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November 4, 2011

Baseball ProGUESTus

Hard Truths at Triple-A

by Jen Sealey

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Jen Sealey writes Baseball Heavy, a mostly non-serious blog devoted to the Pawtucket Red Sox. She is also the co-founder and active member of the Blackstone Valley Media Club. When not at the ballpark, Jen can be found working on a revamp of Disco Demolition Night called "Auto-Tune Annihilation."

I am an absolute latecomer to baseball. I liked it in a kind of abstract way, but I couldn't bear to watch it on television and was frequently bored enough to bring a paperback to the local park.

One summer evening in 2002, I was at my parents' house and not doing anything in particular. My two sisters, who had lately become ardent Red Sox fans, were watching a game. "Look," one of them said. I looked. Nomar. Gloves. Fidgeting, tapping, and tightening. Every time. And that's how it all started. I went from not knowing what a closer was, not understanding how anyone could pay $45 to go to a game at Fenway, and most of all, not knowing how disgusting and malevolent the Yankees were, to a person who was swallowed whole by baseball and everything it touched.

I found myself spending a lot of time on the internet, reading message boards and blogs and game threads and press releases. I started spending great green gobs of money on premium tickets and ballpark getaways. I became almost impossible to be around, as all I ever wanted to talk about was the Red Sox. I approached complete strangers to talk about Bronson Arroyo and BK Kim and Curt Schilling and Ramiro Mendoza and Shea Hillenbrand. All it took was a Red Sox t-shirt, and you were fair game.

And I was learning. I read a terribly dry book about pitching mechanics in which Randy Johnson was featured prominently. I learned about the infield fly rule, about fake disabled lists, about waiver wires and DFA's, about numbers and formulas I could only hope to one day understand. I filled my nights with trips to tiny ballparks in New Hampshire and Connecticut, to Can-Am games that no one else cared about. I read a slew of biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. I read Ball Four a few hundred times. Baseball consumed my life, and in many ways, it ruined it.

I was lucky enough to live close to a decent ballpark. McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket had never thrilled me—I grew up going to games there, so it was all pretty ho-hum. It became a lot less boring when I was crammed full of baseball lust. I started going as often as I could, getting sucked into the daily soap opera of the team and its visitors. It was great when the PawSox won, but it didn't hurt too badly when they didn't.

In August of 2006, I took a road trip to Rochester to see Pawtucket on the road. It was my first Triple-A away game. I went alone, of course, because NO ONE UNDERSTOOD ME, MAN. It was all very exciting. Keith Foulke was going to be there, rehabbing. Although he was obviously not 2004 Playoffs Foulke, there was still that ONE OF THE 25 cachet.

I learned a hard lesson by way of Keith Foulke that weekend. Okay, it was probably a weekday, but you get the idea. Tie game in the seventh. Rochester batting. Why not bring in your most trusty, filthy, and out-gettingest reliever? Right? No, I'm sorry, Foulke is rehabbing and needs to work an inning. I'm sure my face showed no sign of my internal apoplexy, but I was dying. And of course, Keith Foulke and his Amazing Frayed Arm gave up the winning run. That was the day all semblance of real baseball at the Triple-A level evaporated for me.

I'd always sort of sensed an artifice to baseball at that level, but suddenly I was seeing it in broad daylight. It was like when a stranger uses an unusual word during conversation and you start noticing it everywhere. Starting pitchers never going more than five or six innings. No pinch hitters, no pinch runners. Uninjured players going on the DL forever, but in obvious good health doing things like bullpen catching and warming up relievers. Boston took your best starter? Just drag out some poor scrub from the bullpen to start! Reliever gives up seven runs with two outs? Have him go another couple of innings! Team makes the playoffs? HA! Good luck getting deep into it after the big team takes all your best guys during September call-ups!

I felt like the last person to get the joke. I was hurt. I wanted commitment to winning, not player development. I wanted craft and strategy, not an 85-pitches-or-less outing. I wanted unproductive crumb-bum players to get the axe, not to hang around uselessly for an entire season. I griped about it to my brother, a Yankee fan, who was unsympathetic. "The PawSox are not a team to root for," he said. "You just go to a couple of games for fun, but that's it." And I wished he had slapped me with that intel a long time ago.

Even worse, some visiting teams had different philosophies. The Mets, bless their hearts, ran their triple-A starters deep. I must have seen R.A. Dickey pitch six complete games when he was on the Buffalo Bisons. Recently, Brian Bass of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs (PHI) went a full nine, throwing 120 pitches with no regard to regimen or program. It was the playoffs! They went for the win! It was too much; my heart couldn't take it.

I console myself with the fact that the Mets suck pretty badly. Working their minor-league starters like draft horses has not vaulted them into contender territory. Sacrifices need to be made in order to foster a successful, winning team at the major-league level. I get that. It's all part of the greater plan. Everyone needs to be on board, perhaps the team manager most of all. But I wonder how everyone lives with it. As a player, wouldn't you be frustrated? Wouldn't it be difficult to suppress the wild desire to win EVERY TIME? As the manager, how do you feel having much of your power wrested away by the guys upstairs?

I don't know. I may never know. Maybe they just merrily cash their checks and hope they get that phone call. But as a fan who’s in the weird position of being very interested in a Triple-A team but not at all interested in the parent club, it's tough. I may never see a no-hitter, even if I go to every Pawtucket game for the rest of my life. I still live for the potential and the possibility of the unexpected, though. Anything can happen, and I still have miles to go in my gradual baseball education. And I will never stop going to the park.

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