March 2012

Fifth Third Ballpark getting game ready

The home opener for the West Michigan Whitecaps is scheduled for April 9, against the Bowling Green Hot Rods. There is a lot of preparation that goes into getting a ballpark game ready after it’s been dormant for the winter months. Even though the weather has seemed to revert back to its ‘winterish’ form here in Michigan, about a week about we had record highs in the upper 70’s-lower 80’s. That’s just unbelievable weather for Michigan in March, and helped speed up the process of getting Fifth Third Ballpark  ready for opening day. The grounds crew was able to take off the 35 tarps that cover the playing surface during the winter months. These guys work tirelessly to ensure that the ball field is in pristine order when it’s game time. I’m hoping that the weather warms back up some, especially for our first ‘Caps game on April 11.

With the new scoreboard and video board in place, the next project for the Whitecaps staff was putting the new stadium sign up. This sign towers above the 131 highway that cuts through the heart of Michigan, and either welcomes, or says goodbye to travellers entering or leaving Grand Rapids from the north end. The new sign looks great, and I can’t wait to see it in all it’s glory in a few weeks. At least the crew and staff have more time to get things ready than the actual team, who breaks camp on April 1, and has its first game on April 5 on the road!

Promotion courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps

Photos courtesy of the Grand Rapids Press

Young excited for ‘new look’ Whitecaps

Whitecaps second year manager Ernie Young seems to be expecting a new look to this years West Michigan lineup. He’s been in Lakeland, FL keeping an eye on the prospects there, getting an idea of who might be on the 2012 roster, and get a game plan. He told Peter J. Wallner of MLive.com: 

“Each manager for each ball club wants to see what the players can or can’t do. We have to see for ourselves so we can make them better and going in the right direction.”

Based on age and experience, we might see players like catchers Patrick Leyland (son of Tigers manager Jim Leyland) and James McCann. McCann was Detroit’s second round draft pick in 2011 who played five games with the Whitecaps last season. Another possibility is Melvin Mercedes, a relief pitcher who spent most of last season in short season Connecticut. That’s just a great baseball name, period. Young compared last seasons roster to this years possibilities:

‘I had a really young team and we had a lot of growing pains the first part of the year, and I knew that was going to happen. I kept telling the guys to keep battling because we would be better on Sept. 7 than on April 7. And sure enough, we were. Every year is a different year. I’m sure this group of Whitecaps will probably be a little older than the team I had last year. But still, we’re going to learn to play baseball the Tiger way and that’s the key-them going out there and getting better and learning from their mistakes throughout the season to make ourselves better by the end of the season.”

Last season the Whitecaps were 70-69 overall (32-37 first half, 38-32 second half), good for fifth overall in the Midwest League, but missed the playoffs by just one game. Young will be joined again this season by pitching coach Mark Johnson. The new hitting coach will be Scotty Dwyer who moved up from short season Connecticut. The Tigers break camp on Sunday, April 1st, and the players will be assigned. Not much of a turnaround, as the ‘Caps begin their season on the road in Dayton April 5, with the home opener slated for April 9th hosting Bowling Green.

Fans will be able to get their first look at the 2012 Whitecaps on Tuesday, April 3rd at Fifth Third Ballpark. The club will hold an open practice from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. After their workout, the team will be on the concourse to sign autographs for fans. This will also be a chance to showboat the new scoreboard and high-resolution video board at Fifth Third. The start of the Minor League season seems sooner than usual, as they’ve started about a week later than their MLB counterparts in the past. It doesn’t look like they’ll have an exhibition game against Grand Valley State this season, either. It will feel good to get the season going, though.

Photo property of M.I.B.

An enjoyable Off-Season

It’s always hard to watch baseball come to an end in the fall, but at the same time it makes you appreciate it when it comes back the next spring. As much as we miss baseball during the winter, we don’t just sit around and sulk. Winters up here can get dull and depressing, so we really have to keep busy to beat the winter blues and make it through until the baseball fun begins. As usual, we take in a lot of hockey games up here. We live in the original ‘Hockeytown U.S.A.’, so between our Lake Superior State Lakers, junior and high school hockey, we spend a lot of time at the rink. We also do a fair share of ice skating ourselves, too. The kids are involved in their own activities throughout the school year as well. Lily participated in the youth bowling league, while Trevor played flag-football and wrestling. A special treat this winter, too, was that we were able to catch a Harlem Globetrotters game. I took Trevor and Lily a few years ago, but this was Brian’s first time seeing them and he had a great time. We were also able to see the Stanley Cup at a Detroit Red Wings Alumni game which was a thrill for the kids. It wasn’t just sports that held our interest, as we saw some rock concerts, too. I took the two older kids up into Canada to see Avril Lavigne (my hearts pants…), and saw legendary rock bands like Slaughter and Stryper come to town. We also spent some time playing outside, and over at the tubing hill blazing down the icy slopes. Do you think that scared Brian at all…No. Anyway, I might not win father of the year..I’ve been known to give the kids NyQuil out of a shot glass, and help them with their math by teaching them Blackjack, but we do have a lot of fun together. Plus, only a single dad can get away with a full size hockey net in the living room, and foosball table instead of a dinner table!

Winter Fun

Lots of Hockey

Harlem Globetrotters

Brian was in awe of the Globetrotters, even after seeing them on ‘Scooby-Doo‘!

Kids’ Activities

Rock Concerts

Bad pic, but Avril is down there, trust me. My eyes never left that girl the entire time she was on stage…

Photos property of M.I.B.

Turner battling tendonitis in shoulder

The Detroit Tigers organization had a little reason to be concerned last week, when their number one prospect starting pitcher Jacob Turner was diagnosed with tendonitis in his throwing shoulder. What was originally though to be ‘dead arm’ syndrom, the Tigers had him checked out. Turner seems to be progressing well, though. On Wednsday he threw from 150 feet and felt no restrictions from the tendonitis. The good news, too, is that he felt no pain in throwing two days of long toss.

“I’m still taking it day-to-day to see how it feels”, he stated. “But as long as there are no setbacks, I’ll keep pushing forward.”

The 20 yr-old hurler also threw a 30-pitch bullpen session without pain on Friday according to Tigers’ pitching coach Jeff Jones. He’s expected to throw another similar session today. Even though he was a long shot to earn Detroit’s fifth spot in the rotation, this could be a blessing in disguise in my opinion. It really avoids the Tigers trying to push him along to quickly like they did with Rick Porcello. Turner will now get a chance to work on his mechanics in the minors, and will most likely open the season with Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens. He was just with the Whitecaps back in 2010, where he went 2-3 with a 3.67 ERA and 51 strikeouts.

UPDATE: It looks like Turner is now in good health, and will be starting in the minors. After being out of action for two weeks, he’s been throwing well in his bullpen sessions. I think that’s the best, and trying to hurry him along won’t do him any favors. He’ll probably be the ‘ace’ of the Triple-A staff. Here’s what Tigers manager Jim Leyland had to say about him being sent to minor league camp:

“He’s going to be a starting pitcher in Toledo. He’s 100 percent healty. Why pitch him one inning of relief over here when he cann go over there and try to build him up, maybe pitch him two or three innings the first time out?  He needs to go pitch. He’s a young pitcher with a huge, huge ceiling. Me seeing him in one more inning of spring training right now doesn’t mean anything.”

Photo courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps

Spring is here, but the Snowman dies anyway…

This may seem like just a formality at this point, with record highs here up north in the mid 70’s, but our tradition of burning the snowman took place anyway. This is the first time I can remember us seeing this without at least having on a winter coat and hat. I’ve been taking Lily and Trevor for about six years now, and this is Brian’s second time. In all, this was the 42nd annual Burning of the Snowman and it’s always a fun way to spend the afternoon. It takes place at our local college Lake Superior State, so lots of students and town folk turn out to see the snowman burn in effigy and usher in spring. We enjoyed some hot dogs and the kids each got a free t-shirt from the radio station. Kids love getting free stuff, really, no matter what it is. The event always seems to take place when the kids have a half-day of school, so luckily we’re able to come every year. I hope this keeps winter away this year for good, though, and living in Michigan anything can happen. We’ve already been outside playing some catch, and really hope we have this kind of weather next month when we start going to the baseball games down state. While driving through the campus, I made sure to blast some Def Leppard in the Town & Country just to prove to all of the college kids just how cool I still am…and my kids think I’m embarrassing…

Photos property of M.I.B.

Kids join Crash’s Kids Club!

This season I thought I’d set the kids up with a little treat, and enter them in Crash’s Kids Club. Crash, the mascot for the West Michigan Whitecaps, is always very popular at the ballpark. Brian, especially, really gets a thrill out of a simple ‘high-five’ from the gigantic river rascal. The kids club isn’t a bad deal, though, even for a family who makes only a handful of game during the season. For only $25 per kid, they get a t-shirt, a Kids Club certificate, express lane to run the bases at every Sunday game, and free tickets to every Sunday game. They also have a chance to be randomly selected to do things like throw out the first pitch or watch an inning from the dugout. The younger ones will also have a chance to hang out this the PBS kids characters before some of the games (like Clifford and Curious George…two of Brian’s favorites!). It almost pays for itself, though, if we make it to even a couple of Sunday games and with the t-shirts. Of course the kids had to try them on after the packages came in the mail yesterday. But…does it look like ANY of them could act normal for a photo? Of course not, just as goofy as they can be. Oh, well, that’s the way kids are supposed to act, isn’t it? Other than Lily and Trevor giggling like Beavis and Butthead at the name of the sporting goods store….

Promotion courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps

Photos property of M.I.B.

Castellanos, Henry progressing well in Spring Training

There’s no real reason to hurry along Tigers’ prospect Nick Castellanos. With the arrival of Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera moving to third base, he’ll have plenty of time to develop before being moved up to Detroit. Castellanos was penciled in at third base in the lineup to take on the Astros yesterday, before the game was postponed due to rain. Tigers manager Jim Leyland had a chance to talk to MLive.com about him, though.

“You don’t want to fill a 20-year-old kid full of too much,” Leyland stated. “You’ve got to be careful about that as well. It’s good (for him) to be around. It’s probably good to listen to everybody. It’s probably not good to hear everybody.”

Castellanos even had a chance to work out with Cabrera in the offseason, and said that it has been ‘awesome’ working with him in Spring Training.

“It’s mostly about learning how it’s done in the big leagues,” Castellanos said about the spring. “Just watching, observing and also getting my work in because I also have a season to prepare for.”

Leyland also commented on him in camp: “I think it’s valuable experience. But like all the young players, it’s about time for him to get over there (to minor-league camp) and get to work where he’s playing every day.”

With the third base spot taken for now, it will be interesting to see if they experiment with him at any other positions, like second base or out field. I’m glad to see, too, that they’re not rushing his development along, like they’ve done with a few other players, and give him the time he needs to become a big league ball player. I can’t wait to see him up with Detroit, but not until he’s ready. Last season with the Whitecaps he batted .312, with 36 doubles and seven home runs.

Justin Henry is another player who has been developing in the Minors for Detroit. He’s played every infield and outfield position in the minor so far, and has posted a .291 average with 104 stolen bases in five seasons. The last two seasons, he’s split time between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. With West Michigan in 2008, he batted .295 with 24 doubles and 46 RBI’s.

Leyland had some very positive things to say about Henry, also: “It looks like he can play anywhere. He look like he’s got a good swing and he can run..with not a lot of power. I think he’s one of those guys that’s kind of grown on the organization. He just kept getting better, and all of the sudden people are taking a little notice. I don’t think he came here with some big fanfare about being some great prospect. All of the sudden, he’s turned himself into a prospect.”

Nice words from the skipper. When he played here in West Michigan, he was at second base. With so many outfielders in the system, I’m wondering if they plan on moving him back to second or even try him out at short stop. We’ll be keeping an eye on him, to this season.

Photos property of M.I.B.

Whitecaps alum Duane Below Q & A

In baseball, as in any sport, we all love the ‘local boy makes good story’. Former Whitecaps pitcher Duane Below could possibly fit that mold this season, as he competes for the Detroit Tigers 5th spot in the rotation, or possibly a long reliever role. The 26 year-old left hander hails from Britton, Michigan and played at Lake Michigan College.

Below was a 19th round pick of the Detroit Tigers, and played with the West Michigan Whitecaps in 2007. His 13-5 record helped his team win the Midwest League Championship that year. He sported a 2.97 ERA and 160 strike-outs in his 26 starts in West Michigan. We were lucky enough to see Duane pitch that season, as Fifth Third Ballpark would usually sell out when he was on the mound.

Last season he make two starts for the Tigers and allowed a combined five earned runs in 9 2/3 innings of work. Later he moved to the bullpen, and pitched in relief twelve times. Three of his outings he pitched two or more innings.  All the best to Duane this season, as he competes for a roster spot in Detroit. He’s bounced back nicely after having to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2009.

Below pitches for the Whitecaps in front of a sold out crowd at Fifth Third Ballpark

Below recently chatted with James Schmehl of MLive.com:

Q. I heard you reported to camp way ahead of schedule. When did you arrive?

A. I came down here to get a little head start. I pulled into Lakeland on December 4. I was just enjoying the weather, the sunshine and the pool with my girlfriend.

Q. Is this your regular schedule? Do you typically come to Florida in early December?

A. The past couple of years, I’ve been down here early. Last year, I was here in January. The year before, I was hurt and I was here rehabbing , which is one of the main reasons I felt like I needed to come down here. I came back strong last year and I was ready to go. I want to be ready like that again this year.

Q. What’s the biggest difference between working out in Lakeland with the team staff, opposed to working out on your own at home?

A. You train hard at home, but when you get here it’s different. It’s more competitive. You push yourself a little harder. It’s good to be here a couple weeks early before everything starts. Before that, I would stay at home and work out with Kalamazoo Valley Community College.

Q. What in particular are you trying to focus on when you work out during the offseason?

A. I’m just trying to build strength. You can’t work out as hard during the season. There’s a point where you want to build up as much as you can and try to maintain it. I felt like being down there would the best opportunity. The strength staff put a couple of workouts together for me. Monday and Thursday, I would focus on my lower body and I’d work on upper body strength Tuesday and Friday. Wednesday was core conditioning and long-distance running.

Q. Were you looking to add weight? I know a lot of pitchers tend to lose it as the season progresses.

A. Nah, I didn’t add any weight. I’m the same weight–right around 220-225 pounds, but I feel good. I feel strong.

Q. You’re one of a few pitchers on the team what have undergone Tommy John surgery. Was there ever a point where you considered packing it up?

A. Nah, I never thought about it. I love this game too much to just throw it away on an injury. I’m going to fight as hard as I can to be in the position I want to be in. And, right now, this si the position I want. I want to be on the team, even if it’s in the bullpen or the rotation. You can’t quit on this. There’s too much I have involved.

Q. How are you handling this spring? You’re a candidate for the No. 5 spot, but you’re also a candidate for the bullpen. Does that change how you approach this camp?

A. I’m trying to go about my business the same way I always do. I’m just trying to make the team. Basically, I’m just trying to make sure I’m ready for the season. If I’m in Toledo or Detroit, I want to make sure I’m ready. I can’t control where I am, so I’m not going to try and wreck what I’m working on.

Q. Speaking of which, what in particular are you looking to improve this spring? I know a lot of pitchers say consistency is the key–does that apply to you, too?

A. Yeah, I’m really looking to better locate my fastball. My curveball, too. I need it to be a better pitch. Basically, I need to rely on my changeup and curveball more often and keep guys off-balance. But, like you mentioned, I need to be consistent with every pitch I have and be confident enough to throw it in any count. It’s a learning process, just like anything.

Q. Are you able to enjoy your time in Florida? Your name has been mentioned non-stop as a candidate for that fifth spot. Does it start to get to you?

A. Eh, not so much right now. It’s not really nerve-wracking. I’m sure it’s going to get crazy around here soon, but it’s going to be fun. I mean, how can you not enjoy it? You’re in Florida. You’re in the sun. It’s been a dream come true.

Looks like he’s got a great attitude, and I’m hoping he’s in a Tigers uniform come April. It’s so much fun watching these guys move up through the system!

Photo property of  M.I.B.

Some fantasy baseball M.I.B. style

Fantasy baseball isn’t easy. My biggest jab at football fans is how lazy they are. They only commit to their team once a week, and make such a big deal out of one game. When trying to recruit teams for fantasy baseball, I get the same remark from football fans: “What? I’ll have to check it almost every day! Fantasy football you only have to check once a week.”

Lazy, lazy footballers. Well, if anyone on the blogosphere would like to partake in some fantasy baseball, feel free to join my league. It’s all for fun, free, and the lucky winner just might get a congratulatory e-mail from ME if I’m not feeling lazy. It’s through Yahoo! sports, so everyone by now should have some kind of Yahoo! account. The League ID is: 77279. The password is: beer. Enjoy.

A Piece of The Game

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