Fourth of July baseball has always had a special meaning to me. Back in my small hometown where I grew up in Pennsylvania, it usually meant town league games in the morning and afternoon with the neighboring team on the other side of the railroad tracks.
Fourth of July 2014 baseball in Florida was just a bit different for me but the more things change the more they stay the same. First, an exciting morning Phillies GCL game against the GCL Yankees at Roberts Field at the Carpenter Complex in Clearwater. Then back across the railroad tracks on Old Coachman Road to see my hometown team in Dunedin in the afternoon. There a knuckleball throwing friend of Baseball Betsy and me would win his first start for the Blue Jays over the Clearwater Threshers, the team on the other side of the tracks in the Florida State League.
I must admit I like GCL baseball. It is a bunch of young guys most of whom will never play in the major leagues but the dream of major league baseball lives within all of them. The challenge is to try to spot which of them might have a chance to make it to the Show. In 2010 the GCL Phillies won the league championship and Baseball Betsy and I were there at Bright House Field that day. Today only one player from that team is still in the Phillies system, Maikel Franco. The Road to the Show is quite bumpy along the way indeed.
The current GCL Phillies team serves as a way station for players signed from the recent draft and free agents signed from Latin America on their way to higher-up minor league teams. Always a few rehabbing players from rosters of the rest of the organization’s teams are playing as well. On this Fourth of July morning it was rehabbing Phillies left fielder Darin Ruf and catcher Wil Nieves in the lineup.
The player who has been one of the most impressive on the GCL Phillies roster has been third baseman Damek Tomscha. He has hit around .400 for the first two weeks of the GCL season. He was a 17th round, 502nd overall, draft pick out of Iowa Western Community College. At 6’2″ 200 lbs. he will soon turn 23 and should should be at a more age appropriate level. In Saturday’s game he hit the ball hard again for a base hit to left. See Here.
The team under veteran Manager Roly de Armas has been right around .500 so far and plays some interesting baseball. In GCL action you may just as easily see a 2-1 game as was he outcome of Saturday morning’s loss to the Yankees GCL2 team or see an 11-10 win in the Fourth of July game over the same team. With GCL action you never know what you might see. It is why it is so interesting to watch. The best utility infielder on the team William Cuicas at short in Friday’s game caught a line drive and doubled off the Yankee base-runner to end the 11-10 game with Austin Davis on the hill for the save. SEE HERE.
In the afternoon it was a hometown Fourth of July special event in Dunedin. All the tickets were “free” and you got a baseball game plus a concert and fireworks afterwards to boot. The Blue Jays drew over 4,000 for the event. We would have gone anyway because Frank Viola III was making his Florida State League debut on the mound for the Blue Jays.
We met Frank in spring training while he was mastering the knuckleball at the Toronto minor league training facility in Dunedin. As you may have read from Baseball Betsy’s blog, she has been fascinated by the pitch. Here’s her blog on Frank.
Frank is a 30 year-old former minor league pitcher drafted in 2004 and released by the Chicago White Sox after the 2007 season. He is still living his dream of making to the big leagues. This time he is trying it with the knuckleball after signing a free agent contract with Toronto this spring He battled a series of injuries and had Tommy John surgery early in his career that eventually lead him out of affiliated ball until now.
We arrived early in the afternoon and were able to get seats directly behind home plate for the game. Frank’s knuckleball is not designed to strike out batters but to induce “soft” contact. That is what he did in getting ground ball after ground ball outs and few soft fly ball outs with the knuckleball varying in speeds from the low 60’s to the mid 70’s. He would sneak in a fastball sitting at 82-84 mph to the batters from time to time. I have not seen an 82 mph fastball register on the Dunedin scoreboard since the days of former Phillies starter Jamie Moyer pitching there in spring training games until Frank came along on Friday afternoon.
Frank started slowly giving up a run on three walks and a single in the second inning but shut down the hapless Threshers in his final four innings allowing only four more base runners the rest of the way. He left after six innings giving up only one run on five hits.
The Blue Jays put up a three spot on the scoreboard in the bottom of the sixth and went on to win 5-1 to give Frank his first win at the High A level after going 2-2 with the Lansing Lugnuts in the low A Midwest League.
I have included video samples of Frank’s pitches to show how his knuckleball induced soft contact. Watch for the unpredictable movement of his pitches that kept the Threshers batters off balance. See a swinging strike by Harold Martinez HERE. See J.P. Crawford hit a soft fly ball to center HERE. See Everett Williams hit a soft ground ball to third HERE.
Nothing beats Fourth of July baseball doubleheaders whether it be on the town fields of Pennsylvania or the minor league fields in Florida. In this July 4th doubleheader each game had its own unique character but in both games it was the common goal of all the players in different ways of working towards a very difficult goal of some day playing in the major leagues.
In first game it was young free agent prospects signed from Latin America and recent draftees from North America just starting the climb up the baseball ladder and a couple veterans rehabbing from injuries trying to get back to the big leagues. In the second game it was a 30 year-old pitcher trying a comeback with a new pitch to live his dream of pitching soon in the major leagues. This is what minor league baseball is all about and why it keeps us going back to see all season long and not just on the Fourth of July.