Wednesday, April 13, 2011

By David Saltzer, Senior Writer

They say that one of the longest roads in America is the one that leads from the Minor Leagues to the Majors. At times, that road can seem a lot longer than the 50 miles from Anaheim to San Bernadino.

For the start of the 2011 season, I decided to make that trek from Single-A ball to the Majors by covering the IE 66ers Home Opener on Thursday night and then covering the Angels Home Opener on Friday night. I wanted to see just how similar and different the experience was at the two different levels.

When I arrived for the 66ers Home Opener, I was pleased to see a sea of red lining up to get into the stadium. It was a welcoming sign. Considering that the 66ers had just become part of the Angels’ organization, it was pleasing to see how well the fan base had adopted the new team. While it was a new stadium, from the get-go, it felt like home.

The in-game experience was equally as pleasing. I walked throughout the stadium and sat in a variety of seats to get the view from different parts of the ballpark. I was impressed. I couldn’t find a bad spot in the place. Getting in and out of the stadium was easy (it’s not far off the freeway and the drive out took a little less than an hour) and there were a variety of menu items to choose from. Visiting with the group from in attendance made the game special. It’s always fun to sit with your friends in the ballpark.

As the players were introduced to take the field, the excitement built. Each was escorted out by a Little Leaguer, with the emphasis on the “little.” Seeing the 6’9” Johnny Hellweg escorted out by a kid no taller than 2’5” showed just how far the Minor Leaguers had come in their lifetime as players. And yet, knowing that the next day I’d be in Anaheim watching the Major League club do the same thing reminded me just how much further the players had to go to fully realize their dreams.

The national anthem was sung by the Mariposa Elementary School choir. It wasn’t entirely on key (to quote Randy Jackson “It was a bit pitchy dawg”), but it didn’t matter. There was no flyover. This was a game being played and watched for the love of baseball. This is why baseball always has been and always will be America’s pastime.

The game itself was a lot of fun to watch. The 66ers played hard. While the pitchers struggled with their command (they walked a total of 12 on the night), the defense behind them made good plays. The bats were alive with 9 hits and the 66ers won the game 6-2. The inter-inning entertainment was unique and humorous, whether it was two kids bound together by a bungy chord trying to pull against the other to win a prize or guessing whether an “Akee” was a fish or not (it’s not a fish in case you are wondering).

Showing how paradoxically close and far away the 66ers were from the Majors were Scott Downs and Reggie Willits. Both played in the game and figured prominently in the outcome. Downs earned the win for the night and Willits drove in the first two runs for the season with a drive up the middle. And yet, both struggled. Downs gave up an earned run on a walk and two hits, and Willits struck out 3 times en route to a 1-for-5 night.

The one thing that struck me was just how relaxed and fun the game was with the 66ers. Before and after the game players and the manager were available for autographs and questions (to listen to a post-game interview I recorded with Tom Gamboa, please click here.) People joked around and had a good time, all while doing their job. Events didn’t quite go according to script, and yet no one minded. The crowd enjoyed the game and left happy with a win. They were entertained.

On Friday, I was immediately struck by how magnified everything was at the Major League level. Everything seemed to be about 10 times bigger in Anaheim. While the crowd was large for the 66ers Home Opener at 3,585, the crowd in Anaheim topped off at 43,853. While there was a packed house for the media with the IE 66ers with 5 of us in the press box, there were about 50 people in the Angels’ press box. Diamond Club seats, which were listed at $150 a piece in Anaheim cost only $10 with the IE 66ers.

At the same time, the intensity of the game was also magnified. The pregame ceremonies were scripted down to the minute (and in some cases down to the half-minute), and everything ran on time. With all the celebrities roaming about and different events going on, no detail was left to chance.

As the 2011 Angels were announced, I’ll admit it: the whole grandeur of the event got to me. As the American flag unfurled, I was filled with a wave of patriotism. Knowing that several members from were there, on the field, unfurling the flag made it even more special.

As the national anthem was sung, I got goosebumps anticipating the flyby. However, unlike previous years when a current military jet flew over the stadium, the Angels went with a vintage squadron of North American AT-6s. Looking around the stadium, I could see everyone straining to make out the planes until at last they spotted the little dots in the air. In a nostalgic year, the slow approach of the vintage airplanes drew out the moment until at last the crowd made one of the loudest cheers I have ever heard for a flyby.

And then there were two magic words: “Play ball!”

After that, it was down to business. The members of the media got to work on their stories. The guys on the field set about their work playing the game. The crowd settled into their buzz of thousands of conversations. The business of entertainment was on.

As I sat in the press box watching the Major Leaguers play, I was amazed at how much faster the game was at the Major League level. Even though I’ve seen well over a thousand Major League games in person, and well over one hundred Minor League games in person, the contrast was never as clear as it was going to back-to-back Home Openers. Plays that were challenging in Single-A were made routinely in the Majors. Players who were thrown out by several steps in Single-A were thrown out by a few feet at most in the Majors. The road from the Minors to the Majors really is a long one.

Personally, this journey from the Minors to the Majors took on a special significance to me. Last year, I made my rookie appearances in the Major League Press Box. I learned a lot, but at times was unsure, and hesitant. This year, I returned, more confident, more capable, and more excited. I hope I never lose that sense of joy when covering a baseball game, whether it is a Minor League game or a Major League game. There’s something special that happens in a ballpark no matter where the game is played.

Throughout this year, special thanks needs to be given to Tim Mead and Jennifer Hoyer from the Angels and Kevin Shaw and Sam Farber from the IE 66ers. Without their help and support, none of this would be possible. They all put in many long hours behind the scenes to make all of our entertainment possible. When Tim Mead first granted Chuck Richter and a media pass back in 2009, it opened up new possibilities for the website and for our members. We hope to live up to the professionalism and dedication that they saw in us, and hope to continually provide in depth and informative content for our members.

Baseball is a game best experienced in person. There’s nothing like it for a full-sensory sporting experience. The sights, the sounds, the smells of the game make any trip to the ballpark a memorable event. Whether you are a long-time fan or a recent convert, I would encourage you to take the drive from Single-A to the Majors and experience the game at both levels this season. As Angels fans, we are very lucky to have one of our Minor League affiliates play so nearby. Even though it’s the same game being played on the field, the experience at both levels is so unique and different that it will leave you wanting to go back for more games and becoming even more of a fan of the team.
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