October 2011

Baseball Hipster Heaven: The Arizona Fall League

By: Noah Frank

There is a great joke about hipsters that a friend of mine told me several years ago, back when I lived in the Bay Area.

First, the setup: “How many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

The answer? “Some obscure number, you’ve probably never heard of it.”

After the punch line, the follow-up: “If you like that joke, I’ve got a copy of it on vinyl.”

The joke is funny because it plays on hipsters’ disregard of, and disgust for, all things mainstream, their self-righteous contempt clutched to as a badge of honor to leverage themselves above the masses as connoisseurs of culture. In the last few seasons, the Arizona Fall League has taken on a life of its own, becoming the underground lounge full of up-and-coming prospects, the den where baseball hipsters, like Keith Law, sit and scout, then take to Twitter to tell the American masses about the players they will be worshiping in a few years.

The parallel between the music hipsters and the baseball hipsters didn’t fully hit me until I saw a tweet from Law pop up in the middle of a playoff game, only to be bewildered to find that it had nothing to do with this game, but rather some prospect in the AFL game he was attending that day. This is not to make any judgments of right or wrong, just to point out that clearly, at this moment, a hipster culture had been created in baseball; one in which the possible, projected future was more important than the actual, present postseason.

Ken Joyce (right) with Brock Bond and River Cats infielder Chris Carter in 2010. (Don Davis)

Needless to say, with this newfound emphasis being put on the yearly exhibition of prospects, the public’s desire for more information has grown accordingly. A strong performance in the AFL doesn’t win you a World Series, but it might put you on the cover of Baseball America, and motivate your team’s fan base to clamor for you to replace an underperforming veteran. Here at Yard Work, we wrote a couple of pieces last year showcasing the various Giants prospects coming up the ranks who we might see in Fresno, including the likes of Brandon Belt and Conor Gillaspie. We also had several offseason conversations with Jonathan Mayo— the MLB.com writer assigned to cover the minor leagues and the draft— to gain a better perspective on these prospects and on how well we could project their stellar performances in the Fall League towards future success.

This year I found, to my delight, that 2010 Grizzlies hitting coach Ken Joyce was serving as the hitting coach for the Scottsdale Scorpions, the AFL squad for which the Giants prospects play. Recent top draft picks Gary Brown and Joe Panik are joined by the likes of 2011 Grizzly and Giant Brandon Crawford on that Scottsdale squad. And because of the collective structure of the AFL, in which each team is comprised of prospects from five different organizations, they all wear the same uniform as uber prospects Bryce Harper (Nationals) and Mike Trout (Angels). I caught up with Joyce the other day to get his thoughts on all of the above.

Yard Work: Brandon Crawford is an interesting case as a guy with Major League time playing in the AFL. Is this the first time he’s played for you, and what have you been working on so far?

Ken Joyce: I’ve actually seen him before, since I had him in the instructional league last year. The biggest thing is we’ve simplified everything. A couple years ago in Double-A he was swinging the bat very well, but he got a little too technical, was trying to do too much. So we just focused on getting him in a good rhythm. He has been on fire, swinging very well against both righties and lefties. Plus, he’s kind of taken on a leadership role for these younger guys.

Brandon Crawford is known for his glove, but his bat has heated up in the AFL. (Don Davis)

YW: You also are getting an up close look at Joe Panik and Gary Brown. What are your first impressions of them?

KJ: I’m very impressed with Panik. He’s a very mature young man, a little ahead of his time. Just talking to some people in the [Giants] organization, he reminds a lot of people of [Buster] Posey in his demeanor. Now it’s just a matter of adjusting to each level as he moves along. The fact that he’s [in the AFL] shows that they think very highly of him. He hit his first home run for us today. Overall his performance hasn’t shown up in the numbers, but he’s exhausted. He’s been going pretty much for a full year straight, so it’s probably the most baseball he’s ever played in his life.

As for Gary Brown, I saw him a bit in Spring Training, but this is my first time really working with him. I think he’s fatigued a bit, too, it’s been a long year. The key for him is not getting caught up in the results. Two years ago Posey hit about .220 in this league and was in the Majors the next year. In my opinion, that is actually good for you— we’d rather have you fail here than in the big leagues. Browny’s got a very good attitude about it, he’s just been pressing a little bit mentally. But defensively, he’s as good as anybody here.

YW: What have you seen out of Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, arguably the top two prospects in the game?

KJ: They are both very talented individuals, I mean their raw talent is off the charts. I think they’re dealing with some of the same issues as Browny, that it’s just been a long year for them. They’ve been better lately, though.

YW: Does it take some of the pressure off of the Giants prospects to know that guys like Harper and Trout are more in the spotlight?

KJ: It takes a little bit of pressure off our guys, but at the same time, it means more people are coming to see them play every day.

YW: Have any other guys stood out to you that maybe the general baseball public is unaware of at this point? Is there anyone to keep an eye on the next couple of years?

KJ: I’ve been real impressed with two of our catchers. Derek Norris (Nationals) has been swinging the bat real well. We saw him in Harrisburg this year where he put up some power numbers in Double-A, but the average was low. He’s made some good adjustments since then. Dan Butler (Red Sox) has also been impressive.

YW: Any other Giants prospects to look out for?

KJ: The pitchers have done a good job, Austin Fleet especially. He’s got two wins, and has given up only one run so far. Stephen Harrold has closed out a couple games for us, too. The young kids have very good arms and have done a nice job, even getting themselves out of pressure situations.

YW: Do you have other impressions from the AFL to share with the folks back at home?

KJ: It’s just a great opportunity for these guys to develop. After all, if you can’t play in front of the rovers, the farm directors, the general managers, how are you going to play in front of 40-50,000 people? As for me, I’m loving it down here. It’s been good times, working with a good staff. It’s been good to see the rovers that we see throughout the year come through.

If You’re Going To San Francisco

By: Noah Frank

When Justin Christian signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants last offseason, he didn’t expect an assignment back to the Double-A Eastern League, with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That’s exactly where the 31-year-old found himself on Opening Day, though, surrounded by teammates and opponents in their mid-20s, a place he was in when he first came up through the New York Yankees farm system five years prior.

Christian was an up-and-coming 26-year-old when he opened the 2006 season on the roster of the Trenton Thunder, the Eastern League team affiliated with the Yankees. He made it to the majors in June of 2008, but lasted just 24 games before being sent back to Triple-A. The Yankees non-tendered him in 2009, and he spent a shortened season in the Orioles chain after recovering from shoulder surgery. He began 2010 in Indy ball before the Yankees signed him once again, but he was relegated to a season split between Double-A and Triple-A again. Needing a change of scenery, Christian signed as a free agent with the Giants, his hometown team that he grew up rooting for in San Mateo. And yet, here he was to begin 2011, back on the east coast, two big steps removed from getting back to the promised land.

“Having to start in Double-A was tough for me,” Christian admitted. “I looked it as an opportunity to help the young guys over there and to get at-bats in and to perform and be ready to be up here.”

Christian kept his head down and his numbers up in Fresno. (Don Davis)

To keep himself focused, Christian decided on a walk-up song that would remind him of his ultimate goal, a return to the Major Leagues. That song was the “San Francisco Anthem” by San Quinn, a hip-hop track that samples Scott McKenzie’s seminal ‘60s hit “San Francisco”. Those at the Diamond in Richmond, as well as those who attended a game at Chukchansi Park following Christian’s promotion Fresno, may well remember it echoing from the sound system as he stepped to the plate.

“You always want to have those constant, daily reminders of where you want to be,” he explained. “I think if you see it every day, you hear it everyday and you believe it, that you will get there.”

Nevertheless, the dream still seemed distant, even after the move to Triple-A. Christian had hit a modest .256/.328/.359 with four home runs, 18 stolen bases and 46 runs scored in 73 games for the Flying Squirrels, and had only really gotten the opportunity to play in Fresno after Darren Ford and Tyler Graham collided going after a ball in right-center field at Kino Stadium in Tucson. The former had tweaked his wrist on the play, leading to the decision to move Christian up.

So much of baseball, though, as players and longtime fans of the game will tell you, is what you do when opportunity comes your way. Christian took full advantage of his opportunity, homering twice and swiping five steals through his first four games as a Grizzly. He would go on to finish his 64-game Triple-A stint at .338/.428/.574 with 10 homers and 36 steals in just 39 attempts. When the Giants decided to part ways with Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, summoning Brett Pill from Fresno, there was one more spot open on the 40-man roster. As much as a player can’t let himself be concerned with such administrative details as he goes about trying to succeed on the field each day, there is no avoiding it.

“Personally, I’m never too much aware of that part of the game because I’m too focused on playing well every single day,” said Christian. “But, you know, I have an agent, and a girlfriend that knows more about that kind of stuff than I do.”

Moments before one of Christian's spectacular catches this season. (AP)

As it turned out, Christian did not need to avoid the chatter from either agent or girlfriend. He would end up filling that final 40-man spot on September 6th, seven months to the day after signing with San Francisco.

“There were a couple of other guys who were deserving as well and they chose me,” he said in an early September interview in the home clubhouse at AT&T Park. “That means a lot to me. I always believed, deep down, that I could get back here.”

Not only did Christian get the call-up he has been waiting for, ever since recovering from that shoulder surgery, he found himself consistently in the starting lineup, batting leadoff. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I’ve always expected to play, that’s just my mindset,” he said. “When the Yankees called me up back in June of ’08, even though I flew all day that day, I expected to play, and sure enough I was in the lineup. I always to expect to play, so that I’m not surprised. It’s too hard to do it the other way.”

With his speed and decent pop in his bat, as well as a propensity for highlight-reel catches like this, and this, Christian will be an intriguing piece of the puzzle as the Giants decide the future of their outfield.

10-For-10: Rich Palmer & Claudia Loyear

By: Noah Frank

Ed. Note: The 10-for-10 series is a chance for us at the Grizzlies to celebrate 10 years in Downtown Fresno by thanking 10 of our great fans. If you know a deserving fan who has helped support Grizzlies baseball that you would like to nominate, simply email us at grizzliesmedia@fresnogrizzlies.com.

The word unique is one of the most overused in our society. We often call something unique when we really mean unusual, rare, or just different. The word should really only be used in its proper context, when we are talking about something, or someone, that is in fact one of a kind. That being said, Rich Palmer truly is a unique Grizzlies fan.

So what makes Rich so different? Well, let’s start with the obvious.

“I don’t live in Fresno,” says the Mountain View resident, making him the only Grizzlies season ticket holder whose primary residence is outside the Central Valley. “When I first came to see the Grizzlies in 1998 on the final weekend of the season, I caught the Saturday night game, and I really liked it. I came back the following year and I saw probably two or three games. Then in 2000, I saw maybe a half a dozen games, and then in 2001 I bought season tickets.”

Palmer has had them ever since. He even considered purchasing an ownership stake in the team a few years ago, but ultimately decided that he preferred his vantage point as a fan. As such, he has built relationships with many in the front office, and often sits in the press box during games.

The question, though, that no doubt comes up in the mind of anyone who is both a Giants and Grizzlies fan (of which Rich is both), is why he would choose to travel over 150 miles and nearly three hours to see Minor League Baseball, when he could be at AT&T Park in under an hour. In the answer to that question, one finds the many things that showcase minor league ball for the special property that it is.

Mr. and Mrs. Rich Palmer at their wedding reception last weekend.

“I really like Minor League Baseball because I can get really close to the game,” says Palmer. “My seats are up close and I get to know a lot of people who turn out for the game, season ticket holders, real baseball fans who like to discuss the game.”

As any veteran of games in the bay area— especially those at Candlestick Park— are aware, there is a significant weather advantage to the evenings in Fresno as well.

“The other thing I like about it, over San Francisco, is that it’s warm. I can come out in a t-shirt and I can really enjoy a beer.”

And while Major League teams are increasingly mimicking the minor league model, stuffing their downtime between innings with other entertainment, the level of fan involvement in the friendly confines of the smaller ballparks remains more tangible and personable to Palmer.

“There’s something kind of attractive in a homey sort of way, in the entertainment between innings that you get to see,” he says. “Some of it is really innovative and pretty engaging.”

Of course, the difference in ticket prices doesn’t hurt either.

“I had very good seats with the Giants,” explains Palmer. “But they cost me about six times what my season tickets with the Grizzlies cost me.”

While Rich has been invested in the team for a decade, he became much more heavily tied to both the Grizzlies and Fresno last year. That’s when he met Claudia Loyear, a longtime Fresnan who teaches and runs an interior design business here in town. But even though she had lived here her whole life, Claudia had never been to a Grizzlies game until Friday, April 16th, 2010. If you’re going to be introduced to baseball, Opening Day is not a bad way to go.

“We had probably been dating about four or five months,” Rich says about the time leading up to their first baseball date. “She knew that I was going to Opening Night, that I was a baseball guy, and that she would have to make a decision about whether or not to come with me.”

Needless to say, it would not be the last time she came to the park. The Grizzlies did their part to make her first game a memorable one, erasing a 1-0 deficit with a run in the eighth and another in the ninth to walk off with a 2-1 win in front of a capacity crowd. But there was much more to the game that had Claudia coming back for more.

“She’s discovered life-long friends of hers that have seats in the section over, or the section after that,” says Rich. “So it’s very easy for her to come to the ballpark and to socialize.”

And, well, there’s a bear too.

Parker puts his stamp of approval on the weekend's festivities.

“I’m not quite certain about why it is,” posits Rich, smiling. “But there is a small Parker shrine (at her house), with pictures of her and Parker.”

Claudia has become one of Parker’s biggest fans, ever since he dropped by the couples’ seats during her first game. Some (read: Rich) might even call it a bit of an obsession.

But Claudia’s appreciation of the game extends beyond just her friends and the bear. She has found a game that she loves right here in her own backyard. Having grown up on the much faster-paced sport of basketball, she enjoys the pedestrian meter that baseball provides. It has also allowed her to enjoy her summers with the man she loves, and to whom she is now married.

Rich and Claudia tied the knot over the weekend, in a private ceremony here in Fresno. Friends and family were treated to a beautiful reception at an estate on North Van Ness Avenue. After the speeches were finished and the wedding cake fed to one another the couple stepped out for the first dance of the evening. And what do you suppose the first song was? Why yes, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, at the bride’s request. Even the cupcakes given to guests were designed like baseballs, white frosting with red laces and an orange and black “P”, for Palmer, in the middle.

But the weekend’s festivities would not have been complete without a visit from that mischievous bear.

“I did caution him at the Hot Stove Dinner,” Palmer jokes. “If I found any yellow, polyester hair anywhere in the house that he was going to be a bear-skin rug.”

Nevertheless, Parker couldn’t help but show up for brunch at Claudia’s house the morning after the wedding. Always the show-stealer, he posed for pictures with the newlyweds, even posing to ordain the couple in front of the baseball gods.

Now that it’s official, we can’t wait to host Mr. and Mrs. Palmer for their first game as husband and wife on Opening Day, 2012.

From Throwdown To Showdown

By: Noah Frank

Great, cheap, local food on dollar beer night. When the Grizzlies and Fresno “Blogfather” Mike Oz came together to hatch the idea for the inaugural Taco Truck Throwdown, the idea seemed like such a no-brainer that it was hard to imagine that nobody had done anything like it before in a venue like the ballpark. A celebration of local food and culture, it was a chance for Central Valley residents to come together to support their favorite roadside eatery, try some new ones on for size, and cast their vote. While the concept seemed like it would resonate with local residents, it is safe to say that none of us had any idea it would be as popular as it turned out.

The left field concourse was buzzing all game long for the inaugural Taco Truck Throwdown (fresnotacos.com)

Now the Taco Truck Throwdown has been nominated in the “Miscellaneous” category along with nine other promotions for Minor League Baseball Promotion of the Year! If the Throwdown wins this round of voting, it will go on to become a finalist for overall MiLB Promo of the Year, so we need your help. Vote up to 25 times here between now and October 13th and help the Grizzlies, the City of Fresno, and the Central Valley get recognized for this great event.

In case you missed out, here’s a little background on how the Throwdown went down. After an extensive search of the Valley, seven local trucks from Fresno, Fowler, Madera and Sanger were invited to Chukchansi Park to take place in the competition, which took place on the final Thirsty Thursday of the season. The buzz surrounding the event picked up as it got closer, generating stories throughout the Fresno media. The local ABC, NBC and FOX affiliates, as well as local radio and a whole smattering of local blogs previewed the event. With the news out on the Throwdown, a stunning crowd of 10,287 swarmed the concourse from the moment gates opened to the general public at 6:05, all the way until 20 minutes after the game had ended.

For more of the details on the trucks involved and the insane number of tacos sold that night, check out fresnotacos.com, the website created to provide more information about the event. You can also find the winners of the voting, as well as a fantastic photo album from the event.

Thanks again to our great fans for helping make the inaugural Taco Truck Throwdown such a success! We’re looking forward to hosting more events like this at the ballpark in 2012. Vote now!

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