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Lifers: How four coaches with 136 combined years in baseball have brought playoff aspirations to a city that had long considered them dead

From L to R: Ace Adams, Tony DeFrancesco, Leon Roberts, and Jeff Murphy

From L to R: Ace Adams, Tony DeFrancesco, Leon Roberts, and Jeff Murphy (photo by James Ramirez)

This story also appears in the eighth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that begins Saturday, August 1st and runs through Sunday, August 9th. Purchase tickets here.

The water begins to drip on the three scoops of grounds inside the BUNN CWTF 15-2 Automatic Coffee Brewer and falls into the decanter seven hours prior to first pitch. This is the signal that the Grizzlies coaching staff has arrived into the home clubhouse to begin their preparation for the game ahead.

Three stat packs, three Fresno rosters, three opponent rosters, 2015 Fresno batting stats against the opposing pitchers, media game notes, a Fresno Bee, and an extremely detailed Houston Astros-crafted scouting report have turned the desk of manager Tony DeFrancesco into a sea of white. He sits in his chair 45-minutes removed from working out at a north Fresno gym as he types the Fresno lineup onto an excel spreadsheet. While he weighs the pros and cons of organizing his lineup, he stops, gets up and walks one office over to hitting coach Leon Roberts and development specialist Jeff Murphy and closes the door. This type of conversation is private, which DeFrancesco prefers when it comes to talking about players. Not even 30-seconds later, he emerges from the door and crosses the hall to pitching coach Ace Adams, discussing a starting rotation change due to a recent callup and then circles back to his office.

This cycle of back-and-forth is constant as all four coaches digest gobs of information in hopes that they can gain an edge on the opponent for roughly three hours each night, even though none of them will step into the batters box, field a ground ball, or throw a pitch.

“Every day our job is to make sure the nine guys on the field, no matter their experience, can make a great play, give a quality at bat and continue to develop into a winning player,” responds DeFrancesco when asked what comes from the countless hours of reviewing scouting reports, stats, and video.

“We also want to win,” he says with a stone cold look that almost thrusts the weight of contributing as a professional ballplayer into the bones of anyone who could see him.

DeFrancesco came to Fresno with a reputation for being fiery, straightforward, committed to developing his players, and addicted to winning. The eight previous managers in franchise history never were as outspoken about the latter, which maybe attributed to the combined .471 win percentage and one playoff appearance (1998) in 17 years the Grizzlies were the Giants Triple-A affiliate.

The 52-year-old even made a point to differentiate from the previous regime in his introductory press conference by saying the team goal would be to make the playoffs and develop players for the Astros. He took it a step further two months later at the Grizzlies Community Fund Hot Stove Dinner when he said ‘We’re going to kick their ass’ in reference to playing the Sacramento River Cats, a team he once managed to seven winning seasons, six division titles, three league championships, and the 2007 Triple-A Championship.

Now months into his first season leading the Fresno Grizzlies, it’s safe to say DeFrancesco has lived up to his strong statements, proven by his staff and players working together to race out to the second-best start in franchise history.

When the Grizzlies begin play on August 1st, they’ll have led their division for 101 of 114 days. For those that like percentages, that equates to 88.6% of the 2015 season.

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What has helped the four coaches balance the rigors of the season is the routine they’ve set for themselves before arriving for work. DeFrancesco gets up, heads to Starbucks, reads the paper, and then hits the gym. Roberts chooses golf, loves to read about everything that’s happening at the big league level, and will grab for a small bag of potato chips as he goes through notes on the opposing starting pitcher. Adams arrives to the clubhouse the earliest, preferring to set his mind through exercise by walking around Chukchansi Park and pouring a post-walk cup of black coffee that he appears to sip on the rest of the night. Murphy, noticed by his fu manchu mustache, lives out of his trailer that he drove to Fresno, hits the golf course in the morning, and then goes over the previous game when he gets to the park before putting his focus towards the catchers, which is his specialty.

For DeFrancesco, who is well through his 21st season managing in the minor leagues, the routine dates all the way back to 1994 when his first managing gig was with the Arizona Rookie League Athletics. After leading the rookie Athletics to a second place finish, he leveled up and migrated to the Pacific Northwest to become the skipper of short-season Southern Oregon. What has since become the site of a Walmart Supercenter; Miles Field in Medford, Oregon was where DeFrancesco really cut his teeth as a manager, turning in his only back-to-back losing seasons. Despite the 62-90 combined record in those years, the 1995 Southern Oregon A’s roster did have 21-year-old Miguel Tejada, who was making his professional state-side debut with the Athletics organization after rising from the slums of Bani in the Dominican Republic. He was the first of many high profile players DeFrancesco has come to manage and help develop over the course of his career.

The most recent star player to spend time playing for him is current Houston shortstop Carlos Correa, who won the American League Rookie of the Month for June and is the Astros’ No. 3 hitter night in and night out as they battle the Angels for first place in the American League West. With the former No. 1 overall pick on the roster for 24 games, the Grizzlies went 16-8 and established a large first-place cushion, which is part of the reason DeFrancesco is about to lock in his 17th winning season in 21 years.

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“My m.o. to the players is always that we’re going to go out and compete and try to win every game,” states DeFrancesco. “If I ask them to sacrifice bunt, or come in to get a lefty out, that’s all about developing you into a player with a winning mindset.”

That outlook is spread throughout the Astros organization, something Astros GM Jeff Luhnow instilled when he was appointed to his position back in December 2011. On a recent visit to Fresno, he reaffirmed that winning at every level is important and that Tony’s success at developing players at the Triple-A level makes him invaluable.

However, like any motivated person, Tony seeks another opportunity to manage at the big leagues.

“It’s a compliment,” he responds when asked if there’s a stereotype that he’s too valuable at the Triple-A level to have elsewhere in an organization.

“Like any other coach, you’re always trying to get another opportunity. I was able to spend 41 games up their as the Astros [interim] manager in 2012 and it’s something I’ll cherish and remember for the rest of my life no matter what happens. I feel like I’ll get another opportunity.”

The 41-game experience at the big league level also gave him plenty of self-reflection.

“Surely I’ve evolved as a manager over the years and especially since experiencing the big league level. Early in my career, I took full responsibility if a guy missed a cut off man or if a pitcher didn’t execute a pitch. I thought it was all on me to make sure the players knew how to play the game right, and at times I was probably too hard on the players. Baseball is not a perfect game and I’ve worked to accept that in my managing style.”

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As frustrating as the miscues can be for any player or coach, DeFrancesco has understood it’s more of his job to keep the players calm and motivate them to learn from their mistakes. That’s precisely why he’s one of the few managers to take the team out for infield/outfield and pitchers fielding practice throughout the season. For most team’s it’s something that’ll happen in the month of April and die off, but to this day the Grizzlies head out there at least once every homestand or road trip to knock out the fundamentals.

The other noticeable thing is that none of the Fresno players wear any symbol of the big league club, and that’s by design.

“You play for the city of Fresno and you’re a Grizzly,” Tony begins to describe. “Even though their ultimate goals is to put on an Astros uniform, you’re here [with Fresno] and I want them to understand what it means to represent a city on and off the field.”

The players and coaches have begun to understand what they mean to a city that initially feared Triple-A Baseball was in jeopardy when the Giants moved their Triple-A affiliate north to Sacramento.

“I feel bad for the Grizzlies fans,” he says when told of the ongoing playoff drought that’s lasted 16 years. “[The fans] haven’t been able to experience that August rush and see the guys celebrate on the field. Our goal is to get into the playoffs and win a championship. At the same time we’re going to do what we can to help out Houston and make sure we can send guys up to help them, but we can have winning on both sides.”

Houston Astros 58-45 – 1st place.

Fresno Grizzlies 59-46 – 1st place.

You sure can have both.

#Growlifornia

Team records entering July 31, 2015

An interview with Grizzlies GM Derek Franks

General Manager Derek Franks is leading a culture change inside and out for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies Baseball Team

Grizzlies GM Derek Franks is leading a culture change inside and out for the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies

This article also appears in the sixth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs through Thursday, June 25th. Purchase tickets here.

Story by Ryan Young

After the final out at Chukchansi Park on any given game, General Manager Derek Franks gets his second wind. From his second floor office behind home plate, his light is one of maybe two still on as the cleaning crews get to work on making sure the stadium is set for tomorrow’s game.

Franks, 30, is feasting on the analytics from that night’s game. He inputs everything from how the Grizzlies Team Store did prior to first pitch down to how many slices of pizza were sold at stand one. He goes beyond the numbers and replays the in-game skits the entertainment crew did, how well giveaway distribution was executed, and even has ran out to the corner of Van Ness and Inyo street to direct cars to parking lots when an attendant didn’t show up. This is more of what a general manager of a Minor League Baseball team can expect to be a part of on any given day.

Unlike most GM titles that are known to many fans as the taskmasters of player transactions, Franks’ job duties are geared in an opposite direction.

“My role is to build the business around the players and coaches and be a venue for entertainment,” he states. “The only player transactions I get to be involved in are in my fantasy baseball league.”

The confusion is there, especially when highly-touted No. 1 Prospect Carlos Correa was promoted to Fresno from Double-A Corpus Christi back in early May.

“I’m getting used to those emails that ask me why it took me so long to call certain players up, but I stay patient in explaining that it’s the Astros who get to decide which players wear our uniform.” Franks says with a smile.

Named to his position on March 5th of this year, the Kingsburg native started with the organization way back in 2004. He’s a true farm grown talent having worked his way from intern to the top decision maker in the organization.

Within a short amount of time atop the organizational chart, he’s been critical in strengthening the relationship with city officials, cutting the organization deficit in half within 12 months, and being the steady presence during the only affiliation change in club history.

That’s right. What challenge could be more daunting to a new GM than transitioning the Fresno Grizzlies from a 17-year relationship with the San Francisco Giants to the Houston Astros, who were virtually an unknown to the entire Central Valley. But to know Derek Franks is to know that he’s someone who likes to present the challenges faced and then find the solution right there and then. So back in October, he used the strength of his front office to unveil a local Grizzlies’ brand to the community that finally tied the club to it’s location.

“I’ve been really pleased with how we’ve been able to brand this a Fresno team,” he says reflecting on the last few months. “We’re wearing Fresno on the front of the jersey. I’m seeing the Growlifornia Bear Flags on people’s lawns or hanging from their balconies when I’m driving around town.”

He speaks glowingly of the ability for the front office to make adjustments on the fly and see change as an opportunity.

“We’ve definitely tried things that haven’t worked, but we’ve shifted and tried something different the next day.”

The difference has been the organization becoming much more transparent to the city and fan base. The Grizzlies hosted an open-to-the-public Q&A panel with Astros front office members back in October, posted a mailbag through their website on hard hitting topics, and connected into the community like never before.

Marketing Ninja Sam Hansen, appointed by Franks to handle marketing shortly after the affiliation change, harkens back to a moment this past fall at a Fresno State football game when public interaction showcased how much work would need to be done prior to Opening Day to get people to invest in the Grizzlies.

“People walked past our booth saying ‘How sad’ and even refused to even interact with us because the Giants left,” recalls Hansen. “There I realized even further about the opportunity we had. We needed to brand unapologetically Fresno and not rely on our affiliation to justify who we are.”

And so it began. The Grizzlies have run with a brand that has local energy since October 2014 and seemingly won’t alter that approach in the coming years.

Factors outside of the control of the team have also presented challenges. The temporary closure of Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino has been a hot topic with media and has made fans question if that means a death blow to the Grizzlies.

“Obviously Chukchansi is our biggest partner and key to making Triple-A Baseball in Fresno possible. Without them, it’s hard to do,” answers Franks when we asked him about an update. “We have a naming rights contract with the Chukchansi tribe that goes through the 2021 baseball season. All signs point to them re-opening and it’s obviously taken longer than a lot of people wanted, but everyone is motivated to get them back up and running. We don’t know when, but we do know we have a contract with them to be the naming rights sponsor through 2021 and hopefully many years beyond.”

That continuing theme of not dwelling is one of his strongest traits. Where many want to make more of a situation, Franks hits it head on, delivers an answer, and gets on to the next task. During the fall, one of those tasks that took more than a simple answer was convincing a season-ticket holder base that the Fresno Grizzlies were worth their annual investment.

Franks decided to sell it as more than just the players on the field. The first part of the recipe was advertising it as “Fresno’s” team. He then challenged the marketing department to come up with new promotions, the entertainment to improve the in-game experience, and the ticket and corporate sides to develop new methods that added additional value to the overall Grizzlies’ atmosphere.

He believed if the club could continue to capture the heart of their die-hard fan base, they’d be able to build it and grow the core exponentially over the next 12 months.

“Those season-ticket holders we have are part of the core and always have been. The question came up this year about if you’d still be part of the core if the players don’t come from your favorite baseball team’s affiliate. A lot of people stayed and some dropped off, which we understand. But for those people who stuck with us, they’re glad they did. Those fans that stuck with us are important and we consider them family. I love all of those people.”

There’s something to be said for a man in a position who expresses that sense of care. It’s surely not a weakness, especially in the family-oriented nature of Minor League Baseball.

One of the things people will see be implemented by 2016 will be the addition of ritual elements that detail the history of the baseball club and celebrate the local heritage inside Chukchansi Park.

“I don’t think we’ve done a great job of capturing the history of the Fresno Grizzlies inside the ballpark. I’d like to go back to 1998 and help give fans a perspective of where we’ve been and the story of the franchise. We added a few elements this season, but we want to bring more of that heritage into the ballpark.” 

Franks is focused on evolving the story of the organization into the minds of locals and believes that it’s something they will sink their teeth into once it’s complete.

So far, the buttons he’s pushed have gotten responses. Opening Day this season had the feeling of an NBA Playoff game according to one fan on social media. No matter the difference in sport, the point was that the energy had noticeably changed and the experience transcended into the fibers of each fan. 

“We’re only halfway through the season and we’ve already put together some of the best promotions you’ll find anywhere in the country. Combine that with a first place team and we’re confident that a Fresno Grizzlies game is going to be the place to be this summer.”

Patience is a Virtue: How Max Stassi handles the pressure of expectations on his path to the Bigs

stassi 600x400 blog

This article also appears in the fifth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs Saturday, June 6th through Tuesday, June 9th. Learn about the promotions for the four home games and purchase tickets here.

Story by Ryan Young

“Hey! How’s it goin’?” says Fresno Grizzlies catcher Max Stassi about a notch higher than the average person. The grinning Yuba City, California native is quite possibly the most upbeat professional baseball player you’ll ever meet. Even before moving past general pleasantries, you can notice he has a special presence about him.

“Good to see you,” he follows up while circling the batting cage at Chukchansi Park upon returning from a recent eight-game road trip. He makes his way up to me, puts out his hand and completes a handshake so hard that he turns my right hand completely over.

“I got you there,” smiles Stassi as he enters the cage to get in some pregame cuts.

Noted, the 24-year-old backstop is the type of guy who will take you by surprise.

But in a day and age where catchers are normally hulking six-foot plus in height, Stassi sticks out for being the exception. He only stands at 5-10 and could even be mistaken for a middle infielder. His build is similar to that of Toronto catcher Russell Martin, who’s in his 10th season and has established himself as one of the premier backstops in all of baseball proven by his 5-year, $82 million contract signed prior to this season. That’s certainly a lofty comparison at this point in Max’s career, but it does prove that there’s a big leaguer in his physical mold succeeding at the highest level there is.

Stassi, like Martin, surprises you with his tools instead of his stature. The youngster has power to all fields and his athletic ability behind the plate is an asset pitchers at the next level prefer. However, it could be the intangibles that help put him over the edge of his competition. There’s baseball history in his bloodline, with his father Jim pitching in the Giants organization back in the early 80s, while his older brother Brock is currently a Philadelphia Phillies prospect batting over .300 at Double-A Reading.

“The good kind of baseball lifer,” said an American League scout of Max on an early season trip evaluating Fresno’s talented roster.

Stassi straps on the gear prior to a Sunday day game at Chukchansi Park (photo by James Ramirez)

Stassi straps on the gear prior to a Sunday day game at Chukchansi Park (photo by James Ramirez)

Maybe he attracts that kind of description due to the catcher’s equipment being a second skin. During a May 27th day game, he was perched on the top step of the dugout outfitted in his mask, chest protector, and leg guards while the Grizzlies were at bat with no outs and the sun attempting to adhere the equipment to his body. Unlike the fans that escape to the last few rows of the lower level to find shadows, he seemed oblivious to the heat, focusing only on watching the opposing pitcher to pick up an extra edge for his upcoming at bat.

Despite the ability to block things out, the top catching prospect in the Astros chain has had his patience tested with things beyond his control. After making his major-league debut for the Astros in 2013, he spent the entire 2014 season with Triple-A Oklahoma City before receiving a September callup and appearing in seven games for the Astros. But months later, he witnessed the big league club trade for catcher Hank Conger and C/OF Evan Gattis in separate deals. Both of those moves meant a good chance he’d have another full season at the Triple-A level despite accruing a solid 10-game cup of coffee in the bigs.

“You have to keep it all in perspective,” stated Stassi when asked about battling for a big league job. “You have to go out there and have fun no matter what.

The fun has been tested on the offensive side where he’s regressed a touch since the 2013 season when he batted .277 and slugged 17 homers for Double-A Corpus Christi.

Over 133 career games at the Triple-A level (through May 29), he’s batted .236 (118-501) and owns an on-base percentage under .300. However, the power has certainly returned this season, where’s he smacked five homers in just over 100 at bats and is currently on pace to break his mark of nine from last year.

“I can do both,” he responds when asked if he falls into the stereotype of being a one-dimensional catcher. “I haven’t really shown what I can do offensively so far [in 2015], but I feel I’m hitting my stride here recently.

He’s absolutely right. Lately, Stassi has shown the offensive punch of years past. In a recent stretch in late May, all four of his hits went for extra bases, including two homers. Weighing the stress of his slow start could definitely have wrecked him mentally, but he remains grounded in some advice he received from former big league catcher Matt Treanor who spent nine seasons in the big leagues with Florida, Detroit, Texas, Kansas City, and the Dodgers.

Stassi takes in a throw from the outfield to apply the tag and preserve a tie game vs. Salt Lake earlier this season (photo by James Ramirez)

Stassi takes in a throw from the outfield to apply the tag and preserve a tie game vs. Salt Lake earlier this season (photo by James Ramirez)

“Something that Treanor told me a while ago was that you shouldn’t focus on what everyone else is saying about you. If somebody says something good about you, you can buy into it too much, and if somebody says something bad about you, you can buy into it too much. That type of mental approach has helped me focus on just going out and playing.”

Through two months of the 2015 season, he’s been a bedrock for the Grizzlies. He flips between ranking first or in a tie for first among Pacific Coast League catchers in games played and has slowly begun to build back his throw-out percentage on basestealers.

Even when he finds the occasional day off from the starting lineup, the guy puts in work. Roughly 90-minutes before a day game against Memphis, the catcher was using a resistance band while doing push ups in the gym. After 40 minutes of working out, he walked out, but then appeared restless and ventured back into the gym for another 15 minutes.

“Ultimately, the thing I’ve always wanted to do is play baseball. This is the right career path for me.”

Keep developing kid. You’re going to get up there and stay soon enough.

Against The Odds: The Story of Alex Presley

Alex Presley blog image

Fresno Grizzlies outfielder has accumulated over two years of Major League service time (Design by Andy Inman, Photos by James Ramirez)

This article also appears in the fourth edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the homestand that runs Thursday, May 21st through Thursday, May 28th. Learn about the promotions for the eight home games and purchase tickets here.

Alex Presley has been in this situation before. Surrounded by top prospects and other outfielders with a foot in the door due to being on the 40-man roster, Presley is left making sure his talents stand out to the coaching staff and in the box score every chance he gets in order to force a callup back to the big leagues.

The Louisiana native is in his second season with the Houston Astros organization, but is back in the Triple-A circuit for the first time since 2013. In a numbers game that went against Presley, he found himself the odd man out in an Astros outfield at the end of Spring Training and began the year with the Grizzlies. Needless to say, it’s rekindled a fire that burnt back in 2010 when he was part of a rebuilding Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Then a 24-year-old who was making his first foray into Double-A ball, he wasn’t even listed among the Top 30 Prospects in the Pirates organization. Outfielders Jose Tabata, Starling Marte, Gorkys Hernandez, and current Grizzlies teammate Robbie Grossman were the buzz of the Pirates farm system, while non-prospects like Wesley Freeman (out of baseball), Rogelios Noris (out of baseball), and Quincy Latimore were even listed ahead of him.

“I’ve never been that big prospect, whether it was high school, college, or pro ball. I’ve always had to outperform others to get a chance.”

Presley batted .261 (171-656) with 28 doubles, 14 triples, 16 home runs, 49 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 204 games with Pittsburgh from 2010-13

Presley batted .261 (171-656) with 28 doubles, 14 triples, 16 home runs, 49 RBI and 19 stolen bases in 204 games with Pittsburgh from 2010-13, but has appeared in only 117 big league games since being involved in a trade to Minnesota on August 31, 2013.

Later in that 2010 season, he finally received that chance. With Pittsburgh fans and media clamoring for a callup, Presley received it thanks to a combined .320 average that included 28 doubles, 13 triples, 12 home runs, and 85 RBI between Double-A and Triple-A ball. Two seasons later, he’d play in a career-high 104 big league games on a Pirates team that won 78 games. However, a year later with the Pirates in playoff contention for the first time in 20 years the odds struck against him when he was packaged in a trade to Minnesota in exchange for first baseman Justin Morneau.

He finished the year with the Twins, but then found himself in a battle for a roster spot with Twins prospect Aaron Hicks the following spring. After Presley struggled through Spring Training, he was put on waivers by Minnesota and claimed by the Astros where he’d appear in 89 games.

“I had a pretty versatile role with the Astros last year, which is what I’m pretty good at and have become known for. It’s not the easiest job when you’re not out there every day, but the role you play can constantly change.”

Through all the twists and turns in his career, he’s kept a focused mindset that doesn’t fluctuate too high or low. Whether there’s been an up-and-comer on his heels or competition with his fellow teammates, he refuses to allowed his demeanor to be influenced by factors out of his control. Proof of that outlook is in his start to the 2015 season, where he’s batted .320 (31-97) through his first 27 games, which is good for second best on the team.

He’s even connected with the local Fresno fans, as evidence by his 20-minute dugout chat with 11-year-old Jackson Standifer shortly before first pitch on April 15th. Going mostly unnoticed, Presley spoke with the youngster who was three months removed from beating Stage-4 Burkitt’s Lymphoma.

Presley chats with 11-year-old Jackson Standifer before the Grizzlies game on April 15th (photo by James Ramirez)

Presley chats with 11-year-old Jackson Standifer before the Grizzlies game on April 15th (photo by James Ramirez)

 “I try to focus on where I am now and do the best I can with that situation.”

That commitment to making the most of his time with Fresno can be credited to his years growing up just outside of Monroe, Louisiana. Whether it was encouraging his father to take him to the batting cage for extra work, being the kicker on his high school football team his senior year, allowing his older sister to persuade him into doing back hand springs, or setting records for the University of Mississippi as a wide-eyed freshman, there’s an energy that permits the 29-year-old to embrace the moment when given the opportunity to showcase his talent.

You can begin to notice that there’s more to Alex Presley than what you glance at in a box score, and that’s precisely what the first place Astros will look to add in the coming months. They’ll need someone with a fire that can push away fear in a key moment.

“Another opportunity will be there,” he says when discussing the chance to join the big league club.

That appears to be a given considering his determination to make it happen.

The Flight of Preston Tucker: How the slugger is catching the attention of the Houston Astros

Preston Tucker brings a hitting proficiency that ranks among the best in Fresno Grizzlies history during a single month (photo by James Ramirez)

Preston Tucker brings a hitting proficiency that ranks among the best in Fresno Grizzlies history during a single month (photo by James Ramirez)

This article also appears in the third edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the upcoming homestand that runs Monday, May 4 through Monday, May 11. Learn about the promotions for the eight home games and purchase tickets here.

Written by Ryan Young

Forty-five minutes before first pitch of any game, you can find Fresno Grizzlies outfielder Preston Tucker standing up from his clubhouse chair, turning the corner, and walking down the hallway towards the office of hitting coach Leon Roberts. By now, there’s no need for Tucker to even speak words.

“Ready?” says Roberts as he drops the scouting reports on the opposing pitchers when he catches sight of Tucker.

The two head to the batting cage steps outside of the clubhouse to get in a few more swings before the game.

“I don’t like the two hours of down time,” Tucker says, which is the time between the end of batting practice and first pitch.

Hitting Coach Leon Roberts sits behind the screen in the indoor cage tossing flips (photo by James Ramirez)

Hitting Coach Leon Roberts sits behind the screen in the indoor cage tossing flips (photo by James Ramirez)

A seventh-round pick by the Houston Astros out of the University of Florida in 2012, Tucker has been a proficient hitter in lineups from Plant High School in Tampa, Florida to his current stop at Triple-A Fresno. Through the first 19 games of the 2015 season, he stands apart by leading ALL of Minor League Baseball in home runs (8) and RBI (27). Those numbers are big reason why Fresno has jumped out to an 11-8 first place start. The run production may not be something new for anyone who has followed his path, but the early numbers should pop out considering he’s on pace to shatter his own personal highs and take a stab at remaining among a Minor League leader in both categories.

“My mindset is to put together quality at bats and produce for this team,” he says when asked if the power numbers are a focus for him. “My role is to drive in runs and the guys in front of me have done an unbelievable job of getting on base.” True story, since leadoff hitter Nolan Fontana has flirted with the Pacific Coast League lead in walks all season, while No. 2 hitter L.J. Hoes was hitting .418 (23-55) before being called up to Houston on April 27th.

The team focus is one that spreads throughout the roster and is a unique attribute, considering the competitive nature of Triple-A Baseball where guys are consistently competing for select rosters spots on the big league club throughout the season. However, a lot of these guys on the current roster have been moved through the minor-league system together and it’s offered more of a support group than moments of jealousy.

“It’s fun to see guys succeed along with one another and progress through their careers,” says Tucker. “We’re getting to that point where we’re starting to see it flourish and help out the big league team.”

The April success by Tucker has already hit newsstands in Houston and has been a conversation starter for media with Astros manager A.J. Hinch. Given the Astros 13-7 start (through April 28), anytime a Triple-A player can be brought up in a pregame conversation and take seconds away from the 25 guys on a first place team, it’s a good position to be in.

Surely the power numbers are getting Tucker noticed, but the 24-year-old left-handed hitter continually refutes that it’s his only hook. One glance down at his popeye forearms tells a person that it’s just a factor of the work he puts in. Whether it’s the offseason or an eight-game road trip, he believes in a routine of workouts, especially during the season when it serves as a way to combat the energy zap a 144-game regular season can do to a mind and body.

For instance, when the team took to the road in mid-April for an eight-game swing to Las Vegas and Salt Lake, he’s attempting to confirm shuttle times to the gym instead of planning what sights to see in his down time.

This primary focus became evident when he struck for a two-run moonshot homer in Las Vegas at Cashman Field on April 18th. The ball was still at it’s apex as it screamed past the lights and landed somewhere in the darkness. Yet, the first thing out of the mouth of strength and conditioning coach Trey Wiedman is, “He’s probably going to tell us all he should’ve hit it farther. Yep, he’ll be in the gym first thing tomorrow.”

But it’s that reputation that shows off his rare qualities and lets you know Tucker is destined for a special career. Surely he is a little quiet, but not definitely not shy, and he’s focused not on what he’s already done, but what he needs to do in the present. That mindset, combined with his special skills on the diamond, reminds us of a certain 2014 Fresno Grizzlies player that went on to contribute to a World Championship in his rookie season — Joe Panik.

Tucker has recorded a RBI in 13 of 19 games and has reached base safely in all but two contests for the Grizzlies. The question then may be, where’s the hole? Is he not hitting lefties? Nope, he’s hitting lefties to the tune of .360 (9-25) with a double, two homers and eight RBI. He’s hitting even better with runners on base, featuring a .436 mark (17-39), and also crushes when he’s playing left field, batting .405 (17-42).

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Through his first 19 games, Tucker is hitting .325 (25-77) with two doubles, eight home runs, 27 RBI, six walks, 14 strikeouts, and 16 runs scored. Moreover, he has an eye-popping 1.031 on-base + slugging percentage. (photo by James Ramirez)

Now in his fourth year in the Astros organization, he’s beginning to showcase the type of hitter he’ll be at the next level.

“I’ve tightened things up and have shifted to simply trying to hit the ball hard every time instead of trying to pull it here or there.”

A sign that he’s actually doing what he preaches. On April 27th at Chukchansi Park, he put the bat head out on a pitch and sent a long home run down the line in left that landed on the concourse past the row of bleachers. The opposite field home run, feet within the left field foul pole, surprised a man that’s seen quite a bit of baseball in his life.

“In my 13 years with this team, I’ve never seen a left-handed hitter, opposing or home, hit a ball like that in this ballpark,” noted Fresno Grizzlies broadcaster Doug Greenwald.

See. Preston Tucker does things that aren’t normal. We’ll enjoy watching him in Fresno while he’s here.

Belief in the Journey: The story of Fresno reliever James Hoyt and his quest for a MLB callup

Hoyt tosses a scoreless inning in his debut for the Grizzlies on Saturday, April 11 (photo by James Ramirez)

Hoyt tosses a scoreless inning in his debut for the Grizzlies on Saturday, April 11 (photo by James Ramirez)

This article also appears in the second edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending the upcoming homestand that runs Saturday, April 25 through Tuesday, April 28. Purchase tickets to those games here.

Written by Ryan Young

The story of Fresno right-handed reliever James Hoyt spans two countries and 10 states. Part of his movement has been by curiosity and the other by virtue of chasing the ultimate dream of playing Major League Baseball. In what may be construed as a long and strange trip, it has taken two colleges, a job working on sail boats, three independent league stops, a stint in Mexico, and play across three minor league levels to get him to where he is today.

“For me, it’s obviously not the normal route to professional baseball,” smiles Hoyt as he sits on a bench at Cashman Field in Las Vegas prior to the Grizzlies series finale during part one of a two-city road trip. His casual tones suggest that he’s completely at ease with the unconventional route he’s taken to ascend to the Triple-A level, but there’s also a heavy sense of determination in his eyes that tells of the learning experiences he’s gathered along the way.

When reflecting back to his days as a 6-6, 190-pound high school senior, the thought of sitting in a dugout as a member of the Houston Astros organization couldn’t even be imagined. The 28-year-old notes that he had average stuff at best when he graduated from Boise High School in Idaho and moved to attend Palomar Junior College (Calif.) on a baseball scholarship. The San Marcos-based school was in a familiar area to him, as yearly visits to his mom’s side of the family in San Diego (35-minute car ride south) made the transition easier than most for a young college kid.

After a successful freshman and sophomore campaign on the diamond, an opportunity opened up to transfer to Centenary College in Louisiana and pitch at the Division I level.

“I thought, ‘well this is cool’, since it meant I’d get to pitch against LSU, Texas A&M, and some other big schools,” recalls Hoyt. “I started to get a little more interested in baseball and thought I may have a chance at getting to the next level. Coming into my first year at Centenary, I had finished up a really good fall and I was more than likely going to be the closer.”

Then, the door shut. A transfer rule unbeknownst to him and others with the team required that he transfer in with 80% of his major credits completed to be eligible to play baseball. Problem was, Hoyt only had roughly 68% wrapped up and would be forced to sit out his entire season. The ordeal even included a school staff member losing their job, while the lanky pitcher was relegated to practice and fell off the radar of Major League scouts.

The kicker came near the end of his season away from the live baseball, when a knee injury lingered into his senior year and limited him to a just few appearances. He’d graduate from Centenary, but he’d go undrafted in the MLB First-Year Player Draft and returned to Boise to re-evaluate his life plan. Back home, the itch to start his postgrad life eventually led him back to San Diego, where he worked for Seaforth Sportfishing.

“I went into that job not knowing a lot, but I was mostly doing maintenance [on sail boats]. There were even times I had to clean the crap off the boat.”

Unpleasant duties to most, he enjoyed everything about the job and quickly gained more responsibility. However, thoughts of baseball never ventured too far from the back of his mind and sooner than later he began the journey to get back into the game.

He circled the independent league, pitching for managers such as Jose Canseco and Tony Phillips. The time allowed him to work on different grips for his fastball, splitter, and slider, the last of which has always been his bread and butter. The success in the circuit led him to latch on with Olmecas de Tabasco of the Mexican League, which is comparable to the Triple-A level in the states. It’s there that he was able to build his velocity from 87 mph into the lows 90s, even hitting as high as 94 mph. Now equipped with big league stuff, the Atlanta Braves saw the potential and signed him to his first professional contract.

“When [the Braves] signed me, I went to Arizona to train with Tony [Phillips] before the season and he got me to really dial in mentally. He reassured me that my stuff was good enough. That confidence boost was important.”

Hoyt finally made his professional debut on April 7, 2013 in a blowout win at High-A Potomac, which was quite the graduation from pitching to his youngest sister in the backyard growing up in Idaho. He’d surrender three runs over 2.1 innings in that appearance, but he stuck and remained with the team through June until he received a callup to Double-A Mississippi. Under the tutelage of pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn, he limited opponents to a .147 (17-116) batting average and turned in a 2.48 ERA (9 ER/32.2 IP) over 22 appearances. He’d return to Double-A the following the season, even entering the year as the Braves No. 30 Prospect according to Baseball America, and eventually make his way up to Triple-A after posting a 1.14 ERA (4 ER/31.2 IP) in 28 appearances at Mississippi.

He’d toss four straight scoreless appearances to begin his time with Gwinnett, but like everything in life, learning comes with adversity and Hoyt received a heavy dose on July 31, 2014 at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre when he surrendered five runs in 2/3 of an inning.

“One bad outing as a reliever can kill your year,” he mentions when thinking back to that forgettable night. “My pitching coach pulled me aside after that game and said ‘Numbers wise, your season is done. You could go scoreless in August and still not get your ERA down. So let’s just work every day.’”

The ERA was gnarly, sitting at 8.20 and jumping off any stat sheet that a fan, coach, or baseball operations department would glance at. But, Hoyt refused to let it define his season and he finished the campaign by allowing only one unearned run over his last seven appearances. Moreover, he ventured to the Dominican this past October to build more confidence in his pitching and succeeded. He went 0-1 with a 2.88 ERA (8 ER/25.0 IP) and a .223 (21-94) opponents’ average in 26 games with Gigantes del Cibao.

In the midst of the Winter League season, another chapter would soon be added to his story. On January 14, 2015, the Atlanta Braves traded him to the Houston Astros. He found out via text from his friend, who offered congratulations and reassurance that the move would be great for him.

Hoyt owns three saves through the first 15 games of the 2015 season (photo by James Ramirez)

Hoyt owns three saves through the first 15 games of the 2015 season (photo by James Ramirez)

“I thought, what the heck is he talking about?” mentions Hoyt who said he had no clue about the move when he read the message. “But about five minutes later [Astros General Manager] Jeff Luhnow called me to let me know I was involved in the trade.”

He impressed Astros management this spring training by surrendering only three unearned runs over 9.2 innings and limiting hitters to a .132 batting average at big league camp. Working mostly one inning each time, he got the idea that the plan was for him to work late innings wherever he ended up.

“I like to think I’m that guy,” he says straight up when asked if the late inning pressure is something he is up for.

His pedigree sure offers the eclectic mash-up of successful big league relievers. So what would a Major League callup mean to the right-hander?

“So much,” says Hoyt as he pauses for a second. “I wouldn’t have taken this route and put so many things on the back burner. I’m looking forward to that day.”

So are we. The more people hear this story, the more backers you’ll have in your corner. 

See the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in action at Chukchansi Park Saturday, April 25 through Tuesday, April 28. Tickets are available now at the Chukchansi Park Box Office or online at FresnoGrizzlies.com. For questions, call 559.320.TIXS during normal business hours (Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.). The box office opens at 10:00 a.m. on Saturday, April 25 and Sunday, April 26.

Under the Radar: How Dan Straily and the 2015 Grizzlies are focused on growing a winning culture

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This article also appears in the first edition of the Fresno Grizzlies Play Ball magazine that can be picked up for free by attending Opening Day on Thursday, April 9th. Purchase tickets to Opening Day or any other 2015 game here.

Written by Ryan Young

An outsider would tell you that right-handed pitcher Dan Straily wasn’t himself last year. However, Dan Straily would tell you that 2014 was all part of the natural progression of being a professional baseball player.

“It wasn’t like anything happened [injury wise],” stated the 26-year-old who split time between the Oakland Athletics and Chicago Cubs organization in 2014. “Sure it could’ve been the stress of built up innings over the years, but who knows what it was. Now I’ve got myself stronger and a lot closer to where I’ve always been.”

Where he’s been is someone that’s refused to play to the level he was drafted at. Taken by the Athletics in the 24th  round of the 2009 First-Year Player Draft out of Marshall University, he moved through the system quickly and became a part of the big league rotation in his fourth professional season. He made 34 starts over a year plus for an Oakland squad that won back-to-back American League West Championships in 2012 and 2013. The Oregon native went 12-9 with a 3.94 ERA (84 ER/191.2) and 156 strikeouts during that stretch, along with making his first career postseason start (no decision), all before the age of 25.

Straily speaks to the media after earning a no decision against the Detroit Tigers in the 2013 ALDS

Straily speaks to the media after earning a no decision against the Detroit Tigers in the 2013 ALDS

The momentum continued into 2014 as through his first two starts he went 1-1 with a 2.77 ERA (4 ER/13.0 IP) and held opponents to only nine hits in 47 at bats (.191 average). But then came a road start at the Angels where he surrendered six runs and couldn’t get out of the fourth inning. Despite bouncing back by limiting opponents to three runs or less in his next four starts, the shock factor hit strong when the only organization he had known packaged him in a trade that sent him to the Cubs, along with a few other prospects, for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

“It was a little disappointing because it was in the middle of the season, whereas this past trade [to the Astros organization] came during the offseason. It can be hard to pack up in the middle of a year and move. You get used to the routine, but it’s part of the ups and downs you go with.”

As the righty enters his seventh professional season, he seems better equipped to handle the rollercoaster a baseball season can bring. He sounds settled, focused, and at home after breaking his first camp with the Astros and being assigned to Triple-A Fresno. Straily spent a good amount of time the past two months even experimenting with a curveball in order to give him a four-pitch repertoire, thanks to a little push from Astros pitching coach Brent Strom.

“It’s part of my ongoing development. I’m always trying to find new ways to get guys out and [Strom] feels like it can be a weapon. It’s just kind of an experiment.”

Situated as one of the pillars of the Grizzlies rotation barring an early season callup, Straily can also lend a little guidance to a pitching staff that that features eight players his age or younger, including six guys who spent a majority of last season at the Double-A level.

“In terms of experience, I’ve been fortunate to have a little more than them. If one of them asks me something I’m definitely very open to talk to them about it, but I can’t ever talk to a first round guy about the pressures of what that means, because I was always an under the radar guy. I never had that high draft pick perception or any of that pressure put on me.”

Over four Spring outings for the Astros, he went 0-0 with a 5.91 ERA (7 ER/10.2 IP) and six strikeouts

Over four Spring outings for the Astros, he went 0-0 with a 5.91 ERA (7 ER/10.2 IP) and six strikeouts

Although he may not be able to relate and relay guidance at every turn, he can certainly tell these guys a thing or two about pitching in the Pacific Coast League due to his 36 career starts in the circuit. Thankfully, this season he pitches for Fresno as the righty was 3-0 with a 1.87 ERA (7 ER/33.2 IP) and 35 strikeouts over five career starts against the Grizzlies, including two wins in both of his starts at Chukchansi Park. That winning culture is something he’s been used to.

“From 2010-2013 I was in the playoffs and it’s a lot of fun and gives you more excitement to come to the ballpark at the end of the season. I think the winning mindset really has to start in the minor leagues. My time with Sacramento, it was never really talked about, but it was expectations we set on ourselves.”

Those expectations have been brought to a Fresno Grizzlies team that hasn’t reached the postseason since their inaugural season in 1998. With a 2015 squad armed with young prospects and determined players like Straily, hope and expectations have returned to an organization that had become used to ending their season on the final day of the regular season.

“All of us guys are in it together and we’ll definitely have fun in the clubhouse, but on the field it’ll be business time.”

One thing is for certain; the fans of the Central Valley can’t wait to see what that business time can produce.

See the Triple-A Fresno Grizzlies in action on Opening Day Thursday, April 9th at Chukchansi Park. Tickets are available now at the Chukchansi Park Box Office or online at FresnoGrizzlies.com. For questions, call 559.320.TIXS during normal business hours (Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.).

Holiday Stocking Stuffers On Sale Now!

Have you been good this year? Then no need to fear! Stocking stuffers from the Grizzlies are here!

The Fresno Grizzlies, Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, are warming up the winter holidays with special stocking stuffer deals! This holiday season, the Grizzlies are offering the perfect gifts to carry your close ones through the offseason and make Opening Day on April 9, 2015 seem like it’s right around the corner.

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The first stocking stuffer includes two (2) ticket vouchers for a 2015 Fresno Grizzlies home game and one (1) Growlifornia t-shirt. This $25 stocking stuffer gives your friend or family member an exclusive t-shirt, and then provides them the option to choose a 2015 Grizzlies game that fits their schedule. Sizes in the t-shirt range from Small to 3XL (while supplies last). ***Please note that a representative from the Grizzlies will contact you after your purchase to confirm a t-shirt size. If you do not receive a call within 24 hours of your purchase, please contact 559.320.TIXS.

 

blogsizeThe second stocking stuffer is perfect for the person that’s looking for three gifts in one. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stocking stuffer includes four (4) 2015 Fresno Grizzlies ticket vouchers, two (2) Regal Cinema movie tickets and one (1) Fresno Grizzlies TMNT t-shirt. The best part of all is that this stocking stuffer is priced below $50! Shirt sizes currently range from toddler through adult. ***Please note that a representative from the Grizzlies will contact you after your purchase to confirm a t-shirt size. If you do not receive a call within 24 hours of your purchase, please contact 559.320.TIXS.

Both stocking stuffers are available for purchase online or by calling 559.320.TIXS. Customers may pick up their order at the Chukchansi Park Box Office (1800 Tulare St) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. or they can elect to have it delivered via USPS for an additional charge. Orders must be placed prior to December 19th to guarantee delivery for December 25th. All packages that are purchased between December 20th – January 4th will be mailed out on January 5th due to the holiday closure of the office. Please note that the only way to purchase a package from December 20th – January 4th is online.

More questions? Call 559.320.TIXS or email ticketoffice@fresnogrizzlies.com

Giving Back and Giving Thanks

The following blog entry is written by Mayra Alvarez, who reflects on the recent Fresno Grizzlies Thanksgiving Supper Giveaway that was conducted on Monday, November 24th. Photos by Roe Borunda.

At this time of the year, money can be very tight and many families are faced with the challenge of balancing regular expenses, as well as budgeting for the holidays to come. To help lessen the stress that may come with the uncertainty of being able to afford a Thanksgiving dinner, four Downtown businesses came together to feed 100 families in Fresno. In collaboration with the Fresno Grizzlies, the Downtown Fresno Grocery Outlet, OK Produce, and Shepherd’s Inn made it possible to host the Fresno Grizzlies Thanksgiving Supper Giveaway at Chukchansi Park the Monday before Thanksgiving Day. On the day of the event, each family was able to take away a 10 to 12-pound turkey, a five-pound bag of potatoes, three pounds of yams, a bunch of celery, a sack of onions, a box of stuffing, and a can of chicken broth, along with recipes that were provided for families to take home to use at their leisure.

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The process in making this event come alive commenced in early November. When I was initially tasked with being the point of contact for this event and reaching out to local families, I didn’t realize the magnitude of how emotional and fulfilling it would be. I was able to reach out to over 100 families through contacts that were passed along from city council members, and downtown organizations such as Salvation Army, WIC, and various churches in the area. Our goal for the event was to make sure that these dinner items would be given to those who would truly benefit from them and would be able to put the meal components to good use.

As I reached out to several families I began to realize the weight that a giveaway like this carried. I got to learn the depth of what being able to have a Thanksgiving dinner at home it meant for people, who otherwise would not have been able to have it. After a few calls I noticed that some of the people I got in touch with were almost confused at the fact that they were invited to such a giveaway. I was often asked how or why they were lucky enough to receive a phone call that let them know they now had a way to put Thanksgiving dinner on their table.

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At first, families seemed almost hesitant to accept the idea of an offer that they would say was “too good to be true.” Many people figured they had to give something in return, or had to enter in to some type of contest in order to be provided with a full complimentary Thanksgiving supper. As I dialed person after person, I explained that there was no catch and that this was simply something the Grizzlies collaborated with downtown businesses in order to give back to the community.

Often I was met with absolute silence, which I can only assume came from the sheer disbelief or shock at what they were hearing on the phone. I could almost feel the sense of relief and gratitude on the other end of these calls. As realization settled, the silences were then followed by endless “Thank You’s” in between the sounds of gasps as many held back from breaking down in tears.

After each day of making these phone calls my heart went out to the families I got in touch with as they shared stories about current struggles they were facing, making it a blessing to be a part of alleviating a part of their worries. For every phone call that passed I grew more and more appreciative of that fact that I am fortunate enough to spend Thanksgiving and many other holidays back home with my family.

During several different calls there were moments where I found myself choking up and trying to hold back tears. It was so gratifying to be able to let families know that Thanksgiving dinner would not be yet another worry or stress this year.

Blog4I will never forget a particular conversation I had with a woman, who was so thankful to have received a phone call that in between weeps, managed to tell me that she was in utter disbelief. She sounded defeated and had already come to terms with the thought that she probably wouldn’t be able to afford Thanksgiving dinner for her family this year. She then opened up, sharing with me that she was disabled and that her husband had suffered a heart attack earlier in the year. I still remember this woman’s full name, and probably always will. I replayed this phone conversation over and over in my head as the day of the event came closer.

When I arrived to work on the Monday of the event, I was informed that there was already a woman waiting in line two hours prior to the giveaway. When the woman told me her name, the entire phone conversation I had with her in early November came rushing back to me and I knew exactly who she was, standing there, waiting alone at 8:00 a.m. She was the disabled woman who’s conversation I had been replaying in my head over and over.

By 9:00 a.m., an hour before we began to give away the suppers, she no longer stood alone. Moms and dads with children and babies hugged the gate entrance bundled up in the chilly 47-degree weather. Families laughed and smiled as they posed for pictures with our mascot Parker T. Bear and exchanged stories while they waited patiently to get through the gates. People expressed their ample gratitude to employees and volunteers while going through the line collecting all of the vegetables, ingredients and a turkey. As people walked through the line, stories were shared about cherished moments on Thanksgiving around the dinner table with their families and how much it meant that it would be possible again.

Blog5Ultimately, we were able come together to give away 100 complimentary Thanksgiving suppers to Fresno families. I have never felt so fulfilled in a job where I have been able to give back to our community in such a significant manner. I was thankful for being able to be part of a donation that would allow families to spend Thanksgiving at home with dinner on the table. Not only were we able to provide families with a meal for Thanksgiving day, but I believe that we contributed to giving them hope and a lasting memory of what giving thanks during this time is all about. There is always something to be thankful for, whether you’re the one able to give or the one fortunate enough to receive.

Ovations executive chef Jason Westerfield shares cooking stories and Thanksgiving recipes

Please note the Thanksgiving recipes are listed at the bottom of this blog entry.

Minor League Baseball is synonymous with a lot of things, but something that truly sticks out on a yearly basis is the variety of food one can find at concession stands throughout the country. This past year at Chukchansi Park, the “Grizzly Eggs” were the one-of-a-kind item you couldn’t find anywhere else. A brainstorm from Fresno Grizzlies Director of Marketing Sam Hansen, Ovations executive chef Jason Westerfield experimented with the original recipe and was able to produce the cream-cheese filled deviled eggs, which were wrapped in bacon, baked in an oven and then drizzled with buffalo sauce. The item was so popular that it landed on the front page of the Fresno Bee before anyone ever tasted it. Non-traditional moments like those are what Minor League Baseball marketing professionals live for, and in turn, those ideas help expand the expectations fans have when it comes to a culinary creation they can enjoy at a baseball game. While the Grizzlies are currently in the midst of the offseason, Ovations Food Services and executive chef Jason Westerfield are currently brainstorming ways to blend a Texas flavor into the Chukchansi Park menu for 2015. We recently caught up with Jason to talk about where that process currently is, get his background in cooking, as well as pull a few Thanksgiving recipes from him that people could easily execute for the holiday.

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Ovations at Chukchansi Park executive chef Jason Westerfield

Q: With the Fresno Grizzlies now being the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros, are there any Texas elements coming to the concession stands in 2015?

Jason Westerfield: I definitely have some ideas. Everything is bigger in Texas, so it’s really about going over the top on what’s trending. You see giant hot dogs or corn dogs, so you may see us load one of those with caramelized onions and velveeta cheese to make it bigger and better. Texas barbecue is also huge, and we’re looking at creating our own signature sauce that will include some local Fresno chili peppers.

Q: Obviously cooking comes a little more naturally to you than others. Where do you get your cooking inspiration from?

JW: The internet is a huge resource for me. At this point, I wouldn’t say anyone is reinventing the wheel, but they’re putting a new spin on old, traditional foods. One of the things I wanted to come up with was a sweet potato ravioli with a nutmeg and sage cream. Nothing came up on an internet search with those ingredients, but a pumpkin ravioli did, which helped me formulate my sweet potato recipe a littler better.

Q: Your earliest cooking memories go back how far?

JW: Wow… probably when I was 10 or 11 helping out my grandmother and mother in the kitchen. I started out learning the simple tricks, such as the correct way to peel a tomato. As the years went by, I would be asked to take care of a certain dish.

Q: Did they play any tricks on you in those early years?

JW: The first time I cut an onion I remember asking my mom why I was crying…

Q: So when did you begin cooking professionally?

JW: In high school I washed dishes for Marie Callender’s Restaurant and Bakery, then moved on to bus tables and then decided I wanted to cook. I started out prepping, then shifted to Olive Garden where I went from prep, to line cook, to line trainer and eventually corporate trainer. After that, I moved to Monterrey (Calif.) and worked at Pebble Beach. From there, I helped open up Roy’s Restaurant in Spanish Bay.

Q: What were some learning experiences you had at Roy’s?

JW: Well, that was really the pinnacle of transition from an ordinary cook to becoming a chef. Roy really pressed us to create new things on the menu. If I was working the appetizer station, I was tasked with the normal appetizers and then I had to create three custom appetizers from scratch. You couldn’t repeat any of your custom dishes, so it made you think ahead two or three days in advance. It was a constant science experiment in the kitchen.

Q: Bet that got your creative juices going!

JW: Exactly. It was a Euro-Asian fusion style we did, which is now my forte. It takes traditional Asian ingredients, but adds in European cooking techniques.

Q: How did you make your way from Monterrey to Fresno?

JW: I moved on to help open up Chukchansi Gold Resort & Casino, then moved north up to Oroville (Calif.) and ran Gold Country Casino. Both of those places broadened my experience in other cuisines, considering there are different style restaurants you have to account for. I remember having a couple hundred different finger food desserts, which was a lot of fun to brainstorm and execute.

Q: Yum! Well, speaking about all of this food and with Thanksgiving rapidly approaching, what’s a favorite memory you have that deals with the meal that was on the table when you were younger?

JW: What I remember most was my mother doing a different theme for Thanksgiving each year. We went to Williamsburg one year and ended up cooking oyster dumplings and all of those old school recipes from the 1700s. Another year she had visited San Luis Obispo and the Apple Farm Inn, so we did an apple theme with chicken apple sausage, apple fritters, and apple pie.

Q: You have a little bit of your own theme for us here. What recipes have you concocted that a person could use for Thanksgiving this year?

JW: I was able to take the traditional elements of Thanksgiving and put a little different spin on it. I wrote up a few of the recipes to share (shown below), and they’re simple enough for people to follow and execute for their Thanksgiving supper. I did a butter and herb roasted turkey, turkey gravy with giblets, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, a citrus ginger cranberry sauce, and a pumpkin crème brule.

chef_wordpressThe recipe creations at their completion. Please review the time needed for each recipe if you are going to use them on Thanksgiving. This will help you line up all of the dishes so they are ready to serve at the same time.

All recipes courtesy of Ovations at Chukchansi Park executive chef Jason Westerfield.

BUTTER AND HERB ROASTED TURKEY

This recipe has been tailored for a 10-12 pound turkey

Cook time: 3.5 hours

One pound softened unsalted butter

¼ cup minced Rosemary

¼ cup minced Sage

¼ cup minced Garlic

Salt and Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Let butter soften to room temperature. Then, combine the butter, rosemary, sage, and garlic in a mixing bowl. Once incorporated, rub the compound butter in between the skin and the breast meat saving enough to coat the outside of the turkey. Place the turkey in a roasting pan with a rack, pour three (3) cups of water in the bottom of the pan, and cover with foil. Cook in the for roughly 3.5 hours at 325 degrees. When the turkey has an internal temperature of 150 degrees, remove foil and brown the turkey until the internal temp reaches 165. Remove from the oven and let it rest while you finish the gravy.

TURKEY GRAVY WITH GIBLETS

Cook time: Roughly 80 minutes

Giblets from the Turkey

2 tbsp Butter

½ cup diced onion

½ cup diced carrot

½ cup diced celery

1 tbsp minced garlic

1 teas Italian seasoning

4 cups of water

Turkey drippings

3 tbsp flour

Salt and Pepper to taste

In a two-quart sauce pan, melt butter over medium high heat, then add the onion, carrots, and celery. Sweat for one-minute, then add the garlic and sauté for another minute or so. Add the water to the pan along with the giblets (including the neck). Bring stock to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for about an hour. Remove the neck, giblits and set aside. Strain the stock into another pan and set aside.

I advise that you remove as much of the neck meat as you can and fine chop along with the rest of the giblets. When the turkey is done, remove it to a serving platter and let rest while finishing the gravy. Skim as much fat as you can from the drippings into the gravy, then add the rest to the previous stock. Add the chopped giblets to the stock, and return to the heat. Combine 3 tblsp of flour with a ¼ cup of cold water. Bring the stock to a boil and drizzle in the flour mix while whisking quickly. Let it thicken for about a minute, then it is ready to serve.

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ROASTED GARLIC MASHED POTATOES

This recipe has been tailored for a 5 pound bag of russet

Cook time: Roughly 25 minutes

1 cup Roasted Garlic Chopped

2 tbsp minced Garlic

2 cup Heavy Cream

8 oz Unsalted Butter

Salt and White pepper to taste

Peel and cut potatoes into one inch cubes. Combine in a pot with enough water to cover the potatoes, then add the minced garlic. Boil until soft (about 15 minutes), then drain water off of the potatoes and return to the heat for one minute to get rid of any excess water. This will keep the potatoes fluffy. In a sauce pan, add the heavy cream and butter and heat until butter is melted. Once hot, add the cream mixture and the chopped garlic to the potatoes. Mash the potatoes with a potato masher or a whisk. Add the salt and pepper to taste.

CITRUS GINGER CRANBERRY SAUCE

Video Demonstration

Cook time: Roughly 10 minutes

1 bag Fresh Cranberries

6 medium Oranges (3 for segments, 3 for juice)

½ cup Brown Sugar

Juice from 3 oranges

½ cup water

Zest of 1 orange

¼ cup minced ginger

1 teas Vanilla Extract

Zest one orange and finely mince. Peel that orange and two others with a knife. Cut out segments from between the membrane of the orange, set aside. Juice the other three oranges and add to a sauce pan along with the water, brown sugar, orange zest, and ginger. Bring the mix to a simmer, then add the cranberries and vanilla. Let simmer until it thickens and have reached a jam consistency. Fold in the orange segments and serve.

PUMPKIN CRÈME BRULE

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees

Overall time: 5 hours (4 of which to refrigerate)

8 Egg Yolks

¾ cup sugar

3 cup Heavy Cream

¾ cup canned pumpkin

2 Vanilla Beans Seeded + 1 teas Vanilla Extract

1 teas Pumpkin Pie Spice

Topping

1 ½ cup heavy cream

3 tbsp sugar

1 teas cinnamon

Combine sugar and egg yolks into a mixing bowl. Bring the cream and vanilla beans just to a boil, then remove. Drizzle in small amounts of cream into the egg/sugar mix to temper the eggs (about 1 cup). Return the egg mixture back to into the sauce pan. On low heat, add the pumpkin and the vanilla extract to incorporate well. Divide mix between 8 – 6oz ramekins or custard dishes. Place on a baking sheet with a water bath. Bake at 325 for about 25 until the middle is just set (should jiggle a little). Let cool for 10 to 15 minutes, then refrigerate for about four hours. When ready to serve, sprinkle with a ½ tbsp sugar to cover the top and caramelize with a torch or under the broiler. WATCH closely so you don’t burn them.

For the topping, whip the cream and sugar together until stiff peaks. Fold in the cinnamon.

Dollop the topping on the Crème Brule and serve.

Hope you enjoy! Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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