Annotated Ducksnorts: 1999 California/Carolina League All-Star Game

Sometimes it’s fun to revisit places we’ve been. It’s good to see how the world has changed, how we have changed. Every so often here at Son of a Duck, we’ll grab an old Ducksnorts article out of the vault and mark it up with red pen. Enjoy!

[Original article posted 7/11/99]

Last month the all stars from two Class-A leagues clashed at the Lake Elsinore Diamond to display their talents and bring victory to their league. My wife and I left work early and drove the hour or so up I-15 to the check out the game.

We parked in a dirt lot (overflow parking for the big crowd) adjacent to the stadium, and as we made our way into the state-of-the-art facility, the home run hitting contest was just getting underway. After the obligatory stop at the gift shop to pick up a Lake Elsinore Storm cap, we stood in the concourse and watched Chin-Feng Chen, of the San Bernardino Stampede (Dodgers), knock a ball out of the park. Visalia Oaks (Athletics) first baseman Todd Mensik ended up winning the contest.

The lot has since been paved, and there are now houses behind it. I’ve had so many Storm caps over the years, I can’t remember which one this was. I’m thinking red and black, the one my late pug Toby ate. This was the year I saw the Angels’ Ramon Ortiz make a rehab start for the Storm, pitching against Padres prospect Mike Bynum.

And I’m still baffled at Chen. Dude was a big-time prospect (Baseball America had him ranked no. 17 before the 2000 season) who never made it, never even got a chance, logging a total of 25 plate appearances over four cups of coffee with the Dodgers before returning to his native Taiwan. He played in the 2007 World Baseball Classic and the 2008 Olympics, and now plays for the Chinese Professional Baseball League’s Lamigo Monkeys. (I can’t find stats, but here’s video of Chen drawing a walk against his former Dodgers teammate Hong-Chih Kuo in September. Also, that crowd is seriously into the ballgame.)

We bought hot dogs and a soda, and made our way to our seats, about five or six rows back of the third base dugout. The atmosphere was festive — more like a parade than a ballgame, with all the players from both squads getting together and talking with one another and with the fans. Lots of autographs and smiles.

The Diamond remains my favorite ballpark.

During the pregame introductions, when players were announced, they’d emerge from the dugout and throw a commemorative cloth baseball into the crowd. I almost caught one but some guy came over my back and snatched it out of my hands. He was a season ticket holder, and what the heck was I going to do with a cloth baseball, anyway?

After the teams were introduced, the Cowsills, a pop group from the 1960s and ’70s, came out to sing the National Anthem. What was interesting about this is that Brendon Cowsill, who pitches for the Storm, joined his family at the microphone. Usually I have pretty low expectations for singers of the National Anthem — I’m happy when they don’t completely botch it or do that horrible diva thing — but these guys were outstanding.

I’d totally forgotten about this. One of the Cowsills (John) sang backup on Tommy Tutone’s “867-5309/Jenny” and currently plays drums for the Beach Boys. Brendon saw his pro baseball career end with the season. A 5.37 ERA at age 24 in A-ball will do that to a guy. Apparently he now plays guitar in his family’s band, which performed the “Love American Style” theme song and inspired TV’s “Partridge Family.” I kind of love that.

Next came the honorary first pitch, which according to the game program was to be thrown by three legends of Southern California baseball, former Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, former USC coach Rod Dedeaux, and former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. As it turned out, only Garvey and Dedeaux made it, with the latter lobbing the ball 20 feet or so to the former, who relayed it to the catcher. I later noticed that Lasorda was the featured speaker at the All-Star luncheon earlier that afternoon, so maybe he’d eaten too much pasta. Or maybe he was on the horn with Kevin Malone, trying to convince him to deal Adrian Beltre to the Rockies for Dave Wainhouse and some Rocky Mountain oysters. Whatever the reason, Lasorda was a no-show.

Heh. Nice dig at Kevin Malone. Who the hell is Dave Wainhouse? I have no recollection of him. A 7.37 ERA in 105 big-league innings might explain that. Since 1901, only four men who pitched at least 100 innings have had a higher career ERA. Sadly, the Dodgers didn’t trade Beltre for him.

As for the game, it was won, 10 to 6, by the visiting Carolina League. Both teams featured a mix of prospects and minor-league veterans who were taking out years of frustration on younger players, hoping for one last shot at glory or whatever else life might hold for them.

Of the prospects (two whom I’d hoped to see, White Sox right-hander Kip Wells and Royals outfielder Dee Brown, were promoted just prior to the game), more than a few caught my eye. Of course, it’s impossible to get a good read on someone after seeing him only once, but here are my impressions of several promising young players I saw.

Kip Wells. Prospect. That’s just weird.

Among pitchers, Rancho Cucamonga’s (Padres) Wascar Serrano and Wilmington’s (Royals) Jeff Austin, a couple of right-handers, were the most impressive in terms of pure stuff. Both hit 94 mph on the gun with regularity and spotted the ball well. Austin, Kansas City’s first-round pick in the 1998 first-year player draft, is by far the more polished of the two, as he is able to change speeds fairly effectively. Others worth mentioning are Modesto (Athletics) right-hander Jim Brink and southpaw Chris George, of Wilmington. Brink and George were both selected in the 1998 draft, the former being taken in the ninth round and the latter in the first. George, just 19 years old, hit 92 on the gun and showed a nice assortment of pitches, though he had trouble locating them this night and was touched for 3 runs on 3 hits in his only inning of work. Lefty Randey Dorame and righty Marcos Castillo, both having outstanding seasons at San Bernardino, didn’t show much in terms of velocity but both are only 20 years old and have had good results at a young age, in a tough league for pitchers, so they’re worth keeping an eye on. If they can add 3-5 mph to their fastballs and successfully negotiate the jump to Double-A, they might show up in LA one of these years.

None of these guys did much. Serrano had a 6.56 ERA for the Padres in 2001 and knocked exactly one hit before being traded to Seattle in a typical deal between the two bitter rivals that accomplished nothing. Austin had a 6.75 ERA over 65 1/3 career innings. George worked 237 1/3 innings and notched a 6.48 ERA. Brink stalled out in Fresno in 2003, Dorame in Saltillo in 2008, Castillo in Amarillo in 2008. All were the best their leagues had to offer in 1999. Baseball is hard. Also, someone should write a song called “From Fresno to Saltillo to Amarillo.” Maybe the Cowsills could sing it.

Behind the plate, both prospects played for the Carolina League squad: Frederick’s (Orioles) Jayson Werth and Lynchburg’s (Pirates) Yamid Haad. Both have since been promoted to Double-A, with Haad even jumping up to the big club for a few games after Jason Kendall’s horrific injury while the Bucs figured out what to do with their catching situation. Werth, as you may know, is the son [stepson -ed.] of former big-league backstop Dennis Werth. The younger Werth is a tall, rangy kid who looks like a terrific athlete but somewhat miscast as a catcher. It looked like he was swinging a lot with his arms in this game, sort of like Dan Wilson in his days with the Reds. But he does run well, and if he adds 15-20 pounds to his frame, he could develop power. Just based on what I’ve heard and seen of him, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see him move out from behind the dish, a la Dale Murphy, and become a star at a less demanding position. Haad, from Colombia, replaced the more heralded Werth in the seventh inning and singled in his two at-bats, once to right and once to left. The right-handed hitter is built like a fireplug and has a slashing line drive swing that should generate tons of doubles and, if he alters the angle of his swing a bit, eventually 15-20 homer power. I hadn’t heard much about him prior to the game, but he sure looks like he knows what he’s doing at the plate.

Remember when Jayson Werth was a catcher? And that Dale Murphy comp–I mean, Murphy is a borderline Hall of Famer and Werth is merely a very good player, but it doesn’t completely suck. Sometimes I surprise myself and make actual sense. Werth also is the nephew of former big-league shortstop Dick Schofield, whose name I once invoked to demonstrate how awful Padres left fielders were in 2013.

As for Haad, he went 2-for-29 in his big-league career and was last seen at Nuevo Laredo in 2010. He never hit more than 11 homers in a single season and had (haad?) two separate stints in the Padres organization, mostly at Portland in 2003 and 2004, returning there in 2009. Long live the Beavers!

On the infield, Lynchburg’s sweet-swinging first baseman Eddy Furniss showed a decent eye but little else. He’s also a bit old (23) for the league. San Diegan sensation Marcus Giles, of Myrtle Beach (Braves), also showed good patience and a short stroke. Given his size and his hitting approach, I find his 37 homers of last year more than a little mystifying. But clearly the guy can hit, and he didn’t embarrass himself at second base by any stretch. On the California League side, High Desert (Diamondbacks) second baseman Belvani Martinez displayed a nice stroke. He’s hitting well this year and he’s very fast but his plate discipline leaves a lot to be desired. Still, he’s young (20) and he’s big (5’11″, 172 lbs.) for a middle infielder, so he bears watching.

Marcus Giles. You know, if you’d told me then that he’d be playing for the Padres at age 29, I’d have been positively giddy. Who could’ve guessed that that would be his final season? What a waste.

Actually, I was still pretty excited: “Gotta love that .163 ISO from a middle infielder who has yet to reach 30.” Although I shouldn’t have been so quick to dismiss this qualifier: “With the caveat that second basemen sometimes age poorly (Quilvio Veras, anyone?)…”

What was that, seven years ago? I need to get over it.

In the outfield, the Carolina League featured three youngsters who could make it to the Show. Lynchburg center fielder Kory DeHaan, a 1997 draftee, has a slashing swing with gaps power and good speed. On defense, he was getting good jumps and covering a lot of ground. DeHaan is a lefty swinger, with a lean body and an aggressive approach. He reminds me a bit of a young Andy Van Slyke. Salem’s (Rockies) Jody Gerut (pronounced “Garrett”) has a compact stroke and looks like he has a plan at the plate. Strangely enough, the Rockies haven’t produced many homegrown hitters of note. Their second round pick of a year ago could help change that. Luis Matos, then of Frederick, showed a good line drive stroke and speed to burn. He singled twice, turning one of them into a double with pure hustle, and also had two stolen bases in the game, including one of third. The young Puerto Rican possesses an exciting set of skills, including some power. He could stand to walk more for a top-of-the-order-type hitter, but otherwise he looks quite promising, in a Devon White sort of way.

DeHaan as Van Slyke? Ugh. It’s not Sean Burroughs as Chipper Jones, but sometimes I should just shut up already. DeHaan spent parts of two seasons with the Padres, hitting .193/.225/.307 in 121 plate appearances. After retiring in 2003, he went on to serve as a hitting coach in the Padres organization and did the same in 2014 for the Bradenton Marauders, High-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. DeHaan also has a blog that was last updated in September 2013, if you want to know what he was up to a year ago.

Gerut also later played for the Padres and provided some fascinating quotes: “I wasn’t interested as much in what people thought about Stalin, rather in the lifestyle under communism. I was interested in the impact of the ideology. In the Soviet Union, if you invented the widget, the widget belonged to the state, not to you. So there was really no reason to develop the widget.”

And what is Gerut doing now? No less than what one might expect: “My life’s work has become the reduction of athlete bankruptcy down to zero percent. As much as I want to be an agent that pushes the market appropriately, I also want my identity to be the anti-bankruptcy agent.”

True story: Gerut’s middle name is Diego, which makes him the only person with Diego in his name ever to play for San Diego’s professional baseball club.

Among California Leaguers, Lake Elsinore’s (Angels) Darren Blakely, the aforementioned Chen, and Bakersfield’s (Giants) Doug Clark looked like they might have futures. Blakely, a switch-hitting center fielder drafted in the fifth round last year out of the University of Hawaii, can absolutely fly. I actually saw him play in college and I don’t remember much about him except that any time he reached first base and there was nobody ahead of him on the bases, it wasn’t long before he was on second base. He’s a good bunter and he’s big enough (6’0″, 190 lbs.) to hit the ball with some authority. Like Matos, Blakely reminds me of Devon White, not in terms of body type — Blakely looks like a football player — but in terms of playing style. As for Chen, he was probably the single most impressive hitter in this game. He walked his only two times up, but he showed a very quick bat and in the home-run contest he flexed his muscles a bit. Chen also runs very well and aggressively; he stole second after one of his walks, before being thrown out attempting to steal third. Clark had an outstanding game this night, singling, walking twice (once intentionally), and hitting an absolute bomb some 430 feet to dead center field. Like Furniss, Clark is a lefty with a sweet swing, and like Furniss he is 23. The Giants’ seventh-round pick in the 1998 draft will need to advance quickly to have a shot. The way he’s playing right now, he might do just that.

Blakely as Devon White? Seriously, shut it.

You may recall (but probably not) that Blakely came to the Padres in July 2001 as part of the haul for Sterling Hitchcock, spending parts of 2001 and 2002 at Mobile and Portland. After kicking around the minors a little longer, he finished up in 2010 with the Golden Baseball League’s Tucson Toros. There, he played alongside Jesse Orosco’s kid, who has been retired from pro baseball for three years now.

Why do I do this to myself?

Well, this article has gone on a lot longer than I’d intended it to. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Before I go, I’ll leave you with the names of a few more players who made a positive impression on me at the All-Star Game but not enough to ramble on at length about them: Rick Guttormson, RHP, Rancho Cucamonga; Mike Gonzalez, LHP, Lynchburg; and Josh Kalinowski, LHP, Salem. Keep an eye out for them.

Gonzalez had a nice run. Pitched in 509 games, had a 3.14 ERA, once notched 24 saves in a season. Hell, he made three appearances in the 2011 World Series.

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you at the game!

Yeah, I’ll still be there.

* * *

I had recently turned 30 when I wrote this, was a few months shy of buying my first house. The words don’t make me cringe as much as I feared they might. Time is not always so kind.

Gerut, Giles, and Wells have seen their careers come and go. All met with some success, all stopped in San Diego, one even did both at the same time.

Werth is still playing. Most everyone else never made it, which is how baseball works.

All this happened 15 years ago. That hardly seems possible… or fair.

I went to the doctor the other day because my knees (the surgically repaired one and the other one) were bugging me. X-rays came back negative, turns out I’m just getting old.

Too bad. Knees he can fix.

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