November 2011

A Walk In The Park

By: Noah Frank

When you are fortunate enough to work in baseball, you can, from time to time, forget the advantages your job affords you. In the offseason, when there are no games being played, you work a fairly standard 9-5 day, joining the rest of the population on the morning and evening commutes. But if you are lucky enough to have your offices built into the ballpark, and built into as beautiful a ballpark as we have here in Downtown Fresno, there is a constant reminder, right outside the window.

This week, that which all Grizzlies fans already know about our baseball home was revealed to a nationwide audience. Baseball America, the preeminent publication in our sport, chose Chukchansi Park to grace the cover of its 2012 Great Parks Calendar, which will hang in offices and homes from Spokane to Jupiter, from Portland (not Oregon anymore, just Maine) to Orem. It is a special honor for a city like Fresno, one that is not always associated with aesthetic beauty by those who do not live here.

In order to get a feel for the weight of such an honor, I caught up with a couple of people who know Downtown Fresno as well as anyone. Craig Scharton was born and raised in Fresno, and has moved his life Downtown, first living in the Security Bank building before purchasing his current house. This is only fitting, as he spends his days in the city offices as the Director of Downtown and Community Revitalization. There are few people in our town more committed to the success of Downtown than Scharton, who currently has a 20-game package for The CRU Club, and whose family has owned some form of ticket plan since the team’s move to its Downtown home in 2002.

A shot of Chukchansi Park from the Fresno sky. (Fresno Grizzlies)

“It’s obviously an incredible facility,” said Scharton of the ballpark. “And if we forget, we’re always reminded when we take visitors around how beautiful it is.”

Sometimes it takes an outsider’s view to make us aware again of what a great facility we have here. Another one of Downtown’s biggest champions, Travis Sheridan, relayed such a perspective.

“I’ve had visitors in all last year, coming anywhere from St. Louis to Australia,” he recalled. “They have all been so impressed with the ballpark. That’s when you know without a shadow of a doubt that this is a top notch ballpark.”

Scharton also recalled his experiences hearing from those who live outside of Fresno about how Chukchansi Park compares in the national landscape.

“We consistently hear from players and visitors that it’s the nicest ballpark in Triple-A” Scharton commented. That’s saying a lot, considering that six other parks have been built since 2000 in the Pacific Coast League alone.

The ballpark has also become the focal point of the Downtown entertainment experience. Sheridan was living in the Tower District when he first attended a game, back in 2004. Despite being a big baseball fan, he did not begin attending regularly until he became more involved in the future of Downtown four years ago as the Director of Marketing and Communications for the Central Valley Business Incubator.

“For me, it was a two-pronged approach,” Sheridan explained. “The more I got involved, the more I started patronizing the Downtown area, and the ballpark is the crown jewel of Downtown. As a baseball fan, I realized I was missing out.”

Sheridan (left) with Billy Crystal in the tunnel behind the Grizzlies dugout. (Don Davis)

Sheridan moved Downtown a year ago and took a much bigger leap in his connection to the Grizzlies this season, when he became the on-field host for 67 of the team’s 72 home games.

“Nothing beats an afternoon at the ballpark,” said Sheridan, who would certainly know. “Walking from my place (at Broadway Lofts) to the ballpark, it’s a great way to experience Downtown. It makes for a great overall urban experience.”

Adding to that experience, at least over the last couple of seasons, was the chance to see past or future World Champions playing right here in Fresno.

“One of the things I thought was great last year was carrying the momentum forward from the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series,” said Sheridan. “We don’t have that with Fresno State Football. There’s not a lot of people who graduate that program who we’re following in the pros.”

Of course, college football lacks the fluid feeder system that the Grizzlies enjoy, thanks to the club’s strong affiliation with the Giants. After all, more than half of the 2010 World Series roster came up through Fresno at one point or another, intrinsically tying Grizzlies fans to last year’s world title. Scharton agreed with the importance of that connection, citing a recent example.

“We were with a whole group in LA last night talking about Downtown (Fresno),” he recalled. “We listed off the players that we’ve all been fortunate enough to watch up close and personal, like Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, and even Pablo Sandoval, who hit that home run here last year (on a Major League rehab assignment).”

In good times and bad for the baseball on the field, though, the ballpark remains. As it goes into its 11th year, Chukchansi Park looks as good as ever, as evidenced by its selection for the Great Parks Calendar cover.

The photo used by Baseball America for the cover of the 2012 calendar. (Don Davis)

“We know that we have a great stadium, and we hope that this recognition lets a lot of other people see what a great facility we have too,” said Sharton. “We hope they come and check it out.”

The people Scharton is referring to aren’t limited to just Fresnans, though. There are Giants fans all over the state, mostly north of the Central Valley, who travel great distances to see those in the farm system play.

“Just like people go to Spring Training, they should come down a couple times a year to see the upcoming prospects,” said Scharton. “It’s much easier and much cheaper to come down here than to go Scottsdale.”

Scottsdale Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Giants, is somewhat similar to Chukchansi Park. It holds roughly 12,000 people and was wholly renovated just a couple of years after Chukchansi Park was built. Both provide an opportunity for Giants fans to get out of San Francisco and watch the up-and-comers in the organization before they hit the Major League level. Sheridan agreed, for the most part, that Fresno could pull the same type of fan that makes the trek to Arizona each spring.

“Spring Training will always be a destination, but you can definitely carry that momentum,” Sheridan suggested. “Once people that have been identified in Spring Training as prospects, you can follow those folks in Fresno, throughout the year. To be able to see the prospects in Scottsdale and know you’ll be able to catch them any weekend in Fresno is a good selling point.”

It certainly won’t hurt to have some national recognition from the likes of Baseball America, either.

Trying To Catch Up With Tyler Graham

By: Noah Frank

The title of this article is, admittedly, a bit deceiving. It is, in fact, far easier to catch up with than it is to catch up to Tyler Graham. Of course, I don’t have to tell that to any Grizzlies fan, nor any battery in the Pacific Coast League. Ever since Graham received a chance promotion from Double-A in early May of 2010, he has thrilled the Fresno crowds with his blazing speed. After two big years in Triple-A, including a franchise record-shattering 60 stolen base performance in 2011, Graham has run all the way onto the San Francisco Giants 40-man roster.

For those who are not as familiar with baseball’s intricate rules surrounding its various player designations, the 40-man roster serves several purposes. It is the group from which the 25-man active Major League roster is derived. One cannot become a Major Leaguer before first being added to the 40-man. The act of adding a new player to that roster is called “purchasing a contract”, and is what happened to both Brett Pill and Justin Christian in September.

Residency on the 40-man also protects a player like Graham from the upcoming Rule V Draft, which I will leave you to read about in further detail here, should you choose to do so. Finally, it means an automatic invitation to Major League Spring Training next spring, which will be a first for Graham in his seven-year tenure in the Giants organization after being selected in the 19th round out of Oregon State in 2006.

The speedy center fielder found out about his addition to the roster via text message on Friday night in Culiacan, Mexico, where he is currently playing winter ball for the Tomateros (which, according to Google Translate, means “fryers”). Graham also received a follow-up phone call from Giants VP of Baseball Operations Bobby Evans with the good news.

Grizzlies fans are used to seeing Graham getting his uniform dirty. (Don Davis)

“Obviously I’m very excited,” he said over the crackling line of an international cell phone call on Monday. “It’s always positive to know you have the backing of the coaching staff and front office. It means a lot that they believe you can play at that level, gives you the extra confidence to get the job done.”

Graham is a native of Great Falls, Montana. To suggest that his hometown lies on the periphery of the baseball world would be kind. In fact, according to baseball-almanac.com, Graham’s home state has produced just 21 Major Leaguers in the history of the sport, including just one— Mets catcher John Gibbons, who played in a grand total of 18 games over two seasons— from Great Falls. Not that any of this matters, particularly, except to say that Graham certainly came in to professional ball with no particular advantages over any of his peers as he tried to fight for respect, and playing time, throughout the minors.

There was another battle that Graham faced early in his career, though, that as Graham matured, he realized he needed to better prepare himself to fight.

“I kind of always felt I was put on the back burner, mostly because I wasn’t able to stay healthy the first couple of years,” he admitted. “At the time I didn’t think it was fair, but over time I’ve realized how important it is to stay healthy and on the field. I knew I could play, but it was more that I to prove to them that I could stay healthy than that I could play.”

Graham has been able to keep himself on the field  the last couple of seasons, during which he has played in 236 games with the Grizzlies, but he has made just 847 plate appearances over that span. By comparison, Boston center fielder and leadoff hitter (as well as Graham’s former teammate at Oregon State) Jacoby Ellsbury stepped to the plate 729 times this season alone over 158 games, and the Pirates Andrew McCutchen (another leadoff-type center fielder) 678 times over the same amount of games.

It stands to reason that, should he stay healthy, one could best compare Graham’s potential opportunities (in plate appearances alone, not comparing their specific skill sets) at the next level to McCutchen’s. After all, Pittsburgh had the National League’s third-worst run-scoring offense, the Pirates’ .244 team batting average just marginally higher than the Giants’ .242. I use this comparison to try to show what Graham might be capable of over a similar amount of offensive opportunities. Graham’s two-season plate appearance total is almost exactly 25% more than McCutchen’s numbers from last year alone. If we adjust Graham’s plate appearance numbers to match McCutchen’s, we come up with the following line:

 

 

 

Now, I’m certainly not suggesting that these numbers will translate across the board at the Major League level. The quality of pitching in the National League is undisputedly better than that in the PCL. But the precipitous drop-off that we are often cautioned to expect from hitters that graduate out of our circuit is perhaps not as easily applied to Graham. After all, the notion is that power numbers will dissipate, turning home runs into doubles at best, long fly ball outs at worst. Graham has never been a power hitter, and makes his living with line drives and worm-burners. So while it is conceivable that stronger infield defenses will take a hit away here or there, the parks themselves should not work against his ability to succeed.

It is more notable to mention that Graham’s 76 stolen bases would have led the Major Leagues by 15 over Michael Bourn, who had 12 more swipes than the next closest big leaguer in 2011 (Coco Crisp/Brett Gardner, 49). Granted, Graham will need to continue to find ways on base to be able to come close to replicating those figures, but it is an impressive total, nonetheless.

“Obviously there are going to be times at the next level where I won’t be able to (steal)”, Graham recognized. “But I definitely will continue to be aggressive in the right situations as long as I play this game. That’s what makes me the player that I am.”

Another way in which Graham’s speed defines him, one that is often overlooked, is his outfield defense. Capable of playing all three positions, he has shown flashes of ability as a plus defender in center field, one of baseball’s most demanding positions. Always with an eye on how talent will translate at the Major League level, there is no doubt that the Giants place a premium on outfielders who can cover AT&T Park’s expansive outfield. While Gary Brown is the eventual heir apparent in that space, Graham’s name is now in the mix along with the likes of Christian and Andres Torres to show what he is capable of in 2012.

Graham's speed can be of value on the basepaths, in the outfield, and at the plate. (Don Davis)

“I think that’s a big reason they do believe in me is the defense I bring to the table,” explained Graham of the Giants front office. “Saving runs in the outfield is the same as RBI at the plate. If you can save a couple runs during the week it’s the same as being a power hitter … at the end of the day whether you do something at the plate or in the field, your job is to help the team win.”

Knowing that his naturally spry legs are what lend him both his baserunning ability and outfield range, Graham’s priority has become keeping himself healthy. With those first two years cut short by injury, he had to rethink his commitment to keeping his body in top shape. It was perhaps fitting, then, that his big break (so to speak) came when a more highly-touted player in front of him on the depth chart, Mike McBryde, suffered a broken hand while playing in Fresno last season.

“When I found out that McBryde was hurt, I decided that this was finally my chance,” Graham remembered. “I started to get excited. I knew I was going to have a good chance to be in the lineup every day, to put up some good numbers.”

With no other true center fielder on the roster, Graham— who had been riding the bench in Double-A following his own injury on Opening Day— found himself in the lineup early and often. He made the most of his chances, going 13-for-23 (.565) with four doubles, six runs scored, four RBI and four stolen bases over his first eight games, and going on to hit .343 with 35 stolen bases.

The rest, as they say, has been history. Specifically, franchise history, both in the form of the single-season (60) and career (95) franchise stolen base record here in Fresno. Graham’s focus now is on doing what he has done successfully the last couple of years, preparing himself to be ready to hit the ground running in Scottsdale in February.

“I’m going to be doing the same offseason program I always do,” he said. “I just need to get ready to be in as good of shape as I can.”

Prospect Watch: Gary Brown

By: Noah Frank

Oh, the offseason. The lack of daily baseball at Chukchansi Park leaves those of us who work here itching to get a jump on next year. And so, as we did last offseason, we will begin looking at the players making their way through the farm system who seem likely to spend at least part of the 2012 season here in the Central Valley. There will be names you most likely recognize, as well as those you probably do not. We’ll start this year’s crop with one that most Grizzlies and Giants fans know by now: Gary Brown.

Even if he begins the season at Double-A Richmond, which seems likely, given the logjam in center field created by the likes of Justin Christian, Darren Ford, Tyler Graham, the newly-signed Gregor Blanco and possibly Andres Torres, Brown will be a name often on the tips of Grizzlies fans’ tongues next season. That expectation simply comes with the territory when you are a first-round draft pick, as Brown was in 2010. Just ask Madison Bumgarner (’07) and Buster Posey (’08), or the recently departed Zach Wheeler (’09), who now faces the additional pressure with the Mets of being the top prospect traded for a star in Carlos Beltran.

Brown's season continued with the Scottsdale Scorpions this fall. (Chris Lockard/Scout.com)

With Beltran himself quite possibly heading elsewhere this offseason, that will put pressure on Brown to live up to large expectations, and will no doubt lead to fans calling for his promotion to the Majors sooner rather than later.

Brown has certainly done nothing to dampen the enthusiasm surrounding him, but the Giants were careful with the Cal State Fullerton product in his first season. After assigning him straight to High-A San Jose in 2011, Brown was given the entire season to prove what he could accomplish in the California League. All he did was post a line of .336/.407/.519, rapping out 61 extra-base hits, stealing 53 bases, and scoring a mind-numbing 115 runs in just 131 games for the minor Giants.

As we always do at Yard Work, we sought out the expertise of someone who has seen what Brown can do close-up. We spoke briefly about Brown a couple weeks prior with former Grizzlies hitting coach Ken Joyce, who served in the same role for Brown’s Scottsdale Scorpions in the Arizona Fall League, whose regular season ends today. But we went into greater depth with Joe Ritzo, the radio voice of the San Jose Giants, to learn more about what to expect out of the young centerfielder as he moves through the system. Ritzo pulls no punches when describing the role Brown played for San Jose, picked as the High-A Team of the Year, last season.

“He was our MVP,” says Ritzo, and it’s easy to see why. “Everyone knows about his speed and his defensive abilities, which were evident on a daily basis, but he had power too.”

Indeed, Brown swatted 14 home runs on the season. He also absolutely wore out left-handed pitching, batting .459 with a .685 slugging percentage (!) against southpaws last year. Not bad for a leadoff hitter.

Ritzo also compares Brown’s speed to the likes of Grizzlies single-season and franchise stolen base leader Graham, as well as Ford. Those two have been considered the fastest prospects in the system over the last few seasons, so the bar has been set high in the speed department before Brown ever sets his fleet feet in Fresno. But how does he compare to recent top draft picks at other positions?

Brown, like Brett Pill, is a Cal State Fullerton product. (mattbrownphoto.com)

“I’ve been here five or six years and there’s nobody quite like him and how he plays the game,” says Ritzo, which is high praise considering the top prospects that have roamed the diamond at Municipal Stadium the last few years. When I ask Ritzo to compare Brown to the likes of Posey and Bumgarner, he provides some interesting perspective.

“I don’t think his personality was really like any of those players,” he posits. “But what you see is that desire, working so hard before games, the competitive edge that you might see in Buster and Madison that separates them from others. The mental ability that those guys had, Gary has it as well.”

Brown, as mentioned earlier, had the advantage of coming through a high-caliber college baseball program at Cal State Fullerton, the same school that produced Brett Pill. Fresno fans have seen that the experience and maturity gained from those years has paid dividends for Pill, and they seem to be doing the same for Brown, according to Ritzo.

“There’s something extra when you watch him play that you just feel confident that he’s going to have a long and successful Major League career,” says Ritzo. “You can’t predict that kind of Major League success with much certainty very often with guys at the Single-A level.”

The only tick on Brown’s stellar 2011 performance can be seen with a deeper look into his month-by-month numbers. He batted .333 (including a .385 mark in August and a .397 clip in May) or better in every month of the season except one— a glaring .202 performance in June. In cases like these, it’s important to look for answers beyond the box scores, which is where someone like Ritzo comes in handy to provide context for such a slump.

Brown's speed in the outfield, and on the base paths, sets him apart. (Tony Medina)

“We made a lot of roster moves right about that time (early June), including sending Hector Sanchez to Fresno, and Gary was arguably playing better than any of those guys,” explains Ritzo. “He was maybe anticipating that call-up, and when he didn’t get the call it was a little disappointing, so he hit a bit of a lull. It was expressed to him that the organization wants him to stay in San Jose the whole year.”

While the San Francisco brass may have taken the conservative route with Brown in 2011, Ritzo does not expect them to necessarily continue to do moving forward.

“You get the sense that they won’t go that same route this year, especially if he’s starting the season in Richmond,” Ritzo says. “I would think if he starts hot would make it to Fresno before too long. If he has anything close to the kind of year that he had in San Jose, he’ll move quickly through the system.”

Here’s to hoping Fresno fans get a glimpse of what Brown can do sooner rather than later.

Top Eleven of ’11

By: Noah Frank

It is officially that time of year again, when the leaves abandon their spring and summer green for shades of yellow and crimson, when the morning chill forces us to shake the dust from our sweaters and jackets, tucked away since the beginning of the baseball season. That means it is also time for everyone from VH1 to us here at Yard Work to break out our “best of” lists for the year gone by.

In that spirit, we will be rolling out our Top Eleven of ’11, the best 10+1 moments of the season past on fresnogrizzlies.com. Our crack panel has assembled what we believe to be the memories that stand above the rest, and will be releasing them every Monday-Wednesday-Friday beginning today until we reach number one. You’re sure to see some highlights from Brett Pill and Tyler Graham, but do you remember the other great games and individual moments from 2011? Will your favorite memory of the season make the list? We start things off with the season’s first game.

#11. Grizzlies Beat Weather, Las Vegas (4/7)

Opening Night was a pitcher’s duel most of the way, as Ryan Vogelsong and Brad Mills battled unseasonably cold April weather that even brought hail prior to the game. With the score 2-1 entering the bottom of the eighth, the sky opened up, bringing heavy rain with it. Both teams fought through the conditions, but the Grizzlies took advantage of the situation. Fresno plated nine runs in the inning— capped by Darren Ford’s grand slam— before the 51s could record an out, scoring an 11-1 victory to open the 2011 campaign.

#10. Pill’s Career Blast Backs Sanchez (7/27)

Brett Pill collected three hits, none bigger than his career-high 20th home run, a three-run shot in the sixth inning. That gave Jonathan Sanchez more than enough breathing room as he cruised to a 12-3 victory over Salt Lake in his first rehab start with Fresno in 2011.

#9. Team Speed: A Sign Of Things To Come (4/10)

Two nights after Emmanuel Burriss set the single-game franchise record with four stolen bases, the Grizzlies combined to swipe a mind-boggling 10 bags in one game against Las Vegas. Five different players got in on the act, with Terry Evans and Darren Ford collecting three steals apiece and Tyler Graham notching a pair in an 8-5 victory.

#8. Kung-Fu Panda Delights The Fresno Crowd (6/7)

Pablo Sandoval took no time at all to get the crowd into the game in his first rehab start, following Tyler Graham’s lone home run of the season two batters later with a two-run shot of his own as part of a seven-run second inning. Sandoval added two more RBI on the night as the Grizzlies blew out Las Vegas by a final of 12-4.

#7. Back-To-Back Is Back In Style (5/26)

The Grizzlies slugged two sets of back-to-back home runs, with Conor Gillaspie and Edgar Gonzalez turning the trick in the third inning and Brad Eldred and Jackson Williams accomplishing the feat in the eighth frame. Fresno finished with a season-high five home runs in the 8-5 victory over Oklahoma City, and would stunningly go on to hit back-to-back shots a total of nine times throughout the 2011 season.

#6. An Unlikely Sweep (6/5)

Severely short-handed following call-ups and injuries, the Grizzlies faced Las Vegas in a doubleheader on June 5th. Shane Loux turned in his best start of the season in Game One, shutting out the 51s on just three hits in a 3-0 victory. Then, in Game Two, recent A-ball addition James Simmons hit a pair of towering home runs over the batter’s eye as the Grizzlies hung on for a 5-4 victory and a sweep of the twin-bill.

#5. 7-6 on 7/6 (7/6)

Following a pair of one-run victories over rival Sacramento, the Grizzlies found themselves in a 6-4 hole entering the eighth inning in the final game of the three-game set. Fresno came back to tie the game on solo shots by Brandon Belt and Conor Gillaspie, then pushed in front for good thanks to back-to-back, two-out doubles by Thomas Neal and Max Ramirez, leading to a 7-6 victory on July 6th.

#4. Vintage Zito On Display (6/21)

Barry Zito followed a decent first rehab start with an absolutely dominating performance in his second outing at Chukchansi Park. Mixing his pitches and flashing his trademark curveball, he kept Salt Lake batters off-balance all night, with solo home runs by Brad Eldred and Darren Ford providing more than enough support. In the end, he finished off a 118-pitch, complete game, two-hit shutout of the Bees on June 21st.

#3. Graham Steals Franchise Record, Game (7/9)

Some records are set in meaningless contests, with no real impact on the outcome of the game. Tyler Graham’s single-season franchise stolen base mark was not one of those records. After leading off the bottom of the ninth inning with a single in a 3-3 tie against Tucson on July 9th, he stole second and third to give him 43 steals on the season, surpassing Calvin Murray’s mark of 42, set back in 1999. He sat 90 feet from home as Justin Christian lofted a fly ball to shallow center, darting home after the catch and belly-flopping into home plate ahead of the tag with the game-winning run as Fresno walked off on the Padres, 4-3.

#2. From Throwdown To Showdown (8/25)

The Taco Truck Throwdown grew from a good idea, to an explosive theme night, to a nationally recognized promotion. The Grizzlies drew a vibrant crowd of 10,287 fans on the final Thursday night of the season and beat rival Sacramento, 7-4, on August 25th. The Throwdown went on to win its 10-promotion category for Minor League Baseball Miscellaneous Promotion of the Year, giving the Grizzlies five straight years of MiLB Promo Finalists, a streak unmatched in the sport.

#1. Grizzlies Declare Independence Day (7/4)

In front of the largest crowd of the year, the Grizzlies got off to a dismal start, spotting rival Sacramento a 5-0 lead heading to the bottom of the fourth. But Fresno clawed back within 5-3, then got back-to-back home runs from rehabber Mike Fontenot and Edgar Gonzalez in the bottom of the eighth to tie the game at 5-5 and send it into extra innings. The Grizzlies loaded the bases on a single and a pair of walks to set the stage for Gonzalez once more, who singled to center field to score Justin Christian with the game-winning run, sending the crowd of 13,455 into a frenzy and setting up what would turn out to be three consecutive one-run victories in the Highway 99 Showdown Series.

Thanks to all our fans for a great 2011, see you all on Opening Day, Friday April 13, 2012!

Too Good For Hollywood

By: Noah Frank

“Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air.” —Thomas Gray

Those familiar with the baseball classic Bull Durham may recognize the line above. It is the one used by Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon, as Crash Davis sets the all-time minor league home run record in utter obscurity, only the two of them aware of what he has accomplished. It signifies that many victories in life go unseen, unheralded by the masses.

In that vein, most of the 12,161 fans that attended the August 27th contest between the Grizzlies and rival Sacramento were focused on the highly publicized story of the evening, that Billy Crystal was in the ballpark to film scenes for his upcoming motion picture. While the attention of the crowd was captured by the ballpark being transformed into a Hollywood set for the night, there was another script unfolding, one which even the most softhearted of tinsel-town producers would probably reject, considering it too preposterous to be believable.

While Billy Crystal was stealing the spotlight, Jason Stevenson was quietly going back to work. (Don Davis)

This is the story of Jason Stevenson. It is one that includes several acts, but which is perhaps just beginning to enter its most interesting phase, beginning with that night.

Act One of Stevenson’s baseball career seemed promising enough. The Redding, California native was selected out of Sacramento City College in the 12th round of the 2000 First-Year Player Draft by the Montreal Expos, advancing as high as Triple-A by 2004. But in 2005, when the floundering Expos were moved to their current home in our nation’s capitol, Stevenson went just 6-14— including a 1-9 mark with an ERA over 10.50 at Double-A— and decided to hang up his cleats.

From there, Stevenson’s life fell off track. He doesn’t like to talk about that period of his past; not in specifics, at least. He mentions in passing “the path I was on” or “troubled times”, referring occasionally to his time spent at “the bottom”.

“The first few years away I really just didn’t do much, I stayed away from the game,” he recalls as we chat after batting practice on August 25th in the home clubhouse, nestled under the right field concourse at Chukchansi Park. “It was a point in my life where I still wanted to stay in shape because the day that I gave baseball up I still had regrets.”

In spite of his lifestyle, though, somewhere in the back of his mind he knew the value of keeping his blessed left arm strong. He played a variety of sports— flag football, competitive softball— and kept himself active. Nevertheless, it took several years for his frustration and contrition to come to a head.

“I was really tired of the way I was living my life,” he admits. “I finally got to the point where I could trick my mind into thinking that I was better than what I was doing, what kind of person I was. Then I started seeing guys that I played with … just certain guys … I knew I had the same stuff as them, and my competitiveness started coming back to me.”

He tried out for the independent league Chico Outlaws in 2009, but did not receive an offer. He did so again in 2010, but again manager Mike Marshall was not willing to sign him until Stevenson fully committed to becoming a professional athlete again, in every aspect of his life.

“[This year] I decided I was going to make an effort, off the field completely and on the field completely,” Stevenson explains. “I just tried to pick up from where I left off in ’05.”

Maybe the difference was finally realizing that he was playing for more than himself.

Stevenson (center) fit in immediately in a clubhouse of veterans, like Marc Kroon (left). (Don Davis)

“My daughter is seven years old, and I haven’t had her in my life the past two or three years through off the field stuff,” Stevenson says, his voice becoming strained with emotion. “But I want my daughter to have a good life and I know that, for me playing baseball, if I can make it, I can make things a lot better for her. For my family, for myself and for everybody.”

He gained inspiration from the story of top prospect-turned-heroin addict-turned-MVP Josh Hamilton, whose story has risen to the national spotlight over the last couple of years. Stevenson took that story to heart, and felt he could provide the same inspiration to others through his own comeback.

“I wanted people who may have taken the path I took once I gave up baseball to see that there is hope,” Stevenson says.

As we speak, I notice that he doesn’t strike the eye as a natural athlete the way that someone like the 6’4”, 240 pound Hamilton does. Of course, the Rangers slugger was the first overall pick the year prior to Stevenson’s draft, going 344 spots above him. Stevenson’s blondish hair is buzzed close to the skin, the crown of a receding hairline creeping backwards around his scalp. Listed at 6’1”, 175, he is clearly in good shape but, having just celebrated his 30th birthday, is fighting the slow march of time in a room full of players mostly younger than him, and without a five-year career gap.

“Through the five years that I played Minor League Baseball I was a young guy, I was younger mentally than I was my age,” he explains. “I didn’t know how important the off the field stuff was— the working out, the going to sleep early, the focus that you have to have even off the field to be able to take it on the field.”

Stronger in mind and body, Stevenson finally earned a spot with Marshall’s Outlaws this spring. All he did from there was go an outlandish 8-0 in eight starts, also earning a three-inning save in his lone relief appearance. He logged an ERA of just 1.68, striking out 76 in 64.1 innings of work. That was enough for the San Francisco Giants, Stevenson’s hometown rooting interest as a Northern California kid, to take a flier on the southpaw. With a rotation depleted by injuries and promotion, the Grizzlies became Stevenson’s first professional destination, as he was penciled in for a spot start at Las Vegas on August 22nd. It was a far cry from Chico, and a much farther one from his life the past five years.

Stevenson delivers a pitch in his lone start at Chukchansi Park this season. (Don Davis)

“Obviously playing for the team I grew up cheering for, it was pretty overwhelming getting that call,” recalls Stevenson. “But I knew once I got that call that everything was meant to be and that there’s baseball left in my career.”

His comeback began inauspiciously. The first batter he faced, Darin Mastroianni, homered. Stevenson surrendered a second longball in his first inning of work, the Grizzlies trailing 4-0 after one frame. But he settled in to shut the 51s down from there as he pitched into the seventh inning, allowing just four more hits while striking out seven the rest of the way. The offense did its part in the meantime, providing six runs of support to stake Stevenson to his first professional win in six years.

That gave the southpaw another opportunity, as he made his first home start for the Grizzlies in front of a packed house in the penultimate home game of the season. Of course, most of the fans had no idea of his story, but that didn’t matter anymore. All that mattered was that he was finally back where he wanted to be, where he needed to be. With the cameras rolling on the action taking place around the ballpark, Stevenson quietly went back to work on the mound, home once again.

“I’m just so thankful to have a second chance,” he says. “Not a lot of people get a second chance in anything they do, so a chance to play baseball again? I’m just taking it all in at once and just trying to do what I can.”

This is a lesson he has learned and has paid dearly for. It is one he is reminded of every day, one that he will not need to learn again.

“Quitting in ’05 was the worst thing I ever did,” he declares, but then qualifies his statement with a perspective only gained through experience and maturity. “Then again, it could end up being the biggest thing I ever did. Now I’ve grown up. I now know how much this game means to me. Baseball is my greatest love, so I play this game as hard as I can. This time I’m not going to give it up until I can’t throw the ball anymore.”

Parker’s Recreation

By: Noah Frank

As many of you no doubt recall, Chukchansi Park was transformed into a live-action Hollywood film set on August 27th during the penultimate game of the 2011 season, against Sacramento. Every fan in attendance was afforded a unique opportunity that day: the possibility of appearing on screen in a major motion picture.

But one person— or should we say, bear— impressed the cameras enough to land himself a larger role in the production. That’s right, not only did the cameras flock to Parker in Fresno, those involved with the film were so taken with the orange bear that they recently flew him down to the primary set just outside of Atlanta to do some follow-up shots. Yard Work sat down with the Grizzlies’ lovable mascot (and a bear translator) following his recent excursion to get all the juicy details.

Yard Work: So Parker, we heard you took a trip recently. Why were you out of Fresno during the offseason?

Parker: I was out of town to go be a part of the big movie titled “Parental Guidance” [originally “Us & Them”] with Billy Crystal, Bette Midler and Marissa Tomei. It was a great time.

YW: I heard you had to take a pretty long plane flight to get out there. Where were you guys shooting?

P: We were shooting in Atlanta, at the Gwinett Braves baseball park. It was a crazy long flight. My ears were popping nonstop— I mean, I’m a bear, what would you expect?

Parker sits in his very own director's chair. (Cody Turner)

YW: Were there good snacks on flight?

P: I had all the soda and peanuts I could fit in my big, round belly, all the way from here to Phoenix to Atlanta.

YW: How did the other passengers feel about traveling next to a bear on an airplane?

P: They were staring at me, taking pictures, wondering what this crazy bear was doing on a plane. The little kids didn’t know what to do at first, but I let them rub my fur and they warmed up to me.

YW: Did you get a chance to hibernate at all on the plane?

P: I try to hibernate every chance I get in the winter, but I’ve never tried on an airplane before. It was a little hard to get stretched out and fully comfortable.

YW: What was your favorite moment shooting in Atlanta?

P: My favorite moment was when we shot the scene with all the extras. There were like 200 plus extras who had never seen me before, so I didn’t know if they were going to like me or not. I thought they might boo me, or throw popcorn at me, but as soon as I got on top of the dugout everything was great. They were following my claps, there was chanting. I think they were just excited to see this bear shake his belly and do the worm on top of the dugout.

YW: Were there any other particularly funny moments?

P: The funniest moment was when we were filming on top of the dugout. It was one of the first scenes we shot, and the cameraman was filming the fans instead of me. I’m running around like crazy to get everybody fired up. Finally the director yelled “Cut! Cameraman, stay on Parker, not the fans!” I didn’t even realize he wasn’t filming me the whole time, and you know, it’s the offseason, I’m not exactly in peak condition. So I had to catch my breath and film the whole thing over again.

Parker poses with members of the cast and crew of "Parental Guidance". (Cody Turner)

YW: Did you get to meet anyone famous while you were out there?

P: None of the leads were on set, but I got to meet a couple of the supporting actors like Peter Luis Zimmerman.

YW: Did they tell you which scenes you filmed are going to make it to the big screen?

P: They didn’t tell me anything. They just had me doing a lot of crowd action shots. We did a Kiss Cam. I don’t want to give away the ending, but keep an eye out for it, it’s pretty funny.

YW: Is it true that you got your own trailer?

P: I did, but the trailer was super small. If I stretched out all the way my head would pop out one end and my feet out the other end. But it was pretty cool, it had my name on it and everything. And the food? The food was awesome, I loved every bite of it.

YW: Do you think this will help you land any future Hollywood roles?

P: Who knows, they didn’t tell me much, but they were glad I came out there. At first, they thought I was a fake Parker, but it was me, the real deal, straight from Fresno.

Yard Work and the Fresno Grizzlies will keep you up to date on news about “Parental Guidance”, tentatively scheduled for theatrical release on November 21, 2012. And keep an eye out for Parker— he might just be the next Hollywood star born out of Fresno!

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