Brewerfan wraps up its discussions with the five Milwaukee affiliate announcers in this installment, chatting with Helena Brewers Director of Broadcasting / Media Relations Steve Wendt. Steve's 2007 season was his fourth with the H-Crew, and he shares some great insights with us here. While Steve's Rookie League season may be shorter than the others, it is no less exciting. Steve acts as our eyes when he introduces Brewer fans to the fresh-faced new draftees each June. Steve also benefits from the mountain time game starts, as Brewerfan's Link Reports exhort diehards to flip to his calls after big league Brewer games.
If you missed the earlier entries of this series, you can catch up with Nashville's Chuck Valenches, Huntsville's Brett Pollock, Brevard County's Kirk Agius, and West Virginia's Andy Barch via the sidebar article links to the right of this text.
We trust that everyone has enjoyed the interview series, and we will hope to catch up with these gentlemen again after the 2008 season. Here's one last big thank you from Brewerfan to "all the Voices of the Brewer kids".
Brewerfan: Steve, I bet it never gets old seeing the fresh-faced newly professional players arrive in Helena for their first workouts. I've got to imagine that must be a fun study to read their faces and get a feel for their emotions each summer. They've all got barely a week under the Maryvale sun as Brewers before they arrive in Montana. Does it ever surprise you how these young men from all walks of life, from all sorts of varying socio-economic backgrounds, form a hopefully cohesive unit, on and off the field so quickly? The challenges at the beginning of a season for a Pioneer Rookie League team must differ from those facing the other affiliates in that regard. Can you talk about the process the front office uses in those key couple of weeks prior to Opening Day in mid-June to "make it happen"?
Steve Wendt: It really doesn't surprise me that the players mesh so well despite their differences when they get to Montana because, let's face it, there's strength in numbers. Montana has become a second home to me and I love it, but it is a little off the beaten path. The kids come in and don't know what to expect, so I think that situation alone leads them into a bit of a "groupthink" mentality. They are also helped incredibly by our booster club and host families. Marlene Hughes is a godsend for the Brewers as she volunteers to find host families and match them with players. As for the front office in those early weeks, I try not to even think about them because they are lurking right behind the corner. It's Murphy's Law for the weeks leading up to the season and you feel the pressure. People say that there is no clock in the game of baseball, but if you work in a front office, you can tangibly feel a countdown to that first pitch. Whether you are dealing with publication deadlines, ticketing fiascos or the unexpected pipe burst in the clubhouse, they all seem to happen in that little window. Believe it or not, for most front offices, having Opening Day in the rearview mirror can feel like the best day of the season.
BF: Having the Helena broadcasts archived on MLBAM (MLB Advanced Media) has proven to be a boon for us, in that we can direct folks to your calls of a game's key moments, as well as your daily pre-game interviews with staff and players. For nearly all these players, your interviews are among their very first experiences with "the media", and I'm sure there must be a bit of trepidation among the kids at first. You've also shared some wonderful experiences in working with players from Latin America, such as RHP Roque Mercedes, who has made significant strides in his English. Is that a fun part of your broadcast day? You seem to enjoy those chats quite a bit. What's the process in putting an interview together -- setting it up, on the bus, in the dugout...
SW: I try to get every player at least one interview during the season, hopefully the day after they've had a big game. To be frank with you, I'll literally grab a guy after batting practice and ask for about five minutes. Considering that I'm also the closest thing that these guys have to a press agent, I usually get the booking. I think you're right about the some of the players' trepidation, but others take to it with a gusto that I fear will put me out of business. It is a fun part of my day in the sense that I like to help the kids exhibit their own humanity a bit. Everyone has a story beyond what they read out on a radar screen or OPS. If guys are a little shy, I'll tend to ask them about their teammates and that usually loosens things up. Players will periodically say less than politically-correct answers and I'll help them backpedal out of that minefield as well. I think I could be accused of leading the witness on occasion but I know it's simply because young players haven't always found their voice yet and I want to help them have an interview that they can be proud of.
As for the Latino players, I see how hard these kids work and I think about what a struggle it would be for me being in a foreign country much less being 18 and playing professional baseball. I want the players from Latin America to know that I'm behind them and I don't want them to feel segregated. Roque Mercedes is a great example of a young man that worked hard on his English and people want to know about him in his own words. Maybe these interviews wouldn't fly on network TV, but that's ok.
BF: The Great Falls White Sox will become the Great Falls Voyagers this summer, meaning the Helena Brewers are the only one of the eight Pioneer League squads to still maintain the same nickname as the parent club. Although the current player development contract (PDC) between Milwaukee and Helena only runs through this season, you would think that ongoing improvements at Kindrick Legion Field will allow the relationship to be extended. Statistics indicate that this was not a bad defensive infield in 2007, but I imagine the organization is looking forward to seeing an improved playing surface in 2008.
SW: The infield was in the best shape I'd ever seen it this past year. Shortly before the team got to Helena, we brought in an infield mix with more clay than we've had in years past. The irrigation of the grass was better also. I think it played comparably to most parks in the league. That being said, we do need a new playing surface and the voters of Helena came through on that one. I think the numbers also indicated that we had a terrific bunch of young infielders this season. I sure hope that the Brewers extend with Helena. From a travel standpoint, it is the most central team in the league. It is a safe and beautiful town for the players with great people. Personally, I've made many friends within the organization and appreciate the quality of people with Milwaukee.
BF: Speaking of that infield, the guys who saw the most playing time in 2007 were Eric Farris, Zelous / Zealous Wheeler (help us solve the spelling of the first name mystery!), Steffan Wilson, and Curt Rindal. Please discuss as you wish, perhaps focusing a bit on second baseman Farris' apparently outstanding glove and range, if Wheeler looks like he could handle both spots on the left side, and Wilson's pleasantly surprising power bat. Rindal, out of the University of Washington, turned 24 in September. With a player drafted while older, did you find a sense of urgency in his game? We've seen older players excel in the past, but falter when pushed directly to high-A the following season for instance, in an effort to catch them up.
SW: Zelous Wheeler is a delight. When I first saw him, I thought that Jack Z. had bumped his head. Thank goodness I got a chance to see him play. First the name, he said his mom liked the sound of it and decided to spell it with no "a". Simple as that. I'm not one to argue except to say that he truly is full of zeal. He's built like a fire hydrant but has quick feet and probably the softest hands I've seen on a minor leaguer. In addition, he's a great teammate.
Farris made plays this season that were hard to comprehend. Basically, if anything was hit on the ground to the right side, it was an out. Not a lot of hyperbole there, simply put he can flat-out play.
Steffan Wilson had some monstrous blasts this season, I don't know if his future is in the infield though. If he hits, they'll find a spot for him. It seems weird that a Harvard guy might have to don the tools of ignorance in order to get that shot.
Curt Rindal was a steadying influence whose bat got on track late. As for a sense of urgency, I don't know if baseball is a game conducive to urgency. The bat and ball don't know how old you are; all you can do is compete and hope to earn a job. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that David Fonseca has hands like a ninja on the infield and Matt Cline might have been the smoothest fielding player in the mix. That was the best defensive infield I've seen in four seasons in the Pioneer League.
BF: Turning to the outfield, corner outfielder Caleb Gindl only turned 19 years old last August, but his left-handed bat rocked to a .372/.420/.580 (1.000 OPS) batting line. We read reports about possible future limitations because of his stature, but those seem unfounded until he proves otherwise. Lee Haydel, another LH bat, didn't wow like Gindl numbers-wise, and his speed (12 of 17 on the basepaths) was evident, but didn't jump off the page, at least statistically (for instance, folks may not realize Eric Farris led the club with 21 SB in 26 attempts). University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee fans are following outfielder Mike Goetz (third on the team in OPS among those with 100+ AB