I remember sitting on my balcony last summer listening to baseball. I had my screen door open and the game turned up, so that I could hear it outside.
It was a warm July evening. I imagined each pitch as it was told. I visualized each swing of the bat. And each play. Jesse Goldberg-Strassler, the voice of the Lansing Lugnuts, painted the picture for me, as I took in the summer air on that specific night.
I remember staring out at Toronto and at the black and white ‘tabletop’ structure that stands above OCAD’s main campus off in the distance. The blue sky started to absorb cotton candy colours, as the sun started to set.
The summer city hummed. Streetcars dinged. Cars honked. People shouted. But there was a gentle calm in the air, as I sat there listening to baseball.
I will never forget that night, specifically when Jesse began telling a story about the man responsible for the Oakland Athletics logo – the legendary John McGraw.
It cancelled out the city noise.
Jesse explained that McGraw was the New York Giants Manager back in the early 1900s. The Giants skip wasn’t a big fan of Connie Mack and his Philadelphia Athletics, so he referred to them as ‘The White Elephants.’
Connie Mack, who wasn’t about to open his finest bottle of whiskey with McGraw, decided to adopt the White Elephant as the team insignia – a middle finger gesture.
A cool piece of baseball history.
But before Jesse was sharing interesting stories in Lansing, he had to work his way to Michigan’s capital through the Can-Am, Southern, and Frontier Leagues. And now the voice of the Lugnuts is in his eleventh season with the team, as he has been calling games since 2009.
Now, before all the stories are told and the first pitch is tossed, a typical home game for Jesse involves heading into the office around 11 in the morning. He then has to work on stat-packets for the coaching staff, media, and fans. After that, he gets the starting lineups and assists the marketing department in whatever is needed that day.
There’s a lot of hustle before he goes live.
He told me that he likes to drop by English class to see how the players are doing. He then makes sure to spend some time working on game notes, which are often handled by his partner, Adam Jaksa. He then makes any necessary roster changes and handles pregame media requests. And then checks in with the team and coaching staff and watches pre-game work.
But that’s not all, after that he makes sure to pick up the starting lineup from the visiting team and print out full lineups for distribution, which he then writes on the white board in the press box.
I imagine he has written down the names of baseball’s best.
He records a pre-game 45-second sponsored segment for use in-stadium, conducts a pre-game interview after batting practice, co-hosts the in-stadium video board pre-game show that Adam has created and introduced this year, handles any last-minute media requests, calls the game while posting on social media throughout, writes up the post-game recap and posts on the website and social media, changes the team’s automatic phone line, and then goes home.
A day in the life.
I had the chance to catch up with Jesse during this hectic time of the year for him and talk about the Lansing Lugnuts. He is always very generous with the free time that he has. And we are very thankful that he continues to make time for us. So, here’s a tip of the cap to you, Jesse. Thanks for always doing these. Now, let’s have some fun and talk all things ‘Nuts…
I have to start with this question Jesse: Did you expect the Lugnuts offence to be as explosive as it has been this season?
In discussing the team with members of the coaching staff before the season began, I kept hearing the notion that the pitchers were going to carry us. But then I’d look at the roster and see a first-rounder (Groshans), a second-rounder (Danner), speed (Pruitt, Abbadessa, Lopez), big-time college guys (Podkul, Brodt, Aiello), and a hitting machine (Kirk), and I’d think, they should be able to score at least a FEW runs, right? And sure enough, they’ve crushed it.
Alejandro Kirk is one of my favourite large adult sons. I didn’t expect him to get promoted so quickly. I feel like if he doesn’t become an impact MLB catcher in the future, the baseball universe is a cruel and dark place.
Kirk was promoted with the dominos falling from Riley Adams’s promotion. I’m happy for him – he was off to a terrific start in Lansing. I’ll be watching his performances in Dunedin with great interest.
I think he ran the bags like a wild beast and hit baseballs like one, too.
I do not think he ran the bags like a wild beast, haha. But his base running was very much a top story.
What was your favourite Kirk moment in the short time he spent with Lansing?
His first hit of the season was an infield single to third. A day later, he stole home on the back end of a double steal. There was the time he crushed a ball to the left-center wall, rounded first, saw that the relay had already arrived at second, retreated, watched the ball get thrown away, put on the breaks and started again toward second, only to change his mind again as the ball was recovered sooner than he was expecting, and scrambled back to first – that was fun, watching him reverse course several different times in short order, only for it to become a routine single. And most recently, there was his triple to right, with Kirk rumbling around the bases. He was can’t-miss stuff.
I saw that steal of home and I’ve enjoyed watching all of his rumbles around the bags. How about we jump into some first-round talk because Jordan Groshans is making some serious noise in the Midwest League. Those hands are lightning fast. What do you think of this future Jay?
I think the man has an outstanding offensive approach, particularly considering his age. I like, too, that his home runs are a line drive to right and a towering fly to left. He’s really good, and his ceiling is high.
I like that you mention his hands, too. He has amazing bat speed, but it’s the sort where everything slows down as the pitch comes in and it simply looks easy. Eloy Jimenez looked the same way.
Eloy Jimenez comp?
I wouldn’t put too much stake in my comps, haha. But his power and ability to use the whole field are no joke. The other thing that’s fun about him at the plate: he’s highly balanced and comfortable. It’s a mature approach.
When do you think he will get called to Dunedin?
For Lansing fans, I hope it’s 2020. For Blue Jays fans, if he keeps performing well, let’s say July.
A prospect that I hope breaks out this season is outfielder DJ Neal.
It’s early, but if he keeps going like this, DJ Neal is this year’s Chavez Young: a toolsy, raw outfielder with speed, a bat, and pop who is blossoming before our eyes. He has some great raw power, too. The tools are there, and he looks like he’s taking hold of them. He’s been fun to watch.
With Kirk’s promotion, Hagen Danner should be seeing a lot more playing time behind the plate. I can’t ever really think of a time the Jays had so much catching depth in the system from Jansen to McGuire to Adams to Kirk and even Danner. What do you expect from the second-round pick out of college?
I expect him to get better and better as the year goes on. He’s a longer-term prospect, especially because the catching position is so difficult and demanding. But I think that with patience, he could surprise. Let me add that you left out Gabriel Moreno, who is supposed to be special in his own right and will likely be the no. 1 catcher in Vancouver.
Since we’re talking about catching, maybe we should dive into a little pitching. Josh Winckowski is in Lansing and some might say that he is slightly under-the-radar or ‘lost in the shadows’ casted by pitchers like Nate Pearson and Eric Pardinho. What has impressed you about Winckowski?
I like that Winckowski is below the radar — I like when any prospect is below the radar, because it means the external pressure is off and the guy gets to put himself on the map if he continues to excel down the road; really, if a prospect hasn’t reached Double-A, he’s still a year or two away from the Majors, and Double-A and Triple-A are going to prove big time tests. But Winckowski was awesome last year in Vancouver and we’re seeing more of the same this year. He’s a groundball/strikeout guy with a terrific natural sinker complemented by a slider and a change. He’s also worked hard on in improving his in-game mentality, and that’s showed. He clearly has been the ace of the staff.
How would you rate his secondary filth?
I need to see more of his changeup because his slider comes to mind first. As far as I’ve seen however, so far, so good. I really like the way he tucks his slider across the corners.
There’s one arm in the ‘pen, who wasn’t even drafted, that has been quietly terrific.
That would be Jackson Rees, our relief cheat code. He hides the ball well, he changes speeds, works the corners, has multiple breaking pitches, and pitches smartly. The biggest thing is that I just don’t think Midwest League batters are picking up the ball out of his hand, which leaves them feeling silly. If he gives up even a single now, I’m surprised.
Could you give Jays fans, who are planning a trip to watch the Lugnuts in Michigan’s capital this summer, some advice about what to do outside of Cooley Law?
Eat at Soup Spoon Cafe, Nola Bistro, and Golden Harvest. Visit Old Town Lansing. Go for hikes at Fenner and Woldumar Nature Center. Check out the Saper Gallery or Broad Art Museum. And most definitely seek me out and say hi.
Jesse is going to continue to share stories and call games in the booth at Cooley Law, as there is plenty of baseball to be played this spring and summer. He is going to do the same while the team is on the road, too. He has seen plenty of stars set foot in Lansing. He has written their names on the white board in the press box. He has checked in on them in English class. He has watched them in the cage and running drills. And this season will be no different. Make sure to tune in. You never know what you might learn.