December 11, 2017

A Lifetime of Moments…Early Years

March 15, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

In a recent visit to a friends’ house, he gave me the grand tour of his home.  For me, it was a first and after being awed by the spacious backyard beyond the pool we ventured back inside and made our way to his “Man Cave.”  By the way, we would have made that open space into a great wiffle ball field as kids and spent countless hours from April to September tossing curves, hitting home runs and playing Coleman and McGee.

At the point of reaching this mini sports museum, the tour came to a halt.  This was a room worthy of admiration and one could not simply take everything in over the course of a few minutes.

A glance at a photo or image prompted conversation that would spark memories and provoke questions amongst three friends.  We moved from one photo to another and transitioned without hesitation.

Over the years, I have beat myself up because I didn’t collect enough autographed baseballs or take enough photos with those in baseball that I have had the privilege of crossing paths with.  I have never been a huge collector of things that I could cover whole walls with in a home office or room in a basement room.  Of course, the disclaimer here is that my wife would disagree with that statement.

Instead of many photos or baseballs with signatures loaded up in boxes that I’ll never look at, I have my memories and those I hold sacred.  As the Emerson Drive song goes, I’ve had my moments…days in the sun!

Where in the World is Batavia, NY?

Batavia, NY is located almost right in the middle of Rochester and Buffalo in western NY.  I think exit 48 off NY State thruway.

I broke into baseball in 1997 right after college.  Jason Smorol, general manager of the Batavia Clippers, gave me my first chance to do play-by-play for a professional club.  The Clippers were the short-season affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NY-Penn League.

In my final semester, the club approached our college radio station at SUNY Brockport about broadcasting road games and would use someone from the station to broadcast games.

They say you always remember your first and I certainly remember my first season broadcasting and working with a minor league operation.  On the broadcasts, I worked with Wayne Fuller, who had worked with the club in many roles prior to my arrival.  Wayne was a terrific teacher and I owe much of my ability to paying attention to the details to him.  Wayne even taught me that a hitter does not get credit for a sacrifice fly when he advances a runner from second to third on a fly ball to the outfield.  Damn rookie mistake.

The club made it all the way to the championship series against the Pittsfield (MA) Mets in early September.  The best-of-three series went the distance and the Mets eventually won Game 3 in the bottom of the ninth on a bomb-bat base hit by Kevin McCarthy.

The game-winning hit just made it over Andy Dominique at first base, the winning run scored from third and historic Wahconah Park went delirious.  Bomb bats were mostly used during batting practice because they were hard to break and rarely used in games.  After the game, I caught up with Dominique in the clubhouse and he told me that if McCarthy was using a regular bat, he would have been sawed off and would have been out number 3 with extra innings eminent.

Gregg Legg, the manager of the Clippers in ’97, knew he only needed to get the game to extra-innings and he said with confidence after the game that he would have found a way to win, especially knowing the Mets had few options out of the pen or off the bench.

Brett Black, drafted in 1997 by the Phillies out of North Carolina State, was the pitcher on the mound in the ninth.  Black was the guy that everyone around the league thought would make it all the way to the big leagues.  He didn’t.  Johnny Estrada was behind the plate for Batavia that night.  Estrada would go on to the majors and enjoy success.  In 1997, he was drafted out of the College of the Sequoias and sported a Mohawk in his first season of pro ball.

Both clubs featured pitchers, who are still getting wins and making decent livings at the big league level.  That same year, A.J. Burnett, now with the Yankees, was with Pittsfield and Randy Wolf, now with Milwaukee, was with Batavia.

I bring up this story because a few years later, I was spending New Years’ eve in Vermont with my girlfriend, who would become my wife, and many of her friends.  On one particular night, we had a buffet dinner of sorts and, as I was waiting my turn in line, I noticed the guy in front of me wearing a ring.

It didn’t look like a high school ring, so I asked him what it was.  In a matter of fact way he said he played minor league baseball and he was on a club that won a league title.  Of course, this was only the beginning of the conversation.

After finding out what year and club he played with, I bombarded Jorge Santiago with vivid details of the ’97 series and finally got to that game-winning hit that provided him with the ring on his finger.  Jorge was an infielder on the Pittsfield club, his only season of pro ball in the Mets organization.

With each detail doled out, the quizzical look on his face became more and more engaged.  He finally interrupted and asked how I knew all of that. With pride, I said I happened to be the radio broadcaster for the opposition and echoed the sentiments of good ol’ Legger that if that game had gone extra innings, Batavia would have won.

Batavia is where I got my start and my nickname.  Jason Smorol, much like former A’s owner Charles Finley, believed his guys should have nicknames.  Prior to graduating, I would travel out to Batavia a few times a week and help out around the office and get acclimated with the surroundings.  The front office consisted of Jason, Assistant General Manger, Joe Henderson and office manager and mom Linda Crooke.

One day, Jason told me to bring some pocket schedules back to Brockport and pass them out to businesses.  I opened one up and there it was.  Catch Batavia Clippers Baseball on WBSU with Steve “Sugar” Lenox.  It took some time getting used to and I certainly would never introduce myself as Sugar, but Jason did and soon so did a lot of other folks that I got to know.  It ended up following me wherever I went, thanks to Jason.

Moving on up…

After spending 1998 with Batavia, it was time to move on.  I needed to get my self-perceived broadcasting career going in the right direction and felt that, like professional ballplayers, a third year in short-season ball was not a positive.

During the ’98 season, I began making calls to broadcasters around the Eastern League (Double-A).  I wasn’t yet familiar with the term “networking”, but that’s what I was doing.  My first, and what might have been my only call, was to Andy Young.

Andy served as the play-by-play announcer for the Portland (ME) Sea Dogs and was gracious enough to give me some time on the phone.  I sent Andy a cassette and after listening he called me up with some encouraging words.

Over the next few years, I learned that Andy was one of the most likeable and respected broadcasters in the minors.

He suggested that I reach out to Mark Nasser in Wilmington, DE.  Mark was the broadcaster for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, a Kansas City Royals affiliate in the Carolina League and each year he brought in an intern or seasonal hire to serve as his broadcast partner.

I went to the winter meetings in December, which were held in Nashville, TN.

The meetings were held in the Grand Opry Hotel, which is more of a small city than hotel.  On one of the nights, I went to dinner with Jason Smorol, Barry Bower and Kevin Bartl from the Batavia club.  As I was leaving my hotel room, the phone rang and it was Mark telling me that he’d made a decision and he offered me the seasonal position with the Blue Rocks.  We agreed to talk the next day and now it was time to celebrate.

I went to the Nashville meetings thinking Wilmington was mine.  Only after I arrived and saw a lot of other guys in their high-end suits looking for $1000.00-a-month gigs, did I realize that if Wilmington didn’t work out, I had nothing else working.  Fortunately, it all worked out.

That night, we decided to check out the hotel’s fancy steak restaurant.  After being seated at a table with Cleveland Indians’ General Manager John Hart, and his entourage one table away. we opened the menus and soon realized maybe a hamburger joint would have been a better budgetary choice.

The Batavia budget was not quite that of Cleveland’s and we decided not to bankrupt the organization and made our way out of the restaurant to find another place to eat.  Heck, it might have even been a liquid dinner.

A few nights later, I dined at the steak restaurant with Mark and others from the Blue Rocks front office.

The Blue Rocks ended up in the championship series in 1999 against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, Single-A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.  The first two would be played in Wilmington before the series shifted to Myrtle Beach for the next three.  The series was going to close out no matter what in Myrtle Beach and after that, players would be heading to instructional league or home.  Joe Dillon, Blue Rocks third baseman, was heading home to Texas to get married.  He had asked me to drive his car down so he could leave once the series was over.  I agreed.

The two clubs split the first two games and ended up 2-2, forcing a decisive Game Five.  Game Five never took place.  Hurricane Floyd had other plans.  There was talk of taking the series finale all the way to Atlanta, but that idea was scratched and the Blue Rocks and Pelicans were declared co-champions.  I had my first championship ring in professional baseball.  On Father’s Day, 2000, I presented it to my dad and it still puts a smile on my face when I see him wearing it.

I wouldn’t see Joe Dillon again until 2006 when we crossed paths at the Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Japan.  I was there covering the inaugural World Baseball Classic for XM Satellite Radio and Joe was now playing for the Yomiuri Giants.

In love and in a NY State of Mind…

After the 1999 season, I made my way back to New York and back to the NY-Penn League.  The Staten Island Yankees were my next stop.  Yes, another season in the NY-Penn League, but at the time, I thought it was the smart move.  After all, it got me closer to the woman I was in love with, it was a Yankees affiliate and it was New York City.

The 2000 season was the second for the Staten Island franchise.  The club had been moved to Staten Island from Watertown, NY by its new ownership group prior to the 1998 season.  The club played at the college of Staten Island as their new multi-million dollar stadium was being negotiated and ultimately built next to the Staten Island ferry in the St. George area of Staten Island, which overlooks Manhattan.

Joe Arnold, former college coach at the University of Florida, served as the club’s manager in 2000 and his team was loaded with college talent right out of the 2000 first-year player draft.  Oh, and one great big personality in Wily Mo Pena.

The Staten Island club won the league title, defeating the Mahoning Valley Scrappers (Cleveland Indians), two games to one.

Game Two of that series went extra-innings and Mahoning Valley won on a Henry Pichardo walk-off home run.  I know what you’re asking?  Who is Henry Pichardo?  Henry was a 5’7, 145-pound middle infielder, who had no business hitting a home run in any game.  I went on the air the next night and said if that was a World Series game, it would be talked about for years and be considered one of the best games ever.

On the day of the series finale, I got a phone call in my hotel room.  It was Don Wardlow, announcer for the Charleston River Dogs.  The River Dogs were one of the minor league clubs owned by Mike Veeck, son of famed promotions guru Bill Veeck.

Don tracked me down at the hotel to tell me how much he enjoyed listening to the game on the Internet the night before.  He said he was a longtime Yankee fan and he enjoyed listening to other broadcasters.  Don and I had never met or talked prior, but I knew that he worked with Jim Lucas and that he was blind.

In 2000, I had the great privilege to interview New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and baseball great Bobby Thomson.

I’ll never forget that the Mayor and I were in the booth together along with two very large men, who served as the Mayor’s security detail.

Later on in the year, when the Yankees were playing the Mets in the first New York Subway series since 1956, I recognized one of those body guards in the interview room at Yankee Stadium after Game Two of the World Series.

I approached him and asked if it would be ok to say hello to the Mayor and inquire about his health.  He said no problem.  The good Mayor was nice enough and we spoke for several minutes.

Here’s one final story from the 2000 World Series. I volunteered to help out at Yankees Stadium during the postseason and worked the auxiliary press box in right field for the first two games of the World Series.

I was assigned to work with a couple of guys who had helped out in years past. They urged me to get upstairs to watch Yankees public address announcer Bob Sheppard at the end of the game.

They instructed me to go up, stand in a certain place near the back of the press box and focus on him.  It turned out that Mr. Sheppard had a routine.  After the second out was recorded, he would announce the next hitter, depart from his booth, and wait and watch what happened.  If the last out was recorded and the game was over, he would be off.  If the inning continued, he would go back into the booth, announce the next hitter and move back into the press box area.

The Mets rallied for five runs in the ninth to pull to within a run and he went back and forth as hitters turned into base runners.

Finally Kurt Abbott struck out looking against Mariano Rivera.  As the Yankees celebrated their 2-0 lead in the series, I turned to look back and Mr. Sheppard was no longer in site.  He was on the elevator and heading for home.

I share my thoughts and memories because www.seamheads.com and www.lexy.com are presenting me with an opportunity to stay involved with baseball with the hopes of making my way back in.

My contributions to www.seamheads.com will consist of sharing my experiences working in professional baseball and providing my own perspective on minor league prospects past, present and future.  Plus, I’ll throw in a few surprises from time to time.  I thank Michael Lynch for the opportunity.  Please share your thoughts with me by emailing me at stlsugar@hotmail.com

Sugar’s Random Thoughts—

Sox Prospect…

Saw on www.boston.com over the weekend that Red Sox outfield prospect Ryan Westmoreland has a rare vascular irregularity in his brain and will undergo brain surgery on Tuesday in Arizona.  The 19-year-old is considered to be one of the top prospects in the minors.  I don’t know Ryan and I have not seen him play.  This is not the time to bore you with his stats and baseball accomplishments, but please keep him and his family in your thoughts and prayers.

Change for the better?…

Over the last few weeks there have been rumblings about the possibility of “Floating Realignment” in major league baseball.  Perhaps my cynical side is coming out and my initial reaction is that this is just plain ridiculous.

However, similar sentiment and contempt were held for inter-league play and the designated hitter rule.  Ideas on how to improve the game that were, for decades, thought about and championed by certain factions of ownership, before they were finally implemented and ultimately deemed successful.

The designated hitter rule, which was finally adopted in 1973 by the American League, was an idea that Kansas City and Oakland A’s owner Charles Finley that other owners wouldn’t consider because it came from Finley.

Charlie O was also a long-time advocate of finding ways to speed up the game.  Funny he was doing this is in the early 1970’s and speeding up the game is still a topic of conversation today.

Prospects on the rise…

Braves outfield prospect Jason Heyward seems to be everyone’s pick for N.L. Rookie of the Year and the few scouts that I have spoken to about him all agree that he’s a special talent…looking forward to Heyward vs. Strasburg match-ups in the NL East for years to come.

Mauer Commercial…

I love the Joe Mauer commercial, promoting MLB 2010.  I am not a GAMER, but the commercial is solid.  On the fence as to whether or not it’s better than last year’s with Dustin Pedroia.  Here’s to hoping that those who are writing that the Twins could still trade Mauer if the contract does not ultimately get done are flat out wrong.  Mauer in Minnesota for his entire career would be good for Mauer, the Twins and baseball.

It’s still happening…When I was in junior high school my Phys. Ed teacher, Chris Tracey, also taught health class.  Talk about awkward.  One day he looked at me with scorn as I told him it was being written that a certain Mets outfielder had gained a rather large number of pounds of muscle during the offseason.

That was 1987 and he told me that there was no way you could add that type of muscle in that short of time without help, meaning steroids.  Kudos to Kevin Kernan of the New York Post for keeping the “This particular player rededicated himself during the offseason and added so many pounds of muscle” streak alive.

In his February 27 article, Kernan writes that Mets’ prospect Ike Davis added “30 pounds of bulk over the offseason”. After all that has transpired over recent years, this reporting baffles me.  I have had many discussions over the years with strength and conditioning coaches and they would see that as some type of red flag.

I recall last year reading a Peter Gammons report where he stated that pitcher Brandon McCarthy added “muscle” during the offseason and predicted a big ’09 season for the Rangers hurler.  McCarthy made 17 starts (5 more in the minors) and threw 97.1 innings at the big league level in 2009.

On his player page on www.baseball-reference.com, he’s listed at 6’7 and 200 pounds.  He’s always been considered a tall and lanky pitcher and I wondered if he did indeed add all that weight, as Gammons suggested if that would be a good thing.  I shared Gammons’ piece with a scout, who I trust implicitly, and posed that question to him.  He predicted that if McCarthy added too much weight on his skinny 6’7 frame he wouldn’t make 20 starts fox Texas.  Guess I’ll have to tell him he was right.

Speaking of Ike Davis, a lot of NY baseball writers are still worried and wondering why he didn’t hit a single home run in his first season of pro ball in 2008 when he debuted with the Brooklyn Cyclones.  Not a single writer did their homework and worked to discover that it’s almost impossible to hit one out of the Coney Island Park, formerly known as Keyspan Park.  The wind on most nights comes in from right field, right off of the water.

Steve Lenox resides in East Haven, CT.  You can follow him on Twitter @ Steve Lenox and on www.lexy.com.  Throughout the season, he’ll provide daily audio text/email scoreboard updates for MLB, as well as coverage on the New York Yankees and minor league baseball prospects.

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