Remembering 2011: More than just a relaxing night at the ballpark
In case you missed an issue of the “York Revolutionary Times” this past season, we’ve re-run columns by staff writer Ron Gardner here on the blog on Tuesdays. In our sixth and final installment, Ron takes a broader look at the Atlantic League, and the quality of baseball it has to offer.
This scenario will never happen, but play along just for the heck of it anyway.
Let’s just say that your hometown York Revolution squad was going to play a best-of-seven-game series against the Harrisburg Senators, the just-up-the-Susquehanna-River Double-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals. You’d obviously be willing to bet the mortgage on the Senators to win easily, right?
After all, some of the guys on the Senators roster are going to be in the Major Leagues someday soon. And these Revs players, they’re playing independent ball in the Atlantic League of all places, which clearly isn’t anywhere near the typical route to the big leagues. It’s an obvious, easy pick for sure.
Well, maybe you shouldn’t be too quick in going all in on the Senators, cautions York manager Andy Etchebarren, who’s only been in the business of assessing baseball talents for a few decades now.
“I’ll tell you this,” Etchebarren said. “I managed in Rochester (the Orioles’ former Triple-A team – one step above Harrisburg’s Eastern League competition and the final level before most players reach the big leagues), this club I got here and the club I had last year are better than the clubs I had in Rochester. Better hitters, pitching, everything … better than the two years that I was at Rochester… I guarantee you it is.”
Revs’ outfielder Chris Walker, who has played full-time in the Atlantic League starting in 2009 after reaching the Triple-A level in 2007 (Iowa Cubs) and again in 2008 (Salt Lake Bees), concurs with Etchebarren that Atlantic League fans are being treated to a very high caliber of baseball each night at the ballpark.
“Honestly, you’re seeing Triple-A ball,”Walker said. “There aren’t too many guys who are undrafted and never played pro ball that come into this league. You have to have some type of Double-A, Triple-A time or big-league time to come into this league. What you’re seeing is a league of experience. You could take four or five teams out of this league and put them in Triple-A and not only could they compete, they would win.”
York reliever Geoff Geary, who pitched for seven years in the Majors with the Philadelphia Phillies (2003-07) and Houston Astros (2008-09), said it isn’t always a lack of ability that brings players to Atlantic League teams. Sometimes, injuries or simply not being given an opportunity within a big-league organization have sidetracked playing careers.
“It’s the same as Triple-A baseball anywhere else,” Geary said. “You’ve got guys who’ve got years of (big league) service, you’ve got guys that have got a little bit of time, you’ve got guys that don’t have any time at all and got no higher than A-ball or Double-A, that could possibly dominate at the Major Leagues right now. For whatever reason it was, they didn’t get that opportunity. I think this is a very competitive league.”
For love of the game
On a given night in any Atlantic League ballpark, you’ll see players who recently wore a Major League uniform competing against guys who were never even drafted or only played at the lowest levels in the affiliated minor leagues. It’s a compelling hodgepodge of circumstances –with some players looking to rekindle their big-league careers, others who nearly made it and fell just short, and many more who never got close, but aren’t ready to give up on their dreams just yet.
Like all other Atlantic League teams, there are many divergent career trajectories in the Revolution clubhouse, including those of 27-year-old outfielder Scott Grimes and the 34-year-old Geary.
“If you love baseball and you’ve picked up a bat since you were five years old and you’ve been playing for your whole life like I have, you want to be sure that you’ve played every one of your cards in your hand to try to get you to that level,” said Grimes, who is playing in his second Atlantic League season after leading the league with 138 runs scored in 2010.
“And if they don’t fall the way you want them to, you’ll be satisfied knowing that you tried your best to get to what you love and attain your goal. If you didn’t do it, you can still look in the mirror and say at least I tried as best I could.”
While Grimes went undrafted coming out of college and got only a brief, injury-marred shot (27 games) in low minors in the New York Mets’ farm system in 2009, Geary appeared in 287 big-league games and is attempting a comeback after being sidelined with a serious injury to his groin that required surgery to repair.
“Another good thing about this league is a lot of guys don’t play for a year (which happened to Geary) because of an injury,” Etchebarren said. “Nobody’s going to bring them back until somebody sees them healthy. We got a lot of guys come back here from injuries that get signed right away after the (Major League) clubs see that he’s OK.
“He’s going to show people that that surgery has healed – it’s been over a year now. His stuff looks pretty good. Location looks OK, (but) he hasn’t pitched for a long time. He’s just getting his arm strength back now. He’s throwing 89-90 mph, (but) he was a 92-95 mph guy. Will he get that back? He might not. But he might be good at 90-91 mph with his location and his breaking ball.”
In his first 12 appearances withYork, Geary has a 1-1 record and 4.05 ERA, with 10 strike-outs and three walks in 13.1 innings of work. As he continues to work against the strong hitting throughout the Atlantic League and be re-signed by a Major League team, Geary is content with his choice to pitch for the Revolution and he continues to look forward with optimism that he still can pitch at the highest levels and isn’t anywhere near being ready to consider his baseball career at an end. And the quality hitters in the Atlantic League provide Geary with nightly feedback on how his comeback is progressing.
“We’re doing this for the love of the game,” Geary said. “I love the game – I like the competition. I like the camaraderie and I feel that I’m not done yet. The hitters will tell me when I’m done. When I can’t get outs, then that’s when I walk away.
“Two years ago I was on an All-Star ballot, and now I’m in independent ball. You never know when the end will come. You never know when your uphill battle will start. You just constantly have to be in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future. There are only a few people that are lucky enough to get the opportunity (to pitch in the big leagues). They’re looking for a certain player, a certain thing. All you can do is what you do on the field. Am I going to get the opportunity? I don’t know, but I’m going to be ready if that phone call should happen.”
A perfect league to keep playing
Players from Atlantic League teams are continually being signed by Major League organizations to play affiliated baseball. It’s not just one or two players per team either. So far this season, the Revs have had six players (John Van Benschoten, Scott Rice, Mike DeMark, Jason Botts, Chad Thall and Andy Gonzalez) plucked from their roster by big league organizations. Another, R.J. Rodriguez, was signed by Leones de Yucatan of the Mexican League. And Yor kisn’t even the league-leader in having its players signed away.
“Because of the talent and the history of this league, at any moment, you can get picked up and your foot’s right back in the door of affiliated baseball,” Walker said. “There have been quite a few guys who have gone from this league back to the big leagues. This is a perfect league to keep playing and also a perfect league to get your foot back in the door and realize your dream. So if you’re a baseball player and you’ve had some affiliated experience, this is the place to be – hands down.”
With 8,053 fans inside Sovereign Bank Stadium to witness the Atlantic League All-Star game on July 13, the evening was a great celebration of the success that the league is enjoying, both on and off the field.
“It’s got to be a pretty good league,” Etchebarren said. “We drew over 2 million people last year in this league. Financially, it’s making money. (And) whoever thought it would be building $25-30 million ballparks for an independent league? I think it’s going to get better and better and I think there’s going to be a lot more teams. Eventually, 10 years from now, who knows how many teams and divisions there’ll be.”
That expansion of the Atlantic League will certainly provide even more players with opportunities to keep their baseball dreams alive and offer a growing number of fans the chance to enjoy baseball being played at a high level in a first-rate ballpark.
“This is the best of the best,”Walker said. “If you’re not in affiliated ball, this is the best of the best of where you can be at. We’ve had guys come here from other leagues who dominated where they’ve been and go “Wow, the quality of players here is better.’
“You’re not going to just step out of another league or even step out of affiliated ball thinking ‘Oh, it’s independent ball, I’m going to dominate.’ We’ve got a lot of experience in this league. In order to be here, you have to be good. It’s not going to be a walk in the park. If you’re going to play independent ball, the Atlantic League is the place you need to be.”