THE BIG LEAGUE ALL-STAR GALA AIN'T GOT NOTHIN' ON TRIPLE-A!
I’m pretty sure that my first-ever road trip for the sadly-departed USA Today/Baseball Weekly was when they sent me to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the summer of 1993 to cover the Triple-A All-Star Game.
From that year through 2008 in Louisville, Ky., (with the exception of being assigned elsewhere in 2007 when I could have had a return trip to Albuquerque, damn you ex-employers!), the Triple-A event was an eagerly-anticipated event for me.
A chance to catch up with old friends and make new ones. A chance to see players I’d been watching and others I’d yet to see, from up-and-coming prospects to veteran journeymen.
A chance to visit new parks and new cities.
And, always, a highlight was watching the ever-escalating game of “Can You Top This?” when it came to the host teams putting on a great event.
A few of the most memorable moments?
The Home Run Derby in Toledo in 2006 where sluggers Andy Marte and Ryan Ludwick squared off in one of the most legendary duels in HRD history (well, at least in Triple-A HRD history), as Marte blasted 29 home runs in his three rounds, mostly of the tape-measure variety.
Watching Ryan Klesko, Billy Ashley and Ryan Thompson engage in tarp-sliding in the puddles created by that rarest of events, a huge rainstorm prior to the 1993 game in Albuquerque.
Acting as field/dugout reporter for ESPN during the TV broadcast of the 2002 game in Oklahoma City.
And, possibly the single most memorable and all kinds of awesome events, being present at the on-field pre-game wedding of Norfolk Tides fan favorite Benny Agbayani at the 1998 event in Norfolk. If memory serves correctly, he had actually declined a pre-break call-up by the parent Mets so that he could fulfill his commitment as planned. He and his bride had fresh leis shipped in from their home state of Hawaii and, as one of the few women on the field, I got to wear one. (Yeah, yeah, I got lei’d at Benny Agbayani’s wedding. Whatever. It was awesome.) Oh, and the gala that year was held on an AIRCRAFT CARRIER.
The gala is always eagerly anticipated, and my guess is the host team starts planning as soon as they are awarded the game, more than a year in advance (next year is in Reno and you KNOW the Aces are going to come up aces.)
So I’ve been out of the loop for a few years. I missed the Portland, Oregon, game in 2009. The Lehigh Valley (Pa.) event in 2010. The return to Salt Lake City last summer, which I would have enjoyed since the 1996 game was one of my favorites ever (due to the participants, not the gala – that was kind of lame, actually. I heard last year’s was much better.)
But there was no way I was missing Buffalo. There was just so much to be there for. The fact that it was the 25th anniversary of the game, which was launched in 1988 at Buffalo’s Pilot Field. Still a part-time sportswriter at the time, I wrote up a preview of the game for my local paper because one of our “local boys” was the starting pitcher for the American League, Roy Smith of Mount Vernon, N.Y. (now a scout for the New York Mets, who just happen to be the parent club of the Bisons).
Plus I have had a long-time connection to the club, dating back to covering them through a series of stories in 1997 as they marched to the final American Association championship before that third Triple-A circuit dissolved, and the 1998 club, which won the championship in its new home, the International League, and competed in the first Triple-A World Series in Las Vegas.
Knowing the Bisons front office, which has remained remarkably intact over these last 15 years, I had a feeling they’d win any game of “Can You Top This” to which they felt challenged.
And even so, they surpassed my expectations at Tuesday night’s gala.
Held at Shea’s Buffalo Theatre, guests entered on a small red carpet and then had the luxurious and expansive old lobby, the seats in the theatre and, most notably, the stage itself to avail themselves of an array of food and drinks, including Buffalo wings, of course, as well as locall crafted beer.
To say the dessert bar was a hit would be an understatement. Check out the baseball-designed chocolate-covered strawberries, and the candy buffet provided by Eaton Chocolate (www.eatonchocolate)!
With the big league game being played on Central Time in Kansas City, there was some “down time” before the big hanging screens lit up with the game, so during that span, as folks milled and mingled, six All-Star players competed in one of – okay, THE most – creative event I’ve seen at one of these: a relay eat-off of Buffalo’s spiciest wings.
Three players each from the International League and Pacific Coast League were seated with napkins at their neck and large bottles of water in easy reach. Hosted by the Wing King, , so perfect for Buffalo, an eat-off of Buffalo’s most spicy wings. Each guy had water bottle and a bobble head of the event’s host, nationally famous Drew Cerza, aka “the Wing King.”
Though the IL would have seemed to have an advantage with two Bufffalo–based players, in Bisons (Mets) first baseman Val Pascucci and Syracuse Chiefs (Nationals) infielder Jim Negrych, a Buffalo native, the PCL rallied from behind as anchorman Jim Henderson, the closer for the Nashville Sounds (Brewers) edged out Charlotte Knights (White Sox) catcher Josh Phegley down the stretch to give the PCL the victory. The other two members of the winning team, Iowa Cubs infielder Josh Vitters and Albuquerque Isotopes (Dodgers) pitcher John Ely took home the title, Wing King bobblehead dolls and undoubtedly a case of heartburn.
Now, minor league baseball players are a tough bunch to impress.
But they were still raving today about the sleight of hand performed by Buffalo-based magician extraordinaire Lou Cirulli, aka “Magic Lou” (www.magiclou.com) Now back home after nearly a decade on the west coast in Los Angeles, he took table after table of skeptics and turned them all into dazzled believers. I am not kidding. Players, wives, owners, whatever. Just ask Charlotte infielder Dan Johnson and his wife Holly. They will totally back me up on this. He should be on the big stages in Vegas. Or late night TV shows.
Whoever had the idea “hey, let’s have a magician stroll through the tables and do tricks during the game” might have been looked at like he was crazy, but whoever it was, give that man (or woman) a bonus.
Coming tomorrow, more notes from the big day and main event, including notes from the luncheon which featured guest of honor, Hall of Famer and, may I add, my husband’s all-time favorite baseball player, Tom Seaver.
Sitting here in the press box at Coca Cola Field in Buffalo, New York, about to watch the Triple-A All-Star Game Home Run Derby festivities (a few people have mentioned on Twitter that there is apparently some other All-Star Game going on somewhere this week but I am all about the Triple-A event so that’s what you can look forward to reading here over the next few days!)
A little more this week on my history with the Triple-A game itself and my beloved Buffalo in particular, but for now, let’s get to the event at hand.
After nearly two decades of covering minor league All-Star Games and the associated Home Run Derbies, you might think that you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Most of the time, you’d be right (it’s sad that for me the most memorable HRD came in 2005 in Frederick, Md., at the Class A Carolina-California League event when a foul line drive by Miguel Montero nailed me in the right shin … the resulting case of cellulitis almost cost me my leg. But hey, I got the ball.)
But there is a reason that the Buffalo Bisons have been considered among the crème de la crème of Minor League Baseball’s organizations over the years, a reason the club got the 25th annual Triple-A All-Star Game (well, partly because they also hosted the very first one!). Great ownership and management and some creative out-of-the-box thinkers have resulted in an unusual tweak to the proceedings tonight that have me kinda wishing I was just a regular old fan so I could be in the mix for the prizes!
Anyway, one of the highlights of a Home Run Derby tends to be the hordes of kids (and yeah, more than a few “kids at heart”) who stake out territory on the outfield berms to chase down the home run balls.
At Buffalo, however, that territory is taken up by the entrance/exit ramps to I-190 in left field and a parking garage in right field (though there are a few rows of the Bully Hill Vineyards party deck in right field – which is where I’d want to sit if I were just at a Bisons game for fun. Another glass of Love My Goat, please.).
So instead, the Bisons posted a series of “targets” in different locations, attached to the fences towering over left field (ostensibly to keep passing cars from getting hit, but according to Bisons beat writer Mike Harrington, who is the font of all things Buffalo and one of the best in the biz, former Buffalo slugger Jeff Manto used to aim for – and hit – passing cars during BP back in the day), center field awnings and right field locations.
If a contestant – celebrity or Triple-A slugger – hits one of the targets, a seat number will be pulled at random with the holder of that seat winning a prize package from the sponsor.
The prizes range from gift certificates from local and national restaurants or businesses to a two-year lease for a 2012 Lincoln MKZ from local dealership Towne Auto (that can only be won if the target, at the top of the fence in left-center field, is hit in the final round of competition).
Among the six Triple-A sluggers, four – Texas Rangers outfield prospect Joey Butler, Houston Astros veteran DH Mike Hessman (who has 369 career homers), Cleveland Indians former Olympian Matt LaPorta and Buffalo’s own hometown hero, Valentino Pascucci – are right-handed so seem the only candidates to win someone that sweet ride.
(NOTE 7:41 p.m. Butler has just hit a home run over that left field fence that landed just shy of the interstate. And yeah, there are a few fans stationed out there racing for the ball.)
But some of the other more memorable prizes include a suite for the Bisons 25th anniversary celebration game in August; $1,000 cash; a two-night stay with a $250 spa certificate and dinner for two at Western Door Steakhouse courtesy of Home Run Derby sponsor Seneca Niagara Casino & Hotel; a $100 grilling basket from Wegman’s (hope my husband is reading this); and a Bully Hill Party Deck event for 25 people (if someone wins that, I can be their new best friend!)
Way overdue, but what better time to relaunch the baseball part of my blog than sitting here, eyes still bleary, first cup of coffee in hand (a second one coming before I even think about reaching for the car keys) before getting in the car and heading eight hours north (okay, northwest if you want to be picky about it) to Buffalo for the 25th annual Triple-A All-Star Game!
One of my favorite events in one of my favorite cities with GORGEOUS weather forecast on tap (remember, please, I’m coming from D.C. where we’ve had triple digits and power outages since I came home from Cary, N.C., almost three weeks ago!).
And armed with a new camera, look for plenty of photo-blogging, Tweeting (@LisaWinston if you are interested), Facebook updates (facebook/LisaWinstonBaseballDigest) etc. Or just stay tuned here. I’ll have internet in the hotel AND the pressbox. Just like a real reporter (j/k).
And yeah, from here on in, I’ll try to make the content ratio 70:20:10 in terms of baseball:pop culture:Dana’s dog Rilo. Okay, maybe 50:40:10. Or something.
Math class is hard said teen Barbie as she pissed away a potential $50,000 payday because she couldn’t do math in her head on live TV in front of millions of people.
In the meantime, my last time in Buffalo? Voici. See if you can identify the only person in this picture from 1997 who is currently playing in the major leagues.