Spinners 5, Gades 0

On a Friday night in August, I attended a NY-Penn League (Class A) game between the Lowell Spinners (Boston) and the Hudson Valley Renegades (Tampa Bay) at Dutchess Stadium in Wappinger’s Falls, New York. It wasn’t a great match by any means, but every minor-league environment is unique, and no baseball game is without its pleasures. To wit: around the bottom of the fifth or the sixth, a lady told me about her daughter-in-law’s pet psychic.

From the get-go, well-tutored by the example of Roger Angell’s classic spring-training report – “The Old Folks Behind Home” (please read it) – I had been diligently eavesdropping on everyone in the vicinity of my seats in the box area north of the Lowell batter’s circle. Off to the left, there was a middle-aged couple that – in a sort of affectionate way  – were addressing their kid by the nickname, “Monster.” The threesome right behind me, a late middle-aged pair with an elderly mother in tow, were mostly communing about how they disapproved of how the parents off to the left were spoiling Monster. (I’ll defend them. Monster had been given some cotton candy, a clutch of promotional balloons, and a cool foam Renegades raccoon hand. That doesn’t seem like an unreasonable amount of swag to me.) Two promisingly grizzled guys sat in the row in front of me, except whatever they were discussing was apparently a state secret because they were using their inside voices.

By the middle innings I had pretty much surrendered the notion of acquiring any insight from my fellow Gades loyalists, but when one of the women behind me said something about cats, I saw an opportunity to pipe up – and also, I like to talk about cats. At the edge of the concessions I had noticed a table set up for an animal concern of some kind. On the tables had been three cages, each containing an adorable kitten.

I turned to the women – the fellow of the group was off somewhere – and asked, “Hey, did you guys see the kittens in the cages? They were really cute!”

“No,” said the younger of the two, probably around sixty with an efficiently trim, attractive white head of hair. “Did you get one?”

I grinned at her. Why would I get a cat at a baseball game?

Then again: why not?

“No, no,” I said, and just to indicate that I was by no means categorically opposed to picking up a cat at the ballpark, I added, “I already have three at home.”

From there, the lady with the efficient haircut drew me into a story about her daughter-in-law’s pet psychic. What had happened was this: her son had taken in four or five feral cats, and a couple of them had escaped from home and gone on the lam. To recover the runaways, her daughter-in-law had obtained the services of a pet psychic, and on a couple of occasions the psychic had proven true by advising them along the lines of, I see the cat near a barn, or I see the cat at the edge of a field, and lo, the cat was found near a barn or at the edge of a field.

“Really?” I wondered if the lady, who in no way seemed crazy, was pulling my leg.

Really, she insisted. Recently her daughter-in-law had called the pet psychic – another missing cat – and the pet psychic had pronounced that the cat was in the basement, on top of something white. “And look.” The lady showed me her cell phone, where there was a picture of a cat crouching on top of a white shower stall in a dim basement.

“Wow.” I glanced to her seatmate, the mother, who must have been mid-eighties, crumpled in her seat, but with bright, active eyes. The older woman shrugged humorously, as if to say, I can’t make heads or tails of it either.

The male of their group, the gray-bearded husband of the lady with the efficient haircut, returned and asked to see my scorecard so he could know what he’d missed.

* * *

The Hudson Valley Renegades were at this point in the season way out in front of the McNamara Division of the NY-Penn League, and boasted seven all-stars.

Conversely, the Lowell Spinners, a lower tier team in the Stedler Division, were the redheaded stepchildren of the loaded Red Sox farm system. (The other division of the NY-Penn is the Pinckney. McNamara, Stedler, and Pinckney would all serve nicely as names for beat cops in a novel about the Roaring Twenties.) Playing the role of the good host, however, Hudson Valley basically handed the game over in the fifth.

The Spinners had scratched out a run in the fourth and with neither team making much in the way of authoritative contact, it was 1-0 going to the top of the fifth. Three singles by Lowell loaded the bases against Renegades starter Enderson Franco with no one out. The next batter, light-hitting Spinners second baseman Raymel Flores, bunted and the fateful play unwound: Franco scooped up the ball, swiveled right for the sure out, and made a gruesome throw that soared over the first baseman’s glove and down the line.

Why are so many professional pitchers, gifted with fabulous arms and able to paint the black so consistently, so inept at fielding an easy ball and throwing to first base? Television color men are required to muse on this question every time a pitcher goofs one. I’ve never understood the mystery. Pitchers start every play by throwing from a mound to the catcher. Anything else is unfamiliar, right?

Three runs scored on the error, a sacrifice fly plated Flores, and the final score was in place: Lowell 5, Gades 0.

* * *

The most highly regarded player in that Friday’s game was Casey Gillaspie, the Renegades’ first baseman – and he’s very highly regarded. Gillaspie was the Rays’ first-round draft choice this summer, taken with the 20th pick and now considered their top prospect.

Gillaspie poked a ground single, his only hit in the game. He also hit a long fly ball to right that got the crowd’s attention, and his single-A numbers are solid: 7 home runs and an OBP in the vicinity of .360. Still, it was hard to glimpse a future star in him. In the field, the first baseman often stood with his hands on his hips, as if he was winded. From a few rows back anyway, he looked a tad pudgy. I wouldn’t have noticed him if I hadn’t known I was supposed to, and the same could be said of the Rays’ other farmhands.

The only quasi-notable prospect on Lowell is featherweight outfielder Danny Mars, who called to mind former Sox product Brady Anderson before Anderson’s tragic gamma ray accident. Mars was quick out of the box and put on some decent at-bats, but the ball didn’t exactly zoom off his bat. Maybe a fifth outfielder some day?

Alixon Suarez, the Lowell catcher, was the surprise standout. Here’s what the venerable Sox Prospects has to say about Suarez, signed out of Venezuela: “Big frame… below average pop times… Below-average contact and power.” Not inspiring, is it? Nonetheless, the catcher ruled the game, pop times be damned.

In the bottom of the third, Hudson Valley second baseman Jace Conrad drew a leadoff walk from Lowell’s Kevin McAvoy. The game was still scoreless.

McAvoy went only three innings and didn’t seem to be injured, so I’ll surmise he was on a pitch count, perhaps tiring a bit. With the next batter, Wilmer Dominguez, in the box, McAvoy threw over a couple of times to check Conrad. Conrad wasn’t to be checked, though; he went for it moments later. Bad choice, Jace: the Spinners had put on a pitchout.

The sturdy Suarez, one of the few players on either team with the brawny look of a typical big leaguer, stood, slid over, caught the ball, and fired it off without a hitch. One-two-three, just like you’re supposed to. Conrad was out at second. A good thing, too, because Dominguez soon took first on an error. Braxton Lee, a speedy outfielder from Ole Miss, swapped places with Dominguez on a fielder’s choice, and history repeated. Lee bolted, McAvoy pitched out, and Alixon Suarez put another throw right on the bag. End of inning.

Lowell scored their first run immediately afterward in the fourth, and the Gades gave up the ship in the fifth. Suarez’s caught-stealings nipped Hudson Valley’s best chance of the night, and his ministering of a trio of non-descript Lowell pitchers limited the other side to mostly mundane contact. The catcher also had a hit and scored a run.

I wish this was where I predicted out-of-nowhere success for the Lowell catcher. I won’t, unfortunately.

Maybe there is a smidgen of magic to baseball projection, but we’re long past denying the science. While Suarez played like Gary Carter for one evening, I can’t doubt Sox Prospects and their calculations. A recent first round of the amateur draft like, say, 2010’s — which included Bryce Harper, Chris Sale, Matt Harvey, and Manny Machado — proves that as difficult as some of the math is, and elusive as some of the terminology is, you bet the long odds at your peril. (Oh, and please let me take this opportunity to implore the baseball world to curtail its tedious love affair with plus, as in Prospect A has a “plus change-up” or Prospect B is a “plus fielder.” Because, “plus” wtf? That doesn’t make sense. What is being added to what here? If the pitching prospect has a good change-up, let’s just say he has a good change-up, or a sneaky change-up, or anything else, really. Let’s talk about him like he’s a human and not like he’s a new truck with amazing factory features.) The guys who aren’t labeled as prospects don’t usually get there.

Now, would it be cool if Alixon Suarez darted in between the stopwatches and the calculators and made it to the big leagues? I’m certainly rooting for him. I would appreciate it, though, if next time he took it easy on my Gades.

* * *

Though Hudson Valley was having an off night, Dutchess Stadium is a fun ticket no matter what.

There was an amusing moment when Lowell’s mountain of a manager, Joe Oliver, started out to question a call, and the loud speakers immediately blared the sound of a crying baby. Between innings fans were dragooned into participating in a series of games designed by potheads. In one contest two people had to golf while sharing the same shirt. In another, “The Elephant Walk,” a guy wore a nylon stretched over his head; while at the other end of the nylon, down in the toe, there was a tennis ball; and the guy had to swing his “trunk” back-and-forth in order to knock over a series of upright water bottles.

The men’s bathroom was home to an unexpected tribute to our nation’s armed services. On the cinderblock wall over each sink and urinal was a painted portrait of a military man or an astronaut. (My supposition is that they were all West Point grads.) Did I empty my bladder beneath a rendering of General MacArthur? I’m pretty sure that I did, and it was an honor. I ate a doughboy and there was plenty of room to stretch my legs. I gave real consideration to the idea of a pet psychic for the first time in my life.

Throwing, hitting, balls, strikes, hustle, clouds of dirt.

After the top of the ninth, feeling like Lowell had it salted away, I made my goodbyes, and headed for the exit. The kitten table was abandoned. Those little sweeties might be anywhere now. Outside, in the long gravel lot that stretches along the right-field side of Dutchess Stadium, quite a few fans lingered by their cars.

I’d forgotten it was Fireworks Night.

Owen King is the author of the novel Double Feature.