Archive for July, 2013

It’s Now Time for Phillippe Aumont to Move On — For His Own Good as Well as the Phillies’

I think the saddest thing in professional baseball, no matter what level, is to see a pitcher walk to the dugout amid a chorus of boos and catcalls. Such was the case last night after reliever Phillippe Aumont snatched defeat out of the mouth of a victory thought certain thanks to a 5-inning, 1-hit performance by starter Zach Miner and a brilliant 2-homer Major League debut by designated hitter Tyler Henson.

Aumont came into the 9th inning with a 4-2 lead and got the lead-off batter to pop up for the first out. But he then gave up three straight singles and walked former IronPig Jermaine Mitchell (warned you, didn’t I?) to give up a run and cut the lead to 1. Brundage took Aumont out at that point, but Jay Johnson came in to issue bases-load walks for the tying and winning runs.

Phillippe Aumont

Phillippe Aumont

As Aumont walked off the mound toward the dugout, he was greeted with a loud chorus of boos and catcalls from the stands. Instead of reacting coolly like a veteran player would, he jawed back at the crowd at first, then settled into what I call a “f— you smile” before disappearing into the dugout. I was reminded immediately of the treatment Dominic Brown got during his tenure here, when he was dropping balls left and right in the outfield and similarly lost. Brown snapped out of it and went on to become a hero in Philly and an All-Star in his first season on the team. Can Aumont do the same?

I think he can, but I don’t think he can do it here — or anywhere in the Philadelphia system. It’s tempting to say he should be sent down to Reading, but that would only contribute to the “head case” he’s become of late. Moving him back to Philly under the tutelage of coaches there is useless, because he already got their advice and rejected it. Send him to Clearwater for a while to clear his head? I don’t think that will help either. The Phillies either need to trade him, sell him or give him away.

Frankly, who’s going to want him at this point? It may come down to giving him his outright release, though I hope it doesn’t come to that. I hope there’s a manager somewhere who sees Phillippe as a reclamation project and takes a chance on him. He has the right stuff, that’s for sure. He just needs to put it all together, and that, I think, is all a matter of a new way of thinking.

In the meantime, the IronPigs lost a game they absolutely should have won. The loss spoiled Tyler Henson’s fantastic Major League debut as he hit two home runs to give Lehigh Valley what should have been an insurmountable lead. Miner should have gotten a win for his brilliant 1-hit performance and the bullpen once again — including Rosenberg, Robles and Johnson as well as Aumont — came up short.

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I hate to say “I told you so” (no I don’t!), but trading Jermaine Mitchell is already proving to be a mistake. Forget that Phillies’ center fielder Ben Revere went on the DL right after Mitchell was traded. Jermaine is now coming back to haunt the ‘Pigs. He had a hit and a walk in his 3 at-bats last night, the latter cutting the IronPigs’ lead to one run in the 8th inning. Good for J-Mitch. Bad for us.

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A Little Bit of This and a Little More of That

Well, the ‘Piggies are on the road again after a truly disappointing homestand, so it’s time to veer off-topic again — at least somewhat.

You’ve all seen those cute little carts that tote people back and forth from the parking lots to the front gates, right? It’s but one of the fan-centric things the good folks in the front office do. Even though there are handicapped spots close to the West Gate for people with special license plates and mirror hangers, the carts are a godsend for older folks who may not qualify for official handicapped status yet but who might find the long walk up that hill more than they can handle.

Well, I visited SteelStacks today and discovered that the parking lot usually reserved for handicapped folks was one of several being paved. Signs directed us another block or two down the street to another lot. Unfortunately, the good people at Artsquest aren’t as enlightened as CCP staffers when it comes to transportation. No little carts.

There’s no question the other lots need to be closed for paving. It’s a good thing, really. But some thought should have been given to people who will find that walk difficult, like me, or impossible. (I have peripheral neuropathy, as well as a bad disc in my back that pinches a nerve going down to my left leg. When I walk more than a block, my leg gets numb and then begins to hurt, getting progressively worse as I continue walking. That’s why I rest from site to site at Musikfest and need a chair when I volunteer there.)

Tell you what: Jeff Parks, if your folks get a car or some other type of conveyance to help people get from the parking lot to the SteelStacks front door — and maybe continue on to the Banana Factory, too — I will volunteer to be a regular driver 3 days a week, for a full 8-hour shift.

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Maybe it’s my German heritage, but I find the recent wave of celebrity sextings appalling. This time, of course, it’s television personality Geraldo Rivera, whose age — 70 — makes it even more scandalous. You remember Geraldo, the guy who broke down the wall on live TV nationwide hoping to find Al Capone’s lost treasure, only to come up empty-handed.

I’m 60 and I wouldn’t dream of sexting anyone, even though I’m no celebrity and I’m certainly not in the kind of shape I’d need to be for anyone to care. I enjoy my privacy — sometimes too much. I know I’d rather hang out and read or do something on my own than go to a party, unlike 30 or 40 years ago. But celebrities, used to being in the public spotlight all the time, are apparently different, some to the point of having nothing to keep private at all.

Fine. My request, then, is directed at the tabloid press. If you want to tell us all about it, fine. But please, spare me photographs! I don’t want to see it, and I’m fairly certain my daughter doesn’t want my grandson to see it in the checkout line at the grocery store. Yes, it probably sells newspapers. But if you’re that desperate to find a way to keep readers and stay in business, perhaps it’s time to fold up the tent and find another line of work. (And I was a newspaper journalist for 26 years.)

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And finally, back to the IronPigs — specifically, the problems the Phillies have created, once again, for a team that looked to be on its way to the playoffs for the second year. After squeaking by Columbus 2-1 in the last game of the home stand on Sunday, they lost again last night, 3-1, to the Rochester Redwings.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but they’ve won only 1 game out of the last 10 played. They’ve gone from second place in the North Division standings and just 2 games behind Norfolk for the Wild Card playoff spot to third place in the division and 4th place in the Wild Card spot.

Is it a coincidence that everything began to unravel after centerfielder Jermaine Mitchell was released (and quickly scooped up by the Minnesota Twins, whose AAA Rochester Redwings have soared since Mitchell joined them)? Is it a coincidence that things got worse since the Phils’ grand experiment with Cesar Hernandez in center field? No, and no.

Mitchell was a good centerfielder and made a lot of catches for the highlight reels. More importantly, he was the offensive spark plug in the leadoff spot. We could have used him for the playoff run, to be sure; the bats have quieted lately. Ironically, the Philles could have used him too. Ben Revere went down with an injury soon after Jermaine’s release, or else he could be playing centerfield in Philly.

As for Hernandez, his centerfield play has been, well … godawful at times. Like the game in which he made 2 of the ‘Pigs 3 errors before there was even an out in the first inning! He tries, and his speed helps. But the biggest problem, he readily admits, is balls that go over his head. As for offense, who can think about that when they’re up to their a** in alligators trying to learn centerfield? His hitting has gone from torrid (in one two-game series he went 8-for-9) to MIA.

With J.Mitch, what’s done is done. Too late for a recall. But it’s not too late to end this foolishness with Cesar and get him back where he belongs, at 2nd base. Then he could go back to being Mr. Magic instead of leading the team in errors (11, tied with 3rd-baseman Cody Asche). Hear that Reuben?

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And Now, for Something Completely Different: Where Was the Crowd at the Pocono 400?

Every once in a while I like to go off-topic, and since the IronPigs are on the road this is a good time to do so. One of my other favorite sports is open-wheel racing, specifically the IZOD IndyCar series.

My passion for IndyCar racing began at Nazareth Speedway (1997 to 2004) watching Nazareth’s Michael Andretti battle Al Unser. As thrilling as the races were, the atmosphere surrounding them was equally exhilarating. Fans came from all over the world, and it was fun to grab a Coke, sit at a table with complete strangers and talk about their hometowns or countries.

I also got to meet a lot of great racers, most of whom were great  people. Perhaps the greatest and friendliest of them all was the late Greg Moore, who died in 1999 in an horrific crash at California Speedway. His death broke my heart, because I’d come to know him rather well. I also got to know Michael and Mario Andretti, the hometown heroes, as a member of their fan club. Each year on the Friday before the race, they’d sponsor a fan club dinner, where Mario and Michael spoke, signed autographs, mingled, and raffled off prizes. The first year I took my son Joshua, who was 9 at the time, he won the top prize — a painting of Mario’s IndyCar, which Mario signed and dated and personalized for him. Mario must have chatted with him for 5 minutes. My son was hooked, and we went to the races together from then on.

It was always my ambition to become involved, in some way, with the race itself. One year I was a volunteer for Racer magazine, handing out sample copies, signing up new subscribers and, occasionally, hosting driver autograph sessions. I recall one specifically with Tony Kanaan, Helio Castroneves and Oriol Servia, who were all relative unknowns at the time. Racer‘s rep warned me, appropriately, that one day they would famous drivers. That prediction came true — at least for Castroneves (3 Indianapolis 500 wins) and Kanaan (1 championship and 1 Indy 500 win).

Finally, in the last year of racing at Nazareth, Andretti-Green Racing made my dream come true. They asked me to be a scorer for Kanaan, which I quickly agreed to do. The perks were tremendous: an all-day, all-the-time pit pass and an open invitation to Andretti-Green’s hospitality tent, next to their RV in the infield. Free food, team pins, access to the drivers (including Michael) and a chance to chat with crew members and staff. I recall meeting a good friend and fan of Michael’s from Japan, who was staying at his Nazareth home while here for the race and a visit.

The biggest thrill, of course, was being an official scorer. In some ways, it was easy and in some ways it wasn’t. Punching a button every time Tony crossed the Start line sounds easy, but do that for more than an hour and you can begin to question your sanity. Nonetheless, it was an honor, albeit bittersweet because it was the last race; I’d gotten the job (non-paying), but the job was disappearing along with the racetrack.

Kanaan came in second that day, but it was a 1-2-3 podium finish for Andretti-Green, with his teammate, the late Dan Wheldon, winning and teammate Dario Franchitti placing third. Not long after the race, the seats at Nazareth Raceway began to come down. Today, only the gate signs and a few other remnants tell passersby what used to be there.

So it was a thrill when IndyCar announced it was returning to Pocono Raceway this year after a 24-year absence from the Tricky Triangle. I anticipated a large crowd, many of them old Nazareth Speedway fans as thrilled as I was to see IndyCars return to this area. But alas, only 30,000 attended the race; compare that with Pocono’s two NASCAR races, which each draw more than 100,000 fans.

Why? IndyCar came into Pocono weakened by several factors — first and foremost the split between CART and Tony George’s IRL, the reunification which meant the end of turbocharged engines, the financial failures, rules squabbles, etc. It’s the saddest chapter in the history of auto racing, period. It drove away fans forever.

The IndyCar Series was born out of the IRL-CART merger in 2007, but has had other struggles that have turned away fans. In 2011, a 13-year deal with Versus, the television network that became NBC Sports Network, proved to be a mixed blessing as the network struggled to find an audience and a place on the cable sports tier. And the championship race that year was a disaster as Indy 500 winner Wheldon died in a 15-car pileup on the 12th lap of the Las Vegas race, which was then cancelled.

Constant talk of lawsuits and equipment costs sapped enthusiasm for the races themselves, dubbed “spec races” by fans who preferred innovation to rigid rules. Reports about expenses made IndyCar sound cheap. Just days before the 2012 Indy 500, Turbogate erupted between CEO Randy Bernard and the team owners, leaving IndyCar still fractured, bleeding money, wracked by dissension and egos, almost stubbornly unwilling to showcase its greatest assets — its drivers and its turbocharged cars.

Under his successor, Mark Miles, things have finally stabilized and it looks like IndyCar is finally on the road to success. But it isn’t there yet. Miles has a long way to go, and the Pocono 400 reflects that. He has a major challenge in luring back the fans lost by the infighting and unsatisfactory competition. Overnight ratings for ABC’s telecast of the Pocono 400 were only 1.1, yet that was the second-highest rated race outside the Indy 500 this year. By contrast, NASCAR’s Pocono race this year drew a 2.8 rating on TNT (down from 3.2 last year).

My first suggestion: Get busier promoting the race! Did anyone see billboards in the Lehigh Valley promoting it? I didn’t. Between the time the race was announced and a few days before the race, there was very little publicity at all. IndyCar is not the only one that needs to do more of this. The major sponsors need to do a better job of getting out the word too — Sunoco, Izod and the engine manufacturers, mostly.

Second, get IndyCar drivers here in the weeks before the race to sign autographs, mingle with the fans and give interviews with media outlets. Signing photos and souvenirs will draw a crowd to malls, car dealerships, etc.

Third (a corollary to #2), put the IndyCars on display at area Sunoco stations for race fans to gawk at. They’re the most advance pieces of machinery anyone could hope to see and one of the major assets of the series.

Fourth, have ticket contests and giveaways (particularly if you have 70,000 unsold seats!). Marlboro used to do this for its customers at Nazareth races every year, when that was still legal, and it helped fill the seats and bring in new racing fans (including me).

Finally, those of you out there who are already IndyCar fans and now look forward to Pocono, start spreading the gospel! Let’s make Pocono the success it should be, and ensure the IndyCar racing is forever within easy driving distance of Lehigh Valley open-wheel racing fans.

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Michael Andretti gathers his thoughts in the Andretti-Green Racing pits before the Nazareth Speedway event in 2004.

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Playing for the ‘Pigs “hitting rock bottom?” Pittsburgh writer apparently thinks so

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist Dejan Kovacevic wrote a terrific column the other day about former IronPigs pitcher Jason Grilli, now closer for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and his well-deserved berth on the 2013 National League All-Star Team. (See http://triblive.com/sports/dejankovacevic/dejancolumns/4292694-74/grilli-delpiano-feel#axzz2YMy87WfU.)

Unfortunately, in the process of deifying Grilli he made a common mistake — he took a gratuitous swipe at the IronPigs. Generally these things get my blood boiling, and when my blood boils my fingers hit the keyboard. I’ll share with you my email response to Mr. Kovacevic:

Dear Mr. Kovacevic:

Everyone – and I truly mean everyone – in the Lehigh Valley is thrilled that Jason Grilli, now Pittsburgh ’s closer, has been named to the All-Star team. We’re equally thrilled that Domonic Brown of the Phillies, also a former IronPig, was named an All-Star. Just as we were thrilled in 2011 when Ryan Vogelsong, then of the San Francisco Giants, a former IronPig, was named an All-Star.

We’re even thrilled that players from our Minor League opponents, like Bryce Harper (Syracuse Chiefs) and Aroldis Chapman (Louisville Bats) made the National League All-Star team this year.

We’re proud to have 7 pitchers, 1 catcher, 1 infielder and 3 outfielders on the Phillies’ active roster. Another 5 pitchers, 2 infielders and 1 outfielder are on the Phillies’ 40-man roster. And many other current IronPigs have played with the Phillies as well – like shortstop Michael Martinez.

So why, when you write the typical “long-suffering good guy finally makes the big-time” story about Jason Grilli do you also have to take a backhanded swipe at us and our team? Just so you’re aware of it, we are not “rock bottom.” In 2011, in only the team’s fourth year of existence, the IronPigs played in the Governor’s Cup for the championship of the International League. Also:

  • We play in $50 million Coca-Cola Park , named Ballpark of the Year by Baseball Digest when it opened in 2008.
  • The IronPigs were named Organization of the Year in 2008 by Ballpark Digest.
  • IronPigs GM Kurt Landes was named International League Executive of the Year in 2009 and 2010.
  • The IronPigs have had the highest per-game average attendance in all of Minor League Baseball in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
  • Coca-Cola Park was named Best Ballpark in Triple-A Baseball in 2012 by Stadium Journey.
  • The IronPigs were the Bob Freitas Award winner in 2012, recognizing sustained excellence in Minor League Baseball.

 Other honors since 2008 include the “Best Game Operations and Presentation” award as chosen by gameops.com, along with many awards by Valley-based groups.

The IronPigs are the only Minor League franchise to eclipse 600,000 in attendance for each of the last five campaigns. Since 2008, 3,207,049 fans have attended IronPigs games – an average of 9,034 per game, a number that exceeds the ballpark’s fixed seating capacity of 8,089.

Every seat in the ballpark has been sold for 293 of the 355 all-time regular season games – including 32 consecutive games 64 of 76 during the 2012 season — with 93 all-time capacity crowds. Fox News recently ranked Lehigh Valley IronPigs fans as the best fans in all of Minor League Baseball.

There, I’ve said my peace. Who am I? First and foremost, I’m an IronPigs season ticket-holder since the team’s first game in 2008, who misses as few games as possible and counts team members, staff and other fans among my friends. Second and less important to me (though perhaps it may hold some weight with you), I spent 26 years in the newspaper business, including 4 years as Editor of a small (40,000-circ.) eastern Pennsylvania daily.

So I know what I’m talking about, not just as a fan, but as a professional journalist. You needlessly alienated a lot of people.

Care to add your two cents? You can write Mr. Kovacevic at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or simply share your thoughts here.

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Welcome to My World

I love Lehigh Valley IronPigs baseball. I’ve been a season ticket-holder since the first game in 2008 with the Philadelphia Phillies. I miss very few games during the course of the season (more than usual this year because of the ridiculous weather, unfortunately).

There’s not a more beautiful ballpark in Minor League Baseball than Coca-Cola Park. There’s no finer front office staff in MiLB than the IronPigs’ nor are there friendlier seasonal employees. And each year, I am privileged to watch a collection of men of varying ages, interests, abilities and ethnicities come together and play as a team. Folks, that’s what it’s all about and that’s why the IronPigs are the hottest entertainment venue in the Valley these days.

I’ve always had opinions about everything. Just ask my wife; she’ll tell you. Baseball is no different. I see things — some things that I like, some things that I don’t. I also try to see the future as I want it to be. Welcome to My World is how I vent, how I praise, how I dream about IronPigs and Phillies baseball. What it isn’t is a daily play-by-play regurgitation of last night’s game. Sure, I may talk about last night’s game, but only in the context of the issue I’m venting about. So even though I’ll be posting frequently, don’t look for my blog every day, or after every IronPigs home game.

The way I look at it, Welcome to My World is really the start of a conversation with my readers. I want to hear what you have to say about the issues I bring up. I want your ideas, opinions, hopes and dreams. Let’s give Reuben some other perspectives to think about!

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