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Wednesday, last week, I headed to Binghamton, New York to see the Blue Jays AA team, the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, play against the hometown Mets. The drive to Binghamton takes five hours, longer if you get a speeding ticket just outside Kingston.

The stadium in Binghamton is owned by NYSEG aka New York Energy, it was built in 1992, still looks new, and could be the newest building in Binghamton. Binghamton, like many other cities, has seen better days and the downtown streets are fronted by a lot of older buildings. I arrived at the park just after three and found that Dane Johnson, the Jays minor league roving pitching instructor, was getting into uniform for the pre-game workout. Dane rotates among the Jays minor league teams and was in the middle of a four day visit with the Cats. The pitchers had an on-field meeting at four followed by stretching and warm-ups. The hitters came out shortly thereafter. Visitors infield and batting practice was scheduled for 5 pm.

Meanwhile the Mets were taking their infield and BP. Howard Johnson is the Mets hitting coach and he was hitting extra balls to the infielders. There were two younger players taking balls at shortstop, too young to be on the team. They were HoJo's teenage sons, both looking smooth at short, look for a Johnson in the draft one of these years. It was family day at the park, Fisher Cat manager Mike Basso's kids were also in attendance. The oldest was shagging fly's, the youngest was too young for that but was playing catch with dad whenever he could. It is always fun to see who fills the coaching staff for the minor league teams as the staff usually consists of ex-major leaguers. The Mets manager is Ken Oberkfell and the pitching coach is expo killer Jerry Reuss.

After the pitchers got their work in I had a chance to talk with Jamie Vermilyea, Rick Adair, Dane Johnson and Mike Murphy, the radio voice of the Fisher Cats. Mike was getting ready for the pre-game show and was focused on reviewing Tuesday nights game in which Scott Kazmir and Gustavo Chacin had pitched a classic. By all accounts Kazmir is the real deal, a lefty with a 96 mph fastball, and good secondary pitches. A walk and an error was his undoing, Aaron Hill delivered the coup de grace. In the radio pre-game interview Manager Basso said that Hill is a big game hitter who gets better when the situation is tougher. We have not heard much from Jabonoso recently in DaBox, but he was touting Chacin last winter. Chacin has added a cutter and has been very strong this year. During the warm-ups Josh Banks, Wednesdays starter, sat in the dugout with headphones on. I assumed he was getting "in the zone" for his start and I did not approach him for a chat.

Game time was 7 pm. and righty Ken Chenard was on the mound for the Mets, a 46th round pick in 1998. He was a fastball, change, curveball pitcher. His fastball was around 90 but his control was excellent. Opposing him was one of the Blue Jays top prospects, Josh Banks, at 6'3", 195 pounds. Banks throws five pitches, a low nineties fastball, a change, a curve, a splitter and a slider. Banks was a second round pick in last years draft and often draws comparisons to David Bush who was drafted second in 2002. To date Banks has followed the Bush path, pitching the first half of this year in Dunedin and moving to New Hampshire in June. But there is an important difference, Banks is two and a half years younger. Banks was born on July 18, 1982, so he just turned 22, Bush is 24. Bush was a four year college player, Banks came out after three.

Young pitchers are always working on their command. College pitchers enter pro-ball with their pitching arsenal pretty much developed. They might add an off speed pitch, but generally they are trying to refine their stuff, maybe tweak their delivery to hide the ball better, or work on their off-speed pitch to get more "bite". But the biggest job in the minor leagues is to develop the skill to throw the ball where you want to, when you want to. At every minor league level, when pitchers move up, you hear the same refrain "they hit my mistakes better up here". Josh's job at this stage is to work on his command. Banks had been hit hard in a couple of starts at AA and Adair and Johnson both stressed that Banks has to get his fastball down in the zone and have better command of his off speed pitches. So how did he do?

Banks' fastball was 89-91 mph in the first inning. By the third his fastball was 90-92. In the fifth, his last inning, Banks hit 93 and 94 to Justin Huber, the last hitter he faced. His fastball command was average. He did leave a couple up in the zone and they were hit hard, but he missed down more than up. He was essentially trying so hard to get the ball down, he was down too low. I was told that the Jays don't want Banks to use his splitter too much. The splitter with the fastball would be a great combination but if Josh was to fall into that pattern his change-up and slider will not develop. Josh used the curve sparingly, I only saw one. His change-up and slider were inconsistent in location. Again, this is not unusual for AA pitchers. His off-speed pitches were 79-81 mph. Knowing that Banks is using more of his off-speed pitches to work on them leads us to a caution against extrapolating too much into one or two bad starts. A pitcher might be trying to feature his off-speed pitches, as Banks was, or it might be his first time pitching with a new grip or a new stride in his delivery. It can take a few starts to ingrain a change.

Overall I was impressed. If Josh continues to develop and can consistently hit 93 with the fastball, and can refine his control so he can pinpoint his other pitches, he will be a good major leaguer. I do think that it is most likely that he will not make the major leagues as fast as David Bush. He is younger and his control is not as good as Bush's was this time last year. A full year of minor league ball in 2005, with a September call up, would be my expectation.

Brandon League came on for the sixth and pitched three innings. League was 96-98 with the fastball and around 88 with the change and slider. League has been pitching really well since June. He had one outing, about a week ago, where he allowed four runs on six hits in one inning. Rick Adair told me that he felt League pitched as well that night as he had all season. There was one legitimate hit and the rest were infield hits, most of which never made it to the infield dirt. Adair told me that many of the hitters are cheating on League to avoid striking out. When a pitcher throws 98 just getting bat on ball is an achievement. So the hitters cheat by swinging early just trying to get bat on ball. You could hear a buzz through the crowd when League's first fastball came in at 98.

John Ogiltree came on for the ninth for the Cats. Ogiltree is from Mississauga and is shortly off to the olympics. Ogiltree has a delivery somewhat like Chad Bradford. He steps towards the third base on-deck circle and throws back across the hitter. His pitches did not look like they had as much movement as Bradford's though.

The Fisher Cat hitters did not have a lot going on this night. It is tough to render an opinion on hitters in a small sample size, like one game. Later on I will talk about David Corrente who went 2-4 for Auburn, including a game winning home run. He looked good to me but he entered the game hitting .184 for the season. When I spoke with manager Basso before the game he told me that the Fisher Cats have to bunt and have "productive outs" because they are not hitting well. The Cats did not execute well on this night. Tyrell Godwin and Dominic Rich were on second and third in the first inning, with no outs, and did not score. There was also a missed hit and run and a poorly executed bunt. I saw one of the players the next morning and asked him if they had received a lecture on execution after the game or if they would be getting it that day. He told me they had got the lecture right after the game.

Mike Murphy from Fisher Cats radio was soloing on the Cats broadcast so I sat-in for the last three innings. I do not have a "radio voice", and I interrupted him three times, but I do have a face made for radio. However I got to fulfil George Costanza's dream and I did make some interesting comments. The Fisher Cats lost the game in the bottom of the ninth when a lead-off walk came around to score.


Auburn is a picturesque town one half hour west of Syracuse. Auburn is bigger than I thought, about 25,000 population. Falcon Park has a capacity of 2800. The park has seats extending down to just past first base and third base. Beyond the seats are beer gardens on each side and then the clubhouses are located at the outfield end of each field. The bullpens sit in front of the clubhouses. The outfield "fence" is a twenty foot high wall, big enough for two levels of advertising. It is 330' down the lines and 400' in centre. Vito Chiaravalotti must have been hitting the ball a long way to win the home run championship here last year.

I got to the park around 1:30 and most of the players and coaching staff were already there. In the minor leagues your access to the park is limited when you are the visitors but at home you can use the field for extra work. I had a chance to sit with Dennis Holmberg, the Doubledays manager, and James Keller, the pitching coach, before they got to work. Adam Kaufman is the broadcast voice of the Doubledays (road games only) and also handles media relations. Adam helped me out by going into the clubhouse and bringing players out for a short chat with me. I talked with Curtis Thigpen, Brian Hall, Michael MacDonald, Adam Lind, Chip Cannon, Curtis Jannsen, Eric Rico and Ryan Klosterman. Look for a "get to know your Doubledays" feature soon. There is only so much you can ask these players, they are just over a month into the season and are getting acclimatized to their new "job". In college they played two or three days a week, now they play seven. When they are in Auburn they report around 1 or 2pm, work out, work on technique or drills, take practice and play the game. After the game they get something to eat and get to bed. Next day get up and do it all again. From what I understand most of the players are tired at the end of the day, after maybe ten hours at the park. There is not that much free time for these players. There is more free time on the road but what can you do in Batavia or Mahoning Valley, sleep?

As I was interviewing players in the bullpen, before the official workouts started, some players were warming up while last night's starter was doing his running. Some pitchers were doing towel or stick drills in the bullpen, others were on their cell phones. Minor league players spend a lot of their down time on their cell phones, they are away from home, away from friends and from wives or girlfriends.

Pitchers team meeting was at three followed by stretching and throwing. The stretching and warmup drills are supervised by the teams trainer. The pitching coach circulated during the throwing drills talking with each pitcher. Then the pitchers had fielding practice, Keller was hitting ground balls back to them. Some of the hitters were out for extra work, principally Chip Cannon and Adam Lind. Hitters stretching and throwing was at 3:20 followed by a meeting and BP at 4. After BP at 5 some players worked again on drills or flexibility, others hit the cell phones.

Game time was 7. Now if you think there are a lot of noise and interruptions at the Skydome you have not been to a minor league park. There were six first pitches thrown and a couple of the first pitch pitchers also said a few words. Throwing out the first pitches were Miss Teen Cayuga County; the Axeman, a local radio station "personality"; a local columnist; Reverend Humphrey and his son; and the winner of the ballboy for the day contest. Miss Teen Cayuga County was the only one to throw a strike. There are promotions between each inning, also Thursday was $ night, $1 for a ticket, for a beer, for a coke, or for a hot dog. The stadium was pretty full. You could also score a free hot dog if you registered to vote at the upcoming election. In addition to Abner, the Doubledays mascot, there was a special guest appearance by Scooch, the Syracuse Skychiefs mascot.

The opponent on Thursday was Lowell, a Red Sox affiliate. Lowell's manager is Luis Alicea, not long removed from his playing career. Coaches are Randy Phillips and Dave Tomlin. Phil Huffman, former Blue Jay pitcher, will be in town for a baseball chapel in August, if you are interested.

Casey Janssen, the Blue Jays fifth round pick, started for the Doubledays. Janssen has a "highish" leg kick but drops and drives to pitch, his back knee scraping the ground. His fastball is around 90, and he also has four other pitches. They say that no two baseball games are alike and Thursday was a first for me. The Lowell starting pitcher developed a nose bleed before he pitched in the second inning. The trainer and manager came out and they waited ten minutes trying to get the bleeding to stop. It only took about ninety seconds for the first sympathetic cry "come on, get a move on, get him outta there". Eventually a replacement was summoned from the pen and he had to have enough time to warm up. Dennis Holmgren looked unhappy with the delay, he felt the umpires should have made a faster decision. The two umpires looked to be no older than the players, they must be fresh graduates from umpiring school. Auburn scored twice in the next inning so Janssen was sitting for at least a half hour between the second and third innings. Janssen then allowed a run in the third and had two runners on in the fourth when he was pulled.

Scott Roy followed Janssen to the mound. Roy has a lower release point and looks like he slingshots the ball across his body. His fastball is 87-89 and he also threw a change-up. Joey McLaughlin Jr. came on for the eighth and ninth. Joey has a compact delivery and hides the ball very well, the pitch appears from behind Joey's head and it almost looks like he is short-arming the ball. His fastball is 87-88 but appears faster due to his delivery. After Auburn tied the game in the bottom of the eighth Joey walked the lead-off hitter in the ninth, but his catcher, David Corrente, bailed him out with a caught stealing. Corrente is from Chatham, Ontario, and played youth baseball with the Windsor Expos and Team Ontario. This is Corrente's second year in the Jays system. Corrente led off the ninth "just looking to get on base". He found a fastball to his liking and deposited it over the wall to win the game for the D'Days.

It is hard to comment too much on the hitters due to small sample size. Adam Lind has a classic left-handers swing, he was 1-4 on the night but hit the ball hard each time up. Chip Cannon is also a lefty but as befits a 6'5" hitter he muscles the ball more, whereas Lind is more smooth. The other hitter who was hitting well on the night was Eric Nielsen. Nielsen played centre field as Aaron Matthews had the night off. Curtis Thigpen DH'ed.

Two games in two days, two ninth inning wins, a fun filled summer break.
Road Trippin' | 4 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
_sweat - Tuesday, July 27 2004 @ 02:56 PM EDT (#48283) #
When are you picking me up?
Mike Green - Tuesday, July 27 2004 @ 02:58 PM EDT (#48284) #
Wonderful, Gerry. The scouting reports are great.

I concur entirely with your projection for Banks. The Fisher Cats are going to have one fine pitching rotation starting next year, health willing. Banks, Marcum, Vermilyea, Ramirez would make a very nice top 4.

Howard Johnson, Jerry Reuss...ah APBA 1983-5. I was just reading a Baseball America feature which referred to Lancaster manager Wally Backman and Indianapolis manager Cecil Cooper. Memories came flooding back.
_Kevin Pataky - Wednesday, July 28 2004 @ 09:59 AM EDT (#48285) #
During last night's Yankee game, they were talking about how much JP liked Brandon League and how he wants to pull him straight up to the Majors - skipping Triple-A. He doesn't want to upset the balance and drive towards the playoffs for New Hampshire though, and doesn't want to promote League to Syracuse because the team there is so bad. So at the minimum, look for a September callup to Toronto for League.
Coach - Wednesday, July 28 2004 @ 01:36 PM EDT (#48286) #
Gerry, that's two great road trips you've made that I regret missing. Thanks for the excellent report -- I hope to tag along next time. It's wonderful that you're developing relationships with the coaches, players and front offices. Mike Wilner's job is safe for now, but I thought you did very well on the radio, too.
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The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.