It was obvious my so-called knowledge of pop culture had gaping holes.
Standing on the field in Huntsville, Ala., in the summer of 2007, I was set to interview Tampa Bay Rays shortstop phenom prospect Reid Brignac. We were adjusting his mic and checking levels when he said to me “I don’t know what to do with my hands.”
“Well, don’t worry about them,” I assured the then-21-year-old. “We’ll pretty much just focus on a closeup of your face anyway.”
Everyone cracked up. I was oblivious.
Hey, dude, I am just not a Will Ferrell fan, what can I tell you? It was weeks, maybe months, before I finally saw the clip from the movie “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” and understood what Brignac was referencing.
The next time I saw him, I think it was in the Arizona Fall League, I admitted that I FINALLY “got it.” Duh.
So last month, Brignac was one of a handful of elite prospects on hand for the annual Rookie Career Development Program hosted jointly by Major League Baseball and the Players’ Association.
Among the many worthwhile programs they offer is an in-depth look at how to work with the media. And of course, among the clips they showed, was that clip from the film.
Needless to say, Brignac needled me about it over lunch. And I totally deserved it.
But I can also add that it’s been a lot of fun to watch how Brignac has gone from the unbelievably shy, sweet kid I first met during 2007 spring training, who probably DIDN’T know what to do with his hands, to one of the most engaging guys around.
This past season had its highs and lows, as he made his big league debut on July 4, but missed the last month of the season, including playoffs with both his Triple-A Durham Bulls and the Rays, after having his wrist broken when he was hit by a pitch in early August.
The Louisiana native, the Rays’ second-round pick in 2004 out of high school, spent a few days with the big club before returning to Durham, where he finished with a .250 average with nine homers and 43 RBIs in 97 games.
Brignac still projects prominently in the Rays’ plans. In 2006 he won California League MVP honors after hitting .326 with 21 homers and 83 RBIs at Advanced A Visalia, going on to hit .260 with 17 homers, 81 RBIs and 15 steals at Double-A Montgomery in 2007, helping lead that team to the Southern League championship at just 21 years old.
Now, with 2009 on the horizon, things are looking markedly better for Brignac who, now healthy, is already down in Florida working out with his teammates at Tropicana Field in anticipation of the move down the Gulf Coast to the new spring training digs in Port Charlotte.
“It’s part of the game, and it might not have been my time,” he said. “But we’ve got a new year now and I’m really looking forward to competing for a job.”
GOTMILB: Of what accomplishment, on or off the field, in your life are you the proudest?
RB: I’ve always been baseball, baseball, baseball. I’ve always wanted to make it to the major leagues. That was always my dream. So right now I’d have to say that was the biggest accomplishment for me personally. As far as teams go, we’ve won a couple of Double-A championships (with Montgomery) and that was exciting, celebrating and having a good time with my teammates, but I also won a state championship in high school with over half a team I’d known and played with my whole life.
GOTMILB: What do you think you’d be doing now if you weren’t playing baseball?
RB: I’d probably be coaching baseball. I like to help young kids get better at the game and I think I’ll always be teaching the game when I’m done with my career. I’ve learned so much through great coaches that I’d like to pass on what I’ve learned.
GOTMILB: What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
RB: I was a stock boy at a grocery store working in the cooler where it was freezing cold, stocking beer and drinks. But an even worse job was being an umpire when I was 13 or 14, with kids who were 9 and 10. I could tell right away it wasn’t for me. I respect umpires and it’s not an easy job. It’s a reaction and once you make a call you have to stand by it, right or wrong.
GOTMILB: Who was your childhood crush?
RB: I grew up with three beautiful neighbors as a child. The oldest was named Paisley Broussard and I had the biggest crush on her. My parents would always say ‘Whenever Paisley walks into the room, Reid gets SO RED.” Now she’s married and about to have a child.
GOTMILB: If you could trade places with one person for a day who would it be and why?
RB: It would have to be something fun and exciting if it’s only for one day. Being LeBron James would be a great day.
GOTMILB: Which aspect of life in the minors do you find to be the biggest challenge and why?
RB: That first full season was an eye-opener for me, being the first time I’ve ever had to play that many games and run out there every day. In high school you play 50 games max. I learned, going into the next off-season, how to better prepare myself for what I was going to go through. No one in my family, none of my friends, had ever been drafted so it was all new to me. And after that first full season I learned how to take care of my body, when to go out and when to stay home, certain things you learn as you get older.
GOTMILB: Who is the most unusual character you’ve met in your pro baseball career?
RB: (Rays outfielder) Fernando Perez, who is one of my best friends. He’s such an intelligent person who could do anything he wants in life, he doesn’t have to play baseball to be successful. I admire him for all the things he’s accomplished in his life. There’s nobody like Fernando and nobody will ever be like him.
GOTMILB: What is the best minor league promotion or visiting act you’ve seen?
RB: Myron Noodleman is my favorite. One of the first games my mom and dad came to watch me play was in Charleston, SC and he was the act for the night. We’d never seen him and we just loved him. He was hilarious and got the crowd really involved.
So I’m sitting here in a hotel room on Cape Cod, enjoying a very brief vacation of sorts after one of the most grueling months of my life, and doing a little happy dance around the room after watching the amazing Fernando Perez, “Mr. Excitement,” hit his third big league homer to give the Rays a 6-0 lead over the Minnesota Twins and move that much closer to clinching a spot in the playoffs.
I know as a baseball writer I am not allowed … or at least not SUPPOSED … to be rooting for a team but, hell, GO RAYS!!!
(By the way, my husband observed last night that “Grant Balfour” is a pretty damned funny name for a relief pitcher).
So what is my excuse for having left this blog untended and inactive for the last three weeks? And what am I going to do to make it up to my (possibly now defunct) audience?
In a very large nutshell, going back to my last entry on Aug. 29 …
Aug. 30-Sept. 4: Moved my daughter Dana From DC to Boston, where she’s now a freshman at Berklee College of Music.
Sept. 5-15: Dodged Hurricanes Hanna AND Ike, as my intrepid travel partner Joe Cronin and I went from Orlando to Jupiter to Fort Myers to Daytona to Orlando to Dallas/Plano/Frisco to cover the Florida State League and Texas League finals.
Sept. 18-20: Drove BACK up to Boston again for the second time in less than three weeks (that is nine hours each way for those of you keeping score at home) to celebrate Dana’s 18th birthday with her, and then drove out to the Cape with the better half this morning to spend a few days of R&R like we used to in the olden days (read: pre-Dana).
But am guessing the only part of that itinerary that interests anyone here is the Sept. 5-15 part of the journey so here is a brief game of catch-up …
Covering the Minor League playoffs is always a challenge, because you can’t really make plans. And I am someone who REALLY likes to have plans made. So all Joe and I knew was that we’d cover the Florida State League finals wherever they may be (because that is the lone league where you really can drive between the two furthest-apart teams with relative ease, and we know that because of course those were the two teams of the 12 that ended up in the finals). And when that was done, we’d head to wherever the Texas League finals were taking place, which, at the time plans were being formulated, could have been San Antonio, Midland or Frisco.
When we got to Orlando on Sept. 5, the West Division winner had already been determined as the Fort Myers Miracle (Twins) had already swept the Dunedin Blue Jays, but the Daytona Cubs and Palm Beach Cardinals were still battling it out for the East title so we drove down to Jupiter to catch the deciding game of that series. Checked into our first of what would be FIVE (count them, five) Courtyard By Marriotts and headed over the Roger Dean Stadium.
Daytona, which had squeaked into the second-half East title on the final day of the regular season, pulled out the victory and its slot in the finals. We headed back to our hotel and set our respective alarms for wake-up calls so we could hit the road seasonably bright and early for our Alligator Alley trip from Palm Beach to Fort Myers for Games 1-2 of the FSL finals.
But before my alarm could ring the next morning I was awakened by this bizarre noise that I couldn’t put my finger on. It was a clicking at my door, over and over, several times. It stopped for a few moments, then resumed, followed by loud pounding on my door. I suddenly realized that SOMEONE WAS TRYING TO GET INTO MY ROOM with their room key which wasn’t working because IT WASN’T THEIR ROOM. I yelled a few four-letter words and the pounding stopped.
Not surprisingly, it was hard to get back to sleep so I availed myself of the always-delicious Courtyard By Marriott breakfast and before long we were off to Fort Myers and our second Courtyard By Marriott of our trip.
Despite the fact that the Miracle had made short work of a redhot Dunedin team and had had time to rest and retool their rotation for the finals, while Daytona was forced to turn to two 2008 draft picks, Casey Coleman and Jay Johnson, for the huge two starts, the kids came through for the Cubbies and they upset Fort Myers for a pair of wins, taking a 2-0 lead back home in the Best of 5 series.
This time it was a four-hour drive from Fort Myers to Daytona, which took us through downtown Fort Meade, the home of Pirates prospect Andrew McCutchen. I almost expected to see him crossing the street or something since it’s a pretty small town.
Checked into Courtyard By Marriott No. 3 in four days, and yeah, they were starting to look a LOT alike.
Daytona’s Jackie Robinson Ballpark, however, could not be confused with any of the other somewhat cookie cutter parks in the Florida State League.
The only one of the 12 teams in the Florida State League to NOT play in a spring training park, I have to tell you that what this park lacks in the bells and whistles of the more modern parks, it more than makes up for in sheer charm. I think it’s the kind of place that parents can take their kids growing up and implant a love of baseball in them at an early age. One of the oldest parks in the country, though it’s had a few nice facelifts over the years, it is situated right on the water and in quite beautiful surroundings. It’s in walking distance of a lot of cute restaurants and stores, and has a few playgrounds right outside … parking is convenient and the fans are very devoted. While the pressbox is small, it had Popeyes for the media every night, a modicum of airconditoning, and GREAT sightlines for the media working. I sat right over home plate and had as good a view of the pitches as the umpires did, I think.
PLUS … it is decorated with photos of some of the great Daytona Cubs players over the (recent) ages and I was ecstatic to sit down at my assigned seat, look up, and see a color 8X10 of former Daytona Cubbie shortstop Jason Maxwell, one of my all-time favorite guys in the game.
Daytona won the title in four, and I’d forgotten how much fun it is to watch a team celebrate … their “pile-on” was as ecstatic as any I’ve seen, which didn’t surprise me since I’d heard from players and fans alike that Jody Davis’ squad had some of the best chemistry of any team they’d been involved with.
Cubs second base prospect Tony Thomas, who had been red hot in the playoffs, was named playoff MVP and one of the highlights for me was watching his parents, who live outside Tampa and rarely missed one of his games, just so thrilled … in fact, during the inevitable champagne and beer splashing, Tony’s mom ran out on the field to pour a beer on her son. How often do you see that?
So the next night it was off to Orlando, where we checked into, you guessed it, the Courtyard by Marriott (No. 4 if you’re keeping score) in anticipation of an early flight to Dallas the next morning. Once in Texas, a few steps ahead of Ike after having managed to avoid the outskirts of Hanna in Florida, we drove up to Plano and … ta da … checked into the Courtyard by Marriott.
That was when I finally had my “a ha” moment about whoever it was who had tried to get into my room in Palm Beach that morning. They must have also been some schmoo like me who had just stayed in one identical CBM too many and simply forgot which room they were in. In Plano, I went to the Market to buy a bottle of Vitamin Water and when they asked my room number I simply couldn’t remember it. 301? No, that was Daytona. 257? No, Fort Myers. I had no clue. I’m glad they let me buy the water instead of calling the cops on me.
So … Frisco rocks but with a few oddities that might actually make me think twice about wanting to go back there from a work capacity (I would be THRILLED to go watch a game there in the stands as a fan any time). It is as beautiful and clean a ballpark as you’ll ever find … it looks like it could be in the middle of Disney World. It has grey siding and white trim and you kind of expect Mickey to come out and wave you in with balloons and cotton candy.
The stands and seating area is just as clean and nice as the outside. The ushers (especially Dennis, hi Dennis!) are awesome and friendly, as are the regular fans who all seem to know each other (props to my amazing friend Eleanor, aka Marla Hooch, and her friends Grant and Michael and of course the remarkable Jamey Newberg who has forgotten more about Rangers prospects than I will ever know).
The pressbox, however, is another story. It’s tiny. The sightlines are virtually non-existent. I think there are maybe three seats where you can actually sit and see what’s going on in the game, and not surprisingly, those seats belong to the official scorer and PA announcer and scoreboard operator. The “media” sits at a small folding table on a riser, our ethernet cables and computers plugged into outlets under the feet of the aforementioned scorer et al, but between the weirdly-placed windows and the placement of the table, you simply can’t see anything besides the pitcher’s mound and the outfield.
Now I don’t want to sound like I’m whining, but when you’re writing about a baseball game, it does help to be able to SEE said game (though I am sure there are some who would argue that I sometimes write like I haven’t seen the game at all).
I was confused. This is a gorgeous park, a new park (built in 2003 I believe), so much care and consideration given to everything (I mean, the public ladies room is by far the nicest and cleanest I have ever seen at a ballpark and nicer than some fine restaurants).
So what was the story here? I found out from … well, I’ll just call him a well-placed source in the Texas League, Apparently when the stadium was designed, two little things were left out of the plans and their omission was not noticed until it was too late to do much about it: the pressbox and the bullpens.
So the bullpens are actually IN THE STANDS at the top of each concourse. And the pressbox, well, it’s inadequate for written media (the radio guys are fine, they have their little booths).
Luckily, the weather in Frisco is usually quite nice and the two nights I was there it was gorgeous. I sat in the stands for both, enjoying the excuse to sit outside in the evening breezes. It was almost like being a fan again.
And speaking of almost like being a fan again, GO RAYS! Hee.