Di Francesco: Kind Of Blue Sessions: Minor Notes With Future Blue Jays

I grew up in St. Catharines, the big little city in Niagara, and as a kid in the late eighties and early nineties the coolest thing to do would be to go watch the “Baby Jays,” who played in the New York Penn League, on a nice summer evening. The ballpark wasn’t much to look at, and the seats weren’t exactly comfortable — the bleachers, at that time, were shiny, tawdry metal benches that stretched from behind home plate to first and third base — and my cousin and I would stand in the open space down the third base line near left field and try to catch as many foul balls as possible.

Oh, yes, the good ol’ days! Gameboy was revolutionary, Tom Henke was the Terminator, Exhibition Stadium was still the “mistake by the lake,” and St. Catharines had a professional baseball team.

During these youthful times and summer nights, I got to see players like Derek Bell, Rob Butler, Pat Hentgen, and Jeff Kent work their way through the Jays’ system — which I’m sure that this is where my love for minor league ball came from — and I think that it would be pretty great if one of the Jays’ affiliates relocated one day to a city like Hamilton, or as Doug Fox suggested, Ottawa.

Now, you may not know who Doug Fox is, but he is the man that you know as ‘Clutchlings’ and ‘Future Blue Jays’. I have been perusing those sites for years and have always found the thorough work on the Jays’ farm system very useful, as I am always researching certain players the good ol’ Birds have in the system.

About a couple months ago, I pitched an idea to Stoeten to write a little series called, Kind Of Blue Sessions, where I would interview writers about the Blue Jays, baseball, and whatever. I interviewed old beat writer Danny Gallagher in the first edition, but most people who read the piece were concerned with the picture of Miles Davis that Stoeten used and whether or not I saw a brass band at The Rex – whatever. I just thought it would be cool, for when things got slow, to read about the people who are constantly typing up thoughts and good content that you click on and read.

So I reached out to Doug, who is a really cool guy, and we started going back and forth through emails – just shootin’ the baseball breeze. I asked him if he would be interested in doing this interview, and he agreed. We decided to talk about our love for the minor leagues, the minor leagues themselves, and, of course, future Blue Jays too. Hope you enjoy it.

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Let’s just begin with where your love for the MiLB came from?

That one goes back a long way (as do I – if you put me in a room full of baseball bloggers, I might bring the average up considerably). Growing up in Midland, Ontario, in the 1970s, there wasn’t a lot of televised baseball to satisfy a hungry fan’s appetite. I dutifully saved up my allowance, and every two weeks I went downtown to Parker’s Variety to buy the latest issue of The Sporting News, which called itself the Bible of Baseball in those days — for good reason.

The only televised games were the Jays and Expos on Wednesday night, and NBC’s Game of the Week on Saturday.  There was no TSN/ESPN/Sportsnet, and little in the way of televised highlights on the sportcasts every night.

There was a local men’s team in town called the Midland Indians. The team dated back to the 1920s (a dream of mine one day is to write a history of the team), and was an institution in the community. They played in a beautiful park in the middle of town, and a local chip stand operator opened up a small booth for the home games, and fried his delicacies — they were so good that you didn’t need ketchup, which was good, because he charged 5 cents for a packet of it.

The star of that team for many years was a big, fuzzy side-burned guy named Gordie Dyment. Gordie played in  the Phillies and the Giants systems, rising as high as Class C, which would be about the equivalent of Low A today. Gordie pitched for the team for two decades, and even well into his forties dominated hitters in the old York-Simcoe League. He had a curve ball that had so much spin on it that you could hear it! Gordie was something of a god in our town because he had played pro ball. He served as a mentor to all of the youth teams in town, including mine. In his last year in the minors, Hall-of-Famer Carl Hubbell was his pitching coach. It didn’t strike me until years later that I had a guy pitching BP to me who was coached by a guy who struck out 5 hitters in a row (including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx) in the 1934 All Star game!

So, I’ve always had a love of grass roots baseball. During my youth, I came across the annual baseball guide that The Sporting News used to publish. It was full of stats and stories of every MLB team, as well as a complete and extensive list for every minor league. I was in heaven! I had no idea that the game was played in places like Lynchburg, Carolina, or Bakersfield, California. That sent me on my way to a life-long love of minor league baseball — sadly, I didn’t get to see any games at that time, which was the heyday of MiLB in Canada. There were as many as a dozen Canadian-based minor league teams then.

I’ve followed MiLB closely ever since. Baseball America came along in the 80s, and was a godsend to anyone who loves the minors. I remember following the exploits of Cliff Floyd and Rondell White in the early 90s with the Expos. I was able to get a copy of their schedule (they were playing for the Expos AA Eastern League affiliate in Harrisburg), and saw that they would be making an early August trip to London, then a Tigers farm team. I made the four-hour trip to southwestern Ontario, parked my car on a side street, and made my way to Labatt Park, a cozy little stadium along the Thames River. As I bought my ticket and program, I settled in to watch these two rising stars in action. This was just before the Internet explosion, so I had no way of knowing that both had been promoted to the Expos AAA team in Ottawa the day before!

As both the Internet and minor league baseball have grown, it’s become easier than I ever would have imagined to follow MiLB closely. You can listen to games online, stream some teams’ games (I’m elated that Lansing may be doing so this year), and thanks to social media, you can interact with players, fans, and broadcasters associated with these teams.

I think it’s that accessibility that makes me continue to be a huge MiLB fan. It reminds me of my youth, and all those nights eating hot french fries and watching the Midland Indians. And when the Blue Jays aren’t doing so well, I can turn to milb.com and follow the progress of their affiliates. I know I’m not alone — Blue Jays president and CEO Mark Shapiro told me he does the same thing.

I’ve always wanted to write about the game, probably ever since my parents forbid me to read Jim Bouton’s epic Ball Four. I read his book under the covers with a flashlight, and far from corrupting me (which my parents were sure it would), it furthered my love for the game, and it made me want to read as much as I could about it. My ability to read and express myself in writing allowed me to get through high school, university, and teacher’s college. That skill was honed by Bouton and all those issues of The Sporting News.

When my sons went off to university themselves a few years ago, I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands. No longer were we driving them all over the province for their sports. It was then that I decided to combine my love of writing and the minors into a humble little blog that I called Clutchlings — that’s what you call a nest of baby Blue Jays. It’s grown considerably, and I never cease to be amazed at the network of baseball contacts I’ve developed around the world.

You had mentioned to me that you think Vancouver has the best fans in all of baseball, that’s a bold statement. Could you explain?

I know I’m exaggerating a bit, but the Blue Jays have caught lightning in a bottle with the C’s. Those huge crowds wearing blue that you see at Safeco when the Jays play the Mariners are not a coincidence. Toronto wanted to put a team in Vancouver to help grow the brand and it’s been wildly successful. To be honest, a farm team several time zones away is not what most teams would like, but it’s been a great partnership. Blue Jays prospects get a taste of living in Canada, with the different currency, TV channels, and cross-border travel. C’s fans get to make a connection with a team over half a continent away.

The C’s continue to break Northwest League attendance records year after year. They’ve always drawn well as a short-season team, even before they became a Jays affiliate. They’ve led the league in fans drawn for the past five years in a row. C’s fans come out to afternoon games, night games, and playoff games (which usually don’t draw that well in the minors). My wife and I always make a point of going to find the house her father grew up in when we visit Vancouver.  It’s about fifteen minutes from Nat Bailey Stadium.  When we last visited, a woman came out of the house, probably because she saw my wife taking photos with her phone.  When she told the woman why she was doing it, we were invited in for a tour, but we were told the tour would have to be short, because she and her family were going to a “nooner” – a C’s afternoon game.

The crowds are loud and boisterous at C’s games, and there is really no other atmosphere I can compare it to.

Of all the Blue Jays’ minor league affiliates, what stadium do you like catching a game at the most? Personally, I think Lansing’s Cooley Law is a good-looking park.

I do like Cooley.  It’s a park built with the baseball fan in mind.  When I watch a game there, I like to move around to get different perspectives on the game and the players, and there’s literally not a bad seat in the house. You can’t say that about the Rogers Centre. I like Coca-Cola Field in Buffalo as well, but I have to say The Nat is my favourite. It’s an old park, set in a beautiful Vancouver neighbourhood. The amenities are not state-of-the-art, and there are obstructed views in the grandstand behind home plate, but you feel like you’re taking in some baseball history when you sit there. To get to the press box, you have to go up some narrow concrete stairs, and walk across some carefully laid patio stones, but the view of the downtown and the mountains to the north is one of the best views of the city I’ve seen.

The Blue Jays used to have a minor league team in my hometown, St. Catharines. I used to go to a ton of games as a kid and, of course, try to flag down as many foul balls as possible. Jeff Kent was the biggest star that I saw play there. Did you ever check out any games in St. Catharines?

Unfortunately, I did not make it.  It’s a shame that the franchise could not find local ownership to continue. What I would really like to see is Ottawa get a AA franchise. They almost landed one several years ago, but it was an election year, and city council was not about to pay for upgrades to bring their ballpark to MiLB standards. When I mentioned this to Shapiro, he was only vaguely familiar with it, but he was quite interested. Even though they’re quite happy with their current Player Development Contract with New Hampshire, I think they’d jump at the chance to grow the brand some more with a team in the nation’s capital.

Unfortunately, with the reluctance of civic governments (understandably) to build ballparks in Canada, I doubt we’ll see minor league ball return to the country (beyond the C’s, of course).

Who was the biggest star that you’ve seen play in the minors?

No one who’s made a big impact at the major league level yet. I missed Floyd and White all those years ago, but the starter for Harrisburg that night was a skinny kid by the name of Miguel Batista. Bobby Higginson was in the Tigers’ lineup. I saw Daniel Norris make his AAA debut — I still can’t believe he hasn’t established himself as a big leaguer. I also saw Matt Dermody make his pro debut at Vancouver… as a starter. Anthony Alford at spring training at the minor league complex.  I went over to say hello to him after the game, and he was very accommodating. And, of course, I saw Vladdy Jr and Bo opening weekend in Lansing this past April, and Nate Pearson in Vancouver at the end of the summer.  

The Blue Jays will have some good pitching depth in Buffalo this year. Do you want to add to this thought?

The team has been re-stocking the farm system for several years now, and it’s starting to show. The Bisons could have Sean Reid-Foley, Ryan Borucki, Conner Greene, and Thomas Pannone fronting their rotation. Tim Mayza should be back in the bullpen — Carlos Ramirez should have every chance to earn a big league job. If they can get some of their minor league free agents like Chris Rowley and John Stilson back, they should have a deep staff.  

And since we’re on the topic of pitching, this year’s top 10 prospects for the 2018 MLB draft are made up of seven pitchers. Ethan Hankins, 6-6, 200lb, RHP, from Forsyth Central is the number 1 prospect, do you think the kid will opt out of the draft and play in college? From what I understand, he has a verbal commitment to Vanderbilt.

Barring an injury, Hankins will be turning pro. You just don’t turn down that kind of cash.  From what I saw of him in the U18s at Thunder Bay this fall, he’s either #1 or #2.  

It’s hard to measure young talent and no scout out there has a crystal ball when it comes to knowing if a kid is going to turn into an MLB star — if there is one first round Blue Jays draft pick that didn’t live up to the hype, who do you think it is? I mean, it’s easy to say Romero, but I feel like Deck McGuire, who was the 11th overall pick just might be.

The Blue Jays have had their share of first round flops, but so has everyone. Scouting has become a much more precise activity. With all the showcases kids play in these days, there are few secrets come draft day.  The Blue Jays followed Logan Warmoth for several years before taking him with their first pick last year — they weren’t tossing darts at a board. During the J.P Ricciardi years, financial constraints meant that signability was the most important quality in a top pick, which is why the Jays always (except for Travis Snider) took a college player with their first round pick.

Snider would be the one player who I had the most hope for, except they rushed him. He had flaws that needed ironing out at the minor league level, and he never got the chance to. Injuries may keep Max Pentecost from achieving his ceiling, too.

And, finally, a future prediction from Future Blue Jays — when will the Blue Jays win their 3rd World Series?

That’s a tough one. There are so many variables, and as much as we like to dream on Vladdy, Bo, and Big Nate, they are still years from reaching their peak. I think with the High Performance group the club has started, and the work they’re doing with video and analytics in the lower minors, Mark Shapiro is laying the groundwork for a team that will be competitive on an annual basis, but I think that won’t be the case until 2019 at the earliest, with 2020 a more realistic time frame. When you reach the point when your best players are in their prime, and your farm system is churning out talent on a regular basis, you can go out into the market an acquire the pieces you need. Shapiro himself told me, “There are no shortcuts,” when building a winner, and when you look at the teams that took part in the last two World Series, that’s definitely the case.

The only thing I’d like to add is that I’m very impressed with the Blue Jays front office. They stress make-up in their evaluation of players, and the execs I’ve dealt with are high character/integrity people as well. That starts with Shapiro, and works through Ross Atkins, Tinnish, Gil Kim, and Steve Sanders as well. They respond to requests in a reasonable time frame, and while they’re not going to give away anything proprietary in an interview, their answers are succinct, and they rarely sidestep a question. As a guy who’s followed this team since Day One, it’s nice to know that the team is run by quality people.  

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And that concludes the second edition of ‘Kind Of Blue Sessions’, who knows what baseball mind will get picked in the next interview, but I’m sure it will be someone who has typed many baseball things! And remember this: Don’t swing at pitches in the dirt, you’re better than that.

Happy Holidays ya filthy animals!

  • The Humungus

    Good read, Ryan.

    Also, you forgot about Carlos Delgado. He was a 17 year old catcher with the Baby Jays in 1989. I got his autograph at the Beaver Lumber one day (I, too, grew up in St. Catharines; still have two scars from trying to hop a fence at that stadium and getting puncture wounds from the top)

      • The Humungus

        You must’ve grown up there. No one who didn’t grow up in Merritton says “good ol’ Merritton”.

        Full disclosure, I’m a North End kid. Although I went to Collegiate because all the North End high schools sucked.

        • TheSpidersWhoAttackedGlenallenHill

          I am a North End kid as well! Vernon Wells played in St. Kitts as well (perhaps after they became the Stompers?). I saw him hit a homerun there!

          • The Humungus

            Vernon Wells and Michael Young became lifelong best friends in St. Catharines.

            Also, remember the summer of Shannon Stewart stealing all the fucking bases like he was Rickey Henderson?

  • Seguaro

    For any of you who don’t get the reference, please, please, please, do yourself a favour and check out Kind of Blue on Youtube. It is literally the definition of cool – and might just change your life going forward.

    • Teddy Ballgame

      Yup. Hell, you could say that about the majority of Miles’ career. And no apologies about calling out Stoeten and Ryan for messing up their references in the last piece – if you’re summoning up one of the most transformative artists of the past century, you bring your “A” game. And I’d feel the same way if DownBeat bungled a reference to Willie Mays.

    • Teddy Ballgame

      As for the piece itself…great stuff. Clutchlings is a great site. And like love minor league sports – I’ll take the OHL over the NHL any day for the fan experience. Whenever my friends and I do road trips to other major league parks, we always make sure to stop by a couple minor league parks. It’s bliss for a baseball fan. Hell, I even get a kick out of watching the Thunder Bay Border Cats…