A Day at AA
Tlhough I grew up in New York City and lived for a short while in Southern California, I currently reside less than an hour (on a good train or traffic day) from both Oriole Park at Camden Yards and Nationals Park. I’ve spent a fair number of summer afternoons and evenings at either Orioles games or Nationals games – most especially when either team is facing a New York team, either the Yankees or the Mets. As I hail from New York City, the attraction of watching either team play one of my hometown teams is greater than when they face, say, the Tigers or the Diamondbacks.
Before I moved to the greater DC metropolitan area, however, I lived in Baltimore for a while – and specifically, in the Federal Hill neighborhood, which anyone familiar with Baltimore knows is walking distance from Camden Yards.
So for about six years, not only did I pass Camden Yards on the regular – I spent a fair amount of time there. Both rooting for the Yankees (who, judging by the percentage of Yankee fans attending games in which they opposed the O’s, were basically the home team there for a stretch), and rooting for the O’s when they faced a different opponent.
But as anyone who lives in the MidAtlantic region is aware, both the Orioles and the Nats have strong fan bases and though ticket sales for either team when they’ve been bad don’t always reflect it, they have serious identities in this part of the country. This is most especially true for the O’s, who have a lengthy history in Major League Baseball and were the first to erect one of the “new” ballparks, at Camden Yards.
But the current Baltimore Oriole Double A team, the Bowie Baysox, play just a short half hour or so from Camden Yards, and they have a following and identity of their own, as well. They play in the town of Bowie (pronounced Boo-wee – don’t call it Bo-wee), and that’s pretty near to where I live, as well.
Yet, due to the relatively short distances to both O’s and Nats games, I’d never attended a Bowie Baysox game – till the recent Sunday on which NY Yankee Giancarlo Stanton was scheduled to play the second game of his rehab stint with the Class AA Somerset Patriots, at Bowie.
The weather wasn’t great that day; it was pretty cloudy and a little drizzly. Nevertheless, the game proceeded without delay and Stanton was hitting second in the lineup, right after Yankee shortstop prospect Anthony Volpe. Following Stanton was catcher Austin Wells, also a top Yankee prospect.
I will say this: these two prospects are among the most highly ranked in the Yankee farm system; but I was impressed with the how the rest of the Patriots played, as well. It may have been Double A ball, but it wasn’t like watching a (non-serious) major league spring training game.
The Baysox, whose name is derived from the Chesapeake Bay (which is less than 20 miles east of Bowie), wear orange and black and white as do their major league club. They play at Prince Georges Stadium, named after the Maryland county in which Bowie happens to be situated. The stadium is a pretty typical minor league style stadium, and the ticket prices are extremely reasonable.
Besides the usual hotdog and cotton candy fare, some Baltimore favorites like pit beef are available for snacking; and the giveaway the day I attended was an autographed photo of a current Baysox player (and who knows – maybe they’ll make it to the bigs and the giveaway will be worth more than just a pleasant memory of a summer Sunday afternoon…).
In the section behind where I was sitting, there was a serious Baysox fan with a drum. And he used it throughout the game. Now, this is not a large stadium. And due to the weather that day, it wasn’t terrifically full (although former Oriole infielder Mike Bordick was there signing autographs). The drum beat was loud and the guy using it was, too. And let’s just say, he was not a fan of the umpiring crew. And they sure heard it.
The minor league schedule consists of six-game series, not the two- to four-game series major league fans are used to. This game was the finale of a series that had begun the previous Tuesday. The teams are very familiar with each other by the end of each series, as you can imagine. So are the managers, coaches, and umpires. I was sitting above the Baysox dugout and they, too, were not fans of that day’s first base umpire. The amount and clarity of the shouting between the dugout and that particular umpire, standing several yards away from them, was noticeable – and very, very audible.
Now, two items I will mention at the top of my description of the actual game: there is a pitch clock being utilized in the minors this year, and if you violate it as a pitcher by waiting too long to release your pitch, you just gave up a ball in the ball-strike count. And, moreover, there was no shifting in the field the way we’ve been seeing it for the past decade in major league baseball.
There was only one pitch clock violation in the game I attended, by a Patriots reliever about midway through the game. He got off the pitch at about 21 seconds; and, sure enough, the Baysox hitter was awarded a ball.
The pitch clock time varies a little bit by situation: with no one on base it gives the pitcher 14 seconds to get off the next pitch after the previous pitch. With runners on base, pitchers have 18 seconds to throw the next pitch (19 seconds in Triple A). And there’s a 30-second timer between batters.
But the clock impacts hitters, as well. If a hitter’s not ready for the pitch that’s coming his way, the pitch is an automatic strike. Batters get one timeout per plate appearance, and pitchers get a total of two step-offs or pickoff throws per batter.
Giancarlo Stanton gets an AB in AA. (Photo by Deb Seymour)
The clock is reset constantly, and if it’s wrong, you wait a second or two till they get it right. That’s still no comparison to waiting for pitchers who walk around the mound after each hitter or take a minute just to get into their wind-up. Both would be pitch clock violations, and surprise! You just threw a ball to the batter.
I personally loved it. Talk about pace of play. The final game score was 13-3 Patriots, and the entire game took under three hours to play. Even with all those men on base. Even with all the base stealing. Even with all the hits that occurred on both sides – due, in part, to the lack of shifting hitters.
And the lack of shifting hitters does cause more balls to drop in that otherwise would not; so unless you have two strikeout pitchers on the mound for nine innings, you’re almost guaranteed to see base runners. You also begin to realize how much time all the shifting we’ve gotten used to seeing in the majors takes, as the players aren’t doing all that moving around and the pitcher isn’t waiting for the constant choreography of the fielders behind him in order to begin his motion.
One other note about the lack of shifting: it results in minor leaguers all playing in their own positions throughout the game – there was no need to play second base for the shortstops or third basemen, for example. No infielders moved to the outfield. A further result is that any errors in the field were what I would term “true errors,” not errors made by a player who was made uncomfortable by playing out of position. And the Baysox did have an error. But it was a “legitimate” error.
This was a particularly prolific game for Yankee prospect Volpe. He went 3-for-4, hit home run number 17, had two triples, had two stolen bases (from first to second followed almost immediately by second to third), scored three runs, and reached 56 RBIs for the season. As of that date he was hitting .245 for the season, and you can see that he still has some holes in his swing. He has a pretty high percentage of strikeouts. In the context of Double A, he looked truly great. But do I think he’s major league ready? No, I do not. That leap would be a potential career killer for a young prospect with a bright future – if all unfolds in the right way for him.
The starting pitcher for the Patriots was Clayton Beeter, whom you may recall was the Dodger prospect the Yankees received in return for Joey Gallo at the major league trade deadline. Beeter was outstanding on the mound that day. He’s ranked number 10 in the Yankee farm system as of the trade, and you can see why. His fastball consistently hit 96-97 on the radar gun that day; he throws a pretty vicious curveball, and he has a devastating changeup that he hardly uses, but is virtually unhittable.
Multiple Patriots hit home runs that day: Austin Wells, Anthony Volpe, Jesus Bastidas, and Andres Chaparro. Several others had base hits. There were lots of good plays in the field and the team, overall, looked tight.
But now we get to Giancarlo Stanton, who was the DH and hit in the two-hole. Stanton went 0-for-4 in the game I attended, and he’d gone 0-for-3 in the previous night’s game. The Baysox faithful sitting around me were both thrilled and excited to see Stanton up close and in person, and yet even more thrilled that he had no hits in his seven plate appearances in their ballpark. No one boo’ed him; but it was quite clear they’re Oriole fans and not Yankee fans. A smattering of Yankee fans were in attendance, but not very many.
Stanton’s already back in the majors and this particular rehab stint isn’t of much consequence; but his timing looked off, most especially on the fastball. And that’s perfectly understandable given how much time he spent on the IL due to the Achilles injury. After all that time without him in the Yankee lineup, however, it was pretty cool to see him at the plate again – if only in a rehab stint.
Over the years, I’ve been to a lot of college games, spring training games, and major league games for various teams at various times, in various parts of the country. One day I’ll tell the crazy story of the Angels vs. Royals spring training game I attended in Arizona. But this was the first minor league game I’ve ever had the opportunity to attend – and I’d return in a heartbeat. You’re close to the action, the atmosphere is pretty laid back, and the fans in attendance really care. It’s not like a college game, and it’s not like a major league spring training game. It’s got its own identity, and it’s an identity worth experiencing.