Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Minor Occurrence

Minor League Baseball games are often filled with hopes and dreams.

For those in uniform, it's the dream of someday playing for a Major League ballclub that drives them throughout the season. For many of the children in attendance, the dream of becoming a professional baseball player sticks in their minds as they watch the game take place. For many fans, it's the hope that the players they're following now will someday make it to "The Show."
There are only 30 Major League Baseball clubs, but there are 246 member clubs in 20 minor leagues throughout North America. Ranging from Rookie leagues to AAA, each level offers its own challenges and opportunities during that gradual climb to the Majors.

Whether it's in a large city or small town, ballplayers can live out their professional dreams...while fans can enjoy high-level baseball at a lower cost than that of their big-league counterparts.


The festive atmosphere of Independence Day was evident as I arrived at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood, New Jersey last Monday.

Fans patiently waited for the ballpark gates to open, eager to watch that evening's contest between the Lakewood BlueClaws and Hagerstown Suns...with post-game fireworks to follow. Many wore patriotic gear...and some of those who didn't were buying BlueClaws' Fourth-of-July-specific shirts and caps.

Independence Day-themed items were popular on this day

The BlueClaws entered the game with a 6-5 record in the 2nd half of their South Atlantic League season (went 33-35 prior to the All-Star break), while the Suns brought a 7-4 record to the table (40-30 during the 1st half).

Lineups for the Hagerstown-Lakewood game

Before the game, kids from a local youth league had a chance to live out some of their dreams on a professional baseball getting the opportunity to play catch. After that, the kids -- dressed in their league jerseys and caps -- ventured to the center field fence, where they pretended to rob home run attempts...jumping and trying to catch balls thrown to them while colliding with the padded wall. It was amusing to watch...the innocence and joy of children, playing a game they enjoy and imagining that they were just like the pros.

Kids have their vision of making it to the pros someday

As gametime approached, members of the BlueClaws and Suns took the field for their final warm-ups. As some took time to sign autographs for fans down the 1st and 3rd base lines, others stretched, ran or played pepper to get loose.

BlueClaws players play pepper before the game

There was one Lakewood player who received plenty of attention from both fans and teammates alike. Brad Lidge, the Philadelphia Phillies' closer, was scheduled to make his first appearance of the 2011 season with the single-A club. Lidge is returning from a shoulder injury that has kept him sidelined for the first 3 months of the year.

As Lidge warmed up in the BlueClaws' bullpen, a crowd gathered nearby. Every pitch featured a loud pop of the catcher's mitt, as Lidge appeared to be throwing pain-free. Fellow Lakewood players stopped their routines and watched as well...just to get a glimpse of what Major League pitching looked like. Perhaps they were imagining what it would be like to face a pitcher like Lidge someday.

Brad Lidge warms up as teammates gather to watch

What followed was an unusual sight -- Lidge standing near the pitcher's mound during the Star-Spangled Banner. As someone who is paid to finish ballgames for the Phillies, Lidge was getting the Independence Day start for Lakewood.

National anthem on the Fourth of July

Hagerstown's leadoff batter was Blake Kelso -- the Suns' designated hitter -- who was born when Lidge was 12-years-old! Youth got the best of Experience in this matchup, as Kelso started the game with a line drive single to center field.

With Lidge pitching out of the stretch for the 1st time in 2011, 2nd baseman Adrian Sanchez lined a single to right field...causing many in the sellout crowd of 8,430 to groan and wonder why a Major League pitcher was giving up hits against seemingly lesser competition.

Lidge pitches in the 1st inning

With two runners on base and no one out, Lidge took a deep breath and focused on the next batter. Catcher David Freitas, who entered the game with a .310 batting average, hit a hard ground ball to the 3rd baseman. Lakewood converted the around-the-horn double play, leaving a runner at 3rd base with 2 outs. Lidge then escaped the jam by getting cleanup hitter Kevin Keyes to ground out to shortstop.

As Lidge walked off the field, he slapped gloves with his teammates and deeply exhaled. Lidge's initial appearance in 2011 was a nerve-wracking, but successful one. After receiving congratulatory handshakes in the dugout, Lidge signed a couple of autographs for nearby fans before departing for the clubhouse to receive post-pitching treatment.

Lidge signs an autograph after making his first appearance of the season

If Lidge represented a look at the Phillies' present, Lakewood's next pitcher may have offered a glimpse at the future. Jesse Biddle, a 1st round draft pick in 2010, would toe the rubber for the next 4 innings.

Rated as the 8th-best prospect in the Phillies' organization, the lefty struggled with his control, walking 5 Hagerstown batters while surrendering 3 hits as well. The Suns -- whose parent club is the Washington Nationals -- could not take advantage of Biddle's wildness...scoring only 1 run during that timeframe.

Former 1st round pick Jesse Biddle pitches for Lakewood

The BlueClaws' bats broke through against Hagerstown starting pitcher Taylor Jordan in the 3rd inning. Jordan, a 9th round draft pick by Washington in 2009, entered the game with an 8-4 record and 2.68 ERA...but a series of four consecutive singles staked Lakewood to a 2-1 lead.

Taylor Jordan pitches for Hagerstown

Walking around FirstEnergy Park, you could get a true sense of the Minor League Baseball experience...which always includes more than the game itself. Nowhere is that more evident than in the outfield, where grass berm seating gives fans a chance to relax and treat the ballgame like it's a picnic. Evidence of Lakewood's proximity to the Jersey Shore is apparent as well, as lifeguard chairs give some fans a chance to watch the game from a unique perspective.

The grass berms are popular seating areas for fans

To keep children active and entertained -- both before and during the game -- there are playground areas and interactive baseball activities. While the professionals do their work on the field, kids can practice hitting Wiffle Balls and test their pitch speed.

Playground area for kids who can't sit still during a ballgame

With Lakewood still holding a 2-1 advantage in the 5th inning, Mother Nature provided a visual distraction for those in attendance. A gorgeous sunset painted the sky in a brilliant shade of colors -- including yellow, orange, red and purple -- giving FirstEnergy Park a "Field of Dreams"-like setting.

An amazing sunset in Lakewood

In the top of the 7th, Hagerstown would rally. Wearing red, white and blue jerseys and caps in honor of Independence Day, the Suns got a one-out single from Kelso, who then stole 2nd base. During that play, catcher Cameron Rupp's throw hit Kelso in the leg and bounced all the way into foul territory on the left field side. Kelso kept running, rounding 3rd and beating the throw home to tie the game at 2. It was an unfortunate break for the BlueClaws, giving Hagerstown new life in this ballgame.

Blake Kelso slides in safely to tie the game for Hagerstown

The stage was now set for a dramatic finish. The game remained 2-2 as Lakewood came to bat in the bottom of the 9th inning. FirstEnergy Park remained packed with fans eager for both a BlueClaws win and Fourth of July fireworks.

Tied game in the bottom of the 9th inning

With the Suns' Wilson Eusebio in his second inning of work on the mound, left fielder Zach Collier stroked his 3rd hit of the day -- a double to right field. The game-winning run was now in scoring position.

Eusebio then pitched around Jim Murphy, before issuing an intentional walk. After that, Eusebio couldn't find his target...walking right fielder Domingo Santana. The bases were now loaded, and everyone in the sold-out crowd stood and cheered, sensing the potential end of the ballgame.

Lakewood bats with the bases loaded in the 9th

With a full count, designated hitter Anthony Hewitt struck out looking, prompting a loud groan from BlueClaws fans. The winning run remained 90-feet away, but there were now 2 outs...and the threat of extra innings loomed.

Stepping up to the plate was 3rd baseman Travis Mattair, who was 0-for-2 in the game and hitting just .230 for the season. That is the beauty of baseball, though...heroes aren't always the most likely suspects.

On Eusebio's first pitch, Mattair lifted a fastball to deep left-center field. The Hagerstown outfielders chased after the fly ball desperately, trying to catch the 3rd out of the inning. It wasn't meant to be for the Suns, however, as the ball bounced just shy of the fence, giving the BlueClaws an exciting 3-2 win. The Lakewood players mobbed each other and celebrated near home plate, while the fans similarly stood, jumped, clapped and cheered.

The BlueClaws celebrate the walk-off victory

Immediately following the game -- with the BlueClaws still out on the field -- the fireworks began behind the right-center field fence. It was a fitting end to a fun evening at FirstEnergy Park in Lakewood.

A Fourth of July celebration followed the game

Are these ballplayers the stars of tomorrow? Or is their role to provide entertainment today? Only time will answer that question...but that is part of the appeal of Minor League Baseball. Accessibility to players, affordability and extra entertainment also help in bringing fans to the ballpark.

While football may have gained more attention on the American landscape in recent years, baseball is still the national pastime...and you need to look no further than Lakewood, New Jersey on the Fourth of July to see it for yourself.

A taste of Americana -- baseball and fireworks

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