Saturday, May 24, 2008


I’ve just about had it with the concept of blogging.

My cup bubbled over when I tripped upon a website that proclaimed a new day in sports journalism; that you, the reader and fan, can contribute to this site with your opinions on sports. Poof! You’re a journalist.

There would be no remuneration for your efforts, of course, not that somebody’s totally uninformed and, in many cases ignorant, ravings are worth any compensation. But this website is going to make the learned prose espoused in places like The New York Times, Washington Post and Boston Globe obsolete. Yeh, right.

Let’s put some keen analysis into what you get on such websites – and you can lump a goodly percentage of these inane electronic media-generated talk shows in with them.

You’re getting the opinion, in most places clumsily arranged, of someone who is watching games on TV or listening to them on the radio and coming up with profound revelations that have no basis in fact.

These “new sports journalists” aren’t talking to the athletes about whom they write. They’re not given credentials to venture into clubhouses to conduct interviews or perceive any other clues that an athlete may project about why a team is winning or losing. Imagine if they did get credentials. The grandstands would be empty and the press boxes would be jammed with phonies out to get free meals and access to their heroes.

They shoot from the hip, taking aim at somebody like beleaguered San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito or New York Mets manager Willie Randolph because an ERA is high or their beloved team is on a losing streak.

I was aghast recently when I heard a commentator utter that he’d love to have a job like Zito’s; where he can have a job that pays get paid $126 million for doing nothing. Yeh, like Zito is soft-tossing meatballs to home plate, lounging around the swimming pool between starts and amassing a 7-plus ERA because he’s lazy or doesn’t care. Get a grip. If Zito strings together 10 straight wins, and pitches two or three shutouts, such “faux” journalists will be first in line for autographs.

All this may lead you to say, “Why is this guy dissing the art of blogging when he blogs himself?”

Trust me, when I was told I needed to do some blogging to keep up with new industry standards, I cringed. I don’t mind writing. I love to write. I love to delve into subjects and report on them. But please can we call what I do something other than blogging? After spending more than 25 years involved with professional baseball and more than 15 writing about local high school and amateur sports, I like to think that I know a little something about the subjects I cover.

You’ll notice that it’s extremely rare that I “blog” about something I don’t cover.

I “blog” about the Rock Cats, and people who know me also know that the number of Rock Cats home games I’ve missed since 1997 can be counted on two hands. That’s less than 10 out of about 850.

I have unique access into the Rock Cats and Minnesota Twins organizations, which I’ve earned by nurturing my contact with some pretty wonderful people. They tell me plenty on the record. They tell me things off the record that I can use indirectly to keep you informed about matters of interest.

I “blog” about New Britain sports, but never without getting the proper perspective by talking to people like venerable former Herald sports editor Bart Fisher, equally venerable retired New Haven Register scholastic football maven Bob Barton, another ex-Herald sports editor Gerry deSimas who enlightens me on scholastic wrestling and many coaches – active and retired – who shaped the landscape that I continue to tread.

If your interest lies with the Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots, there are numerous professionals at places like Associated Press, The Globe, The Boston Herald, The Courant and papers in Springfield and Providence who can tell you much more beyond the score. Don’t rely on the ranting of dolts who want players dumped because they struck out with the bases loaded.

We have people in our midst who can keep you informed on all things UConn. New York fans have The Daily News, The Post, Newsday and The Times.

The next time some computer geek who can’t tell the difference between a split-fingered fastball and a circle change tells you that he’s revolutionizing sports journalism, all he’s revolutionizing is a scam similar to those Nigerian bank account e-mail schemes to make easy money by doing nothing.

Monday, May 19, 2008


One 30-hour stretch at New Britain Stadium showed how ugly and how beautiful the game of baseball can be.

The yawn-provoking creeper between the Cats and Portland Sea Dogs on dreary Sunday afternoon took 3 hours, 51 minutes to complete. No surprise that the Boston Red Sox' farm team was involved. The painstaking marathons between the Beantowners and Yankees that often flirt with 4 hours reflect the offensive philosophy of going deep in the count.

The Sox-to-be cajoled eight walks from New Britain pitching, four of which became tallies. Meanwhile, bright Boston pitching prospects Michael Bowden and Daniel Bard had the Rock Cats hitters batting the breeze for 12 strikeouts. Walks and strikeouts, you see, take much more time than first-pitch swings that send grounders to second.

As the Sea Dogs prepared to lock down a 7-4 win, the never-say-die Cats scrapped for a couple of ninth-inning markers and had the tying run at third with one out. No, not extra innings, spare me. Portland closer Beau Vaughan got his bearings straight and retired the last two hitters to put a merciful seal on nine innings of tedium.

The sun came out on Monday with the Harrisburg Senators in town.

Rock Cats righty Jay Rainville, whose struggles were accurately reflected in his 9.00 ERA, was on the hill with pitcher, team and beat writer yearning for a well-pitched game. Rainville kept his fastball down, retired the first hitter in each of his seven innings, and (glory-be) didn't walk a soul.

Zach Ward, a starter at Fort Myers last year, used his wicked slider to continue Rainville's handiwork in the eighth and ninth innings to tie down a neatly packaged 5-1 win in 2 hours, 33 minutes.

Meanwhile, in the back of the New Britain Stadium press box, the covey of Red Sox fans that flutter around there all the time reveled in a no-hitter by Jon Lester. Two short years ago, Lester was batttling cancer. Red Sox fan or not, you have to love how destiny can sometimes play sweet music where there were once nothing but sour notes.

My faith in baseball restored, I trudged home with my backpack in tow, wondering what tomorrow would bring.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The atmosphere was electric during the last homestand when the Rock Cats were building a nine-game winning streak and celebrating Cinco de Mayo in style.

But the power source for their success was the offense. In every game except the one that started the skein, the offense had to power its way back from an early deficit. Lost amid the line drives, alert baserunning, situational hitting and clubhouse merriment was the shortcomings of the starting rotation.

Long-term baseball success relies on starting pitchers providing at least six, preferably seven solid innings before turning it over to competent relievers, which the Rock Cats have in number.
The offense tallied seven runs in the game that snuffed out the winning streak in the homestand finale against Bowie last Thursday. The crusher came on the first night in New Hampshire when the hitters posted 11 runs – and lost.

That was the turning point. The offense that carried the Rock Cats to their best record (19-12) since the halcyon days of 2001 with Michael Cuddyer, Justin Morneau, Michael Restovich and Dustan Mohr began to quiet down. It was inevitable. Good pitching always stops good hitting.
But the pitchers did not rise to the occasion. The Rock Cats, going into the final game of a miserable road trip on Thursday, had lost six of seven to the two bottom-feeding clubs in the Eastern League North and looking for all the world like they would be joining them.

Since the winning streak ended, the Rock Cats staff has posted a 7.14 ERA. In 34 2/3 innings, starters gave up 48 hits and walked 18. An average of two baserunners per inning is not going to cut it.

The bullpen, which had been among the EL’s best, began to crack under the pressure of starters being unable to get into the late innings. The bullpen’s ERA ballooned to 6.56 in the post-streak doldrums.

The Twins’ minor league administrators have given the current crop of starters ample time to get adjusted.

Right-hander Anthony Swarzak had an 0.56 ERA after three games. It’s now 3.96. Left-hander Ryan Mullins, the most consistent of the lot, checks in at 3.25.

Yohan Pino, who will be skipped Thursday in favor of left-hander Errol Simonitsch, was among the ERA leaders until he struggled against New Hampshire Saturday.

That’s where the bottom falls out. Rhode Island right-hander Jay Rainville has been unable to consistently locate his pitches and his velocity hasn’t reached the level he had attained before shoulder surgery in 2006. He has given up 51 hits in 29 2/3 innings and has a 9.00 ERA after seven starts.

The big mystery is what’s happened to Oswaldo Sosa. Sosa, the lone Rock Cat on Minnesota’s 40-man major league roster, has yielded 37 hits and a hefty 21 walks in 29 1/3 frames. His ERA is at 7.06.

June is coming. That’s when the Twins traditionally make a major shift between those who are excelling at high-A Fort Myers and those who have struggled to find success in New Britain.
Rainville and Sosa have a couple more starts to convince minor league pitching coordinator Rick Knapp and farm director Jim Rantz that Double-A is their forte.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Pitching is serious business for the Minnesota Twins.
There’s nothing unusual there. Most pundits will say that pitching ranks anywhere from 75 to 90 percent of the game.
But the game’s most precious commodity is even more dear for a small-market club like the Twins, who can’t order from the non-contenders’ menu at midseason if their starters break down.
So pitching philosophy runs deep in New Britain, especially when veteran pitching coordinator Rick Knapp makes his semi-seasonal visit.
While in New Britain this season, Knapp can exchange pitching wisdom with two well-versed experts in manager Bobby Cuellar and pitching coach Steve Mintz.
Cuellar pitched professionally for nine years and has spent most of the last 26 as either a pitching or bullpen coach. Mintz, who led the New Britain Red Sox in ERA in 1993, pitched professionally for 12 seasons.
The Rock Cats clubhouse became quite the venue for pitching forums when Knapp came through last week.
“Having these guys here is a really good test for me because they’re gonna bounce around questions and thoughts, and it really makes me examine what we’re doing a little bit closer,” said Knapp, now in his 12th season as the Twins’ minor league pitching guru. “The thoughts and ideas they give me are a motivator for me. Everybody has their skew but we see eye to eye on things.”
The Rock Cats have been plagued by inefficiency at the back of their starting rotation. Rhode Island right-hander Jay Rainville (2-4, 10.01 ERA), just a year removed from shoulder surgery to correct a nerve problem that cost him the 2006 season, has struggled. So has right-hander Oswaldo Sosa (1-2, 7.06).
But fans always have to be reminded that winning isn’t everything in minor league baseball. Knapp is focused on development, and the organization prefers that prospects get in their work with statistics a secondary concern.
Rainville emerged from a pack of young hurlers in spring training to merit a promotion to New Britain for the start of the season.
“Some guys were scuffling and some guys were on track,” Knapp said. “Jay was pitching well although his delivery didn’t look great but you don’t want to get too deep in his head while he’s competing to make a club. It was one of those things where your eyes kind of deceive you a little bit. The numbers were what they were but the delivery wasn’t what you were hoping for.”
So Rainville’s Double-A struggle is far from a total surprise to Knapp.
“I kind of had an idea what it was coming in but until you watch you don’t know for sure,” he said. “It was something that was really a small technically that goes with our philosophy of pitching. We worked it a little, he felt more confident and he was throwing the ball harder.”
Rainville’s velocity is down for reasons the Twins cannot pinpoint, but recuperating from surgery can often take more than a year, so they remain patient.
“He hasn’t felt any weakness. (The effect of surgery) is all resolved, as far as we’re concerned, but there is still arm strengthening issues and mechanical issues that we’re trying to get to,” Knapp said.
He said that warmer weather may help.
“I think he will eventually throw harder. It’s a matter of let’s make sure we get his delivery right,” Knapp said. “Let’s sequence him properly and I think good things for in store for him.”
Knapp expects the young New Britain rotation – Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins, Yohan Pino, Rainville and Sosa – to remain in tact, at least until the season’s midway point. Last year, he moved left-hander Brian Duensing and Nick Blackburn up early when injuries wracked the Twins’ staff.
“Last year we got lucky because I had Duensing and Blackburn ready to go to Triple-A,” Knapp said. “I don’t feel as good about sending Swarzak or Mullins or Rainville to Triple-A yet. Duensing had pitched a year in this league before. Blackburn had pitched a year and a half in this league. I felt OK sending them to Triple-A.”
Swarzak enjoyed an outstanding start but wasn’t as effective when Knapp got a first-hand look.
“During the course of the year you have struggles and his outing the other night wasn’t all that great. I come in here and see him one time and you see a small piece of the bigger picture,” Knapp said.
“Yeh, he seems to be on track. If we hadn’t made that (Santana) trade he’d probably be pitching in Triple-A although I don’t know that he’s ready for Triple-A. The trade we made worked out good for all parties concerned, mainly with our pitching because it gives us depth and allows our guys to stay where they’re supposed to stay.”
Acquiring ex-big leaguer Danny Graves, and keeping minor league veterans Jason Miller (25) and Jay Sawatski (26) strays a bit from the standard Twins strategy of moving ’em in, moving ’em up and moving ’em out. Again, uncertainty in Minnesota has altered the makeup of the Rock Cats.
“I don’t want to say that’s why we (retained) Miller and Sawatski, who have Triple-A experience as well, but those guys are (young),” Knapp said. “I wanted to make sure we had protection.”
The recent collapse of the Rock Cats starters will not force Knapp’s hand.
“The reason I’ve got some of the older guys here is that there are some players in Fort Myers I don’t want to send here yet,” Knapp said. “I want them to get a full season or even a half season under their belt before they come here. Triple-A’s got some really good arms. We’ve got some good arms here.”
Jeff Manship, 23, is a right-hander with college experience (Notre Dame) who was a Double-A candidate out of spring training and is pitching well at high-A Fort Myers (4-0, 3.23). Knapp is using experience as a yardstick.
“Manship is doing OK. It’s just one of those things that he pitched a half-season there last year and deserves another half season,” Knapp explained. “I don’t want to skip any steps. I want these guys to get their innings at their levels.
“Whether he pitches 100 or 150 innings in (high A), is that a positive for a college pitcher or a negative? I think the more that he pitches there the better off he’ll be when he gets here.”
The Twins generally make a major shift between New Britain and Fort Myers in mid-June. Along with Manship, St. John’s grad Rob Delaney (0.54 ERA, 8 saves), Anthony Slama (2-0, 0.47) and Danny Vais (4-0, 0.86) have been brilliant
“(Manship) and one of those relievers may get up here at the halfway mark but I’m not in any rush with any of them,” Knapp said. “If (Manship) pitches a full season in Fort Myers, that will be fine with me. It means the guys here will get the time they need here. I’m happy with the way things are going so far.”

Thursday, May 8, 2008


The atmosphere at New Britain Stadium is spellbinding.

The wins keep piling up with no visitor's lead safe. A new hero emerges every day as a team adds another course of brick to its bulwark of character. The enchanting effect of success, complete with coaches and players whooping it up and dancing in a strobe-lit, fog-shrouded clubhouse that has evolved into a house of glee, has cast a light on Rock Cats baseball not seen in these parts in seven years.

Times and players were a bit more conservative back in 2001 when Michael Cuddyer, Dustan Mohr, Michael Restovich and Justin Morneau helped give New Britain its first Eastern League glory since Clemens was nothing more than a bottle rocket in 1983.

These new Cats were nothing more than a collection of players with a new manager just 50 days ago on the back lots of Fort Myers' Lee County Complex. But winning serves as an intoxicant that can turn even the stoic into giddy schoolboys.

Danny Graves watched from the distance of a clubhouse corner Wednesday night as his younger teammates exulted in their ninth straight win to tie a Rock Cats record. His grin told the whole story. He really didn't have to say this was the greatest thing he had ever seen, and that coming from an ultra-successful major league expatriot with 182 career saves seeking one more opportunity to grace the screen on Baseball Tonight.

Chances are pretty good that the Rock Cats will lose someday, but you can't tell that to the likes of clubhouse leaders Drew Butera, Trevor Plouffe and Brock Peterson. They're having much too good of a time to be reminded that this can't last forever. And it doesn't have to! This is baseball, where you're remarkable if you can win 70 percent of the time.

With the character the Rock Cats are building, that possibility seems very likely.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


Something special is brewing at New Britain Stadium.

What's happening on the field is baseball worth watching. What's happening in the grandstands and on the promotional front is nothing new, but represents an evolving center of entertainment.

On the field, the New Britain Rock Cats are balanced, motivated, mature and confident.

The offense has been magnificent. Luke Hughes and Dustin Martin set the tone at the top of the lineup. Brock Peterson has been a solid run producer. Double-A veterans Matt Moses and David Winfree are warming up.

Trevor Plouffe continues to develop into the prospect the Minnesota Twins thought he was when they drafted him in the first round directly out of high school. Catcher Drew Butera provides the defense with a tenacious catch-and-throw guy, and Jeff Christy has supplied solid play behind him.

Pitching, of course, is key.

The bullpen has been nothing short of excellent. Over the last week, whoever has had his number called by manager Bobby Cuellar has responded brilliantly. Between the end of the road series at Binghamton and the start of the home set with New Hampshire, the relievers strung together 17 2/3 consecutive scoreless frames.

Veteran Ben Julianel has done most of the closing, but Kyle Aselton and Armando Gabino have taken turns finishing games. Cuellar has ample set-up men from both sides ranging from former Cincinnati Reds All-Star Danny Graves and Zach Ward from the right side, and Jay Sawatski and Jason Miller on the left.

The back end of the rotation has been inconsistent. Jay Rainville had his best start of the season Saturday. Oswaldo Sosa started well Sunday but the New Hampshire hitters caught up with him the second time through the lineup.

The front end features Anthony Swarzak, Ryan Mullins and Yohan Pino, who is among the EL leaders in ERA.

Off the field, I've seen so many happy youngsters roaming a well-populated stadium concourse. While that may be nothing unusual in July and August, it was surely worth noting that the unseasonably comfortable April weather convinced fans that summer had come early. Even on Friday and Saturday, when the weather was much more New England-like, many more than your average handful withstood the elements.

Can the Rock Cats win an Eastern League title? That's a loaded question in May because personnel changes are part of the Double-A landscape. Unless injuries in the majors or Triple-A dictate otherwise, the Twins generally wait until June before they make any wholesale changes.

However, the Fort Myers Miracle, where future Rock Cats play, have a nice mix of talent waging battle in the Florida State League. Should some key Rock Cats get tickets for Triple-A Rochester or even Minnesota, the talent below is substantial.

You can't predict EL titles in May or June but I have one prediction that will not fall short. New Britain Stadium is a great place to spend some time. If you haven't been there, you've missed too much already.