This season, the talk around The Diamond has been mostly about the controversy over building a new park in Shockoe Bottom. But to focus on future bricks and mortar is to miss today's talent, which is considerable and considerably hungry to win.
"This is a workout. This is a bitch," says pitching coach Guy Hansen. "It's not the big leagues where you get a day off and you're riding charters. I mean, you're riding buses for ten to fifteen hours, or you're getting up the morning at four o'clock to make some six o'clock flight because you're living in Richmond, and you've got to connect in Pittsburgh or Charlotte or whatever. It's a bear, so you've got to be in shape, you got to tune yourself in. But at the same time, you've gotta have some fun."
There wasn't much fun at the start of this Friday game. Like snowflakes and people, no two baseball games are alike there are too many variables to standardize. The teams are large, the crowds are larger, the rules are arcane, and the games have no fixed time limit.
Dan Meyer, a 23-year-old with the face of a teenager, was on the mound for Richmond in the top of the first. He's one of the Braves' leading prospects.
"You draft so many kids. A lot of them don't work out, but I know that Meyer probably will," says pitcher Will Cunnane, 30, who's been up to the Atlanta Braves and back already this season. "He's got a good head on his shoulders, and he's got a great arm, and usually that combination goes a long way."
But Meyer's start was rough. He threw more pitches than he needed in the top of the first, walking a batter and giving up a hit. Things got strange when the third batter lost control of his bat and sent it flying into the stands. It hit a woman who was eventually OK after a trip to the ER and eight staples in her head.
Meyer also balked in the inning, the pitcher's equivalent of a false start. But he struck out the fourth batter, got the fifth to pop out and headed back to the dugout without giving up any runs.
Pawtucket's parent club, the Boston Red Sox, is in the American League, where the pitchers don't usually hit. This game was by AL rules, so while Meyer's teammates were at bat, he had time to think.
"I just try to clear my head and go back out there and put up a zero," Meyer says. "Try to get zero or maybe one run. You keep your team in the game, and your team will pick you up."
The Braves scored in the first, and Meyer cruised through the top of the second. Three strikeouts in a row. It was still 1-0.
"He's the kind of guy you like to play defense behind, because he's a quick worker," says Kelly, the manager. Meyer's strategy is to keep the game moving along. "He gets the ball and doesn't mess around. He's on the rubber ready to throw the next pitch. Defensively, the guys get with the flow like that. They're ready, and they end up playing better defense because they're not constantly on their heels waiting for the next pitch."
The Braves put up another run in the bottom of the second. Catcher Joe DePastino came up and the PA system played as it did every time he batted "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" by Country Music Award winner Kenny Chesney:
She thinks my tractor's sexy
It really turns her on.
She's always staring at me
While I'm chuggin along.
Meyer, a native of New Jersey and a James Madison University graduate, says, "When I first came to college, there was a lot of country music. I'm still trying to get used to that. But I love it down here; I love it in Virginia. I'll probably end up making my home somewhere in Virginia."
In the third, Meyer got the first two batters to pop up. The third batter reached base on an error. Meyer thought he had a strikeout on the fourth batter, but the umpire disagreed. Meyer threw another strike, and the top of the inning was over.
In the fourth, it was still 2-0 Braves, and Meyer was cruising. An older fan keeping score said to a latecomer, "One, two, three, six strikeouts. He's 23 years old, so he's not a retread."
After a strikeout, another batter got on base and eventually scored. Meyer ended the inning by catching a softly hit ball and throwing it to the first baseman, James Jurries, who tried to toss the ball to a kid in the stands. "Hey! Hey!" Jurries shouted, when a grown-up made a move for the kid's souvenir.
It was still 2-1 at the top of the fifth. A warm, soft breeze blew as Meyer trotted out to the mound, skipping on his last step. He got the first batter to fly out, but he made a lot of pitches, and things soon went south.
One of the Red Sox hit a solid double down the third base line, and the next batter advanced that runner to third. Meyer walked another batter, kicked the dirt in frustration. Pitching coach Hansen made a trip to the mound, and he kicked the dirt, too. A head popped up out of the Braves' dugout, apparently to make sure someone was warming up in the bullpen.
Hansen returned to the bench, and Meyer gave up another hit down the third base line, scoring a run. Now the game was tied, there were still two men on base, and Meyer had thrown about 100 pitches more than most pitchers throw in an entire game, though this game was not yet half over.
"He's a prospect. They've got a lot of money invested in him," veteran relief pitcher Matt Whiteside says. "They're not gonna send him out there for much more than a hundred pitches. They don't want to take a chance of an arm injury. So he needs to, just for career longevity and the long season, to try to be as efficient as possible as a starter."
Kelly came out, signaled to the bullpen and took the ball from Meyer, who walked off the field. And just before Meyer got to the dugout, he pulled off his cap, covered his face and Cheneyed loud enough for the front row to hear.
"Physically, pitching-wise, I'm not ready," Meyer says of his major-league prospects. "I still need to refine things, to get better. I'm excited, but I've still got a lot of things to learn. I'm going to wait my turn and just go out there and do a good job."
The next pitcher was the one coach Hansen calls "the best prospect here," Roman Colon, who turns 25 in a month. Though the Braves' media guide lists him at 6 feet 3 inches and 170 pounds, he easily looks two inches taller and 40 pounds heavier.
Colon got the out and stopped the Red Sox rally. The first half of his throwing motion is calm, seemingly relaxed. But when the ball gets to his shoulder it accelerates like the HyperSonic coaster at Kings Dominion in a blink the ball thwacks loudly into the catcher's mitt.
"It's probably as close to perfection in a delivery as you can find," Kelly says. "He's long and lean, the ball has a nice downhill flight, with tremendous velocity. And because it is so easy, it surprises the hitters, because it comes so quick."
"Power, power, power arm, as good as it gets," Cunnane says. "He's just winging it, and I know he's throwing 97, 98 miles per hour. And in this game that goes a long way."
Colon's from the baseball-obsessed Dominican Republic, where, he says, "The first thing that you've got in your hands is a baseball and a glove." He's the youngest of nine brothers and sisters. The Braves signed him the day after he turned 16.
He remembers the moment well. "I was thinking to myself, 'I wish I had the opportunity to sign with the Braves,' because that was my favorite team. It's like a fantasy."
One of his first playing assignments came two years later in Virginia, with the rookie-league Danville Braves. "That was tough right there because I didn't know English by then, and everything was kind of hard interpretation and being able to communicate. I had never played professional ball like that, playing at nighttime and traveling everywhere and staying in hotels in many different places." A Cuban coach and fellow Latino prospects including star Atlanta Braves shortstop Rafael Furcal - kept Colon company.
"Anytime you're in a different country, with different customs, it's difficult," Kelly says. "But Roman? He's very intelligent. He's got a very good grasp of American culture, and he seems to have adjusted very well. I think that's the key for a young player. If they can get a feel for where they are playing after three or four years and be able to adjust to it, then they have a chance of being a really good major league player."
The Braves added two runs in the bottom of the fifth one of them after the Red Sox pitcher walked a batter with the bases loaded. Colon returned to the mound, and the first two batters grounded out. The third barely snuck a single past the diving second baseman.
The next batter hit the ball back to Colon, who was about to throw him out at first. Instead, Colon waited a beat, stared at the hapless runner, then tossed the ball.
"It's like some kind of emotion that you feel," Colon says. "Sometimes you look at the hitter when you strike him out, or when you're warming up, you're there looking at him, giving him some impression, 'You're not scaring me, I'm gonna go right at you.'"
Colon gave up a solo home run in the top of the seventh, but the Braves answered with two runs in the bottom of the inning. The Red Sox manager finally pulled his starting pitcher, who left hearing "Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)" that rare song with a major-key verse and a minor-key chorus.
When the Braves took the field again, it was with Cunnane, who began the season in Atlanta but was sent down to Richmond after a lackluster few games. The first batter took Cunnane's first pitch and knocked it over the wall in left center. One pitch, one run, and it was 6-4.
"I don't know if that's happened to me, probably not in a long while," Cunnane says. "It was kind of a little shock. I didn't expect them to swing at the first pitch because I wanted to get strike one, and the next thing you know, it's out of the ballpark. Then you just clear your head up and go after the next three guys." Which he did, and he got them.
"Last year, when he joined us halfway through the year, he kind of found something, and he started throwing strikes," Kelly says of Cunnane. "And he had an unbelievable run here, where at 20-plus innings he didn't give up a run. He went up to the big leagues, and was closing games. I think this year in Atlanta, he kind of lost it again, and he's back here trying to find it. And, at times, I think, you can see it."
"I have no clue what is going to happen," Cunnane says about his prospects of returning to the major-league club. "I just have to perform better. I haven't performed well at all while I've been back here. It's just up and down. They need consistency, and I'm not giving it to them right now."
The Braves put two runners on in the bottom of the inning but didn't score. They headed into the ninth with a two-run lead and their closer walking in from the bullpen. It was Whiteside, a 36-year-old veteran of a career that's included judging the Miss USA pageant and, while pitching for the Texas Rangers, visiting with team owner George W. Bush: "It was pretty cool when he got elected. I was like, 'Hey, I know that guy.'" Whiteside has also pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies, the San Diego Padres and - for part of the 2003 season - the Yokohama BayStars.
"I loved every second of it," Whiteside says. "I tried to go out and see everything there was to see: Mt. Fuji, Hiroshima. My fiancee and I had a group of six Japanese couples over for a Mexican fiesta one night, drinking tequila out of sake glasses. So, off the field I had a great time.
"On the field I didn't do as well as I would have liked. I didn't pitch as much as I thought I could have and should have, and I didn't really get into a good rhythm and flow."
The Japanese system includes from a Western perspective an unusual amount of conditioning and repetitive drills.
"Their spring training is no joke by any means. I went over in good shape, and I mean, it was unbelievable. You run 400 meters for time, and I'm sitting there trying to catch my breath, and they're lighting a cigarette. By the end of each day for the first two weeks, the pitchers were at another area and it was an all-dirt infield, and we had a tire tied to a rope that we had to drag around the outfield, or the outskirts of the infield dirt like two or three times after you've done all your running and all your stretching. Obviously, it's picking up dirt all the way. You get to about second base and the tire's full of dirt, and you're like, 'How are we going to get back home?'"
He did get home to the U.S., and completed the 2003 season with the Colorado Rockies' equivalent of the Richmond Braves. The Braves organization acquired him in January. On this Friday, his flow was impeccable. Three strikeouts in a row.
"He's automatic," Kelly says. "He's been tremendous for us all year. I don't know where we would be without him. Right now, we have so much confidence in him, and I know offensively he helps us, because we know if we can close and get that one inning where you put yourself ahead, then Matt's going to win the ballgame."
The Braves did win. Whiteside closed out this game and did the same thing five days later. In the International League All Star game at Pawtucket's home stadium, he faced five batters, recorded three strikeouts and got the win. He turns 37 Aug. 8.
"Right now," Whiteside says, "I'm working to be consistent with my mechanics and controlling things I can control, which are to execute this pitch at this moment and not worry about what happens behind me or in front of me. A lot of times you get to the triple-A level and you got guys with a lot of different agendas. You got guys who don't really care whether you win or not, because they know what's going to happen to them. You got guys playing for their next contract next year.
"To me, this team is not anything like that. The first thing out of a guy's mouth when he comes in the clubhouse is, 'Hey, what did Durham do last night?' or Charlotte, or whoever is right there close to us. We're just trying to keep things afloat right now, get into August and then make a push for the playoffs." S
The Richmond Braves play the Indianapolis Indians (the AAA club of the Milwaukee Brewers) Friday, July 23 at 7 p.m. and Saturday July 24 at 4 p.m. The Braves play the Columbus Clippers (affiliated with the New York Yankees) Sunday July 25 at 2 p.m. and Monday July 26 at 7 p.m. All games at The Diamond. Tickets $6-$9. Children and seniors $3. For more information call (804) 359-4444 or visit www.rbraves.com.
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