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June 8, 2014

This is Not Your Father's Baseball Road Trip

Day 12: Hickory (Return Trip)

by Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman

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Jake Mintz and Jordan Shusterman, the proprietors of Cespedes Family Barbecue, are taking a baseball road trip and chronicling their travels at Baseball Prospectus. You can find the series introduction and itinerary here.

Day One: Lynchburg
Day Two: Asheville and Hickory
Day Three: Huntsville
Day Four: LSU
Days Five and Six: Houston
On the seventh day, they rested
Day Eight: Dallas
Day Nine: Frisco
Day 10: Little Rock

Day 11: Huntsville (return trip)

Started in: Gadsden, AL
Slept in: Hickory, NC
Today’s Mileage: 383
Total Mileage: 3,242

Intro, by Jake Mintz
There are many things in the world named after dead people. Buildings, cities, and even people are named after those who made some sort of lasting impact on society before they passed away. I am 18 years old. I have spent most of my life in front of a TV screen watching baseball. I am insignificant. I am also alive. Nonetheless, there exists, in the woods outside of Gadsden, Alabama, a street named Jake Mintz Road.

We spent the night in Gadsden, home of Yelawolf, so we could wake up early and take our time experiencing my street. The road is not actually named after me, and I have no semblance of an idea as to why it is named Jake Mintz Road. The only thing on Jake Mintz Road is a Christian Boys Ranch designed to help troubled kids get a new start. We originally planned on going to the administrative offices to ask if they knew the origin of the street’s name, but unfortunately, the offices were closed because it was Saturday. We had zero idea that it was Saturday.

After snapping some absurd pictures, we began our long trek east to Hickory, North Carolina. During our long and uneventful drive we tested ourselves to see how long we could listen to Yelawolf. My recommendation to you is never to try to figure out how long you can listen to Yelawolf, because it leads to a bad time for all.

We had already been to Hickory earlier on our trip, and so we almost ventured elsewhere to visit a new stadium. The reason we decided to return to the friendly confines of L.P. Frans Stadium had everything to do with the talent on both the Hickory roster and the visiting West Virginia roster. Not a single player on the Hickory roster is boring to watch. Obviously, not everyone on the team has a major league future, but even the org guys on the roster are shockingly entertaining. We were able to interview one player who might not be considered a top-tier prospect, but who’s still able to find meaning, value, and enjoyment in his role on the Hickory club.

Interview, by Jordan Shusterman
Unlike our first trip to Hickory, I had the chance to talk to a Crawdads player on our second visit to the Low-A Rangers affiliate. I spoke with Hickory infielder/outfielder/baseball player Nick Vickerson about his defensive versatility, his role on a team full of Latin-American teenagers, and his days at Mississippi State. The 24-year-old Vickerson is repeating Low-A and having much more success his second time around; he’s hitting .299/.448/.449 with a league-leading 38 walks in 51 games.

On how he became so versatile defensively (Vickerson has played every position in pro ball besides shortstop and center field):
“I played shortstop growing up. At Mississippi State I played a little bit of short and then ended up playing third my junior year and second my senior year. I played left in Spokane because they had some guys [in the infield] that were ahead of me.”

On his appearance as a pitcher last year in Hickory:
“I’m always messing around in the outfield throwing curveballs and stuff, and they think it’s a joke, but I throw pretty hard. It was the 12th inning and the other team had just scored four runs so we thought the game was over and didn’t want to use any more pitchers. I go in, throw three pitches, record an out, and then we scored five runs in the bottom of the inning to win the game.”

On adjusting from crazy SEC baseball fan bases to smaller minor league crowds:
“[Playing in the SEC], you get a little spoiled, to be honest. We were staying in Marriotts and eating Outback and now here we are in Hickory where we’ve got 100 fans in the stands sometimes and I’m eating fried chicken for a meal in the clubhouse. Those are things you gotta get used to, but at the same time, you look back and say ‘Hey, I’m playing professional baseball, it doesn’t really matter what level I’m at.’ But I definitely enjoyed my time in the SEC, it was a blast.”

On his role as one of the oldest players on such a young team (Hickory has eight position players born 1994 or later):
“It’s a blast. I’m just here to help these guys learn and develop. I just want to help them try to be professional and come out here and do the right thing. That’s what I’ve learned throughout my career, is that you’re going to run across guys like Joey Gallo who can hit the ball far, but we can’t all be that guy. If you come out here and do the right things, and you’re professional on and off the field, it goes a long way with the coaches. It might not be talked about all the time, but they’re talking about it behind closed doors. That’s why I’m here now at 24 years old getting to play every day when two years ago I only got 60 at-bats at short-season.”

On some of the jobs he’s had to work in the offseason:
“I’ve worked at all kinds of places. I’ve had four or five different jobs over the years. [Playing professional baseball] is awesome, but sometimes you go home and it really doesn’t feel that way. You’re back for four or five months and everybody knows that you’re a baseball player but then again, here I am working at a Planet Fitness. I actually worked at a Victoria’s Secret one offseason. This past year I worked the night shift for about a month, from 10 PM to 6 AM, at Planet Fitness. That was an adventure; I was the only guy in there and you’ve got people coming in at three in the morning. You can imagine some of the people that come in there that late.”

On the MLB player he enjoys watching the most:
“You see all kinds of players that end up making it, and there’s a need for different kinds of guys, because we can’t all be an all-star. You gotta have guys that are healthy and that can play every day when other guys go down. I hope that I can be that kind of guy. There’s actually a guy from where I’m from, Jake Elmore. I was at a low point in my career and I picked up a Baseball America book and it said ‘Elmore plays the role of dirtbag,’ and it caught my eye, so I started reading it. It was talking about how he was in the same position as me; sometimes he didn’t get to play a lot, sometimes he played every day. He played all kinds of positions, and next thing you know he was in the Triple-A All-Star Game and got to play in the big leagues.”

Game Notes, By Jake Mintz

  • West Virginia’s batting practice looked more like a riot than an organized team activity, but it was wildly entertaining to observe. Split up into two teams, hitters appeared to receive points for hitting the ball hard on a line into the outfield. The stakes must have been high, because with every line drive the corresponding team erupted into a raucous frenzy. Watching 6’6” right-hander Luis Heredia swing a baseball bat was a particularly memorable experience.

  • Hickory outfielder Evan Van Hoosier went yard on the first pitch he saw to lead off the bottom of the first. He turned on an inside fastball with a nice short stroke and sent it deep out to left-center field. Later in the game, he was on first after a walk when the West Virginia pitcher threw the ball away on a pickoff. Van Hoosier raced around the bases to score. Other than his speed, he doesn’t have any particularly flashy tools, but this is a fun guy to watch and a name to remember.

  • The starting pitcher for the Crawdads was the hygienically capable Cole Wiper (he wipes). According to the radar gun application I downloaded onto my phone before the game, Wiper was sitting between 98-117 and touched the 140s a few times. His changeup was around 54 and his curveball was even slower than that, sitting around 24 MPH. Either Cole Wiper is the greatest pitcher we’ve ever seen or radar gun apps from the App Store are unreliable pieces of garbage.

  • There are athletes, there are athletes, and then there are the Lewis Brinson types. The Rangers’ no. 9 prospect is easily the best athlete in the system. If 71 percent of the world is covered by water, then 71 percent percent of Lewis Brinson is legs. According to a source at the local American Eagle Outfitters, Lewis Brinson’s jeans size is a ridiculous 32x54.

  • In the bottom of the third, West Virginia manager Michael Ryan was thrown out for arguing a close play at the plate. The umpire was not having it with Michael Ryan’s two first names. “You missed that one blue.” “YOU HAVE TWO FIRST NAMES. FIGURE. IT. OUT.”

  • In the sixth inning, the Crawdads sent in rehabbing reliever Daniel Bard. Yes, that’s the same Daniel Bard who threw the GREATEST PITCH EVER. Bard threw one inning in the majors last year and has since been suffering from a loss of both velocity and confidence. He was awful again when we saw him, letting in four runs on four walks and a hit batter in only two-thirds of an inning.

    Watching Bard was depressing and uplifting at the same time. It was extremely uncomfortable to watch someone realize they are no longer good at the activity to which they have dedicated their entire life. On the flip side, it was inspiring and fascinating to watch Bard fight for his identity in front of 2,000 people who exhibited little sympathy for or awareness of his plight. When the Hickory manager walked out to the mound to pull Bard, the Hickory fans cheered, because they were sick and tired of walks. Jordan and I cheered too, but for a different reason. Bard might have been bad, but he went out there and fought through his own doubts.

    Last night, baseball beat Daniel Bard, but what keeps us riveted and keeps his dreams alive is the possibility that one day, Bard might beat baseball again.

  • The fifth and sixth hitters for Hickory, Ronald Guzman and Travis Demeritte, went back-to-back in the bottom of the sixth. Guzman’s bomb was a rocket just to the right of dead center field that no one had any doubt was leaving the yard. Demeritte is leading the South Atlantic League with 14 home runs, and his dinger last night was majestic to say the least. The ball reached an impossible height before landing just beyond the wall in deep left-center field. We give Travis zero demerits.

  • With the game tied and the winning run on first in the form of Lewis Brinson, Nomar Mazara swung at the ball pitched to him and sent it to a conveniently placed fence about 375 feet away. The ball ricocheted off the wall to the right fielder, who relayed it to the second baseman, who fired it home to the catcher Reese McGuire. Brinson slid feet first to the right of McGuire as “Reese the Piece” attempted to tag him. The umpire did some sort of possessed rain dance while yelling “safe,” as the Hickory players stormed the field in celebration. McGuire and the rest of the Power pleaded their case to the boys in blue, but to no avail. The Crawdads had won the game, and the city of Hickory partied all night long until 12 o’clock because there’s a city curfew.

National Anthem: A girl in her late teens took her time belting out a spirited rendition of the anthem. We both undershot her time of 1:40, which is a lifetime compared to the incredibly quick 0:59 we saw in Frisco on Wednesday.

Purchases: Jordan got a t-shirt on sale for 10 bucks and I got a scout polo with the Crawdads logo on sale for $20. Amazing that Chris Sale was willing to let go of such fantastic items.

Mascot Creepiness: See previous Hickory encounter.

Trip Counter (We’ll be counting some of the things we run into on our travels.)

Happy Count: 11
Mup Count: 6
Life Goes On Count: 28
Fast Food Stops: 11

What’s Next: We’re going home...after one more baseball game. This trip started with some underwhelming Carolina League action, and that’s exactly how it’s going to end. We’re driving an hour northeast to see Courtney Hawkins and the Winston-Salem Dash (White Sox) take on the Carolina Mudcats (Indians). Afterwards, we’ve got a nice six-hour drive home to D.C in store.

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