This piece is the first in a monthly series called “Down on the Farm” that will chronicle my visits to various minor league parks throughout the 2011 season.
In today’s article, I regale you with tales and photos of my journey to Victory Field in Indianapolis and a trip down south to Kentucky to see the phenom heard ’round the world: Bryce Harper.
Victory Field and the Indianapolis Indians
In their 125th consecutive season of professional baseball, my local team began the season with a nine game homestand against International League West division rivals Columbus, Toledo and Louisville. With a team containing just a handful of players with experience at the Triple A level — and the vast majority coming out of Double A Altoona’s 2010 title winning squad — the Tribe bats were as cold as the first week’s weather.
In the three games I attended (April 7, 14 and 15) at downtown’s Victory Field, Indianapolis scored a total of just five runs, nearly all of them in the final few innings.
In fact, a remarkable stat shows that not only did the Indians allow the opposition to strike first in all nine home games to start the season, but in eight of the nine, the young club failed to score in the first four innings. Also, the Indians only led for two of their first 81 innings (nine games) of 2011.
However, new Tribe manager Dean Treanor was already cognizant of potential offensive shortcomings when I spoke to him on Media Day (April 6):
“Pitching and defense will be key in a big ballpark like this,” the first year skipper said. “Offensively, we’ve got some speed on this team, so we have to be very aggressive on the bases. If you have that much speed, you have to utilize it.”
When all was sorted out this past Friday night after being shutout by Dontrelle Willis and two relievers, Indianapolis had begun the season by losing eight of their first nine contests for the first time in more than three decades. On the other hand, all but one of those losses came by three runs or fewer.
With the Indians’ roster showing a whopping 14 players debuting at the Minor Leagues’ highest level in 2011, just seven men have played a paltry 100 games or more at AAA. For illustration, coming into the April 15 tilt, Louisville’s roster had over 1000 more games of service at Triple A than Indy’s.
Could it be a long season at beautiful Victory Field? Maybe. On the other hand, Indianapolis proved they were eager to depart Circle City for the first time this season, by rolling into Louisville on Saturday the 16th, pounding the Bats at Slugger Field, 7-1, and defeating Reds star Johnny Cueto in the process. (On Sunday, the Tribe scored 4 in the 9th off former big leaguer Carlos Fisher to send the game to extras before falling in 13 innings.)
Another bright spot is top prospect Rudy Owens, who won that game, and has been the starter for both Indy wins. Owens was the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year each of the past two seasons.
Single A Ball in the Commonwealth with a Minor League Megastar
On Tuesday, April 12, the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War’s onset, I took a day off work and hurdled down I-65 about 230 miles to Bowling Green, Kentucky, a southern town of 60,000 about 25 miles north of the Tennessee border.
It was a cool but sunny Tuesday, and with an 11am local time start — after opening night was washed out, a doubleheader was planned — the crowd was sparse, save for some loud school groups along both baselines.
But as I took my press box seat at two year-old downtown Bowling Green Ballpark, and enjoyed a friend bologna sandwich (highly recommended), well-dressed, amicable fans who had taken the afternoon off work, began filing in.
A classy southern crowd, as usual.
The seven inning first game ended in under two hours, as San Diego affiliate Fort Wayne shutout Tampa’s low A squad (the Hot Rods), 4-0 in a Midwest League match-up. The home club returned the favor later in the afternoon, 1-0.
I then hopped back on I-65, cruised through the beautiful Kentucky landscape with the sun off to the west, and moved east through bluegrass country toward the Commonwealth’s most populous city, Lexington. But before that, considering it was, as mentioned, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, I stopped by the birthplace of President Abraham Lincoln in Hodgenville. Seemed fitting, and certainly appropriate.
The Lexington Legends had also been rained out Monday night, so were playing two, beginning at 5:05pm. If I therefore stayed for only the seven-inning first game, I could leave by 7:30 and drive the 200 miles to central Indiana, getting home before 11pm.
But unbeknownst to me, while I was enjoying sunshine to the west, a monster thunderstorm had dumped over 3 inches of rain on “The Horse Capital of the World” earlier in the afternoon.
The kind gentleman who does the broadcasts for this Astros Single A affiliate, Keith Elkins, had emailed me this info, but I had not bothered to check. The Legends had considered washing out both games, though by the time I arrived, there was plenty of sun, and it was announced the Hagerstown Suns (Nationals farm club) and Lexington would play a single game at 7pm.
The main draw this night for many, including yours truly, was 18 year-old phenom — and #1 prospect in America — Bryce Harper of Hagerstown. The 6 foot 3, 205 pound “kid” passed by me in the parking lot before I departed the ballpark to tour Lexington with the few hours I now had to kill.
Here are a couple of photos of Harper, the first showing him warming up before the game and the second showing him positioned in right field.
When the game began on this chilly night, I was comfortably ensconced in the press box with Mr. Elkins, his staff, and a very gregarious radio man for the Suns, who was broadcasting via milb.com. Unfortunately for the media, but fortunately for the crowd who all received free Chick-fil-A and 34 cent hot dogs, Harper fanned three times in a 5-1 Suns triumph.
Harper’s semi-disappointing opening week in the “Sally League” – .226 , 1 HR and 5 RBI with 9 strikeouts in just 31 at bats — was highlighted by his first professional homerun the next evening, and a sell-out crowd for the Suns’ home opener Friday night.