plan at the plate. Strangely enough, the Rockies haven’t produced many homegrown hitters of note. Their second round pick of a year ago could help change that. Luis Matos, then of Frederick, showed a good line drive stroke and speed to burn. He singled twice, turning one of them into a double with pure hustle, and also had two stolen bases in the game, including one of third. The young Puerto Rican possesses an exciting set of skills, including some power. He could stand to walk more for a top-of-the-order-type hitter, but otherwise he looks quite promising, in a Devon White sort of way.
Among California Leaguers, Lake Elsinore’s (Angels) Darren Blakely, the aforementioned Chen, and Bakersfield’s (Giants) Doug Clark looked like they might have futures. Blakely, a switch-hitting center fielder drafted in the fifth round last year out of the University of Hawaii, can absolutely fly. I actually saw him play in college and I don’t remember much about him except that any time he reached first base and there was nobody ahead of him on the bases, it wasn’t long before he was on second base. He’s a good bunter and he’s big enough (6’0″, 190 lbs.) to hit the ball with some authority. Like Matos, Blakely reminds me of Devon White, not in terms of body type — Blakely looks like a football player — but in terms of playing style. As for Chen, he was probably the single most impressive hitter in this game. He walked his only two times up, but he showed a very quick bat and in the home run contest he flexed his muscles a bit. Chen also runs very well and aggressively; he stole second after one of his walks, before being thrown out attempting to steal third. Clark had an outstanding game this night, singling, walking twice (once intentionally), and hitting an absolute bomb some 430 feet to dead center field. Like Furniss, Clark is a lefty with a sweet swing, and like Furniss he is 23. The Giants’ seventh round pick in the 1998 draft will need to advance quickly to have a shot. The way he’s playing right now, he might do just that.
Well, this article has gone on a lot longer than I’d intended it to. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Before I go, I’ll leave you with the names of a few more players who made a positive impression on me at the All-Star Game but not enough to ramble on at length about them: Rick Guttormson, RHP, Rancho Cucamonga; Mike Gonzalez, LHP, Lynchburg; and Josh Kalinowski, LHP, Salem. Keep an eye out for them.
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you at the game!