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.
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?
“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.
“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.
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?
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.
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!
By: Noah Frank
When Justin Christian signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants last offseason, he didn’t expect an assignment back to the Double-A Eastern League, with the Richmond Flying Squirrels. That’s exactly where the 31-year-old found himself on Opening Day, though, surrounded by teammates and opponents in their mid-20s, a place he was in when he first came up through the New York Yankees farm system five years prior.
Christian was an up-and-coming 26-year-old when he opened the 2006 season on the roster of the Trenton Thunder, the Eastern League team affiliated with the Yankees. He made it to the majors in June of 2008, but lasted just 24 games before being sent back to Triple-A. The Yankees non-tendered him in 2009, and he spent a shortened season in the Orioles chain after recovering from shoulder surgery. He began 2010 in Indy ball before the Yankees signed him once again, but he was relegated to a season split between Double-A and Triple-A again. Needing a change of scenery, Christian signed as a free agent with the Giants, his hometown team that he grew up rooting for in San Mateo. And yet, here he was to begin 2011, back on the east coast, two big steps removed from getting back to the promised land.
“Having to start in Double-A was tough for me,” Christian admitted. “I looked it as an opportunity to help the young guys over there and to get at-bats in and to perform and be ready to be up here.”
To keep himself focused, Christian decided on a walk-up song that would remind him of his ultimate goal, a return to the Major Leagues. That song was the “San Francisco Anthem” by San Quinn, a hip-hop track that samples Scott McKenzie’s seminal ‘60s hit “San Francisco”. Those at the Diamond in Richmond, as well as those who attended a game at Chukchansi Park following Christian’s promotion Fresno, may well remember it echoing from the sound system as he stepped to the plate.
“You always want to have those constant, daily reminders of where you want to be,” he explained. “I think if you see it every day, you hear it everyday and you believe it, that you will get there.”
Nevertheless, the dream still seemed distant, even after the move to Triple-A. Christian had hit a modest .256/.328/.359 with four home runs, 18 stolen bases and 46 runs scored in 73 games for the Flying Squirrels, and had only really gotten the opportunity to play in Fresno after Darren Ford and Tyler Graham collided going after a ball in right-center field at Kino Stadium in Tucson. The former had tweaked his wrist on the play, leading to the decision to move Christian up.
So much of baseball, though, as players and longtime fans of the game will tell you, is what you do when opportunity comes your way. Christian took full advantage of his opportunity, homering twice and swiping five steals through his first four games as a Grizzly. He would go on to finish his 64-game Triple-A stint at .338/.428/.574 with 10 homers and 36 steals in just 39 attempts. When the Giants decided to part ways with Aaron Rowand and Miguel Tejada, summoning Brett Pill from Fresno, there was one more spot open on the 40-man roster. As much as a player can’t let himself be concerned with such administrative details as he goes about trying to succeed on the field each day, there is no avoiding it.
“Personally, I’m never too much aware of that part of the game because I’m too focused on playing well every single day,” said Christian. “But, you know, I have an agent, and a girlfriend that knows more about that kind of stuff than I do.”
As it turned out, Christian did not need to avoid the chatter from either agent or girlfriend. He would end up filling that final 40-man spot on September 6th, seven months to the day after signing with San Francisco.
“There were a couple of other guys who were deserving as well and they chose me,” he said in an early September interview in the home clubhouse at AT&T Park. “That means a lot to me. I always believed, deep down, that I could get back here.”
Not only did Christian get the call-up he has been waiting for, ever since recovering from that shoulder surgery, he found himself consistently in the starting lineup, batting leadoff. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I’ve always expected to play, that’s just my mindset,” he said. “When the Yankees called me up back in June of ’08, even though I flew all day that day, I expected to play, and sure enough I was in the lineup. I always to expect to play, so that I’m not surprised. It’s too hard to do it the other way.”
With his speed and decent pop in his bat, as well as a propensity for highlight-reel catches like this, and this, Christian will be an intriguing piece of the puzzle as the Giants decide the future of their outfield.
By: Josh Jackson
There are many young kids in this country and other parts of the world who aspire to play professional baseball when they grow older. Unfortunately, for most of us, this fantasy is eventually smothered by the harsh realities that come with the different seasons of life. We realize that the road to becoming a professional athlete is too narrow for all dreamers to travel on. On the other hand, there are some kids who are just gifted, lucky, and put in a lot of time and hard work. These kids eventually do get to play baseball professionally. We see them every summer at venues like Chukchansi Park in Downtown Fresno.
But the ultimate goal of every player performing in affiliated ball is to make it to The Show. Even out of all the players that are fortunate enough to have made it to a professional baseball team, a very minute portion will ever make it to the big leagues. So when 2011 Grizzlies Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchezmade their Major League debuts this season at such a young age, it was hard not to appreciate the rarity of the situation.
As most Grizzlies and Giants fans may know, Belt made his Major League debut on Opening Day this season. He struggled at the plate to start the year, which is very common for young hitters, and was optioned to Fresno on his 23rd birthday. Injuries to the Giants gave Sanchez his first opportunity to play in the Majors back on July 15th at the young age of 21. Most people don’t even dream of starting a career at that age and this young man started behind the plate for the defending World Series Champions. This year also marks Sanchez’ fifth year as a professional. Some simple math reveals that he was only 16 when he played his first professional baseball game.
Three-time All-star and Gold Glover Vernon Wells would know something about being on the brink of being a big time ball player at such a young age. Wells was a first-round selection by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1997 when he was just 18 years old. At the age of 21, he went from playing Single-A ball to playing in the Majors in the span of one season, just like Sanchez. Wells described what it was like to be a teenager in the minor leagues.
“It was a great experience being around the older guys and guys that have played in the big leagues,” he explained. “You play around big league ballplayers everyday and it is hard to not focus on that.”
When asked what advice he would give to Hector Sanchez on the day of his Major League debut, Wells responded, “Just relax. Just stay confident. That’s the hardest part. It’s actually much easier to hit, you can see the ball easier in these (Major League) parks. Sometimes I would go rehab at these minor league stadiums and it was so difficult to see the ball.”
Perhaps confidence and the ability to relax at the plate was something Giants top prospect Brandon Belt lacked at the beginning of the season. Being sent back-and-forth between Fresno and San Francisco did not discourage Belt, as he kept a positive attitude and a healthy work ethic that was visibly apparent to even the casual observer. His focus paid off on July 19th, when he was recalled by San Francisco to face the rival Dodgers at home. Belt had no problem seeing the ball on this night, as he turned in a 2-for-4, 3 RBI performance, which included a solo shot to right field in the second inning, his first home run at AT&T Park. His contributions lifted the Giants to a much needed, 5-3 victory. Speaking with Belt after the game, you could see it felt good for him to get passed some of his early season struggles.
“The first time I was up (with the Giants) at the beginning of the year, confidence was definitely something I lacked,” Belt explained. “I put a lot of stress and pressure on myself and it definitely showed in my play. That’s one of the main things I wanted to work on when I was in Fresno. I was able to relax and find a place where I was comfortable physically and mentally and fortunately I was able to bring it back up here.”
Belt will likely finish the season with the San Francisco Giants, and it does not appear that he will be coming back our way to Fresno anytime soon. Sanchez is currently with San Jose until rosters expand in September. After talking with him in San Francisco, Sanchez expressed his excitement on finishing the year strong and getting more opportunities down the road.
“It is amazing being where I am and having a chance to play for a big league team,” Sanchez explained. “I am excited for the future and being able to play with those guys”.
Belt and Sanchez are already breathing rare air by making it to the Major League level at such a young age. Now the focus turns to doing what Vernon Wells has done, competing at the highest level for an extended period of time. The hard work and dedication to their craft will have to be pushed to the next level if they wish to have that kind of success down the road. Having witnessed their meteoric rise through the minor league system, it is hard to put a damper on their potential.
Photo Credit: Don Davis
By: Josh Jackson
Early Monday morning, rumors had surfaced in the local Fresno media that a trade had been approved that would send Grizzlies mascot, Parker, to another team in the PCL. The trade deadline had already come and gone on July 31st at 4:00 p.m. ET, but a few media entities were speculating that a deal had been reached prior to the deadline.
Many were skeptical of these rumors at first. After all, Parker is known across Minor League Baseball as the hardest working bear in all of the Central Valley. It was hard for people to grasp the concept of the Grizzlies letting go of one of their most valuable assets. In fact, after initial trade rumors had been reported and word spread via Twitter, PCL opponents Tacoma and Sacramento publicly denied involvement in any mascot trading with the Fresno Grizzlies, adding to further skepticism amongst the public.
The local Fresno media remained hot on the story, as the paparazzi were able to catch Parker at the Greyhound Bus Station Downtown Monday afternoon. He was seen purchasing a ticket to Reno, Nevada, which greatly intensified the trade rumors. Media sources tried to get a confirmation from the Reno Aces that a mascot trade agreement had been reached between the two organizations, however Aces executives remained silent throughout the process.
Fans filed into Chukchansi Park on Monday night fearing the worst. On-field MC Travis Sheridan introduced Parker to the fans as usual, and the furry celebrity rode in on his yellow ATV from the center field gate. He waved to the fans as he made his way around the warning track. “Parker Protocol” is to stop behind home plate and interact with the fans and players for the duration of pregame. This time was different though, as Parker continued his way around the warning track and back out through center field, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and not the usual Grizzlies jersey, waving to his beloved fans along the way. Some could not believe it, but for the time being it seemed like Fresno had seen the last of their furry friend.
To the relief of Grizzlies fans and the Central Valley as a whole, it was announced after the second inning that Parker would be staying in Fresno. The rumors had stemmed from Parker’s attempts to ship Dereks Franks, his hot dog-slinging arch-nemesis mascot, to Reno. There has been a lot of tension between the two ever since their confrontation with each other on Mascot Wrestling Night back on July 23. Sources say that Parker has been secretly shopping Franks on the trade market for the past week or so. It wasn’t until just a couple days ago that Parker found a suitor for Franks. In return for their new hot dog mascot, Reno agreed to send Parker a new super hero outfit, a box of silly string and a marketing intern, a nice return for the bear.
The deal appeared to be done, however the trade was never finalized due to some clerical shortcomings on Parker’s behalf. All of the paperwork had been completed, but Parker failed to fax it off to the league in time for approval. It turns out that the 12-game homestand had fatigued Fresno’s favorite bear significantly, who has been in need of some power hibernation lately. Following Saturday night’s contest against Reno, Parker intended on getting some extra sleep to prepare for the final three games of the series. This plan backfired, as Parker slept straight through the trade deadline and did not get approval from the league in time.
When all was said and done, Parker figured he would have to deal with Dereks Franks for at least one more year. “Things will not always turn out the way you want to this time of year,” Parker explained through an interpreter. “Dereks Franks and I will continue to try to work through our personal vendettas against one another in order to put on a great show for our fans. We just want to move forward from here.” Time will only tell what the fallout will be from Parker’s antics. One thing that we can be sure of: it will be highly entertaining.
By: Josh Jackson
July 10, 2011
FRESNO- Fresno starter Matt Yourkin may be one of the best starters on the Grizzlies staff this season. However Sunday afternoon marked a rough day for the veteran left-hander, as he was touched up by the Junior Grizzlies at Chukchansi Park.
A multitude of the Junior Grizzlies ballplayers got in on the action for a great session of day baseball in downtown Fresno. All afternoon, balls were being peppered all over the baseball diamond from every team. One of the more notable performances came from Arturo Camarillo of the black team. Camarillo hit a monster shot off of Yourkin that went deep into center field. Camarillo’s commitment to the Junior Grizzlies is undeniable. He is up early to take the bus to and from every practice and game. It is no surprise that he is considered one of the leaders of the organization.
Jarod Aust from the Navy team also displayed some good wood on the afternoon. Aust had one of the hardest hit balls of the game, as he roped a ball hard down the third base line, driving in a couple of runs in the process. Grizzlies pitcher Shane Loux had to duck out of the way to avoid getting hit by the well-struck ball. One could clearly see that Loux was impressed by Aust’s superb contact on the swing.
The Junior Grizzlies showed that they could do more than just hit, as certain players made some true web gems. Infielder Will Jones flashed leather all afternoon, putting on a defensive clinic for the black team. Jones, who is normally a catcher, played the infield all game and was not hesitant to swallow up some tough ground balls. He was definitely not afraid to get dirty, diving for grounders and line drives throughout the game.
Players from the red, green and blue teams had terrific days as well. Grizzlies players such as infielders Edgar Gonzalez and Brandon Belt were seen around the diamond giving Junior Grizzlies the credit they deserved, as they congratulated players from all the teams on their winning efforts. In the end, all of the Junior Grizzlies walked away from Chukchansi Park on Sunday afternoon victorious.
By: Ellen Ward
Despite a good overall record, the defending World Champions have had a rough start to the 2011 season. They have lost key players to injuries, several of which have come through Fresno on rehab stints before returning to the Majors. After losing 30 pounds and finding his swing again in the off-season, the last place Pablo Sandoval thought he would end up would be on the disabled list. Just a month into the season, Sandoval fractured his right hand sliding into second base in a game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later received surgery to repair the broken bone. Sandoval used his recovery time wisely; working out constantly, and even took ground balls with his left hand.
Signing with the Giants in 2003, Sandoval quickly rose through the various levels within the organization. The Giants promoted him straight to the Majors from Double-A Connecticut, bypassing Triple-A Fresno completely. The infielder made his Major League debut with the Giants in 2008 after splitting time between High-A San Jose and Double-A Connecticut. Sandoval became an instant fan favorite, batting .345 in 2008 and quickly emerged as a key hitter in the lineup. He received his quirky nickname, Kung Fu Panda, from pitcher Barry Zito, on September 19th, 2008, when he jumped over a tag from catcher Danny Ardoin, against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Sandoval continued to dominate in 2009, batting .330 with 25 home runs, but fell off to just .268 with 13 home runs in 2010. In order to return to his earlier form, Sandoval took advantage of the 2010 off-season, losing 30 pounds over a three-month span. Before breaking his hand, Sandoval was batting .313, and led the team with five home runs in 24 games.
Now, Sandoval is finding his way back to San Francisco after being gone for five weeks. He is scheduled to start his rehab with San Jose before heading to Fresno for the first time in his major league career sometime this weekend. According to various Bay Area reporters the Giants would like him to play in at least five games before returning to San Francisco.
With this being Sandoval’s first time in Fresno, the community is already buzzing about the famous Kung Fu Panda’s debut at Chukchansi Park. To catch a glimpse of the Panda in action, be sure to get your tickets before they’re all gone. And don’t forget to pick up a fuzzy panda hat— you wouldn’t want to miss out on all the fun!
(Photo Credit: top: Lenny Ignelzi/AP; bottom: Associated Press)