Did you know? Eastern League edition

When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the third installment in a series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird,

When it comes to size, scope and longevity, few, if any, sporting bodies can rival Minor League Baseball. With 160 teams in nearly as many markets, there are innumerable nooks and crannies to explore. This marks the third installment in a series dedicated to such explorations, providing one unique, weird, poignant or otherwise memorable fact about each team or city in each of Minor League Baseball’s 14 admission-charging leagues. Remember — it’s about the journey, not the destination. To share your own favorite team or city facts, please reach out via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@bensbiz). Previous installments: International League, Pacific Coast League.

Baseball’s first Eastern League appeared in 1884, but that 19th-century circuit has no connection to the Eastern League of today. Today’s Eastern League began life in 1923 as the New York-Pennsylvania League, which should not — of course — be confused with today’s New York-Penn League. Today’s Eastern League, a Double-A circuit, features 12 teams. The dozen squads play in two divisions, the Eastern League Eastern and the paradoxically named Eastern League Western.  
Minor League Baseball can be confusing. That’s all the more reason to love it. So let’s get to some Eastern League facts, lest the facts get to us. 

Akron RubberDucks
Before the RubberDucks became the RubberDucks, they were the Akron Aeros. The Akron Aeros, who went by that moniker from 1997 through 2013, were the only Double-A Eastern League team to sport “double-A” initials. The only other “double-A Double-A” team this writer can identify is the Alexandria Aces, who played in the Texas League from 1972-’75. At any rate, Akron experienced a lot of success during the Aeros era, winning four championships (2003, ’05, ’09, ’12) over a 10-season span. 
Altoona Curve
Peoples Natural Gas Field, the memorably named home of the Curve, features a memorable backdrop. The Skyliner roller coaster, located at adjacent Lakemont Park, looms just beyond right field. The Skyliner debuted at New York’s Roseland Park in 1960 and was relocated to Lakemont Park in 1985. It’s a veritable spring chicken when compared to Lakemont Park’s Leap-the-Dips coaster, which debuted in 1902 and is considered to be the oldest roller coaster in the country. 

Binghamton Rumble Ponies
Rod Serling grew up in Binghamton, and a memorial plaque in the city’s downtown honors him as an “award-winning dramatist, playwright and lecturer” as well as, of course, “creator of The Twilight Zone.” Over the years, Binghamton’s baseball team has paid tribute to Serling with a variety of promotions. In 2017, the Rumble Ponies took the field in The Twilight Zone theme jerseys, paying homage to a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity.

Bowie Baysox
The longtime Baysox home of Prince George’s Stadium was not ready in time for their inaugural 1993 campaign. The team instead played the entire season at the Baltimore Orioles’ former home of Memorial Stadium. Prince George’s Stadium still was not ready in time for the start of the 1994 season, so the Baysox played home games at the U.S. Naval Academy, the University of Maryland and the Frederick Keys’ home of Harry Grove Stadium. Prince George’s Stadium finally opened on June 16, 1994, giving the Baysox their fifth and final home to date. Its dimensions are the same as those at Memorial Stadium. 
Erie SeaWolves
In 2016, the Erie SeaWolves went 62-79 and finished in fourth place in the Western Division. Or did they? The following season, on Alternative Facts Night, the SeaWolves gave away 2016 championship replica rings in celebration of their undefeated campaign. They reported that over 1.2 million fans were in attendance on this special evening, during which the SeaWolves unapologetically celebrated “facts that the team knows to be true.”  

Harrisburg Senators
Many Minor League teams maintain a franchise-specific Hall of Fame. But only one team maintains a Life-Size Bobblehead Hall of Fame. That team — of course is the Senators. Vlad Guerrero was the first player inducted in 2016. Since then, Cliff Floyd, Bryce Harper, Matt Stairs, Brandon Phillips, Stephen Strasburg and Jamey Carroll have been similarly honored. 

Hartford Yard Goats
The 2016 arrival of the Yard Goats marked the return of Eastern League baseball to Hartford after a 54-year absence. The city was a charter member of the Eastern League, fielding a team from 1938 through 1952 in the form of the Bees, Laurels and Chiefs. 1938 wasn’t the first year that Hartford became a circuit’s charter member, however. The Hartford Dark Blues of 1876 were one of the original eight teams in the National League. The Dark Blues went 47-21, finishing second in the league behind the Chicago White Stockings. 
New Hampshire Fisher Cats
These days, Minor League teams court controversy when they rebrand. But the early years of the 21st century were a different, far more skittish time. On Nov. 6, 2003, it was announced that Manchester’s new Eastern League team (formerly the New Haven Ravens) would be renamed the New Hampshire Primaries. This, of course, was a reference to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary election voting status. After an uproar, the team reneged on the Primaries moniker and held a “Name the Team” contest. In a popular vote, the Fisher Cats triumphed over the Manchester Millers, the Granite State Mountain Men, the New Hampshire Granite, and coming in last, the New Hampshire Primaries.  

Portland Sea Dogs
Portland’s Eastern League team debuted in 1994, and in that time, it’s always had the same name and logo. The logo was courtesy of cartoonist Gary Gilchrist, perhaps best known for his 22-year-run as the author-illustrator of the comic strip Nancy. Prior to that inaugural 1994 Sea Dogs season, Gilchrist was approached by team president Charlie Eshbach and a collaboration began. “Gilchrist did a real nice drawing of a puffin,” Eshbach told _News Center Maine _in 2017. “The Portland Puffins. The more we thought about it. …It didn’t have that pizzazz.” That puffin morphed into the Sea Dog still in use today. Gilchrist went on to create logos for two defunct Eastern League teams, the Norwich Navigators and the New Britain Rock Cats.

Reading Fightin Phils
Ryan Howard hit 37 home runs for the Reading Phillies in 2004, establishing what was then a Reading franchise record. Two years later, Howard blasted 58 long balls as a member of the parent Philadelphia Phillies. Howard’s total in 2006 wasn’t the most Major League homers hit in a season by a Reading alumnus, however. That honor belongs to Roger Maris, who played for the 1955 Reading Indians. Six years later, Maris achieved baseball immortality by belting 61 home runs as a member of the New York Yankees.
*Richmond Flying Squirrels *
The Richmond Flying Squirrels are the only Eastern League team — and perhaps the only team, period — to have thrown a retirement party for a pig. The esteemed swine in question was Parker, who spent five seasons (2011-’15) as the Flying Squirrels’ “Rally Pig.” During this time, the team posted a home record of 206-148. Parker retired in 2016, and three years later, wishing to say a proper goodbye, the Flying Squirrels brought Parker back to the ballpark for a retirement party. Fans signed his retirement card and surely reminisced about his most memorable moment.

Trenton Thunder
Trenton’s Arm & Hammer Park is located on the banks of the Delaware River, which separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Therefore, it just may be possible to hit a home run into the next state. The first player to hit a “river shot” for the Thunder was Tony Clark, who did so during the Thunder’s inaugural season of 1994. According to NJ.com’s Paul Franklin, Clark’s shot “went over a sidewalk and then the river bank before plopping into the water and presumably freaking out a school of unsuspecting shad.” 

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben’s Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.

Toolshed: 2016 Draft retrospective

The 2020 First-Year Player Draft is coming, and without regular-season baseball being played yet due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could be the first big Major League Baseball event of the summer. The 2020 edition is likely to be held on June 10 and be as little as five rounds,

The 2020 First-Year Player Draft is coming, and without regular-season baseball being played yet due to the coronavirus pandemic, it could be the first big Major League Baseball event of the summer. The 2020 edition is likely to be held on June 10 and be as little as five rounds, but it still will mark the beginning of the professional careers for several of the game’s future top prospects. To get fans prepared for the big day on the baseball calendar, Toolshed will spend the coming weeks looking at Drafts of the recent past. The 2015 retrospective can be found here. This edition covers the 2016 Draft.

Biggest storyline at the time — All over the board: Before it even began, the 2016 Draft was known for its unpredictability. There was far from a consensus top talent, and no one was seen as a guaranteed superstar in the mode of a Bryce Harper earlier in the decade. MLB.com had New Jersey left-hander Jay Groome at the top of its Draft rankings. Baseball America preferred University of Florida southpaw A.J. Puk. Over at ESPN.com, Keith Law favored University of Louisville outfielder Corey Ray. Mercer outfielder Kyle Lewis, California outfielder Mickey Moniak and Kansas right-hander Riley Pint consistently appeared in top fives as well. The Phillies went with Moniak first overall, in part to use some of the nearly $3 million his signing bonus would save them on later picks, and the Reds went for safety at No. 2 with Tennessee third baseman Nick Senzel, who had arguably the highest floor of any player in the Draft. The Braves’ decision to take New York right-hander Ian Anderson at No. 3 for potential signing-space reasons as well and the Rockies’ move for Pint at No. 4 meant someone’s top overall talent wasn’t taken until the Brewers nabbed Ray at No. 5. Puk went to the A’s at No. 6, and Groome dropped to the Red Sox at No. 12 due to signing and makeup concerns. It made for a first round full of different strategies — some aiming for smaller signs in hopes of nabbing bigger classes, some taking the best player available and some aiming for what seemed like pure safety — and that only added to the intrigue in the days before and weeks, months and years after this class was selected.
Biggest storyline since — Better luck later: Some of the top picks have panned out just fine. Senzel already has arrived in Cincinnati, which is never a sure thing no matter what is said on Draft Day. Anderson and Puk remain top-60 overall prospects, and fellow top-15 picks Matt Manning and Alex Kirilloff look like they’re on the verge of long careers in the AL Central with the Tigers and Twins respectively. But with the advantage of hindsight, some of the later picks have aged much more gracefully than their earlier counterparts. Gavin Lux dropped to No. 20, partly because he hailed from a cold-weather state in Wisconsin, and the Dodgers infielder is now the No. 2 overall prospect in baseball. Ten of MLB.com’s current batch of Top-100 prospects came outside the top 20 picks, including five (Sean Murphy, Jesus Luzardo, Dustin May, Jordan Balazovic, Sam Huff) who went in the third round or later. That list doesn’t include Blue Jays shortstop Bo Bichette (taken 66th overall), but only because he graduated from prospectdom during an impressive rookie season north of the border. For all the hubbub around the likes of Groome, Ray and Pint in the early picks, some of the best talents came much later on Day 1 or even lasted until Day 2.
One other note on this Draft’s lasting impact: It might be the last Draft in which the qualifying offer caused a major impact. Eleven players turned down qualifying offers and signed with new clubs as free agents, and as a result, the first round proper of the 2016 Draft featured only 23 picks, the fewest since 1968. There were 11 picks tacked on in the compensation round — the Nationals, Padres and Cardinals each got two picks after losing multiple free agents. But the damage was done — the D-backs, Orioles, Nationals, Giants, Rangers, Royals and Cubs went without the proper first-round picks originally allotted to them. It didn’t take long for things to change. The number of compensation picks changed from 11 in 2016 to three in 2017 to five in 2018 to only two last year. Tying free-agent signings to Draft picks, thus limiting the former in favor of the latter, could change in the future, but that’s unlikely until the current collective bargaining agreement is up after the 2021 season.
How the first overall pick aged — Mickey Moniak, outfielder, Phillies: Moniak jumped into the top overall slot discussion because he had shown the potential to be an above-average hitter from the left side who could earn plus grades for his run and fielding tools in center field. Up-the-middle prospects always have value, and the Phillies, who were coming off a 63-win season, hoped they could build a system around the teenager along with second-rounder/right-hander Kevin Gowdy and third-rounder shortstop Cole Stobbe — all of whom were signed for well above slot thanks to the savings from the Moniak pick. It hasn’t exactly gone according to that plan. Moniak’s bat has never hit its stride in the Minors with a career average of .252 and OPS of .692 over four seasons. Power especially has been an issue with the Golden State native failing to get the ball off the ground much, at least early in his career. There were promising signs on that front in 2019 with a career-high 11 homers, 52 total extra-base hits and a .439 slugging percentage for Double-A Reading, and even his splits weren’t as out of whack as many sluggers who have called that park home in the past. But Moniak, who turned 22 on May 13, hasn’t been a huge menace on the basepaths either to make up for his previous lack of pop, and he now sits at just No. 11 in the Phillies system. He was likely to spend 2020 at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, just one quick call from Philly, and under potential new rules, he could be a candidate to crack an expanded Major League roster since his Rule 5 Draft eligibility is coming up next winter. But his role looks much closer to a fourth outfielder now than a potential franchise-building star.
Biggest dropoff — Riley Pint, first round, fourth overallThere were plenty of good reasons for the Rockies to take Pint when they did. He was MLB.com’s No. 2 Draft prospect. His fastball received plus-plus grades and reportedly touched as high as 102 mph. His curveball and changeup were considered plus weapons. Colorado typically finds it tough to sign Major League free-agent pitchers, so it can use all the internal help it gets on the mound. But the riskiest picks are usually high-school pitchers, particularly ones who throw hard and have some histories of control issues. Four years later, Pint still hasn’t reached above Class A Asheville in the Rox system. Part of that is due to an injury history that has included forearm stiffness, oblique issues and shoulder tendinitis. The other part is just general ineffectiveness. Pint has walked 124 over 156 innings during his pro career and 42 over 26 frames in the past two seasons alone. Last year, he even moved to the Asheville bullpen, but the control issues didn’t subside. The stuff is still relatively there. He still can touch triple-digits. The curveball can be plus-plus at times. But Pint — now the Rockies’ No. 29 prospect — isn’t close to the future ace Colorado hoped it was getting four years ago, and it must sting to see later top-10 picks Puk and Manning flourish on their way to the Majors.
Biggest early-round steal — Shane Bieber, fourth round, 122nd overall: Bieber is the ultimate late bloomer. He was a solid three-year starter at UC Santa Barbara, but his stuff was generally seen as average across the board going into the 2016 Draft. His fastball typically sat around 90-91 mph, and his slider and changeup gave him a starter’s mix albeit not an exciting one. His best asset was his control as he’d walked only 16 over 134 2/3 innings in his junior season. Ranked as the No. 151 Draft prospect, Bieber was scooped up by Cleveland a little earlier than expected and signed for $420,000, just below the $482,500 assigned to his slot. As predicted by his scouting profile and college pedigree, the 6-foot-3 right-hander moved quickly through the ranks toward northeast Ohio and made his Major League debut on May 31, 2018, just under two years since his Draft date. His control continued to be stellar, featuring only 10 free passes over 173 1/3 innings in his first full season in 2017, but Bieber cracked MLB.com’s Top-100 list for the first time only three days before his big league debut, fueled by an uptick in velocity. The Tribe right-hander now averages 93.4 mph on his heater, and the improved stuff has made him one of the game’s top starting pitchers. Bieber was an American League All-Star for the first time in 2019 and finished with a 3.28 ERA, 259 strikeouts and 40 walks over 214 1/3 innings last season. His 5.6 fWAR was fifth-best among AL starters, and he finished fourth in the circuit’s Cy Young voting. He’s officially the Cleveland club’s ace, a far cry from the back-end starter many projected in 2016. In fact, his career 5.5 bWAR is the highest among any 2016 pick to this point.
This category wouldn’t be complete if Mets first baseman Pete Alonso didn’t receive some sort of shoutout. The University of Florida slugger stood out for his power coming out of college, but fell to the second round (64th overall) because he was a right-handed-hitting first baseman who would be stuck at the position. He needed to hit a ton to be valuable. You likely know the rest. Alonso set a Major League rookie record with 53 homers last season for New York and should be a Big Apple mainstay for years to come. His higher Draft status and lower value at the cold corner keep him from jumping over Bieber in this category, but there’s every reason to believe Alonso could be the standout hitter from the Class of 2016 decades from now.
Best pick, rounds 6-40 — Tommy Edman, sixth round, 196th overall: The Cardinals had a Draft that was all over the place in 2016. They swung and missed with Delvin Perez with their first pick then snagged Dylan Carlson, Dakota Hudson, Zac Gallen, Edman and Andrew Knizner with five of their next eight selections. As of now, Edman looks like the biggest steal. St. Louis actually reached pretty significantly to take the Stanford infielder where it did. MLB.com didn’t have Edman ranked among its top 200 Draft prospects, and Baseball America placed the switch-hitter all the way back at 475. With only six homers in three years on campus, Edman had little power to speak and got his highest marks for his ability to make lots of contact and play a solid shortstop. As one may expect, the power has grown over the past four years, and Edman has turned into a solid overall hitter. He produced a .304/.350/.500 line with 11 homers over 92 Major League games last season, and he only helped his big league cause by playing third, second and all three outfield spots. Edman was worth 3.2 fWAR in a little over half a season — fourth-most among rookie position players in 2019 — ensuring St. Louis keeps his bat and glove in the lineup somehow. The 25-year-old isn’t exactly at star level, but he has set himself up to provide the Cards with more value than anyone typically expects from a sixth-rounder.
Best picks by organization — Dodgers: Wonder how Los Angeles can keep building contenders and keep one of the game’s most impressive farm systems? Look no further than this Draft. The Dodgers took Lux 20th overall, then watched him blossom into one of the game’s best young infielders. They used the 32nd overall pick — acquired for the free-agent loss of Zack Greinke — on Louisville catcher Will Smith, and four years later, Smith has become the club’s starting catcher, jumping over fellow top prospect Keibert Ruiz to reach that station. Los Angeles grabbed No. 23 overall prospect Dustin May in the third round (101st overall), and he should crack the Los Angeles rotation in short order after debuting in 2019. Add in Tony Gonsolin and Devin Smeltzer, and five members of the Dodgers’ 2016 class have already cracked the Majors. DJ Peters, Mitchell White, Cody Thomas and Jordan Sheffield aren’t very far off themselves, and others like Luke Raley and Dean Kremer are closing in after being used as trade chips in the four years since they joined the L.A. system. It’s already a group that’s helped build contending clubs in Chavez Ravine one way or another, and with Lux and May in particular, the group should have a long-lasting impact for years to come.

What to watch next from Class of 2016: We’re going to know a lot more about this group shortly after baseball resumes play. Those like Bieber, Alonso and Bichette will hope to solidify their places among the Majors’ elite. Lux, Luzardo, Puk, Murphy, May and Carter Kieboom have already reached the Majors and should be on the verge of prospect graduation. Others like Anderson, Carlson, Manning, Kirilloff, Forrest Whitley, Taylor Trammell, Brandon Marsh and Nolan Jones are closing in on The Show and looked on the verge of a 2020 debut. They could be helped by expanded rosters and taxi squads. Finally, players like Groome and Pint could be facing make-or-break moments in their careers if they can’t show health or production while Lewis, Ray, Senzel, Zack Collins and Cal Quantrill have to demonstrate they’re capable of grabbing significant Major League spots for good. Check in with this whole group in another 12 months.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.

Emeralds create ‘Eugene United’ to help community

It began with one person. One person became two. Two became more and more until suddenly, an entire community was united by one desire: to make a difference.With the Minor League Baseball season on pause as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, teams across the country have been hard at

It began with one person. One person became two. Two became more and more until suddenly, an entire community was united by one desire: to make a difference.
With the Minor League Baseball season on pause as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, teams across the country have been hard at work finding ways to help their communities. The Northwest League’s Eugene Emeralds are one such team, and what started as a small sewing project became a larger initiative to make an impact in the lives of the many Eugene residents who have been coming to Emeralds games for decades. For their efforts with “Eugene United,” the Emeralds have been named the winners of Minor League Baseball’s April Promotion of the Month.

“We ask the community to support us during our season, so if there’s any way we can support the community we’re on it,” Eugene’s Director of Community Relations Anne Culhane said. “Our big thing is finding out the needs in the community and being there for the people that are there for us every summer, day in and day out.”
The Emeralds have always been involved in the Eugene community, but saw an opportunity to step up when they learned that Megan Dompe, the wife of Emeralds Assistant General Manager Matt Dompe, was sewing masks for those in need of them. Culhane got involved and started delivering the masks Dompe made, but it wasn’t long before the rest of the Emeralds front office was brainstorming ways to contribute to the newly formed Mask Project of Lane County. After the Emeralds posted about the project on their Facebook page, fans in the area instantly offered to assist with the process.
“Everyone just wants to be able to help somehow, so we just wanted to give fans a way to feel like they’re helping and be able to do something good,” Culhane said.
Dompe assembles kits of supplies to create between 10-50 masks, which are then distributed by the Emeralds to volunteers all over the community. Once the masks are made, the Emeralds pick them up and return them to Dompe, who assesses the needs of local organizations and distributes them accordingly.
By the end of April, the team had over 100 volunteers, had sent out over 4,000 mask kits and had delivered over 2,100 completed masks to local hospitals. In addition, the team had donated masks to over 20 local groups, including health care providers, assisted living facilities, women’s care centers, police and fire departments, health centers and school personnel.
“From the start, we collectively said we need to be out there as much as possible,” said General Manager Allan Benavides. “We weren’t just going to wait things out. We knew we had some responsibility to make sure the Ems were out trying to help the community as much as we can. We’re still here.”
As the project grew and the team’s community sponsors and partners showed interest in getting involved, the Emeralds saw an opportunity to expand their scope. They partnered with Kendall Auto of Eugene and the local Heritage Distillery on a PPE Drive, collecting N95 masks, gloves and cleaning supplies for local hospitals. The three organizations also partnered on ‘Stuff the Truck’ drives to collect food and diapers for families in need. The second ‘Stuff the Truck’ drive was a huge success, with two full-size box trucks stuffed with supplies, in addition to thousands of dollars in cash and gift cards, donated. The team also received an anonymous $10,000 donation.

“That’s the coolest part is seeing how it’s trickled down through the community,” said Director of Social Media & Team Store Manager Shelby Holteen. “We’re seeing how people we don’t necessarily work with a lot or see all the time come together and do their part. Some of these drives we walk away with a ton of supplies and others are smaller, but no matter what we’re walking away with something.”
The Emeralds have held food drives for Food for Lane County, a local food bank where the staff spends a few hours volunteering every Thursday. The Emeralds held a ‘Cards from the Heart’ drive, collecting thank you cards for first responders, doctors and others on the front lines of the pandemic. The team worked with Kendall Auto and the University of Oregon, with whom the Emeralds share facilities, to hold blood drives for the American Red Cross, the first of which resulted in enough blood collected and donated to save over 250 lives.
“Our community has always stepped up when we get involved, whether it’s something at the ballpark or something we support, so I had no doubt in my mind that our fans would step up,” Culhane said. “Just being at some of these events and hearing people thank us for being that intermediate is something that makes you realize how important it is in times like this for everyone to stand together and help.”
The work continues, as the Emeralds remain committed to giving back to the Eugene community that has supported them over the years. Recent diaper drives, blood drives and even a superhero-themed birthday parade demonstrate the team’s continued commitment to its fans. There may not be baseball right now, but there’s plenty of hope in Eugene.