I am almost reluctant to write about this topic, because one of the reasons the Arizona Fall League is so much fun is that the stands are pretty empty and you can hear everything said on the field. It’s an intimate experience and I’d like it to stay that way. Selfish me. That said, I’ll go against my better judgment and share my experiences with you.
I first went to the Arizona Fall League in October of 2007. At an A’s Booster Club luncheon in September that year, I talked to Jim Young, the Director of Media Relations for the A’s, and told him I wanted to interview some A’s pitchers for background for my novel. He said it would be difficult for me to talk to the Major League players, but I should hop on a plane to Phoenix in October and talk to the minor league players in the A’s organization who would be pitching in the Arizona Fall League. He gave me the name of Paul Jensen, his counterpart at the AFL, and suggested I contact him.
I made the trip and interviewed Jeff Gray, Brad Kilby and James Simmons in 2007. The first two made it to Oakland this season and pitched extremely well for the A’s, and both have a good shot at making the opening day roster in 2010. James should at least get a cup of coffee in Oakland next season.
I made a return trip this year to talk to the new crop of AFL pitchers from the A’s. Paul again set up interviews for me with Justin Friend, Mickey Storey, Sam Demel and an encore visit with James Simmons, who play for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the AFL. All I can say is that the A’s farm system is brimming with good pitchers, now and for some time to come.
I took my accustomed place in the first row of seats next to the Desert Dogs dugout at Phoenix Municipal stadium, the same dugout occupied by the A’s at spring training.
Rob Morse, one of Paul’s assistants, went into the clubhouse and came back with Justin Friend, who sat down next to me in the stands so we could talk.
“I’d dreamed of playing professional baseball since I was a kid, and baseball gave me an opportunity to do things I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing, like getting a scholarship for college.” He played for A’s pitcher Brett Anderson’s dad at Oklahoma State, where he majored in Education. Justin was drafted by the A’s after his junior year in the 13th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft.
We talked about the life of a ballplayer off the field–the info I need for my novel–what they do for fun, what they do in the offseason, etc. All very enlightening for me. Basically, he said that they work so hard during the season, that he just “relaxes and doesn’t do much.”
Justin is a relief pitcher and spent most of 2009 playing for the Stockton Ports (Hi-A), where he had an era of 2.87. He was called up to Midland (AA) for 9 games, and 1 game he’d like to forget at Sacramento (AAA). He lives in Manteca, California, and gives pitching lessons to kids in the offseason to make a little money and give back to his community.
Next to emerge from the clubhouse was Mickey Charles Storey.
Yes, he was named for THE Mickey Charles Mantle, who was his dad’s favorite player, even though he never saw him play (I did!). “I didn’t have much of a choice. My dad was into baseball. I played baseball with him from the time I was old enough to walk.” Mickey grew up in Florida in the Boca Raton area (he still lives there), and attended Florida Atlantic University. He and his fiancee have an 8-month-old daughter.
Mickey was selected in the 31st round of the 2008 draft and started out with the Kane County Cougars (Low-A). After he appeared in 13 games and posted a 0.54 ERA, he was promoted to Stockton and pitched in 22 games, earning a 2.28 ERA . He was also called up to Midland for 4 games, and later by Sacramento for 2 games in which he pitched 3 innings and didn’t give up any hits or walks and had 4 strikeouts (0.00 ERA).
2009 was his first year as a relief pitcher. “I’m fine with it,” he says. He likes the chance to pitch more often because it “makes me feel more like a part of the team on a day to day basis.” We’re fine with it too, with numbers he has posted. Look for him to start out at Midland in 2010.
Sam Demel was my next victim. I say victim because I had a complete brain fade and called him Josh. Great way to begin an interview. Anyway, Sam started playing baseball at age 8, “which was late for most guys.” He was drafted out of high school by the Texas Rangers, but decided to go to Texas Christian University instead, where he majored in Communications. After his 3rd year, he was drafted by the A’s in the 3rd round (120th overall) of the 2007 draft.
2008 was his first full year in the minors, spending the season at Stockton, where he posted a 3.36 ERA and had 18 saves out of 24 opportunities (2nd in the league), and limited opponents to a .227 batting average. He’s a sinker-slider pitcher who gets a lot of ground balls, which accounts for the low opponents batting average.
In 2009 he started at Midland, and, after appearing in 27 games and posting a 0.67 ERA, he was called up to Sacramento where he played the rest of the season. He’ll most likely start out there in 2010.
Sam loves being a ballplayer. “I get to play a game for a living, and they pay me for it. It can’t get any better than that.” He’s married and his wife visits him in Sacramento whenever she can. “I spend all day outside [playing ball], so when I’m away from the ballpark, I’m a TV junkie. I watch Criminal Minds, CSI, things like that.” He plays golf when he can and has a 9 handicap, but it’s hard for him during the season to get out on the links. In the offseason, he plays 5 times a week. “I do nothing but golf, watch TV and workout.”
He says he’s been a lucky charm for his fellow roommates on the road. 3 times last year his roommates got called up to the A’s: Jeff Gray, Jay Marshall, and John Meloan. He was supposed to room with Brad Kilby the day he was called up to the A’s. He’s hoping some of that luck will rub off on him in 2010.
My final interview was with James Simmons, whom I had interviewed in 2007 at the AFL.
It was fun to catch up with him, though I have seen him several times at spring training and this past season at Sacramento River Cats games, where he is often in the stands behind home plate charting pitches. He read a draft of my novel and gave me invaluable input, even rewriting my lame attempts at ballpayer dialog to sound more like the real thing. James had so much to say when I saw him this time that I will do a separate article on him in a day or so.
All of these fine young men told me that there isn’t much “off” in the offseason, especially if they are fortunate enough to be sent to the Fall League, which didn’t end until November 21st this year. Spring training begins in mid-February, so they get a little less than 3 months “off.” After a grueling long season, they need to have some down time. 11 weeks just isn’t enough time for a very tired body to recover.
Most of them told me that the offseason is mostly spent getting in shape for the next season. That’s the only time they can do any heavy lifting or other weight training to build up muscle and strength. All they can do during the season is maintain. If they did more during the season, they’d get sore and wouldn’t be able to pitch. And here I thought they just laid around and goofed off in the offseason.
So that’s it for today. I would like to give a big thanks to Betty Dragon who supplied the awesome pictures in this article.
Stay tuned for upcoming articles: Sitting Down With James Simmons, The AFL Rising Stars Game and others. I will be posting on an intermittent basis, so check back often. Sign up for an RSS feed at the lower right or email me at beebee723@comcast,net and I’ll put you on my email list to notify you when I post a new article. And thank you so much for reading my blog.
Bay Area Teams Swept: The A’s and their counterparts across the Bay were unceremoniously swept over the weekend. I had hoped for a win yesterday for A’s 21-year-old rookieTrevor Cahill against Eric Bedard, especially after the very expensive Seattle hurler had such a mediocre season last year, but it was not to be. Cahill pitched a terrific game through 6+ innings, only giving up a run, but it was one run too many. Bedard was lights out, living up to his pre-Seattle reputation.
Red Sox in Town: Tonight the A’s begin a series at home with the Red Sox and as usual the Coliseum will look more red than green and gold. Red Sox fans–at least those who come to A’s games–are some of the most rude and obnoxious fans I’ve ever encountered. Unfortunately, A’s fans get sucked in and give as good as they get. It doesn’t make for a pleasant evening at the ballpark and I avoid these games like the plague.
A Leftover Post from Spring Training: I wrote this on the plane coming home from Spring Training at the end of March. It got sidelined once the season started and in all the sadness over the death of Nick Adenhart. Since there is nothing much to celebrate after a weekend of losses, I have decided to put it in here–a positive note for a change.
On March 29th before the Colorado Rockies game (the subject of my “Speed Guns, Testosterone and a Snafu” post below) I drove out to the Minor League Camp at Phoenix’ Papago Park. I parked the car under a Smoke tree, and walked in towards the playing fields. Here the players in the A’s organization who are invited to Spring Training–from Single A through Triple A–work out in the mornings and play intra-squad games after lunch. It was a slightly overcast morning in the seventies with a light breeze to keep things very comfortable.
I was astounded that there were exactly 5 people in the whole complex who were not players, coaches or groundskeepers. A guy sat in a beach chair munching on chips and watching the Triple A field from about 30 feet away. Across the way, an older couple and a woman on a cell phone sat on the metal bleachers at the Double A field. The fifth was yours truly.
I had come on a mission: to talk to “my guys,” three A’s minor league pitchers whom I had interviewed in October of 2007, when they were playing for the Phoenix Desert Dogs in the Arizona Fall League. At that time I was doing research on the life of a professional ballplayer for my novel, “Contract Year”, which is now “finished”–is anything ever finished? I wanted to say hello and catch up with them.
The first one I found was James Simmons, a lanky right-handed pitcher with a dazzling smile, who was drafted 26th overall by the A’s in the 2007 MLB June draft, and who commanded a seven-figure signing bonus from the A’s. For the last two seasons, he’s pitched for the Double A Midland Rockhounds in the Texas League, completely bypassing all rookie and A ball levels. He’s playing at Sacramento with the Triple A River Cats this season.
I asked James how he felt about Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson (both drafted the year after Simmons) getting an opportunity to play for the A’s this year. He said, “I’m not ready yet. There are still some things I need to work on. I’m fine with it and they deserve it.” Now there’s class!
While I was talking to James, Jeff Gray, another RHP who pitched for the River Cats last season strode up with a big smile on his face and extended his hand. He’s the oldest of the three at 28, and I had hoped he might break camp with the A’s this spring. Joe Stiglich, the A’s beat writer for the Contra Costa Times and other Bay Area News Group papers, told me that the A’s are “high on him,” but he’s going back in Sacramento to start this season.
I had to go looking for the last guy, Brad Kilby, a LHP who has pitched for Sacramento the last two seasons. I found him sitting on the bench next to the water cooler, staring at the paper cup in his hand . A man of few words, he’s also back in Sacramento for another season.
I have been following the careers of these three ballplayers from Double A to Triple A, and in Jeff’s case to the A’s. Last September Jeff got a “cup of coffee” in the majors, when the A’s called him up after rosters expanded on September 1st. He threw 5 innings in relief with the A’s and I got to see him pitch two of them in person. These guys have been invaluable to me in terms of my understanding of what minor league ballplayers have to deal with: playing for peanuts, climbing up the minors, hoping to get called up, and dealing with the fact that so much of their fate is out of their hands.
I brought a copy of my book with me and gave it to James to read. The other two will read it after James is finished. James, bless his heart, agreed to write a blurb for the dust jacket when the book is published.
I must confess that my heart was aflutter standing around talking to these good-looking very fit young men who are living the dream I would have aspired to in my youth if I’d had a Y-chromosome. They are all extremely nice and enthusiastic, and I am honored to call them my friends.