I am writing this from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I drove 8 hours from my home near Houston to visit a friend before I head back to school. After a little convincing, my friend and I were off on a 2-hour road trip to Oklahoma City to see the Astros AAA team play. If you have never been to a Minor League game, go. Right now. Seriously. Stop reading this a find the nearest park and see a game. It is so cool to see the game we grew up with as kids reverted back to that, a game for kids. There was no pressure, no bad vibes, just a lot of fun watching people enjoy playing a game everyone in the park loves.
From the outside, you can’t tell that Chickasaw Bricktown Park, the home of the RedHawks, doesn’t house a big league team. The stadium sits on Mickey Mantle Drive and has a statue of Mantle by the Left Field entrance.
Upon arrival, we walked up and bought the closest tickets we could get to the field, which just so happened to be three rows behind the Visiter’s dugout. All night, I could hear the conversations that were taking place on the field. The umpire asking for more balls, the players encouraging teammates from the dugout, and even the First Base coach giving instructions to runners.
One of the coolest things for me was getting to put a face to the names I have heard so much about. Wojo, Singleton, Springer. All there. All no more than 50 yards from me for the majority of the night.
As for the game, it was as entertaining as I had hoped. Asher Wojciechowski pitched great. You’ve probably seen the recap of the game, so I won’t bore you with too many stats, but I will tell you what I saw. From the first base line it’s hard to judge how well a pitcher is throwing, but you can easily tell when you look at the contact (or lack thereof) by the hitters. In the first inning Wojo was dominant. No one on the Isotopes had a chance at the plate. He allowed a broken bat blooper into left, but he struck out the other three batters he faced.
Then the RedHawks came up to bat. Trevor Crowe led off the game with a sharp single and then promptly was picked off at first. No problem, Jose hit a single, which brought up the man, the myth, the legend, George Springer.
When you hear so much about a player, especially one who is putting up the numbers Springer is, it’s hard not to imagine them as some behemoth. So when he came up, it took me a second to register that everything you and I have been reading about, talking about, and hoping for, is all about a 24-year old kid. George Springer is big compared to the average American male, sure, but he was by no means the biggest person on the field.
As for his first at-bat, he took a pitch, then swung and missed.
Then he broke his bat on a fielder’s choice to short stop.
So Springer is standing on first, with the threat of adding to his widely noted stolen base total, and he got picked off. Yeah, you read that right. Two pick-offs at first in one inning. It was strange.
Jonathan Singleton came up in the bottom of the 2nd. Right off the bat, you can see why he is such a highly touted prospect.
— Tyler Stafford (@JeffBlogwell) August 18, 2013
He had a walk and two strikeouts, but I honestly didn’t remember that. I do remember a bullet he hit down the left field line that was about 6 inches foul. For this game, and really even this season, the numbers don’t tell the story of Singleton. He started 50 games behind everyone else, and most importantly, he’s playing in Triple A at 21 years old. He’s got time.
What’s that? You want a barrage of Jon Singleton pictures? You got it!
See? He’s huge.
If you look closely, you can see the ball about halfway there. That’s not so much for you, but for him last night.
This is actually the ball that he drove down the line, albeit foul. I can’t decide if it’s impressive that he got under it enough to hit it that far, or if that means he’s got too much dip in his swing. Oh well, that’s why I’m not a scout.
The absolute coolest part of the night, and probably my summer, was what happened in the 7th inning. I DM’d Jeff Luhnow on Twitter when I saw that he was at the OKC game too, seeing if I could come say hi. I honestly didn’t expect a response. He’s busy. He’s scouting. He’s not wanting to be bothered by a 20-year old “writer.” Instead of any of that though, he messaged me back saying he would come by and asked where I was sitting.
I immediately looked around to see if I could spot him in the crowd and saw that he was right behind home plate about 15 rows up sitting with another scout. After picking him out of the crowd, I pretty much split time between him and the game. Sorry if that makes me sound like a stalker, Jeff, I was just really excited!
So, in the 7th inning I looked up and saw him walking over to our seats. I got really nervous. Should I have something prepared to ask? Does he think I’m actually a “real writer”? No seriously, am I supposed to be doing something more journalist-y? He walked up and introduced himself as “Jeff” and all the nervousness went away.
We talked baseball. That was it. I wasn’t interviewing him and he wasn’t putting on a show. He asked personal questions about me and genuinely was interested in my life. I’m not trying to get too sentimental, but really, the General Manager of the Houston Astros came over to talk to some random kid at a game. How cool is that?
When he left, I pulled out my dying phone to jot down some notes, just so I could remember the general idea of what we talked about. Obviously, this wasn’t a formal interview, so I’m not quoting him on any of this. This is just what I remember.
I congratulated him on the signings of Leo Harris and Japhet Amador. We joked about how big Japhet is and he said that the first newspaper article that mentioned the signing listed his height and weight next to his name. He chuckled and said he at least wished that would have come up organically.
Right after that, Jimmy Parades made a nice play on a ball at short stop and looked like he would turn a double play, but the umpire called the runner safe at first. We both commented on how good he looked at short that night and he told me that Jimmy was a shortstop prospect in the Yankees system, which I didn’t realize.
Then, George Springer made a catch in center field and that naturally turned the conversation to him. I told him that I swore I wouldn’t ask when he was getting called up. That got an actual laugh out of him and he said he got asked that at least three times a day. He joked that he was going to start changing his answer because his answer now was too long. Now he’ll just say, “Not today,” and one day that will change. He saw my camera and asked if I got any shots of Springer’s Homer earlier in the game. You bet I did.
Luhnow said Springer was an “exciting prospect” which was probably the understatement of the night. He looked at ease at the plate and patrolled center field with ease.
After an appropriate amount of Springer talk, I asked Jeff what the biggest difference was between his job now and his job he held with the St. Louis Cardinals. He said the main thing that changed, and the main thing he missed, was doing what he was doing right then, watching minor leaguers. With the Astros, he has control over the big league roster, which he admitted was tons of fun, but it keeps him busy. He watched and scouted amateurs and minor league players for years, so I’m sure the change is substantial.
After the last out of the 7th, Wojo headed back out to the mound to pitch the 8th. He asked how many pitches I thought he was at. I said 85-90. He was at 89. Basically, I just proved my scouting prowess to the head honcho of the Astros. Hire me, Luhnow. You know how to find me.
He excused himself by saying he needed to go watch him pitch this last inning and he thanked me. He thanked me! Why?! I’ll forget the score of the game, I’ll forget who was playing, I may even forget seeing George Springer crush a Home Run (doubtful), but I will never forget that Jeff Luhnow, baseball executive of my favorite team since I could walk, took the time to come say hi. And not just say hi, stay and talk.
Wojo dealing. 8 punch outs so far, one out in eighth. Still 93 on the gun.
— Jeff Luhnow (@jluhnow) August 19, 2013
That’s a pretty insignificant tweet as far as Jeff Luhnow’s tweets go, but it means something to me. It’s proof he was on the job that day. It’s proof he wasn’t at the ballpark just for fun. And it’s proof that he stopped all of that to talk to me.
The minor leagues are good for tons of things. Development of players, places for stars to rehab, and a chance for fans to see stars in the making. But most importantly, it takes us back to the heart of baseball. It’s easy to get caught up in the A-Rod scandal or the looming reality of 3 straight 100 loss seasons, but none of that matters in AAA. Those guys are living their dream, and at least in Oklahoma City, they are succeeding. Go RedHawks. Go Stros.