Renfree Field To Come Alive Again

A revival is under way in Sacramento. A team of baseball enthusiasts from Sacramento’s past is working hard to revitalize a park that could be a big part of the city’s future. Renfree Field, once a jewel in Sacramento’s baseball history, today sits abandoned by time and desecrated by vandals who tried to steal copper wire from the electrical lines. A 2012 fire burned the press box and concession stand, leaving just a shell of a ballpark.

Renfree Field Today

Renfree Field today.

But that is about to change, thanks to the vision of Leon Lee, a Sacramento baseball legend who played seven years in the St. Louis Cardinals minor league system before becoming a star in Japan. Lee also served as a consultant for the 1992 movie Mr. Baseball, starring Tom Selleck: Mr. Baseball Trailer

Lee’s vision to revitalize Renfree Field is no Hollywood dream. It’s rooted in Sacramento.

Renfree Field is now just an essentially abandoned city park.

Renfree Field is now a virtually abandoned city park.

Lee told me about his plans during a recent visit to the Limelight – a restaurant that celebrates Sacramento’s baseball history. “The reason I was interested,” he said, is because of “council member and now vice mayor Allen Warren.” Lee explained that Warren asked him to take over the Renfree rebuilding project. “The main interest is just the history behind Renfree Field,” Lee said.

Harry Renfree Field was born in 1967 as Sacramento’s first ballpark with lights and it quickly became a showcase for area talent, featuring Derrek Lee (Leon’s son) of Sacramento’s El Camino High School, who later won a World Series championship with the Florida Marlins in 2003. Former L.A. Dodger Steve Sax (James Marshall High School in West Sacramento) played there too, along with one-time New York Yankee Nick Johnson (McClatchy High School in Sacramento).

Renfree Field today, in need of repair.

Renfree Field to get big makeover.

“And once we got the investors involved, it looked like we could build a really family-friendly community baseball field for higher-level competitions,” Lee told me. “And now it’s getting ready to come to fruition.”

Sacramento baseball legend Leon Lee.

Sacramento baseball legend Leon Lee.

“The groundbreaking right now we’re projecting to be right around mid-June,” Lee explained. Look for the park to be completed in early November, said Lee. “And we’ll be ready to operate for all the high schools and spring activities in the spring. And we’re planning a Minor League fall program there. They’re going to have a developmental fall league for 35-40 games in the fall,” Lee told me. “Hopefully the fans will come out and enjoy it and have a good night and not even eat a hot dog – they might even eat a steak,” he said with a laugh.

“So what’s the field going to look like?” I asked.

“Well when you drive up you’ll see a beautiful plaza,” Lee said. “There’s going to be a street lined with nice palm trees. It’ll be a nice facade out there. You almost get a feeling like you’re walking into the old Wrigley Field.”

Rendering of the new Renfree Field

Rendering of the new Renfree Field.

Lee told me the park would have more than three thousand seats for the fans. The stadium will include “premium seats behind home plate,” Lee said, along with “outfield bleachers for the bleacher bums.” Imagine a venue with music, mascots and a majestic baseball diamond that will keep Sacramento’s legacy alive.

“At one time,” Lee told me, “we had five Major League managers in the big leagues from Sacramento at the same time.” Baseball legends Dusty Baker, Larry Bowa, Jerry Manuel, Jerry Royster and Buck Martinez all have roots in Sacramento.

Lee’s dream includes a museum honoring the Sacramento region’s biggest baseball stars. “Well you can remember guys like myself,” Lee laughed. You can add Leon Lee’s brother Leron to that list, along with his son Derrek. Throw in Greg Vaughn, Roland Office, Steve Sax, Jermaine Dye (Will C. Wood High School in Vacaville) , Dustin Pedroia (Woodland High School) , Darren Oliver, Chris Bosio, Butch Metzger plus the aforementioned player/managers and you’ve assembled a top-notch team.

So who’s involved in the project besides Lee? Start with Phil Swimley, the long-time baseball coach at UC Davis.  Also, Dusty Baker, Jerry Manuel and Greg Vaughn are all on the advisory board for Renfree Field.

The history museum will connect kids from today with names from the past. “We want to recognize all the old ex-professional players that actually went through Harry Renfree,” Lee said. “This is what this field is going to be all about.”

And if you’re interested in baseball history, I’ll have some fun stories to tell and also a book signing for “Baseball Between Us”:

Baseball Between Us

at Sacramento’s Limelight (1014 Alhambra Blvd.) on Friday, June 12 from 5-7 p.m.

Or you can catch me at Barnes & Noble/Arden Fair Mall on Saturday, June 13 from 2 to 4 in the afternoon.

Just in time for Father’s Day.

Hope to see you there!

 

 

 

 

 

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Sacramento’s Limelight: A Slice of Baseball Heaven

Sacramento’s baseball history runs deep, going back to 1899 when a team named after a local brewery, known as Ruhstaller played in the Capital City. Today you can taste Ruhstaller beer while drinking in stories about local legends at the Limelight, where Sacramento’s baseball history comes alive on Alhambra Boulevard.

A new baseball exhibit at the Limelight is drawing patrons hungry for a place to talk about Sacramento’s rich roots in hardball that date back to the 19th century. Owner John Mikacich has added dozens of vintage photographs and artworks celebrating Sacramento’s baseball origins.

Sacramento baseball celebrated at the Limelight

Sacramento baseball history comes to life at the Limelight

Mikacich collaborated with his good friend and baseball buddy Joe McNamara in launching the baseball exhibit. Both of their fathers loved to play baseball while growing up in Sacramento. Joe McNamara has a strong personal connection to the game – his uncle John McNamara, a Sacramento native, was a big league manager for sixteen years.

“He managed six different teams,” McNamara told me over a delicious lunch of Snapper tacos at the Limelight.

Angels skipper John McNamara and Reggie Jackson

Angels skipper John McNamara with Reggie Jackson

“And he sums up to me what baseball’s all about. Baseball’s about heartbreak,” McNamara said. “You know only one team wins in the end. And my uncle for all his success is remembered chiefly for one play.”

That play is one of the most infamous in baseball history – an episode that Red Sox fans, despite winning three World Series championships this century, still curse to this day.

“He was managing the Boston Red Sox in 1986,” McNamara explained. “They were one strike away from winning the World Series (against the New York Mets). One strike away – foul ball, foul ball, ground ball, wild pitch – before you know it the ball’s going through (Bill) Buckner’s legs and they lose Game 6.”

Red Sox fans are all too familiar with what happened next. “They go on to lose Game 7 as well,” McNamara added. “But everyone remembered that play. And most baseball people believe that John should have taken Buckner out and put a defensive player in as he had done in the past.”

But of course, that’s not what happened. “He didn’t do it for a number of reasons,
McNamara told me. “And he’s always going to be remembered for that and that’s sad.”

But baseball fans can hear a different story at the Limelight. “So part of what we want to do at the Limelight is to show that huge career he had,” McNamara said passionately. “And the impact he had on so many people coming up playing baseball.”

At the Limelight you’ll find a 1968 photograph of John McNamara in an Oakland A’s uniform, along with the legendary Joe DiMaggio, who served as a consultant to the team, in order to remain eligible for Major League Baseball’s  maximum pension.

Oakland A's Manager John McNamara with Joe DiMaggio

Oakland A’s Manager John McNamara with Joe DiMaggio

It’s part of the baseball history that McNamara and Mikacich are hoping to share with Sacramento. “If you come into the cafe side of the room, “McNamara noted, “you can take an entire tour of the history of Sacramento baseball, going back to 1899. The first team was actually named after a brewery, so it fits that you’re in a bar like this. And they even sell Ruhstaller beer in her too.”

McNamara pointed to the vintage photos on the wall.

Vintage photos of Sacramento's baseball history

Vintage photos of Sacramento’s baseball history

“So you can walk around and see all the incredible legends that played for the Solons,” he said. “And remember the Solons had different versions of the team over the years. They were the Cardinals for a while, then the Solons, and then they were even playing at Hughes Stadium, if you recall in the 70′s and they wore shorts.”

And inside the cafe room are the “amazing artifacts that exist – baseball cards, programs,” McNamara said. “Back in the day when people took the time to do stuff correctly because they loved it. And it really manifests itself in the beautiful artifacts and the art.”

Baseball programs and other artifacts

Baseball programs and other artifacts

“And I have to say that Jane Mikacich, who is John’s sister, is also a local artist,” McNamara said. “She did an amazing job putting together these (programs), which were originals – she made copies of them but actually made them better. And they all tell stories about Sacramento baseball.”

A big part of the Limelight’s transformation involves baseball writers. The goal is invite them in for book signings and have them tell stories about baseball. Baseball writer Andrew Baggarly was the Limelight’s guest speaker last Friday, May 8 and he entertained more than 100 fans who were enthralled by his inside story of the 2010 San Francisco Giants, the team that  won it all. His book, “A Band of Misfits: Tales of the 2010 San Francisco Giants”, chronicles the team’s unlikely ascent to baseball’s top spot (see link to book here): A Band of Misfits

Baggarly ended up selling about 70 books. “He wanted to say thank you too,” McNamara said. “Because a lot of those Giants people really appreciate the support they get from Sacramento. And that’s part of it.”

As it turns out, Baggarly’s timing was perfect because two Giants – Hunter Pence and Travis Ishikawa were playing with the River Cats that night – on rehab assignments.

Baggarly is the Giants beat writer for the Bay Area News Group. “It’s his day off,” McNamara told me. “He comes to Sacramento to sign books. Hunter Pence gets a start at Raley Field and Travis Ishikawa. So it’s great timing for him – meant to be.”

Storytelling is just part of the Limelight magic that McNamara and Mikacich are trying to recreate. “It is an historic joint,” McNamara stated. “This place has been here since prohibition. It was across the street from the great Alhambra Theatre.  It was actually called the Alhambra Café at one time and another connection – Larry Bowa, the baseball player – his uncle owned this place before Pete and Barbara (Mikacich) bought it in the 1970’s.”

McNamara added, “The food is tremendous.  It’s terrific and it’s always being revised. It’s a good place to have a beer because it’s right on the cusp between downtown and East Sacramento. It’s very classy when you come in here. A lot of people used to call it ‘The Slimelight’.  And it had a bad reputation for a while. But no longer. It’s as clean as a whistle and it’s almost like eating in a museum.  But people can come down here and feel a connection to Sacramento. A connection by – instead of just having a picture of the Capitol on the wall – stories about Sacramentans. So you really feel you’re in a Sacramento joint. And if people are visiting they feel like they are in a Sacramento place.”

The Limelight has invited me to be a guest speaker next month and do a book signing for “Baseball Between Us,” just in time for Father’s Day: Baseball Between Us.

Hope you can join me at the Limelight in June (tentative date Friday, June 12) for a chance to talk baseball.

 

 

 

 

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Jerry Manuel Voted Into Sacramento’s Baseball Hall of Fame

Hundreds of baseball fans and many former players cheered Saturday night, as legendary manager Jerry Manuel was inducted into Sacramento’s Baseball Hall of Fame. Manuel played ball for Cordova High School under longtime coach Guy Anderson before becoming the number one draft pick for the Detroit Tigers in 1972. His five year Major League career also included stays with the Montreal Expos and San Diego Padres.

But Manuel is perhaps best known as a Major League manager for the Chicago White Sox from 1998 – 2004 and then the New York Mets from 2008 – 2010. He also established the Jerry Manuel Foundation to offer baseball training and schooling to kids who need a fresh start in life.

Image 2

Manuel was the keynote speaker at the La Salle Club’s 61st Annual Hall of Fame Dinner at Christian Brothers High School, where he spoke of the importance of giving back to the Sacramento community. “It’s a tremendous passion and it’s life’s lessons,” he said.  “I mean we grow in baseball. We love it. It feeds itself . It humbles us, just like regular life.”

Manuel was inducted into the Class of 2015, which includes former New York Yankee great Joe Gordon,who later became a  player-manager with the Sacramento Solons. He died in 1978 and was honored posthumously at Saturday night’s ceremony. Also honored was Greg Orr, a scout for the New York Yankees and Don Lyle, a scout for the Cleveland Indians.

Six other Sacramento area players were also added to the Hall of Fame: Joe Viega, Manny Perry, Leon Brown, Eddie Cervantes and Randy Zanze.

“It is quite an honor to be connected with this city and to be inducted into such an exclusive class, ” Manuel said. “It’s tremendous to see all the old players.  Friends that you grew up playing with.”

Manuel gave a special shout out to his good friend Leon Lee, another Sacramento baseball Hall of Famer.  “We golf all the time,” Manuel said. “I let him win,” he added with a smile.

Manuel also paid tribute to his friend and fellow Sacramento Hall of Famer, Dusty Baker. “It’s like Dusty said to me, ‘When you’re from Sacramento, you’re a homey.’” Manuel noted, ” So I’m going in with some pretty good homeys. We will challenge anybody – right homeys.”

Manuel told the crowd he was appreciative of being recognized as one of Sacramento’s best in the world of baseball. “To go into the Hall of Fame in baseball in Sacramento,” he said. “You’re (really) going into something, so thank you.”

 

 

 

 

 

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A baseball legend passes away

Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub has died at the age of 83. I remember watching him play both in person and on TV.  He played with heart and passion every single game. We will miss you Ernie Banks.

Major League Baseball has the story of one of the greatest shortstops ever:

Ernie Banks Bio

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World Series Prediction

It’s hard to handicap the World Series. After all, who can predict the unpredictable? Both the Giants and the Royals defied expectations and the odds to make it here as Wild Card teams – the first time that has happened since 2002.

The Royals have momentum. They’ve won 8 straight postseason games this year – something no team has ever done before. But the Giants have magic. They won the World Series in 2010 and 2012, so if you believe in patterns, then this is their year.

Kansas City has speed on the base paths in Lorenzo Cain, who hit .301 this season with 28 steals. Jarrod Dyson swiped 36 as a reserve outfielder.

But San Francisco has power pitching in the fab four of Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, Tim Hudson and Jake Peavy. Bum hasn’t given up a run on the road in 26 and 2/3 innings. This season has been most improbable. Who would ever believe the Giants could win the pennant without Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum throwing a pitch in the playoffs?

However, if the Royals bunt, steal and sacrifice their way to a lead  after 6 innings, they will be tough to beat. Their bullpen of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and closer Greg Holland have been lights out in the 7th, 8th and 9th innings.

The Giants will counter with the Killer P’s: Posey, Pence and the Panda. Throw in DH Michael Morse and you’ve got a lineup with some real pop.

Here’s a look at how the two teams match up, player to player:

Position by Position Comparison

My prediction: the Giants over the Royals in 5. Kansas City could surprise everyone, but that would be odd. After all, it’s an even year.

 

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Post Season Predictions

The Oakland A’s can breathe a sigh of relief. They made it to the postseason, although just barely. Fans in Seattle were hoping for a face-off on Monday against the boys in Green and Gold, but there will be no Game 163 at Safeco Field.

IMG_1885

Back in April, I picked the A’s to meet the Cardinals in the World Series. Both teams are in the postseason hunt, but it doesn’t feel like the A’s have the magic this year, after a colossal second half collapse. Still, I like the prospect of Jon Lester on the mound against the KC Royals, in a one-game play-in. But that’s as far as Oakland will go.

Can the Giants pull off another even-year miracle (as in 2010, 2012) or will the Pirates make them walk the plank? I don’t see the Giants advancing very far and while some baseball analysts are picking Washington to win it all: World Series Winner  I’m not one of them. Sure they’ve got a guy who just pitched a No-Hitter in Jordan Zimmerman: Nats Pitch First No-No Ever But the Nationals have never even been to a World Series before and I don’t seem them winning it all. Too much inexperience.

In the National League, I’m sticking with the Cardinals and their fearsome foursome of Adam Wainwright, John Lackey, Shelby Miller and Lance Lynn. Over in the American League, I’ll take the Angels to win the pennant with their balanced lineup featuring Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and David Freese. The latter two helped St. Louis win a World Series in 2011. The Angels have two solid starters in Jared Weaver and C. J. Wilson, along with a fantastic relief corps in Jason Grilli and closer Houston Street.

As for the World Series, I’ll take the Cards over the Angels in 6.

Busch Stadium

Busch Stadium

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Baseball Team Rallies ‘Round Player Whose Mom Was Murdered

In near triple-digit heat Heather Frederick and Carlton Walker were 
staying cool in the shade of a fireworks stand on Rio Linda's M 
Street. Both are team parents of teenagers under the guidance of the
Jerry Manuel Foundation, a baseball charter school in Elverta. 
JMF has been actively training urban kids to be leaders both on
and off the baseball field.
Fireworks Fundraiser

Fireworks Fundraiser

All this week, the fireworks stand is also providing relief to the 
family of Jaelyn Williams, a player whose mother was murdered in her 
Sacramento home last April. Jaelyn's father is not in the picture, 
so the young man moved to San Diego to live with his grandfather. 
But the team - and the Foundation have not forgotten Jaelyn or
the loss of his mother Alyssa Williams, who also served as the 
team mom.

"It was devastating," Walker told KCRA 3. "My son and Jaelyn were 
good friends and he said, 'Dad I can't believe what just happened,' 
and I said, 'it's part of life son. You know we don't wish those 
types of things on people but things happen,'".

But Walker, Frederick and other parents are now trying to turn a 
negative into a positive, by holding a fireworks fundraiser to 
benefit Jaelyn. "So we're giving back to the community, which is 
Jaelyn," Frederick told KCRA 3. "The profits we are going
to give to him to help offset the costs for the tragic loss. 
Our mission is child, family, community."
Jerry Manuel Foundation

Jerry Manuel Foundation

And so far, business is good. "As of right now we've raised about 
$1,200" Frederick said. "The goal is to raise $10,000, which we can 
donate $5,000 to Jaelyn" after expenses to TNT for the fireworks are 
paid off, Frederick explained.

When the team learned of Alyssa Williams' death back in April, 
"the boys were very shocked because all the boys knew her," 
Frederick told KCRA 3. "So it was really sad but they went to 
Jaelyn's aid and Jaelyn went to them for help."

But the fireworks fundraiser is part of JMF's mission, 
"to give back to the community," Walker said. "Jerry Manuel has 
given back to the community. He's been a tremendous help to a number 
of kids in the community that come from all over. And
it's a great program to be involved in."

Jerry Manuel was a baseball prodigy at Cordova High School who 
later managed the Chicago White Sox from 1998 - 2003 and the 
New York Mets from 2008 - 2010. In addition to working with 
Sacramento area teens, Manuel is also launching a baseball
program at William Jessup University in Rocklin, where he is the 
director of baseball operations. His wife Renette and son Anthony 
are both on the board of directors for the Jerry Manuel Foundation.

The fireworks fundraiser is sending an important lifeline to Jaelyn 
and his teammates. "Definitely life's lessons," Walker said. 
"To help somebody else when they need help," Walker told KCRA 3.

The fireworks display is located at 416 M Street in Rio Linda and 
will be staffed by volunteers from the Jerry Manuel Foundation 
through the 4th of July.
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Baseball’s Zip Code Wars

Who do you love?

In baseball, zip codes can reveal with surprising accuracy, which team has the most local fans, as this article from the New York Times reveals in colorful detail:Zip Code Wars

The interactive maps are right on target, showing the dividing line in California between Dodger fans and Giants Fans is Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County:Giants/Dodgers

In the Bay Area, the Giants dominate of course, even in Alameda County, home of the Oakland A’s. The Giants are more popular than the A’s by a 59% – 18% margin even in the neighborhoods surrounding the O.Co Coliseum:  Giants/A’s

In New York of course, the Yankees own the town, with more fans than the upstart Mets in all 5 boroughs, even Queens, where the Metropolitans play: Yankees/Mets. The Yanks have a 53% -25% margin of victory even at Citi Field, home of the Mets.

And growing up in Connecticut, I can tell you the state is deeply divided between Yankee fans and Red Sox faithful. As this map shows, Yankees/Red Sox,  Red Sox Nation includes eastern Connecticut where my sister lives, while the Bronx Bombers dominate western Connecticut, where my brother lives.

In Chicago the Cubs may rule, but the White Sox don’t drool. In fact they have solid support on the south side as you’ll see here: Cubs/White Sox.

It’s fun to see baseball’s rivalries in living color.

 

 

 

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Baseball’s Newest Ballpark

MARLINS PARK:

Thursday, September 26 – Sunday, September 29, 2013

I felt something pulsating in my pocket. First it was a vibration. But it quickly changed to the sound of a bluesy piano riff. I saw numbers flashing on the screen as I answered my cell phone.

“Hi Dad, I’m here,” said a familiar voice.

“Matt, where are you?” I asked.

“I’m here in Miami at the airport, calling you via Skype. Where are you?”

“I just got off the plane,” I said. “I’ll meet you at the rental car center.”

I quickly boarded the People Mover and weaved my way through the Miami airport, arriving at the Sixt rental counter in a matter of minutes. I saw a familiar face and gave my son a big hug.“I haven’t seen you in….”

“Ten weeks,” he said, completing my sentence. It was now late September, the final week of baseball’s regular season and the beginning of a new father/son journey.

In my mind, I flashed back to a Nicaraguan beach where my daughter Sarah and I had joined Matt for a Central American adventure. The summer solstice had kept the sun high in the sky, until the orange ball kissed the blue Pacific waters and descended into the sea.

Nicaraguan Beach

Nicaraguan Beach

In early June, Sarah and I had traveled fifteen hours to visit Matt, who was designing soccer fields and city parks for the town of Matagalpa, nestled high in the coffee-rich hills.

Now, Matt and I were meeting in Miami for a new baseball trip, this time to see a game in our 33rd ballpark.

We loaded our gear into our rental car, a silver Nissan Sentra and started driving to Marlins Park, where the home team was hosting the Philadelphia Phillies. We headed south on La Jeune Road to exit the airport and took a right onto State Road 836.

Something felt wrong.

“Dad you should be going east not west,” my son shouted.

“It looks like Wrong Way Mike has done it again,” I said to myself.

I quickly reversed course and hit the gas, knowing the first pitch was just 20 minutes away. We couldn’t be late. It would be sacrilege to miss the start of the game. Luckily, the baseball gods were with us that night as we navigated our way through traffic and into the parking lot. At the walk-up ticket window, we scored great seats.

“You see, spontaneity is good,” Matt lectured me. “You don’t always have to buy tickets in advance. Sometimes it’s fun not to plan anything at all, but go with the flow.”

 “Just go inside,” I countered.  We found our seats along the 3rd base line, a mere 8 rows behind the action.

Marlins Park

Marlins Park

The stadium was nearly empty and ours to explore. The retractable roof was fully extended to cover the entire skyline, shutting out the oppressive humidity but also blocking our view of the stars above.

Deep behind the centerfield wall, I noticed a massive monument to the Marlins, standing seven stories tall. It consisted of art deco style images of fish and flamingos surrounded by palm trees and water.

The structure was designed to sparkle and dance whenever a Marlins player hits a home run, but for this game it was a silent night.

75-foot tall home run structure

75-foot tall home run structure

“I’m hungry,” Matt declared.

“Okay let’s eat,” I said.

Matt was meat-deprived in Nicaraugua and settled on a ballpark hamburger, while I selected a local seafood delight of fresh oysters dipped with lime juice and hot sauce. It was pricey but delicious.

Oysters at the ballpark

Oysters at the ballpark

Matt and I clicked our bottles of beer and took in the sights of the game. In the second inning, Marlins slugger Adeiny Hechavarria tripled off Phillies ace Cole Hammels to drive in two runs and give Miami a 2-0 lead.

The Marlins are big on entertainment, which includes male and female cheerleaders dancing and singing throughout the stadium. It’s the only baseball park where I can recall seeing cheerleaders. Nightclubbing is also big in Miami and so the Marlins have created a hangout, known as the Clevelander for the hipster crowd. 

It features a pool and dancers clad in go-go boots, rocking out to music with a Latin beat. It’s got a homegrown Miami vibe and certainly a different look and feel compared to the hallowed halls of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field.  

The Clevelander

The Clevelander

Inside the Clevelander, you can get an up-close view of the visitor’s bullpen, where we saw Cesar Jimenez, a young pitcher from Venezuela, warming up for the Phillies. Upon entering the game, Jimenez walked two Marlins, but did not surrender a run, in a game the home team would eventually win 3-2.

Sneak peak inside the bullpen

View from the bullpen

Marlins Park is also the only stadium that  features a fully loaded Bobblehead museum, consisting of miniature players from every Major League team.

Bobblehead Museum

Bobblehead Museum

Parents and kids of all ages hovered around the bobbleheads to get a closer look. For some reason, it triggered an emotional response in my son.

“I’m a bit homesick for America,” he confided.

“Why, they don’t have bobbleheads in Nicaraugua?”

“Well the point is, I miss American culture – not just bobbleheads but burgers and fries. I like the innumerable choices you can make here about restaurants, travel and freedom of expression. It’s easy to take democracy for granted, but when you live in a socialist country for a while, you begin to understand how important it is to have individual rights, not to mention hot showers and  a dryer for your clothes. Those things are only luxuries in Nicaragua.”

“It sounds like you’ve become more patriotic,” I said.

“I appreciate how good we’ve got it in the United States,” came the response from my son who was showing signs of wisdom beyond his years.

“Well tomorrow I’ll show you more of it. We’re driving to Key West.”

Highway 1 meanders from Miami slowly southward  through the Florida Keys, a chain of islands surrounded by the  crystal blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It’s normally about a three hour to journey to Key West, unless you pull over every fifteen minutes to take pictures, which I insisted on doing. I was mesmerized by the multi-hued shades of blue water.

“Just one more photo,” I told Matt as we made our 14th stop.

“No worries, no hurry,” came the suprisingly calm response from a kid who used to complain every time we got out of the car.

Atlantic Ocean

Atlantic Ocean

“Wow, you’ve mellowed,” I stated.

“Older and wiser now,” he said as we approached the Six-Toed Cat, a restaurant across from the Hemingway Museum that to our delight, was still serving breakfast at 2:30 in the afternoon. Matt devoured the pancakes flanking his eggs benedict.

Six-Toed Cat

Six-Toed Cat

 

 

 

 

 

Ernest Hemingway lived at 907 Whitehead Street in Key West from 1931 – 1939.  It was during that time span that he wrote some of his greatest works, including The Snows of Kiliminjaro and To Have and Have Not. Hemingway was also obsessed with cats and today his former house is home to literally dozens of felines that roam the place freely as if they own it. And in a sense they do, since the museum makes sure the cats are well fed.

The Hemingway House

The Hemingway Museum

Hemingway also loved his life in Cuba, which is just 90 miles away. Key West is the southernmost point in the continental United States, a fact reinforced by thousands of tourists who line up every day to have their pictures taken at the concrete buoy on the tip of the island.

And much to my surprise, Matt even agreed to make a cameo appearance with his old man.

“You’re allowing me to record this moment in time?” I asked. “I thought you don’t like to be used as a prop for pictures?”

 “Just one photo,” he snapped. “That’s your quota for the day.”

Key West

Key West

We walked for miles along the beach, soaking in the sun and the salt water.

“Let’s head back to the hotel and put on our swim trunks,” I suggested.

Within minutes, we were diving into the balmy waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

“I’m feeling really good,” Matt said.

“And I have no agenda,” I replied.

“That’s why I’m relaxed Dad. Let’s not make any plans.”

“Deal.”

I closed my eyes on the beach and drifted into dreamland.

When I awoke, the sun was little more than a golden glow on the horizon.

“Are you thirsty?” I asked.

“Hungry too,” Matt said.

 We quickly changed, then walked down to Sunset Pier, the perfect place to watch the sun dip from the sky into the ocean. We dined on fish tacos and drank beers until well past sunset, watching the sailboats go by as our evening entertainment. Life was good.

Florida sunset

Florida sunset

A bright light appeared in the newly darkened sky.

“That’s the planet Venus,” I proclaimed. “It’s the one they call the evening star because it’s the first one you’ll see at night.”

“I doubt that’s Venus,” said the mouth that roared. “It’s probably just another star.”

“Let’s watch it for a while,” I said. “If it moves in the next hour or so, we’ll know it’s a planet, not a star.”

Matt nodded his head as we tipped back our beers and watched the celestial show above.

The waitress reinforced us with refills, so I poured mine into the ice-cold glass, which created lots of foam that seeped out onto the table.

“Dad, when are you going to learn how to pour a beer? This is how you do it,” Matt said as he poured his IPA perfectly into the glass, with no spillage.

“Where did you learn how to do that?”

“I went to college,” he said. “Beer drinking 101.  But obviously you didn’t take that class.”

Schooled by the kid, I said nothing.  Incrementally, the bright light in the western sky began to move.

“It’s probably a plane,” said Matt.

“No it’s Venus.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he conceded.

“What’s that I didn’t hear you?”

“MAYBE YOU’RE RIGHT,” he shouted, as heads turned all around us.

“Yup it’s Venus,” I said to the crowd.

“Good for you,” Matt said. “I guess you can’t be wrong all the time.”

Ouch.

The next morning we were up early to go snorkeling on a coral reef, where I hovered over a nurse shark, just twenty feet below me. Luckily, it wasn’t hungry and swam away. We saw jellyfish too but avoided their stingers.

We finally made it back on dry land, where we headed north in the rental car to Key Largo, home of some of the best Key Lime pie anywhere. After dinner, we drove back to Miami, where Matt insisted on getting new underwear at Macy’s.

“You’ve been living in Nicaragua for a year and that’s what you want? Underwear?”

“Yeah Dad, we have no washers or dryers in Nicaragua. I have to wash my boxers by hand and dry them on a clothesline. But now I want to get boxer briefs. White ones, to be exact,” he informed me.

“Are you serious? You used to tease me about wearing briefs. You called them Tighty Whiteys.”

“Yeah, but I’m grown up now and I want boxer briefs. And white ones are cool.”

“Don’t you see what’s happening here? You’re becoming more like me?”

“Don’t worry Dad, I’ll grow out of it.”

Matt wanted to sleep in on Saturday, but I was back in agenda-mode and couldn’t allow that. “We’re heading to the Everglades today,” I informed him. “We’ll head west from Miami for about 25 miles and you’ll see a whole different side of Florida.”

Highway 41 is known as the Tamiami Trail because it traverses the Florida swamps between Tampa and Miami. The Trail intersects the Big Cypress National Preserve, which is home to Buffalo Tiger’s Airboat Rides. Buffalo Tiger is the legendary chief of the Miccosukee Indian Tribe that was historically part of the Seminole Nation.

Buffalo Tiger's on the Tamiami Trail

Buffalo Tiger’s on the Tamiami Trail

We rented an airboat for two and our tour guide Fabian instructed us to put on headphones for our ride into Florida’s natural wonder.

The Everglades

The Everglades

After 10 minutes of gunning the propeller blades that served as our engine, Fabian cut the motor to explain the history of the Everglades, Nature’s River of Grass.

“This is the slowest river you’ll ever travel on,” he told us. It flows from Lake Okeechobee to the ocean and is teeming with wildlife. Here’s one of our local gators now,” he exclaimed as the 13-foot monster approached the boat.

Hungry Gator

Hungry Gator

Fabian began clicking the roof of his mouth as the gator swam closer.

He held out a lumpy load of white bread and dropped a nugget into the hungry reptile’s open mouth that was lined with a razor-sharp row of powerful teeth.

“His vision is basically peripheral. He looks sideways to see,” Fabian explained as he waived his hand in front of the gator’s snout. “He doesn’t see this,” Fabian said calmly.

“Well that’s probably good,” I exclaimed.

“Otherwise you might lose a finger.”

Too close for comfort

Too close for comfort

“He has a very good sense of smell,” Fabian explained. “If you ever get cut and bleed, he can smell the blood. He can also smell small animals. That’s why I always tell people if you really love your pet, it’s best not to bring them here.”

On the airboat

On the airboat

The Everglades have a primitive beauty and I came away from the experience more awed than ever by the power of nature. Matt and I were silent on the drive back to Miami. We hung out in the hotel, reading quietly until the phone rang.

“We’re here in the lobby,” my Uncle Richard announced. He was waiting with my Aunt Joan to drive us to the ballpark where the Marlins were hosting the playoff bound Detroit Tigers.

I was excited about seeing Miguel Cabrera step up to the plate. The Tiger slugger was about to win his third straight batting title with a stellar .348 average. He also had 44 home runs and 137 Runs Batted In.

No one in Major League Baseball had won three consecutive hitting crowns since Wade Boggs did it from 1985 – 1988. Rod Carew also hit the trifecta from 1972 – 1975, while the legendary Ty Cobb did it three times (1907 – 1909, 1911 – 1915, 1917 – 1919).

The drive to the ballpark was frustratingly slow as we came to a grinding halt in gridlock on NW 6th Street. Making matters worse, it had started to rain. The retractable roof would be shut tight over Marlins Park tonight. The umpire would be shouting “Play Ball” in just 20 minutes and we were stuck in traffic a mile from the ballpark. My uncle sensed I was getting antsy.

“Why don’t you and Matt hop out and we’ll meet you there?” he said. “Take my umbrella,” he added.

“We won’t need it,” I replied.

 I was so wrong.

Thirty seconds later, as Matt and I were running to the ballpark, a blinding light split the sky in two, as lightning pierced through the darkness.

KABOOM!

The thunder roared like cannon fire as the skies opened up with full Florida fury.

CRACK!!

Suddenly, Matt and I were caught in a torrential downpour.  We sprinted back to the shelter of my uncle’s car. The rain gods were angry and let us have it for 15 uninterrupted minutes of hell on earth. The traffic moved at a snail’s pace, crawling inch by inch to the park.

And then suddenly, it stopped raining.

“Go!” my uncle exclaimed. “Go now while you can still catch the first pitch.”

Matt and I bolted for the ballpark, just in time to see Nathan Eovaldi deliver the first pitch to Detoit’s Austin Jackson.

“Strike one,” yelled the home plate umpire. On the next pitch, Jackson lined a single to right. But he couldn’t advance beyond first base because Torii Hunter struck out swinging.

Then Miguel Cabrera stepped up to the plate, generating a raucous ovation from the crowd. The Venezuelan slugger was a big hit in Miami, where it seemed that half of the 28,750 in attendance were wearing the orange and blue Tiger colors and openly rooting for Detroit.  

Tigers fans fill Marlins Park

Tigers fans fill Marlins Park

On a 1-2 count, Cabrera stroked a single to right, sending Jackson to second base, much to the delight of the Tigers fans in attendance.

Cabrera belts a single to right

Cabrera connects on a single to right

But Detroit’s  rally was cut short when Prince Fielder lined out to third and Jhonny Peralta grounded out to end the inning. In the bottom of the first, Anibal Sanchez was dominant for Detroit. The former Marlin struck out two of the three batters he faced in the bottom of the first.  The Marlins were hitless and placed a goose egg on the scoreboard.

My aunt and uncle finally arrived in the bottom of the second inning of a scoreless ballgame. “It’s 0-0,” I shouted out for them.

“You see we didn’t miss a thing,” my Aunt Joan said.

Matt and I looked at each other.  “Sounds just like mom,” he said.

My Uncle Richard and Aunt Joan

My Uncle Richard and Aunt Joan

“Watching baseball is like watching the grass grow,” my aunt reaffirmed. “It’s painfully slow.”

“But that’s what I love about this game,” I stated. “You can see the strategy behind every play. There’s drama before every pitch.”

As it turned out there was plenty of drama on this night, as the Tigers took a 1-0 lead into the bottom of the ninth. But the Marlins started a one-out rally when Christian Yelich singled to center and Giancarlo Stanton walked.

The Miami fans started chanting for a hit but my aunt had another plan in mind. “I hope they hit into a double play,” she said. “I want to go home.”

But the baseball gods had a very different outcome in mind. With two outs, Miami’s Ed Lucas singled to center off Joaquin Benoit to tie the game. We were going into extra innings and my aunt was not a happy camper.

“Maybe we should go,” Matt suggested. “We can listen to the game on the car radio.”

Leaving a game before it’s over is just not part of my DNA. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve done it. But in this case, I didn’t want to put my aunt through torture, so I agreed to bite the bullet.

Had we stuck around just one more inning, we would have seen the Marlins load the bases on two walks and a hit batter, setting the stage for Giancarlo Stanton to single home the winning run for a Miami victory. For the last-place Marlins it was their first walk-off win since July 13.

As it turns out, just one day later, Henderson Alvarez would pitch a no-hitter for the Marlins over the first-place Tigers. Seeing a no-hitter in person is definitely on my bucket list, as I’ve never actually witnessed one, despite attending hundreds of games.

But on this night, I was eager to see the ESPN highlights of our game. I was watching the winning run score when Matt opened his mouth.

“Can you turn off the TV now?” he shouted. “It’s after midnight and we have to get up early.”

I was stunned. “Wow, talk about role reversal,” I said.

“You used to be the night owl. Now I’m the one burning the midnight oil and you’re concerned about not getting enough sleep. How did that happen?”.

“I guess I’m becoming more like you Dad,” he said. “And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.”

“You mean we finally understand each other?” I asked.

“Yeah, something like that,” he said.

 I switched off the light.

Baseball truly is a perfect game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What A Team: 9 Players Added to Sacramento’s Hall of Fame

The La Salle Club added nine players to its Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday night, highlighted by Buck Martinez. The former Elk Grove High School and Sacramento City College star played seventeen years in the Show for the Kansas City Royals (1969 – 1978), Milwaukee Brewers (1978 – 1980)  and Toronto Blue Jays (1981 – 1986) , where he is the play-by-play announcer for the team.

Buck Martinez was the headliner at Christian Brothers High School on Saturday, February 15.

Buck Martinez was the headliner at Christian Brothers High School on Saturday, Feb. 15.

Martinez was the keynote speaker at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento, where he mesmerized the crowd with stories from his playing days in the big leagues. Martinez is perhaps best known for having participated in the only 9-2-7-2 double play in Major League Baseball history.

Hundreds of baseball fans honored Buck Martinez into the La Salle Club Hall of Fame.

Hundreds of baseball fans honored Buck Martinez, who was inducted into the La Salle Club Hall of Fame.

As a catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays in 1985, Martinez was slammed to the ground following a close play at the plate. Martinez held onto the ball to tag Seattle’s Phil Bradley, but the collision was costly. Martinez suffered a broken leg and a dislocated ankle, but that didn’t stop him from trying to gun down the Mariners’ Gorman Thomas at third base. The hobbled catcher threw from a prone position but the ball sailed into left field. Thomas headed for home where Martinez miraculously caught the ball and swiped the runner with a clean tag to complete a 9-2-7-2 double play that has never since been repeated.

He has a lifetime of baseball memories, but Martinez told me one of his greatest thrills came in 2002 when he was managing the Blue Jays. It was during spring training and Martinez elected to put his own son Casey into the lineup. “He took three straight pitches right down the center of the plate,” Martinez told me. “It was a strikeout, but at least I got to see my son have an at bat.”

 

Buck Martinez shares a favorite baseball memory.

Buck Martinez shares a favorite baseball memory.

Not many fathers can say they were in the dugout, watching a son bat against Major League pitching.

The La Salle Club, headed up by Hall of Fame chairman Joe McNamara,  inducted eight other players into Sacramento history, including  Rowland Office, the McClatchy High School stand out who had a 29 game hitting streak for the Atlanta Braves, second longest in club history. Other honorees: Carl Boyer, Don Hammitt, Mike Baldwin, Oscar Broyer, Larry Wolfe, Curtis Brown and Scratch DeFazio.

While at the ceremonies, I had a chance to catch up with good friend Ron Hyde, my former colleague at KCRA 3.

Ron Hyde

Ron Hyde

Ron is retired from broadcasting but stays active covering sports, especially those involving his three children.

Also in attendance was Leron Lee, a 2012 La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame inductee.

Leron Lee

Leron Lee

Lee was a Grant High School star and a #1 draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals. He played in the Majors for for the Cardinals, Padres, Indians and Dodgers before launching a successful baseball career in Japan, where he still holds the record for highest career batting average (.320) for players with at least 4,000 at bats. He told me the Japanese players are well trained in the fundamentals of baseball. While there he would prepare by hitting 500 to 700 balls a day, which helped make him a more consistent hitter.

Leron’s brother Leon Lee also played with him in Japan. Leon was inducted into the La Salle Club Baseball Hall of Fame in 2013 and is the father  of former Major Leaguer Derrek Lee, who graduated from El Camino High School (along with KCRA’s Lisa Gonzales).

Derrek Lee would go on to play first base for the San Diego Padres, Florida Marlins, Chicago Cubs, Atlanta Braves, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. Lee’s 2003 Marlins team beat the New York Yankees in the 2003 World Series. Derrek Lee will undoubtedly be a future Hall of Famer at the La Salle Club.

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