And so it begins.

The month-long marathon known as the Minor League mid-season All-Star Game stretch … it started on Saturday in Viera, Florida, when the Advanced A Florida State League All-Stars squared off at Space Coast Stadium.

In my mind, it ends on July 16 when the Triple-A All-Star Game celebrates its 20th anniversary at Louisville Slugger Field. (Technically it doesn’t really end until August 19 which is the date of the third annual short-season New York-Penn League All-Star Game but … well … my blog, my rules).

In between, we have the South Atlantic League game in Greensboro tomorrow night (I tried to wangle a trip there but we’ve got a crackerjack associate right there in North Carolina so I can’t really argue that one), the Midwest League game the same night in Midland, Michigan (my colleague Jonathan Mayo is there watching the Home Run Derby even as I type this entry), the Carolina-California League game next Tuesday in Myrtle Beach (damn tooting I’ll be there, as Cal League notebook scribe AND Carolina League resident, no way I was missing THAT one) … plus the Double-A Texas League game one night later in Springfield, Mo.

Then after a brief hiatus, we have the All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, July 13 featuring the best of the best, the Double-A Southern League game the next night in Zebulon, North Carolina (have the barbecue!) and both the Double-A Eastern League game in Manchester, NH, and the Triple-A extravaganza on Wednesday, July 16.

That’s a lot of travel. A lot of packing and unpacking and packing again. A lot of crossed fingers that my luggage doesn’t get lost en route (like my colleague Kevin Czerwinski’s did on his way to the College World Series). A lot of trying to remember which city I’m in and which room number I have (I confess I have gone to the wrong room and tried that electronic key in the wrong door more than once. Luckily I have not yet been arrested by hotel security).

And, of course, an awful lot of fun. Watching a lot of baseball and getting to see a lot of guys I feel like I already know.

With the All-Star Games comes the scrambling for rosters, for stats, for tidbits. For the opportunity to try to know more about these guys we’ll be seeing than just their names, ranks, and OPS. And trying to keep track of the inevitable roster changes — promotions, injuries, covert decisions by organizations that certain prospects would be better served by getting those few days off.

And of course the even more inevitable debates about deserving guys who were left off of the rosters. I know you can’t bring everyone. And with the Carolina-California League tilt in particular, with one team having to fly everyone across the country, they keep the rosters a little smaller (22 players per team I believe). And it’s not even like there is anyone on the team who doesn’t deserve to be there. But honestly, how could High Desert (Seattle) outfielder Gregory Halman not make this team? All he was doing was leading the league in homers with 19 and hitting a perfectly respectable .268 wth 53 RBIs and 23 steals. Oh well, the fact that he was just promoted to Double-A West Tenn probably took some of the sting away for the 20-year-old Dutch native.

But what about Lancaster outfielder Josh Reddick? His team, the Red Sox affiliate in the Cal League, was the first in the loop to clinch a playoff spot and he was hitting .332 with 12 home runs and 41 RBIs. Or Bakersfield (Texas) outfielder Julio Borbon and his .319 average and 33 steals?

I am sure there are plenty of fans and friends out there who have non-All-Stars they’d like to give some love to … please feel free to post those paeans here in the comments section!

In the meantime, I’ll just wax a little rhapsodic about my trip to Florida this past weekend for the FSL event …

You could pretty much tell who was going to win the Home Run Derby by the time Vero Beach Devil Rays DH J.T. Hall had taken his second or third swing. This guy didn’t just hit home runs. He blasted tape measure shots that you could actually hear across the park. His first home drew a chorus of impressed “oooooooooooohs” from the not-easily-impressed players gathered on the sidelines for the event.

Lil JT Hall and the West players watch another ball sail out of the park in the FSL HRD.jpgI knew Hall had some family in town from seeing several folks at the previous evening’s gala with the name “Hall” on their nametags but thought it was pretty cool to find out he actually had EIGHT relatives who had made the trip to Florida from Mississippi to see him in his first-ever All-Star Game in five pro seasons.

His biggest competition came from the hometown favorite, scrappy Brevard County infielder Taylor Green. The Brewers’ 2007 Minor League Player of the Year stands just 5-foot-10 but he was matching Hall homer for homer, and the final tally came down to just a one-bomb advantage for Hall. And although the event was sponsored by a local Toyota truck dealer, Hall sadly did not win a vehicle but rather some nice swag (you know, T-shirts, caps, etc.).

Lil Even his cup of water couldn't cool off JT Hall in the FSL HRD.jpg

Maybe the best news was that my season-long weather curse has ended, for the time being. No freezing cold, no soaking rain, no Arizona hail. I mean, sure it was hot but it was Florida in June, what do you expect? Luckily there was an endless supply of nice cold water in the dugout to keep Hall cool between rounds.

We had blue skies and a light breeze to keep it comfortable there in Viera. In short, a perfect evening for an All-Star baseball game.

I also got to see one of the most memorable people I have ever met in my years covering this game, legendary Brevard County groundskeeper Ice, who is undoubtedly the best (perhaps the only, but I have no idea) freestyle rapping groundskeeper. He’s been breaking out his rhymes since at least the 1996 season at Space Coast Stadium and I swear he does not look a day older than he did when I met him back then. Sadly I don’t have a picture of him to include here but somewhere in the archives of the early days of the Fox News Channel is some footage of his rapping taken during spring training of 1997, right before I quit my weekend gig there (don’t ask, but Bert Sugar still owes me $100 for my predicting that the Marlins would win the World Series that year).

Lil Vero Beach's Squeeze, Clearwater's Phinley and BCo's Manny.jpgAnd of course what All-Star Game — or any game — would be complete without some mascots on hand? Hometown fuzzy Manny the Manatee (that’s him on the right) welcomed two of his anthromorphosized buddies in Squeeze the Grapefruit from Vero Beach (on the left) and Phinley the Shark (in the middle, duh) who swam across the state from Clearwater, home of the Phillies’ Threshers.

Oh, right, the West won, 9-3. But when all is said and done, that’s usually the last thing anyone remembers.

But one of my favorite parts of the weekend actually came on the way home when I grabbed a late lunch at a restaurant at Orlando Airport. The waitress there actually carded me. I know that it’s probably in her job description “card everyone who looks under the age of 75 in Florida.” Either that or she’s learned that when you card someone who clearly has not been carded in at least 20 years, odds are you will make her so happy she will give you a 50 percent tip. But it was a great way to leave the Magic Kingdom on a high note.

Next stop, Myrtle Beach … (note to waitress there: card me and I’ll tip well).




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