Behind the Microphone 2004: The Announcers Chime In
Since Brewerfan.net's inception, we've made an effort to point out to major league Milwaukee Brewer fans what a simple pleasure taking in a minor league audio broadcast can be. It's a great way to familiarize oneself with the Brewer farmhands who hopefully will contribute to the big league success we all hope for down the road. Baseball is baseball, regardless of the level, and the voices who bring us the games personalize the experience with the anecdotes, updates, and inside information that the box scores do not provide. Brewerfan will continue to include audio links to every possible Brewer affiliate game within its daily Link Reports in 2005 and beyond.
As the 2004 minor league season wound down, Brewerfan.net contacted the play-by-play voices of the Milwaukee farm clubs and asked them to respond to a series of submitted questions. As we expected, each announcer was more than willing to share his thoughts on his respective squad. Kudos to them, and we thank the affiliates for letting us borrow from their own websites some of the biographical notes on each that we share with you here.
Indianapolis Play-by-Play Voice Howard Kellman:
Howard is a local legend in Indianapolis, where he has been the voice of the Indians since 1974! In addition to his lengthy broadcasting career in a variety of sports, he is a professional motivational speaker focusing on developing strong salespeople (and yes, he's led the Indianapolis staff in driving ticket sales for the past 20 years). Howard has also regularly presented a compelling message to local youngsters on the dangers of substance abuse via his speaking and motivational skills. It was unlucky for us that the Indianapolis web audio feed, so reliable in years' past, gave us fits in 2004.
Brewerfan.net (BF): Howard, with such a long background broadcasting AAA baseball, you've seen the role of the AAA level evolve, especially over the past decade. It seems to some that AA may now be the more exciting level from a fan's perspective, as prospects around the league spend less time in AAA before getting bumped to the majors, and AAA rosters continue to see ever-increasing turnover with new batches of six-year free agents with middling big-league futures rotating in and out each year. In 2000, Milwaukee management threw together a collection of minor league veterans and won the now-defunct AAA World Series with a team almost devoid of any prospect potential. Could you provide your thoughts on the overall state of AAA baseball today?
Howard Kellman: The status of AAA Baseball is great what with the new ballparks in both Triple A Leagues as well as the very affordable ticket prices. With all the injuries at the major league level and the pressure to win up there, no question players are rushed to the big leagues before they are ready and fundamentally sound. This is true throughout all of major league baseball. It is because of that, that you cannot win at the AAA level without minor league free agents and that along with the ability to go out in mid-season and get players to replace those that are called up, those are the keys to winning in Triple A.
BF: Really for the very first time in the five-year Milwaukee ? Indianapolis relationship, in 2004 the Brewers sent a collection of Top 15 organizational talents to Indy in J.J. Hardy, David Krynzel, Corey Hart, Ben Hendrickson, Jorge de la Rosa, Pedro Liriano and Mike Adams. The team played solid first-place baseball in April and May and each of the prospects (except for de la Rosa, who struggled early) got off to fine starts. That must have been a refreshing time to be around the team in and around the clubhouse. Could you focus on that time before the injury bug hit? In particular, please comment on J.J. Hardy and David Krynzel, since their injuries coincided with the team's downslide.
HK: Yes it was a joy to come to the ballpark and see all these young prospects at the start of the season. This was my 29th year of broadcasting the Indianapolis Indians on radio and TV and you have to go back to l977 for the last time we had so many prospects. Dave Krynzel's injury hurt the team however he came back after nine weeks and played well again. J.J. Hardy's injury was devastating; he got hurt in May and missed the remainder of the season. He was the leader of the club and like all good shortstops he held the club together.
BF: Ben Hendrickson's AAA season was incredible (2.02 ERA, only 114 hits and 26 walks in 125 innings, only six HR's allowed). What was it that Ben did so well to AAA hitters to put together that kind of pitching line? Did you get the sense from Ben that the yo-yo effect of being recalled on four different occasions hampered his big league performance? Can you compare Jorge de la Rosa's first-half outings to his performance after returning from his DL stint with shoulder tendinitis?
HK: Ben Hendrickson was consistently great all season. I think he is going to be a good major league pitcher. He has a very good curve ball and an excellent change up. Going back and forth between Indianapolis and Milwaukee may have hurt him but once he gets his feet wet he will be fine. He is a very good competitor. Jorge DeLaRosa has great stuff; three above average pitches: fastball, curve and change up. Yes, when his arm felt better, his command and confidence improved and he pitched much better in the second half.
BF: In a recent Milwaukee pre-game interview, Indy Manager Cecil Cooper gave us an update on Corey Hart's progress indicating that Corey had some holes in his swing he needed to address, likely in another AAA season. Do you see a potential dominant AAA season for Hart in 2005 (as Brewer GM Doug Melvin suggested he hopes to see), and importantly, can you talk about what you saw from Corey in right field this season?
HK: I cannot predict Corey Hart will have a dominant season next year but he certainly is capable of it and I would not be surprised if he did. He did OK in right field and will get better with more experience.
BF: Perhaps a comment or two on a couple of players who have been Brewerfan favorites and will be minor league free agents in October, please. Former 40-man roster RHP Matt Childers could occasionally dominate, but it seems he bounced among every conceivable pitching role in 2004. Catcher / third baseman Chris Coste showed some offensive capabilities while playing two positions where the Brewers lack prospects at the upper levels.
HK: There is no doubt in my mind that Matt Childers has the stuff to pitch in the major leagues. It is all about confidence. When Matt was used as a starting pitcher during the second half of the season he did very well and that could be his role in the future as well. I think that Chris Coste can be an asset to an organization at the AAA level.
BF: Online accounts were seen about clubs like Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this year, with lots of locker room turmoil down the stretch, pretty common in AAA, as minor league veterans grouse about playing time, another season ending without a big-league opportunity, etc. Yet the Indy club played fine ball throughout August, and we didn't read such reports about the Tribe. Do you attribute that at all to Cecil Cooper, or did this group just happen to be a professional group of guys?
HK: It was a combination of both, I believe. The players did not quit and Cecil kept at it also. The result was a very good month of August which was nice to see because June and July were not good.
BF: Finally, Howard, fill us in on the broadcast of the infamous "Jeff Liefer locked in the bathroom stall" game? Strangest event you've seen occur in your broadcast career? If not , what was?
HK: I never can remember anything like the Jeff Liefer incident. Jeff accidentally got locked in the bathroom for almost 30 minutes; the game was delayed and it made national news. He was swinging the bat very well at the time and wanted to talk about that, but nobody would let him.
May I say what a joy it was for me to work with the Brewers' organization these past five years. Players and management were great to deal with and I want to wish everyone connected with the organization the best of luck.......
Huntsville Play-by-Play Voice Robert Portnoy:
Brewerfan nation has now enjoyed Robert's broadcasts from Huntsville for two seasons. Robert joined the Stars from the Kinston (NC) Indians of the Carolina League where he spent three seasons broadcasting games including the 2000 Carolina League All-Star Game. Previous to the K-Tribe, Robert was the lead broadcaster for the San Jose Giants of the California League for two seasons. Also the Stars' Director of Sales, he has also hosted numerous sports talk shows in the off-season as well as some occasional play-by-play for television. Robert holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication and English from Stanford University.
Robert brings a professional and detail-oriented approach to his broadcasts, yet manages to make the game experience vivid and fun, a perfect mix of talents. We especially appreciate his efforts in arranging for a pre-game interview prior to each and every game ? a true highlight, and worth catching as often as possible. We look forward to continuing our regular appointments with Mr. Portnoy into 2005.
Brewerfan.net: OK Robert, we'll have to pretty much cut to the chase here: The top of the Huntsville order (Tony Gwynn, Jr., Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, and Brad Nelson) is as heralded a group as there is in AA, despite their youth and inexperience. Rickie, Prince, and Brad each slugged over .400 and accumulated their fair share of extra-base hits. Yet the Stars finished tied for last in the league with a .241 batting average, and the team that also hit .241, Mobile, outscored the Stars 601-510. It seems fans were more frustrated by the lack of run production by the team as a whole than they were by individual players' numbers. In fact, frustration pretty much sums up both the Stars' first and second halves. So basically, we all need to know -- what happened to this offense?
Robert Portnoy: The 2003 team, recall, with its own holy triumvirate (Hardy, Hart and Krynzel), did not hit for average (.245), but they did score runs (596), very much like this year's Mobile squad. What the '03 Stars did better than the '04 team was hit with runners in scoring position. The Stars' low team batting average in '04 meant that scoring chances were not plentiful, thus cashing them in was crucial. The '03 team did so consistently, save for a little slide at the end of the second half when the games were irrelevant. This year's squad was last in the league with runners in scoring position (.233), and ninth-best Birmingham was significantly better (.255). Mobile's .258 was the league's only other average with runners in scoring position below .260. Remember, the Stars were within two games of first with two weeks left in the first and second halves. With just a few more well-timed key hits down the stretch in either half, who knows what might have happened. Huntsville's pitching kept the team highly competitive throughout the year.
BF: You may have just addressed this in your response, but what does Manager Frank Kremblas believe is the greatest benefit to the organization of adhering to his love of the stolen base and small-ball philosophy (127 stolen bases in 218 attempts, only a 58% success rate and 28 more attempts than any other Southern League team)?
RP: I cannot speak for Frank. However, Frank's philosophy is sound and has proven successful. He wants to keep the pressure on the opposition, or as Frank put it to me on more than one occasion, force the opposition to play at a pace that makes them uncomfortable, a faster pace, thus forcing them into mistakes. More than anything, Frank excels at putting his players in the best possible position to succeed. Certainly, the small-ball philosophy is a declining art for many clubs at the big-league level, and if Brewers farmhands are better prepared to do the little things when they get to Milwaukee, then the big-league club will be better for it. Indeed, if the Brewers are to succeed without high-priced talent, they will be well-served to excel in all the little-ball fundamentals.
BF: Hardly a week went by when we didn't hear discouraging injury news about the Stars' pitching staff. Mike Jones' issues were almost expected coming into the season, but Matt Ford's overall struggles and Chris Saenz' elbow injury were tough to take as well. While not directly tied to their training regimens in Huntsville, potential early-and midseason Stars Manny Parra, Greg Bruso, and Jesse Harper succumbed to the injury bug. How strictly are the pitchers' off-day workouts and throwing programs regulated by the Brewers' training staff? When visiting other parks and talking with your peers with other teams, do you see any differences in the way the Brewers approach their pitchers' health as opposed to other organizations? And to your knowledge, have the Brewers taken advantage of Huntsville's proximity to the American Sports Medicine Institute in Birmingham and sent any of their pitchers there to be evaluated?
RP: Ford, Bruso and Harper all came from different organizations, so immediately throw them out of any "Brewers' young pitchers succumb to poor training habits" theory. This fact supports my overall opinion. I firmly believe that most, if not all, arm injuries result from the repetitive stress of the unnatural act of throwing a baseball. Even those arm injuries that can be traced to a single event, in my opinion, often result from instability or stress in the elbow or shoulder that has built up over time. I'm no doctor, of course, but I'm comfortable calling it a run of bad luck, nothing more. I have been in three different organizations in my career and three different leagues (California, Carolina, Southern), and I cannot discern any marked difference in training regimen among staffs from one team to the next. As far as regulation, Stars pitchers' throwing programs, whether healthy or on rehab, are closely governed by their pitching coach and trainer, and I say with total confidence that coaches Stan Kyles ('03), Fred Dabney ('04) and trainer Greg Barajas ('03-'04) monitored their charges closely. Famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews, Medical Director at the ASMI in Birmingham, has seen several Stars pitchers over the past two seasons, so yes, that resource is being utilized.
BF: OK Robert, time to shift gears towards the positive. LHP Jeff Housman and RHP Glenn Woolard earned late-season AAA promotions. LHP Ryan Costello was a nice rotation surprise. RHP Dennis Sarfate managed to stay healthy while providing consistent mid-90's pop even if parts of his game still remain inconsistent. RHP John Novinsky suddenly emerged as a bullpen name to watch. Your thoughts on their mound work this year?
RP: Housman really evolved this season from exclusively a groundball pitcher to one who can get the big strikeout. The numbers support his transformation: his '04 Huntsville K/BB ratio (3.18) and K/9 IP ratio (9.72) dwarfed his career numbers in both categories entering the season (1.80 & 5.30). Housman realized that a first-and-third, none-out situation is best escaped with a strikeout before the GDP, and Housman told me he actively went after the strikeout more this season in those situations, on the few occasions he was in them. Previously, he might have been satisfied to surrender a run while going for the GDP right away. Also, his slider was much nastier this season, the majority of his strikeouts coming on a brutal, biting slider, one that's a bit slower than most sliders but breaks more. And Jeff had an epiphany about pitching inside with his fastball, saying he might have had a season like this sooner if he'd realized the importance of throwing inside even earlier in his career.
Scott Kazmir pitched against Huntsville once this season, and he was by far the best pitcher that I saw in the league (never saw Tennessee's Anthony Reyes). Glenn Woolard's command during his scoreless innings streak (29 IP) was the closest anyone else came to equaling that of Kazmir, without the blazing fastball, of course. Glenn set the tone, like Kazmir, with well-located first-pitch strikes, batter after batter. His fastball and conventional curveball were used to get ahead, and once that happened, his knuckle curve was as good an out-pitch as there was in the league. It acts like a splitter, dropping straight down, and he throws it hard, so the speed is deceptive, too. Great pitch, great season.
Costello showed excellent command as well, the key to his success. Ryan wasn't always orthodox, but he was effective. He had a stretch where he was unhittable, with back-to-back starts against Montgomery and Birmingham that were tremendous. Ryan's slider is also a quality pitch. Pitching Coach Fred Dabney, and Ryan himself, said one of the keys was when they locked in on keeping his delivery more "in-line." When Ryan kept his front shoulder closed longer, his shoulders were more in line with the target (square) at release, and his command was outstanding. When his front shoulder flew open, inconsistency resulted.
Sarfate was described by Birmingham pitching coach Juan Nieves as having, along with Reyes, the best arm in the league. No arguments here. He consistently threw comfortably to 100 pitches in the second half. He has the potential to be a real horse, an innings-eater and strikeout guy. Shaky control was his undoing at times, as his walk numbers attest, but he has real potential. The ulnar nerve transposition surgery is not an issue, in fact it was a blessing. His arm felt great all season, and I regularly asked him how it was doing. Case in point, nearly 110 pitches in a pennant-chase, second-half game when he dominated Birmingham over eight innings in a Huntsville win. He failed to regularly get deep into games because of the bases on balls. I think Dennis has the competitiveness to be a real big-game pitcher, in the mold of a Clemens, if he can reign in that fastball. And he did much better late in the year when he went to a slider in place of his curveball, which was erratic all year, early with spike-grip learned from Hendrickson and later with standard grip. He also has the fire and stuff to be a late-inning reliever if the Brewers choose to go that direction, or he doesn't develop command of both his breaking ball and change-up.
Novinsky's success stemmed from his ability to change speeds on his curve ball and command of a wicked two-seamer. John is a highly emotional guy who has learned to channel his aggressiveness on the mound. He clearly has the make-up to be a late-inning reliever and showed it this season. His curve ball is really two breaking balls in one, the hard late-breaker acts like a slider, and the slower more like a standard curveball. He is consistent with both types because they're gripped the same way. He throws one harder with a subtle change in his wrist angle. He is a bulldog, fierce competitor. I hope he shows no ill effects from his first appearance in Indianapolis, when a line drive struck him in the head. If he can come back strong from that, that's all I need to say he's bound for the big leagues. I was convinced of that when he received the call to Indianapolis. His velocity seemed to improve from the beginning of the season to the end.
BF: The Brewers and Stars committed to extend their relationship long before they had to. We've read about Joe Davis Stadium's deficiencies from a fan perspective, but what is it lacking in terms of player development amenities ? things that you see elsewhere in your Southern League visits? Do you think any of these on-the-field deficiencies will be addressed prior to April 2005?
RP: The clubhouse is small, but improvements have already been made, with manager's office and private bathroom for coaches added before 2004. The batting cage is old but adequate and it is covered, which is a consistent complaint with the cages in Mobile, where both home and visiting cages are open the elements. The Joe Davis field is one of the top two or three playing surfaces in the league, according to players and coaches from a variety of teams, right up there with the brand-new surfaces in Jacksonville and Montgomery. Yes, it would be nice to have a state-of-the-art facility with indoor, lighted cages, monstrous clubhouses, fitness room, etc. Currently, the city of Huntsville is in the process of using $300,000 appropriated for Joe Davis improvements, most of which has already been spent on the mentioned clubhouse changes and replacing rotting seats with new molded, plastic seats throughout the upper-level seating area. This off-season, the city is looking at the possibility of using remaining funds to replace an antiquated traditional souvenir stand with a more contemporary walk-in gift shop at the stadium's main entrance. The Stars' ownership group purchased a brand-new, state-of-the-art scoreboard/video board that was installed mid-season to great reviews. Beyond that, we keep beating the drum for further improvements and hope one day for a new stadium!
BF: Robert, was there a favorite light moment from the 2004 season, either on or off the field, that you'd like to share or relive with us here?
RP: Two of them come to mind. First involves our team. Tony Gwynn Jr. wore a signature white sleeve on his throwing arm, to keep a balky right elbow loose and warm throughout the game. During a crucial pennant-chase game in second half against Birmingham, Stars' Paul Stewart asks the plate ump to have a Barons batter tuck in his back pants pocket, the logic being if Stewart happened to let one get away and it somehow grazed the pocket, that's part of the uniform and thus a hit-by-pitch. So Barons skipper Razor Shines instructs his pitcher to ask the ump to have Gwynn remove his sleeve the next time Gwynn bats as a response to Stewart's request. Tony takes off the white sleeve, puts it in his pocket, and yanks out a navy blue one to replace it. Of course, the Barons demand that this be removed also, even though it's clearly not a distracting color and it's definitely not hanging loosely (the white one wasn't loose either). The ump obliges Gwynn to remove the sleeve, and Frank Kremblas, in protest, takes it from Tony, walks up the line to the coach's box and promptly slides the sleeve onto his right arm. That's the kind of skipper Kremblas is, consummate player's manager.
Second story involves the opposition. Claude Dicks, radio partner of long-time Lookouts announcer Larry Ward, is on field during Chattanooga's BP in final series of regular season at Bell South Park. Lookouts players surround Dicks, tackle him, duct tape him into a shopping cart in full catcher's gear, and roll the cart into the outfield for BP, as a target. Unbelievable. Dicks is none the worse for wear, having taken a job as the voice of Campbell University athletics.
High Desert Play-by-Play Voice Roxy Bernstein:
We will miss the Brewers' affiliation with High Desert, even if from a baseball sense, some in the Brewers' front office were apparently more than ready to move on. There was something about tuning in to a late night west coast broadcast after a deflating Milwaukee loss (or less often, after an exhilarating Brewer win), and usually that "something" was the play-by-play man, whether it was Roxy in 2004, or his predecessor, Mike Lindskog. Roxy, like Mike before him, made midnight baseball fun, even if his "main audience" was the folks in and around Adelanto, and not necessarily the Brewer fans in the central and eastern time zones. Roxy has been the voice of the University of California men's basketball for seven seasons and the school's football sideline reporter. Roxy also filled in on a handful of games for the San Francisco Giants in the 2003 season and has also broadcast games for the Montreal Expos and Tacoma Rainiers.
Brewerfan.net: Roxy, it was a tough season for the Mavs in terms of wins and losses once again (49-91). It must have been difficult for all involved. The split season gives everyone a fresh start, but the boys had a particularly bad stretch just as the second half began, squelching that hope as well. A lot of folks don't realize that all those Southern Division California League games are basically one-day bus trips over and over, with minimal hotel stays. Although to borrow a term from the Brewers manager, the team seemed to "battle" most nights, right to the end. Can you describe the grind of a season gone bad, and how this group of Mavericks, players and coaches, tried to deal with it?
Roxy Bernstein: It was not easy, I will say that. There was a lot of frustration and bitterness, and at times it boiled over, which will happen when a team is losing. There were days when the guys did not look forward to coming to the ballpark and dreaded the "commuter" trips. The Mavs had some poor stretches, losing 11 in a row in the first half, not winning a road series until mid-July, I could go on. But one thing I will say, it this team did not quit. They were battlers, even though it did not show up in the win column as much as everyone would have liked. To deal with it, the guys had each other to lean on. No one could understand the frustration they were dealing with unless you were in that clubhouse or had been through something like it before.
BF: Much has been made of the Milwaukee organization's tendency to promote top prospects past the high-A level directly to AA Huntsville, as well as the organization's frustrations in getting a good read on hitting and pitching skill levels based on the Cal League, and particularly Maverick Stadium, playing conditions. When the Opening Day High Desert roster was announced, not a single player was listed on Baseball America's Top 30 Brewer prospects, which is pretty unbelievable. Did you get the sense that the players were ultra-aware of all this, and perhaps wore that as a badge of honor, in a "we'll show them" kind of way? After all, each of these players has accomplished quite a bit just to reach high-A ball to begin with.
RB: I did get a sense of that, but there was also a sense of what am I doing here? Some of the guys should not have been in High Desert, a number of them should have been in Huntsville and some of the Huntsville guys should have been in High Desert. There were some guys who had things to prove, like Travis Hinton, Ozzie Chavez, who definitely did. But I felt some of the guys got a raw deal, like Dan Boyd. I can also add, that the Mavericks front office, me included, was disappointed that some of the top prospects who should have started at High A did not, especially considering what happened the year before.
BF: But you certainly did see some outstanding performances this season. Both first baseman Travis Hinton and second baseman Callix Crabbe were named first-team California League All-Stars (Crabbe won't even be 22 years old until February). Enrique Cruz put together his incredible 28-game hit streak. Could you comment on the overall games of these three players in particular?
RB: Travis had a phenomenal year at the plate. After struggling with injuries and making a position change I think he performed remarkably. He was the all-star game MVP and Home Run Derby champ, played just about every day. He hit over .300, ranking in the top ten in the league in HR, RBI, 2B, but I really like his ability to drive the ball to all fields, he had a terrific season at the plate. He struggled a bit in the field with the transition from the outfield to first base, but he has the talent and ability to become a solid defensive first baseman.
I really enjoyed watching Callix play. He is a smooth fielder, very solid at turning the double play, gets to a number of balls most people would never reach. At the plate he has a nice stroke from both sides of the plate, a patient hitter who led the team in walks hitting in the 2-hole. Showed some surprising pop and has very good speed and like you said, he's only 21.
When Enrique arrived in High Desert, you could tell he was a bit rusty and struggling with his confidence. One thing that was evident from day one was his defensive capabilities. He is a terrific defensive shortstop, with the total package: range, arm, hands and the smarts. As the season went on, you could see him breaking out and his offensive game coming back to him. He has good power, especially for a shortstop, he hits well in the clutch and has plate discipline, sometimes too much. Let's face it, when your team is struggling through a miserable season, it's easy to mail it in, but he didn't. The 28-game hit streak came very late in the season and it (along with the blast for last) were some of the only things that kept us going.
BF: You saw RHP Glenn Woolard for 48 High Desert innings before he moved on to have a breakout year in Huntsville, with a late AAA call-up. There was at least one "big name" Mavs management could eventually tout, LHP Manny Parra, who started 12 games in the desert. RHP Jesse Harper was a 40-man roster waiver claim pickup. It kind of turned into a lost season for RHP Greg Bruso, for whom big things are expected. We're hearing about big plans for 21-year-old RH reliever Nick Slack. And do special awards go to starters Khalid Ballouli, Bo Hall, and David Bradley just for taking the ball whenever asked this season? With the usual disclaimer that a microphone doesn't make one a talent evaluator, can you provide your thoughts on the pitching staff, perhaps briefly commenting on their relationships with pitching coach John Curtis where noteworthy.
RB: First of all, let me say John did a hell of a job with this staff. It was a staff that was undermanned for most of the season and a staff that was a bit banged up coming into the season and because of that, some pitchers were overextended early in the season and it lasted pretty much throughout the campaign. People might read this and think what the hell is this guy talking about, they had the worst ERA in the league allowed the most home runs and runs. But John had a huge hurdle to overcome, it was ingrained in the pitchers that the High D is a pitchers nightmare and you can't pitch there. Well guess what, Ben Hendrickson did it, Chris Saenz did it, Brad Penny did it. Some of the pitchers were defeated before they took the mound at home and it was unfortunate. Look at the team's pitching numbers on the road, pretty solid. Let's face it, if you pitch in High Desert, you are going to get hit, plain and simple, but what hurt these guys were the walks. You can be a successful pitcher at hitter friendly Mavericks Stadium, but you have to be confident and have a short memory.
Glenn's stuff is nasty, especially his dirty knuckle-curve. I really liked to watch him pitch, he was not afraid to challenge hitters, he has the mental makeup to make it to Milwaukee and the skills. Manny's stuff is electric, coming on a lefty who can throw in the low to mid 90's, the only question is can he stay healthy. I really liked Jesse's stuff, he's not overpowering, but has an effective fastball, with a nasty curve. He gave the Mavs a nice 1-2 punch with Manny when the team was playing well. I don't think it was necessarily a lost season for Greg Bruso. Like Jesse, he is a true pitcher, but Greg is maybe more so. Coming back from the rotator cuff injury is not easy and Greg had to take it slow. He has a terrific change and a good command of the strike zone. Slack is your prototypical closer. He is intimidating, he's nasty and throws hard, very hard, hitting the mid 90's and will get better, he's only 21. He has many things to learn, but he's willing and has a good work ethic.
Ballouli, Hall and Bradley struggled at home, but performed very well on the road. With them it might have been more mental than anything else, and if they are in Huntsville next season, I think they will perform very well. At times, all three had the ability to dominate. Ballouli had a stretch of about ten starts were he was virtually unhittable, but had a stretch of about five starts where he was torched, but in Khalid's defense, he was coming back from an injury and if you take those numbers out, he has a pretty decent season, even with the inflated home numbers. Bo had a very nice strikeout to innings pitched ratio and some real impressive outings, but he's a fly ball pitcher and that is not a good fit in the High D. Bradley knows how to pitch and has pretty good stuff, he ranked in the top ten in the league in ERA for most of the season and for the first four months was the Mavericks' most consistent pitcher.
BF: Roxy, you visit a lot of minor league parks and you interact with players both on your team and on opposing clubs. What factors do you feel are important in determining whether the players are happy and satisfied with their experience with a given team? What are some of the things that separate the 'good' minor league franchises from the 'bad,' and how important do you think each is? With the Brewers changing three affiliations this offseason, things like the quality of the ballpark, the attendance drawn, the team's location, and the league in which they play are all being discussed as important variables. Which of these, if any, is important in the minds of the players themselves? What separates a well-run franchise that the players love to play for from the other franchises around minor league baseball? And by that, it's really the folks and staff of the affiliate themselves that directly impact the players as opposed to the parent club, isn't it?
RB: As far as the organization goes, the guys are just looking for an opportunity and hoping for a chance to succeed. I felt there were some guys on this team who deserved better and were not given a decent shot. But with the High Desert situation, I think it's what you make of it. There is the support from the front office, booster club, fan base if you want to take advantage of it. Let's face it, the High Desert will never be confused for LA or San Francisco, but it is not a bad place to play, there are much worse, not to give names like Visalia or Bakersfield. With the Brewers moving to Florida, it's probably a good thing for both parties involved. Milwaukee wanted out of the desert and the Mavericks franchise wanted a winner, something Milwaukee did not give the loyal High Desert fans the last few years.
BF: Can you discuss the whole "Blast for Last" and "Tragic Number" updates that you incorporated into your broadcasts near season's end? Were the players aware and did they seem to mind at all?
RB: The guys were aware and they did not want the dubious distinction of having the worst record in all of minor league baseball. I had a daily print out toward the end of the season with the numbers and they wanted to see it and see how the other victory challenged clubs did the day before or that day. For me it added a little levity to the situation and gave us something to talk about, I know the fans got a kick out of it. I would have much rather talked about the Mavericks making a run at the Cal League title, but this was a way of adding a little excitement and color to a long season.
Helena Play-by-Play Voice Steve Wendt:
Steve Wendt was named the Director of Broadcasting / Public Relations for the Helena Brewers last February. Steve's a 27 year old native of Novato, CA, and came to Helena after spending the 2003 campaign as the voice of the California League's Stockton Ports. Prior to that, he served in the same capacity with the Sonoma County Crushers of the independent Western League from 2000-2002.
Steve's a 2000 graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Brewerfan.net: Steve, we're confident that you did a great job on local Helena radio this summer, although the club doesn't webcast. We've read that the costs involved in getting a web carrier are pretty significant, and have noticed that in a town like Billings the local boosters sponsor the web audio costs. Do you envision a move to web audio in the upcoming seasons for Helena?
Steve Wendt: I know that the Paul Fetz, the GM of the Brewers would like to have the broadcasts on the web as well as over the airwaves and is always looking for sponsors for it. In such a small market, it's difficult to find a sponsor that feels the webcast is a good investment. As a broadcaster, I certainly want the web audio as an option for fans in the greater Helena area as well as Brewers' family and friends and of course, the folks in Milwaukee.
BF: It must be a blast when this group of 25 or so players arrives in Helena for the first time, all fresh-faced and ready to go after spending three tedious months in the Arizona heat at extended spring training. Did you get that sense from this group of kids upon their arrival? Suddenly it's a world of host families, road trips, and playing in front of 1,000-3,000 people.
SW: It really was a good group of young men this season. The players were itching to go when they got to Helena. From the players that had been in extended spring training there was much more of a "let's get to work" attitude while the newly-signed guys had a deer-in-headlights look during the first couple of days. There was a week-long mini-camp a week before Helena's first game and it was a nice transition I thought. The players got acclimated to Helena and had a chance to bond with the host families a bit as well.
BF: Year in and year out, the Brewers draft picks out of four-year schools excel in the Pioneer League. It's uncanny. It's not like Grant Richardson, Tony Festa, Steve Sollman, Josh Baker, and Josh Brady are senior citizens, but they'll be expected to progress quickly through the system. Baseball America failed to list any of them among the league's top 20 prospects despite their fine numbers, perhaps in deference to their Division I experience. Can you discuss briefly this group, and did they automatically assume leadership roles on the team?
SW: They certainly did assume those leadership roles. I know that Brewers' skipper Johnny Narron had no worries with Festa, Sollmann and Richardson on the infield. He just would pencil them in and they took care of themselves. They all have a different temperaments and I think that their leadership flowed from that. All of them know the game and as hitting coordinator Jim Skaalen described their approach, "they are very cerebral". Richardson is very fiery, Festa is more paternal with the younger players and Sollmann is unfazed by anything that comes his way. As for Josh Baker, he's very charismatic and his teammates, whether position players or pitchers, respond to that. I personally feel that he was the toughest competitor in the Pioneer League. Josh Brady came in mid-way through the season and simply tore up the league's pitching. He's not very vocal, but immediately earned respect by keeping his mouth shut and raking (maybe not in that order).
BF: Shortstop Alcides Escobar won't even be 18 until December ? what are the tools that earned him a Helena assignment to start the year, and what did you see him progress with most during the course of the season? Where will he need to do the most work to improve his game?
SW: The main tool that earned him the Helena assignment was speed. The young man can flat-out move. The Brewers felt that his speed might compensate for his inexperience and allow him not to get buried in the league. I think all their concerns were laid to rest however through his play this season. He is an outstanding fielding shortstop with a strong arm but where I saw the most progress was his bat. In the mini-camp he looked overmatched, but week by week became a much better hitter. His work ethic was tremendous. Every day he worked with hitting coach Paco Martin in early work. As for improvement, it's like most young players; he'll need to improve his pitch recognition at the plate and become physically stronger. I can't tell you enough about how much that young man impressed me this summer.
BF: Thirteen different pitchers started games for Helena, and it seemed as though each pitcher was used in a variety of roles throughout the summer in an effort to control innings and arm wear-and-tear. From a fan's standpoint, it seemed that a lot of the pitching numbers left something to be desired, and lack of quality pitching was likely the reason the team failed to qualify for the postseason in either half of the season. Obviously arm health and long-term development takes precedence here ? that's understood. If we were able to approach this young staff as a group today, would the consensus be that they simply needed to do a better job in 2004?
SW: The age-old battle of development versus winning is never more evident than in the pitchers. The Brewers were constantly battling this because they played so many close games this season. The Brewers have a tremendous pitching coach in Mark Littell and some of the pitchers made great strides this season. The things he preached, however, were not always executed. I think the main thing with the Brewers staff this season was an inability to work ahead in the count. It wasn't so much walks as it was falling behind in the count and then giving up the long ball. It will be interesting to follow some of these guys next season without 100 high-stress college innings on their arms. It will be fun to see a rested Josh Wahpepah with that heavy sinker and great change-up with a fresh arm.
BF: That being said, so often strikeout-to-walk ratio is such an important pre-cursor of future success for young pitchers. Nobody matched the impressive ratio of RHP Justin Barnes (55-to-9 in 40.2 IP), although fellow righties Robbie Wooley, Ben Stanczyk, and Robert Hinton did pretty well in that department also. It must have been pretty sweet calling some of those early-season Justin Barnes appearances.
SW: It was pretty fun. He made me sound like a broken record, "and Barnes' first pitch to 'so and so' is in there for a strike; 0-1 the count to 'so and so'". Barnes is a tough competitor and made a very seamless transition from being a position player to being a pitcher.
BF: We read about the "raffling off" of Robert Hinton's car late in the season. Please feel free to share that story or any of the other lighter moments from this year's Pioneer League season.
SW: Robert Hinton is an extremely bright but also very young so therefore a mark. His pride and joy is his recently purchased forest green BMW. On the last night of the season, Asst. GM Travis Brower got the keys to Hinton's car with a little help from Josh Baker. During a between-inning contest, they rigged it that the contestant was going to win a new car. The car drove from left-field all around the outfield warning track until it got in front of the dugout. At that point, Hinton looked up from his pitching chart and was shocked. All he could say was "that's my car, that's my car" as it sped away with the contest winner back to left field. Interestingly, the car was driven away by documentary film-maker Tom Mireles who is making a film about the 2004 Brewers. Earlier that day, he'd been taped to the flag pole at the stadium and generally abused. He got a little revenge on Hinton, but Baker was the ringleader on both jokes and has yet to be burned. Maybe next year.
Brewerfan.net: Thanks again to Howard, Robert, Roxy, and Steve. Here's a reminder to our readers that we did something similar back in 2002, and you can go back and check out that article from within the archives: