Life in the Minors
Break a good breather before making second-half run
The All-Star break always comes at a good time.
Last season, when I was pitching coach for the Windy City Thunderbolts, the All-Star break provided a reward for a very successful first half of the season, as we cruised into the midseason 20 games over .500. For our efforts, our field staff was selected to coach the West All-Stars, as eight of our players were voted to the game.
The first half of this season has had a much different tone for the Evansville Otters, thanks to a heavy road schedule and injuries to key players early in the season. The most devastating, of course, was the shocking loss of our third baseman, Alex Fonseca, who nearly had his career come to an end when he was struck on the eye during batting practice prior to our seventh game of the season. The injury required several surgeries and brought our win streak to open the season to a screeching halt.
But heading into the break, we took some positive steps as we completed the first half of our schedule. We traded our closer, Jon Lewis, to the Gary RailCats of the Northern League just before the break, receiving two strong starting pitchers and a talented young reliever in return.
On the field, we were able to win five of our last six games, to move within two games of first place in the Frontier League's West Division, setting us up for a second-half run at the top of the standings. I guess you could say the break came at a good time for us.
For catcher Tom Pennino and our rookie hitting machine Justin Randall, the break meant an extra 17 hours or so of driving, but for good reason. Both Tom and Justin were selected for the league's All-Star game, as was Jon. With the game held in Traverse City, Mich., our All-Stars had to make the long drive from Pittsburgh to Michigan and then to southern Indiana to open our second half of the season.
For our manager, Jason Verdugo, the break afforded him a flight back home to St. Paul, Minn., to see his wife and son. Our hitting coach, Bobby Bell, made the drive home to Lafayette, Ind., where he spent his four-day break digging a pool on his property for his kids. For our players from the Midwest, the break meant a short drive home to rejuvenate for the next 50 games.
For me, the All-Star break meant four days of hanging out in Evansville with my fiancee, who made her annual trip up from Hawaii. For four days, I was able to relax and not think about baseball. We kept it simple, trying out the restaurants in the area, doing some shopping, and watching "Hancock" and "Kung Fu Panda" in the local theater, and making numerous trips to Family Video up the street to rent DVDs.
For our other local boys on the Otters, going home was obviously not an option. Our second baseman, Isaac Omura from Kailua, was able to enjoy a little bit of home for the last couple of days of the break, as his parents -- CJ and Bev -- made the long flight up to Indiana from Oahu.
The Omuras graciously invited my fiancee and me to dinner, along with Isaac's high school, college and now Otters teammate Ricky Bauer, and Ike's host parents here in Evansville, Mary Lou and Phil Gerhart. It was very kind of the Omuras to take us all to dinner that night, as we tried out Western Rib Eye, a local steakhouse. They even brought me a bag full of local snacks, which I was pretty excited about.
We talked about a lot of stuff over dinner -- common acquaintances from back home, the Otters' first half of the season, host families and Isaac's bizarre desire to witness a tornado first-hand. I told Isaac about the tornado warning we had in the area about a month ago. There I was, watching some TV here in my apartment at about two in the morning, winding down and headed for bed when I heard one of those beeps on the TV to warn of a severe weather update.
The ticker across the bottom of the screen read that a tornado warning was in effect for several counties in the area, including ours. So I immediately jumped onto weather.com and tried to stay up to date. I called Bobby, who lives in the same apartment complex I do, and he said that if I heard the tornado siren, all I could do was go jump into my shower, pull the curtain over me, and pretty much just hope it didn't hit here, since we both live on the top floor of a two-story building and were sitting ducks.
After a while, my Internet connection went down, and I had to call my fiancee back home and have her watch for updates on weather.com to keep me up to date. I'm sure she wasn't too thrilled about having to worry about me getting swept away in a tornado. The next morning, I awoke to a tornado siren wailing away in the area. I called our front office down the street at Bosse Field and they said it was just the weekly siren test. I don't think I've ever gotten out of bed that fast.
That was as close as I need to come to a tornado this summer.
CJ and Bev's trip to the Midwest came at a very good time. With a couple of days before our home series against the Gateway Grizzlies, they spent time with Isaac and got to know the area their son was spending the season in.
In our weekend series opener, they were also able to watch Isaac hit a three-run homer to close our deficit against the Grizzlies to 5-4 in the seventh inning. It was Isaac's team-leading seventh round-tripper of the year, but the first his parents have ever seen him hit in his four years in professional baseball. Isaac has had a solid year for us thus far, as he also leads our club in doubles (15) and runs scored (31).
With the frustrations and exhaustion of the first half, the All-Star break could not have come at a better time for us. We all returned refreshed and rejuvenated from our four days off. I think we have a pretty good shot at making a legitimate run at the playoffs -- we just need to make sure we avoid any more natural disasters.