September 2009

Coast to Coast: A Surge in Space Coast Baseball

You probably know that baseball is played during the winter in Latin and South America. Fall and winter leagues have been tried over the years in Hawaii, California and Maryland, but none lasted long because Major League Baseball wouldn’t provide funding.

No problem, say the people with the Florida Winter Baseball League.

The FWBL will begin play October 30 in four Florida cities. Each team will play a 60-game schedule.

I recorded an interview today with Sean Boudreaux, general manager of the Space Coast Surge, which will play out of historic Cocoa Expo Stadium. Click Here to watch the video interview. You need Windows Media Player and a broadband (cable modem, DSL) Internet connection to watch.

Most of the players will probably be from the independent leagues, although a number of major league organizations have said they’ll consider sending players from their lower minor leagues. Apparently the Angels are not one of those teams, although I wouldn’t be surprised if former Angels minor leaguers from Florida who were released surface in the league.

For history buffs, Cocoa Expo Stadium was the spring training home for the Houston Astros until the early 1980s, then the Marlins in 1993 in their inaugural year.

Nick Adenhart Part of Angels’ Title Celebration

The Angels won the AL West last night, and Nick Adenhart was part of the celebration.

Click Here to go to the MLB.com article about what happened after the game. Grab a tissue and click on the image to start the video stream.

Other articles about Nick:

Los Angeles Times 

Orange County Register 

Riverside Press-Enterprise 

The Statesville Owls Meet the Tempe Angels


Seven Angels minor leaguers from 1961 reunited September 25 at Tempe Diablo. Left to right — Alan Flitcraft, Dick Simpson, Dan Ardell, Walter Darton, Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, and Dave Best. Bobby Lucas arrived shortly after the photo was taken.

 

Forty-eight years after their 1961 season ended with a playoff loss to rival Lexington, the Statesville Owls reunited Friday on a field in Tempe, Arizona.

To give you an idea of the scale of this accomplishment, if Tom Kotchman’s 2009 Pioneer League champion Orem Owlz were to hold a reunion forty-eight years later, it would be in the year 2057.

This project began nearly three years ago, when I began to dig into the Angels’ minor league history.

Gene Autry and his co-investors were awarded the Los Angeles expansion franchise at the winter baseball meetings on December 6, 1960. Their first major league game would be April 11, 1961. They had until then to assemble a major league roster.

General Manager Fred Haney, a former Milwaukee Braves manager, was hired on December 8 as the team’s first GM. Former Giants skipper Bill Rigney was hired on December 12 to manage. The first expansion draft was held on December 14, with the Angels selecting 28 players.

But a major league organization is more than a big-league team. It’s also a farm system and scouting department.

In early January, Roland Hemond was hired from the Braves to become the Angels’ first farm director and also the scouting director. He’d been a Fred Haney protégé in Milwaukee.


Angels minor league pitching coordinator Kernan Ronan reunites with his college coach, Alan Flitcraft. Alan threw a no-hitter for Statesville in his final start of the 1961 season.

 

Hemond had only three months to create affiliations with minor league teams, which operated much more independently than they do now. They could sign their own players and affiliate with more than one organization.

But he also needed players to send to those teams. A few came out of the draft, names that would one day become familiar to Angels fans — Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Bob Rodgers and Fred Newman.

Hemond signed agreements with two teams. The Dallas-Ft. Worth Rangers were a Triple-A team in the American Association. They also had an affiliation with the Philadelphia Phillies.

Younger players needed to go elsewhere, to a lower level where more time could be spent on development. The only place he could find was Statesville, North Carolina in the Western Carolina League. The league, once defunct, had been resurrected as part of Branch Rickey’s plan to create the Continental League, a third major league. But when Rickey’s principals jumped ship after being tempted by potential ownership of new franchises in the existing leagues, the WCL was left to its own fate.

The Statesville Owls were one of six teams in the league in 1961. The field with wooden stands and bleachers was part of the local high school. The infield was all dirt. A player’s clubhouse locker was a nail on the wall. And discrimination against African-Americans was rampant as the civil rights era dawned.

Hemond looked elsewhere but had no choice. The Angels affiliated with Statesville.

In mid-April, Hemond sent a group now known as the “first four” to Statesville. Jack Hiatt, Dick Simpson, Glade Cookus and George Conrad flew out of Los Angeles to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Charlotte, and took a bus from Charlotte to Statesville.

Hungry from their long trek, the four stopped in the first diner they saw. A cook approached them with a meat cleaver, pointed at Simpson who is black, and said, “You boys will have to leave, we don’t serve their kind here.”

And so it began.


Dick Simpson, Ed Thomas and Walter Darton watch the Tempe Angels go through a drill.

 

More would find their way from California to Statesville, but the Angels also signed players from other states, and one from Quebec. Many of the Owls were local players signed independently, technically not Angels employees but teammates nonetheless. They would establish a bond that lasted not just through the end of the 1961 season, but continued for the next couple years as some of them progressed through the organization. A few — Simpson, Hiatt and Dick Wantz — eventually made it to the big leagues. The rest eventually returned to a normal life, never to see their teammates again.

Or so they thought.

It began when I found Bill Moose, a local historian and college teacher who also wrote columns for the Statesville Record and Landmark. Moose went through the newspaper archives and sent me seven pages of notes, information culled 1961 articles about the Owls.

Two years of research, phone calls, letters and Google searches tracked down twelve surviving Statesville Owls. Glade Cookus, one of the “first four,” passed away in December 2008. We found that George Conrad, another one of the “first four,” had passed away in 1998 in Washington state.

The rest agreed to attend a reunion, as did Roland Hemond, who lives in Phoenix. Hemond went on to become general manager of the White Sox and Orioles, and came up with the idea for the Arizona Fall League. He currently works as a special assistant to the president of the Arizona Diamondbacks.

We also included Dan Ardell, who didn’t play at Statesville because there was no room on the roster. The Angels loaned him out to a Dodgers affiliate in Artesia, New Mexico. In 1962, he would join many of the Owls alumni on the San Jose Bees roster, where they won the California League pennant.

Four surviving members — Jack Hiatt, George Bryson, Paul Mosley and Vito Porta — wanted to attend but various personal matters kept them from the event.


Minor league pitching coaches Brandon Emanuel and Trevor Wilson meet Dick Simpson, who hit 42 homers for San Jose in 1962.

 

We chose to have the reunion in Phoenix for several reasons. One reason was that it was a major airline hub, and that Californians could drive there in a few hours if they preferred not to fly. Roland lives here. But the main reason was to give the Statesville alumni an opportunity to reconnect to their Angels roots, spending a day at the Angels’ Tempe Diablo minor league complex where fall instructional league would be held.

And so it was that on Friday, September 25, 2009, eight men gathered together for the first time since 1961 to don Angels caps and step on an Angels field.

At 10 AM, the instruction stopped so the alumni could be introduced to those who laid the foundation for Angels minor league baseball. They received applause from the players and coaches. At 1 PM, after instructions ended, they gathered to speak to the players about their experiences and remind them this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play professional baseball.

At 6 PM that night, they met with Roland who joined us at an informal dinner held in a local hotel. Lots of memories, of course, but also a lot of talk about issues facing the game today. Roland and Bobby Lucas talked about an idea to encourage more African-Americans to play baseball. Bobby is the brother-in-law of Hank Aaron and once scouted for the Braves; he’s now the head coach at Florida A&M.

On Saturday, most of the players had to leave for home, but a few remained behind to accept Roland’s offer to attend a Diamondbacks game at Chase Field. They were given a tour of the executive suites, then sat with Roland in field level seats behind the visitors dugout. In the fourth inning, they were shown on the video board and introduced as the 1961 Statesville Owls — but got booed a little for wearing Angels caps!

Everyone had gone home by Sunday, but it was made clear to me that I have a mission — to expand this reunion and add more players from the early 1960s for next year.

Below are photos from the various events, as well as links to audio interviews recorded earlier with some of the attendees. Windows Media Player is required to listen to the interviews. Video clips will be online in a couple days.

August 31, 2005 interview with Dan Ardell.

April 30, 2007 interview with Paul Mosley.

June 30, 2007 interview with Roland Hemond.

December 12, 2007 interview with Jack Hiatt.


Former Angels infielder Bobby Knoop (right) stopped by Tempe Diablo to visit his old friend, Ed Thomas.

 


Ed Thomas and Dave Best discuss instructional league training with Quakes manager Keith Johnson.

 


Left to right — Dick Simpson, Dan Ardell and Walt Darton.

 


The alumni roundtable at the reunion dinner. (That’s my wife in the background.)

 


Walt Darton and Bobby Lucas.

 


At the Diamondbacks game — my wife Carol, Ed Thomas, Jerry Fox, Roland Hemond and Dave Best.

 

The Return of the Statesville Owls


The 1961 Statesville Owls were one of only two minor league affiliates the Angels had in their first season.

 

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know I’ve written about my research into the early years of the Angels’ minor leagues, specifically the Statesville Owls. Statesville was a Class D team in the Western Carolina League. The team could sign and trade its own players, while receiving a handful of players from the Angels.

One project has been to organize a reunion. It’s been in the talking stages for a couple years, but as the adage goes, if you want something done right, do it yourself, which I did.

This week, in Tempe, the Statesville Owls reunite 48 years after their 1961 season ended.

Confirmed attendees are former major leaguers Jack Hiatt and Dick Simpson, along with Dave Best, George Bryson, Walter Darton, Alan Flitcraft and Bob Lucas. Ed Thomas and Jerry Fox, two independent players who still live in Statesville, will also attend. Also joining us will be Dan Ardell, signed in 1961 but sent to a Dodgers’ Class C team in Artesia, New Mexico. Dan played with most of them in 1962 at San Jose.

Roland Hemond, the Angels’ original farm and scouting director, is now an executive with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He’ll be joining us too. He signed most of these guys.

The reunion dates are September 24-26. Some are driving, some are flying. Some will only join us for a day, others for more than one. The reunion dinner will be Friday night September 25 at a nearby hotel.

The morning of September 25, I’ll take them over to the Angels’ minor league complex at Tempe Diablo where the Angels are currently holding fall instructional league. No games are scheduled, just instruction and workouts, but I think that’s actually more interesting as they’ll get to see how teaching the game has evolved since they played. I’m sure there will be some interaction between the original Future Angels and today’s Future Angels.

I’m truly humbled that these players have bought into the idea of a reunion, some of them with only two weeks notice. Most of them left behind baseball long ago for other lives. It shows that the baseball flame still burns inside them, no matter how much they tried to extinguish it and move on to other lives.

In a few days, ten aged men in their late 60s will be twenty years old again. If you’re looking for the Fountain of Youth, look no further than the National Pastime.

I’ll be shooting photos and video, of course, along with whatever I can do at the instructs as time permits.

Owlz Capture the Flag


Owlz manager Tom Kotchman won his fourth pennant in six years Saturday when his team beat Missoula 13-10.

 

Is there a better manager in minor league baseball than Tom Kotchman?

Kotch has taken the Provo/Orem franchise to the post-season every year since it relocated to Utah County from Helena, Montana in 2001. He won a pennant at Provo in 2004, then the franchise moved six miles west to Orem where he won pennants in 2005 and 2007.

Now add 2009 to the list.

The odds were against them, but the Owlz won 13-10 last night at Missoula to win their fourth pennant in six years.

Although they had the best overall record in the league at 51-25 (.671), they lost Game #1 at home in their best-of-three series against the Osprey. That meant they had to win Games #2 and #3 on the road at Missoula.

The Owlz won Game #2 Friday 10-0 on a complete game shutout by Stephen Locke to force Game #3, winner take all.

Orem got out to a 3-0 lead in the top of the 1st thanks to a three-run homer by Casey Haerther, but the Osprey answered with three in the bottom of the first off Orangel Arenas. The Owlz added single runs in the 3rd and 4th, then posted six runs in the 5th for what seemed like a safe 11-3 lead.

Going to the bottom of the 9th, the Osprey trailed 13-4, but started to chip away against the Owlz’ bullpen, their weak spot most of the year. By the time David Carpenter struck out Jae Yun Kim to end the game, Missoula had whittled down the deficit to 13-10.

Kotch is quite happy with his dual life as a Florida scout and short-season manager, but I often wonder what would happen if he was handed the opportunity to run a big league club the way he wants, similar to Mike Scioscia’s arrangement in Anaheim.

The Owlz’ webcast failed early in the game, apparently due to the loss of an Internet connection in the Missoula broadcast booth, but I did capture Missoula’s webcast. Click Here to listen to the Osprey webcast of the Owlz’ pennant victory. (WIndows Media Player required.)


UPDATE September 22, 2009 — The Owlz’ front office informed me they didn’t lose their signal during the game, so why it didn’t work here in Florida is beyond me. Anyway, all their post-season games are archived at audio.oremowlz.com.

The Playoff Picture


Carlos Ramirez was 5 for 5 with two homers and two doubles, as the Orem Owlz won Friday 10-0 at Missoula.

 

After losing Game #1 Thursday at home to the Osprey, the Owlz got on the bus for the 550-mile ride for Missoula, facing the unlikely task of winning Games #2 and #3 on the Osprey’s home turf to take the Pioneer League pennant.

But after last night’s 10-0 rout, the Owlz have given themselves a fighting chance to capture the flag.

Stephen Locke pitched a complete game shutout, allowing only four hits while striking out five and walking one.

The Owlz hit six homers, a Pioneer League playoff record for one game. Eleven of their fifteen hits were extra base hits.

Catcher Carlos Ramirez was 5 for 5 with two homers, two doubles and a single.

Kevin Ramos, Justin Bass, Casey Haerther and Michael Wing also homered.

So it’s winner take all tonight at Missoula.

Orangel Arenas starts for the Owlz. During the regular season, he was 4-3 with a 4.65 ERA in 69 2/3 innings. In his last three starts, he gave up 11 earned runs in 11 innings. His last start was on September 10. Missoula starts Charles Brewer, 7-2 with a 2.47 ERA in 54 2/3 innings. He was selected by the Angels in the 18th round of the June 2006 draft, but he didn’t sign. The Brewers got him this year in the 12th round out of UCLA after his junior year.

Last year, Great Falls won on the Owlz’ home field. Hopefully the Owlz will balance out the karma tonight.

The Playoff Picture

The Quakes were eliminated from the playoffs last night after losing 11-6 at High Desert. Rancho Cucamonga went much further than anyone reasonably expected. They upset the Lake Elsinore Storm in their wild-card series, then took the Mavericks to five games. Not bad for a team that finished 61-79 and lost power-hitter Matt Sweeney to the Tampa Bay Rays in the Scott Kazmir trade.

The Owlz suffered a surprising 7-6 loss at home to Missoula, to fall behind 1-0 in their best-of-three pennant series. The bullpen blew a 5-1 lead by giving up three runs in the 8th and three runs in the 9th, including a three-run homer in the 9th to Osprey right fielder Bobby Stone off David Carpenter.

Both teams are off today for the long bus trip to Missoula. Games #2 and (if necessary) #3 are Friday and Saturday. I haven’t done the research, but anecdotally I know it’s very hard for a team to lose its home game #1 in these best-of-three series to sweep #2 and #3 on the road. That’s what faces the Owlz.

The Playoff Picture


Ryan Brasier pitched eight shutout innings Tuesday as the Quakes won 2-1 over High Desert. Brasier struck out seven, walked one, and gave up just three hits.

 

Still alive!

Ryan Brasier pitched what might be the game of his life to lead the Quakes to a 2-1 win over High Desert. The win evened their best-of-five series 2-2, with the deciding game tonight in Adelanto.

A sixth-round pick out of Weatherford (TX) Junior College in the June 2007 draft, Brasier was a reliever his entire professional career until June 30, when he was moved into the Quakes’ starting rotation. Ryan’s numbers with Rancho this year have been unimpressive — 5.23 ERA overall, 4.45 as a reliever, 5.56 as a starter — but his performance last night was as improbable as the Quakes’ survival in the post-season. Brasier pitched eight shutout innings, struck out seven, walked one and gave up just three hits.

The Mavericks were 83-57 overall in 2009. They won both halves of the California League’s South Division season. The Quakes were 61-79. Rancho shouldn’t have got this far, but they upset Lake Elsinore (73-67) in their best-of-three playoff series, and now they stand one game away from the pennant series. In the north, Bakersfield (75-65) is at San Jose (93-47) for Game #5 tonight.

Manuel Flores is the announced starter for the Quakes. He spent most of 2009 with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, where he was 7-4 with a 3.59 ERA in 120.1 innings. In six starts with Rancho, he was 2-3 with a 4.32 ERA in 33.1 IP. He’ll face Donnie Hume, 17-5 with a 4.81 ERA in 151.2 IP for the Mavericks.

Winner take all.

Let’s not overlook the Orem Owlz. They begin their best-of-three series tonight against the Missoula Osprey for the Pioneer League pennant. Pat Corbin is the announced starter for the Owlz, according to OremOwlz.com. Game #1 is tonight in Orem, then the teams are off Thursday to bus to Missoula for Game #2 and (if necessary) #3.

The Playoff Picture

Down 2-0 in their best-of-five series with High Desert, and down 6-2 at the stretch half of the 7th inning in Game #3, the Quakes posted a run in the bottom frame thanks to Alberto Rosario’s solo homer, then three runs to tie in the bottom of the 9th, and finally scored in the bottom of the 10th to win 7-6. Game #4 is tonight at Rancho Cucamonga; Ryan Brasier is the scheduled starter.

Will Smith was a big-game pitcher in 2008 with the Orem Owlz, and he delivered a big-game performance last night for the Cedar Rapids Kernels, but it wasn’t enough as the Burlington Bees won 2-1 to eliminate the Men of Corn. Will gave up a broken-bat single in the 1st followed by a two-run homer off his changeup, then settled down to allow no more runs through the 8th when he exited the game. He struck out nine, walked five, and allowed only three hits — just one after the 1st-inning dinger.

The Orem Owlz are off until Wednesday, when they host Game #1 of the Pioneer League best-of-three pennant series at Orem. They’ll face the Missoula Osprey, a Diamondbacks affiliate. Missoula’s overall record was 40-36. Because of the short series, only one game is in Orem, then Games #2 and (if necessary) #3 are in Missoula. The divisions alternate by year who gets the home field advantage, and in 2009 it’s the North Division’s turn, so whomever wins the series celebrates in Missoula. The Owlz were 7-0 this year against Missoula, but that means nothing in the post-season.

The Playoff Picture

The Orem Owlz won 7-4 at Ogden Sunday to win the Pioneer League South Division series 2-0. They await the winner of the Great Falls-Missoula series. The Pioneer League alternates which division gets the home field advantage. This year it’s the North Division, so Orem hosts Game #1 before going on the road up north for Games #2 and (if necessary) #3.

The Kernels won 4-1 over Burlington to tie their best-of-three series 1-1. The Game #3 finale is tonight at Cedar Rapids. Iowans, turn out and support your team! The winner goes on to face the winner of the Great Lakes-Fort Wayne series, Dodgers and Padres affiliates.

The Quakes were shut out for the second straight night, 4-0 at High Desert. They trail their best-of-five series 2-0. Game #3 is tonight at Rancho Cucamonga. If the Quakes survive, Game #4 is at Rancho and Game #5 in High Desert. Quakes fans, turn out tonight!

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