Life in the Minors
Our poor pitcher knows all about long drives
With the hectic nature of the Frontier League's schedule and its 96 games in, like, 102 days, there really haven't been too many opportunities for me to step back and appreciate the great start we have been fortunate enough to enjoy this season.
Through the first 46 games of our season, we had gone 34-12 to establish an 11-game lead in the Central Division standings. With our early success came recognition. When the Frontier League announced its All-Star teams, the Windy City Thunderbolts were well represented, as eight of our players and our entire coaching staff earned spots on the North squad roster.
So, instead of spending my All-Star break in downtown Chicago with my girlfriend, who was in town visiting from Hawaii, exploring all of the wonders of the Second City and shopping on the "Magnificent Mile," we were headed to Florence, Ky., for the All-Star game. As my girlfriend so eloquently said upon hearing the news that I had been selected to coach in the All-Star game, "I never thought I would ever have a reason to go to Kentucky."
And why would she? With past vacations to Australia, New Zealand, Mexico and Belize, she was a lot more likely to travel outside the country than to take a trip to the Bluegrass State. But this summer, she had a reason to go to Kentucky. I know she did it just for me, and I appreciate it.
Even with 12 players and coaches, three members of our front office and our owner making the trip south to Florence, we did not charter our team bus as we anticipated. Instead, we caravanned in six different vehicles.
My girlfriend and I caught a ride down with our hitting coach -- my roommate, Ronnie Deck -- in his 2002 Buick Rendezvous SUV. On the way down, our batboy, Sean "Sweaty" Kennedy, sat shotgun to Ronnie as my girlfriend and I took up the back seat. Sweaty, who received his nickname years ago from his Pee Wee football coach, didn't do a very good job as our navigator, as he pretty much spent the whole 4 1/2 hour drive sleeping with his iPod blasting.
On the way home, one of our All-Star pitchers, Brock Hunton, sat in the passenger's seat, and with it, accepted the responsibility of riding shotgun. To prepare my girlfriend for the ensuing hijinks in the front of the vehicle, I tried to tell her that we were in for quite a show.
In his early 30s, Ronnie is in his first year as a coach at the professional level this summer. A veteran of seven minor league seasons as a catcher, Ronnie is a pretty cool guy. Understated, witty and quick to offer his version of sarcastic humor, Ronnie is always giving Brock a hard time, in fun of course.
Brock, on the other hand, is a rookie through and through. A year out of college at North Alabama University, Brock is in his first season of pro ball this year and at times needs a little guidance and a lot of tolerance. Once earlier this season, Brock asked a rather silly question for someone who has been around the game as long as he has. I believe he asked if a switch-hitter could bat from one side of the plate and then hit from the other side of the plate later in the game.
The answer, of course, is yes. Otherwise, there would really be no benefit to being a switch-hitter. After trying to state his case as to why it was a valid inquiry, Brock finally gave in and admitted it was a silly question at which point he said, "Hey Brendan, there's no such thing as a dumb question, right?" As he looked to me hoping for my support, my reply was that there are stupid questions, and his was one of them. The dugout erupted in laughs and Brock succumbed and admitted it was pretty dumb. But that's Brock -- blunt, open, honest and very unique in his own youthful way. He is kind of like a kid brother to us, in a good way, a great way. We all like him a lot, because he makes us laugh a lot.
With Ronnie and Brock, there is almost always a constant flow of playful banter, as Ronnie usually pokes a little fun at Brock for reasons that are usually self-inflicted by our rookie right-hander.
Which brought me to my precursory warning to my girlfriend as we started out of the parking lot for the Microtel Inn and Suites in Florence, preparing her, bracing her for the nearly 5 hours of slapstick we were in for.
Ronnie and Brock started right on cue. Brock had pitched the sixth inning of the All-Star game. The first pitch he threw was a belt high fastball to Bobby Mosby of the River City Rascals that would have split the plate except that it never got that far. Brock's ill-advised decision to challenge one of the top power hitters in our league did not go well.
Well, actually it did go well, because it traveled about 420 feet for a home run. As usual, Brock walked right into that one. Ronnie jumped right in and told Brock that he shouldn't feel bad, because he makes a bad pitch every night.
Brock resisted for a little bit, before Ronnie reminded him about the mammoth homer he surrendered against the Gateway Grizzlies ... and the other mammoth homer he gave up that same game. At that point, Brock retreated as usual, saying, "Yeah, you're right."
Then the conversation swayed to college football, and Ronnie and Brock got along fine again. They talked about how neat it was how the Ohio State band dots the 'I' every game, and the dismissal of Sooner quarterback Rhett Bomar from the OU football program, and the like.
For 4 hours, the two guys in the front seat entertained us, and all was well, until we got to the outskirts of Chicago. With just the home stretch of our drive left, we were all very eager to get back to Hawkinson Ford Field in Crestwood, where we had a short workout scheduled for our team to get ready for the second half of our season.
As we approached Gary, Ind., and the interchange to get onto whichever freeway we were supposed to get onto, Brock and Ronnie began to argue about which exit to take. The next thing we knew, we had shot off toward downtown Chicago with no turnaround in site. We weren't exactly lost, but we were a ways off course. With rush hour percolating at 4:45 p.m., we knew we would have a tough time backtracking to Crestwood before our 6 p.m. workout.
Naturally, we all blamed Brock. After all, the duty of the shotgun seat occupant is to act as navigator. As usual, Brock tried to deflect blame to Ronnie, at which point Ronnie said, "Well I hope you can forgive me for missing the exit Brock, since I am actually driving this car while you're over there sitting on the maps."
Long story short, our planned 4 1/2-hour drive north quickly turned into a 7-hour mini-odyssey. We got back to town, we made it to our workout a few minutes late, and life went on.
As for the All-Star game, well, our first baseman Phillip Hawke won the home run derby, and that was pretty much the high point for us, as we lost pretty handily to the South squad. But I was pretty happy. I got to participate in my second All-Star game in pro ball, and my girlfriend was there to experience it with me.
She was there to experience the excitement of the All-Star game, the free stuff we got, the drive home, and the Ronnie and Brock show, of course, although I could have done without the extended version. Four hours was plenty.