After the lockout in 1995, I was pissed at Major League Baseball. The fact that the Mets were "The Worst Team Money Could Buy" (and who could disagree with Bob Klapisch's assessment?) made it that much easier for me to shake my fist at the lords of baseball and send myself down to the minors. The Myrtle Beach Blue Jays, the Tidewater Tides, the Pawtucket PawSox, the Wilmington (N.C.) Waves, and the Orlando Cubs were where I spent my baseball energy and money for several years. That is, until McGwire, Sosa, and the turn-of-the millennium Mets reeled me back in to the bigs. But I've always had a soft place in my heart for the minor leagues.
I'd made it to one spring training game this year, but a taste of live Mets baseball only made my withdrawal shakes worse. I was getting tired of reading how many appearances all my fellow bloggers have been making at Shea. So I vowed to spend the Fourth of July watching the St. Lucie Mets play the Daytona Cubs at Jackie Robinson Ballpark. See? There's already a stadium named after him. Why not let CitiCorp pay for the sign on our new digs?
NostraDennis showing Jackie Robinson's photograph what a real man looks like.
(more pics at bottom)
My best-laid plans, however, as well as the scheduled pyrotechnics to follow, were wiped out by intermittent thunderstorms in Daytona all day. I made it to the park about an hour early, accompanied by my wife, NostraDame, and a rare appearance by both of my teenaged daughters, NostraVee and NostraDee. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, but the unprotected field was apparently too soaked to play on. Bad news - game cancelled. Good news - the makeup date was the following day, as game 1 of a newly scheduled doubleheader. Better news - it was Thirsty Thirsday. Dollar beers all night long.
Jackie Robinson Ballpark is a cute little stadium, situated on an island between the mainland and Daytona Beach. A homerun tucked into the left field foul pole has a good chance of getting wet. Out front, there's a statue of Jackie; along the concourse, several banners with factoids about the man. The park seats about four thousand, though half those seats were empty on Thursday night. Three rows of VIP seats run about fifth feet in either direction of home plate. Only the high rollers sit there, the fat cats willing to pay ten bucks a seat instead of seven. VIP means a server takes your food and drink order. NostraDame and I scooted forward into a few empty VIP seats for the last few innings of the nightcap, close enough to alert Jonathan Malo of the Mets to the whereabouts of the missing donut in the on-deck circle. "It's behind you, dude." "Thanks, man."
One of my favorite things when visiting a minor league ballpark is reading the outfield walls. Unlike the big club, there's no ivy climbing the walls of Jackie Robinson Ballpark. No, they've got to pay their rent somehow, so every available space out there is covered with advertising. Where else but in a single-A ballpark can you see ads for Arthur Kowitz Realty, 93.1 the KRO's morning show with King Bird and Stephanie, and an exhortation to visit the historic Basilica of St. Paul?
My favorite wall ad, though, was the one keeping track of "Front Row Joe's" consecutive game streak. Front Row Joe is a thin old man who's been to every Cubs home game for nearly a dozen years. Between games of the doubleheader, they updated the sign from 833 games to 834. That's a lot of Cubs baseball. You've got to admire Front Row Joe for his persistence, if not his high threshold for pain. The outfield scoreboard was quite Wrigley-esque, with a lone keeper hanging zeroes and ones on the board manually every half-inning. He also ran the ball, strike, and out lights by hand, pushing a button manually after every pitch. Just like Vanna White, but not as shapely.
There were, of course, dozens of Cubs caps and jerseys, and a smattering of Mets shirts and hats, as well as an inordinate number of Vertical Swastikae in the house. Why are these Yankee fans here, I wondered? Are they really everywhere, and as numerous and attractive as your average cockroach?
I ducked back into the grill area behind home plate to check out ESPN, saw "Houston 4, New York 0", and groaned. Then I realized this was a soccer score, and cursed the fact that that portion of the ticker wasn't on ESPN4 like it should have been. I took pleasure in reporting the real score - Mets over the 'Stros in the eighth - to some fellow orange and blue clad fans in the stands. I made sure to mention the Red Sox' mauling of the D-Rays, within earshot of several Yankee fans. "Nobody's gonna catch those Red Sox this year!" I heard the grumbles, but what's a Yankee fan gonna say, other than "29 rings, baby!"?
The games in front of me were almost an afterthought to the evening, as the fate of the free world didn't depend on the outcome of the contests, as it does nightly at Shea. The St. Lucie Mets needed to get these games in. They'd had a three-day streak of rainouts. Jeff Samardzija, better known as a wide receiver for Notre Dame until this year, started and won the opener for the Cubs. I missed Ambiorix Concepcion's early dinger for the Mets, but got to see Deolis Guerra get lit up for four runs in 4.1 innings, including two long solo homers in the fifth.
In the second game, the Mets' Jon Niese gave up a solo homer in the first inning, and very little afterwards, earning his seventh win of the season, tops on the club. His line for the night was five innings, two hits, the lone run, seven K's and zero walks. While Niese is not quite ready to be that fifth starter the big club so desperately needs this week, he did hit 91-92 MPH on the radar gun. However, he seemed to rely nearly exclusively on his heater. This gets you a two-hitter and a win in A+ ball, but can get you shelled in a New York minute in the bigs. In 2010, we may see Niese at CitiField. I wouldn't bet against it.
If you're in Daytona any time soon, remember, it's not all NASCAR and ocean beaches. Spend a few hours if you can in the world of A+ ball. The missus and I got there with thirty bucks in our pocket, ate and drank to our hearts' content, and were unsuccessful in ridding ourselves of our last single. It's a refreshing, inexpensive night out, and if Niese, or Concepcion, or Dustin Martin or Mike Nickeas cracks the major leagues, I can say I saw them when. And I have the complimentary game program to prove it.
B. Jose De La Torre warms up under the watchful eye of Coach Dan Murray.
C. Pitcher Tim Worthington, who curiously served as DH in game 2 Thursday night. Maybe he was filling in for the newly departed Milledge?
D. Coach Murray and his adoring young fans.
E. Mets Arms of the Future (l. to r.) - hurlers Jose De La Torre, Nick Abel, and Tim Worthington.