Archive for the ‘Baseball’ Category

(Editor’s note: I received a lot of feedback from this column. From Minnesota to Arizona to Kansas, people told me of ways they would have handled the situation and of their desire to do something good. As a secondary note, I can’t believe I haven’t posted anything since January.)

Christian Lopez is my hero. And he should be for anyone who craves the purity of sport or just the merits of doing the right thing.

If you don’t know who Lopez is, he is the 23-year-old cell phone salesman who wound up with Derek Jeter’s 3,000th hit in his hands Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium.

There’s nothing special about that; it’s what he did with the ball that is. He gave it to Derek Jeter.

Just like that.

No strings attached.

It’s been estimated the ball holds a cash value of $100,000 to $250,000. Most people would have held the ball for ransom — cash, signed memorabilia, a kiss on the cheek from Jeter’s girlfriend, actress Minka Kelly, or whatever it is that floats their boat.

Not Lopez.

During an in-game interview, Lopez revealed he asked for nothing. Lopez’s gesture touched the Steinbrenner family that they gave Lopez four tickets in the priciest seats for every remaining home game through the postseason.

He told reporters in what had to be a surreal post-game press conference that the ball — and the moment — belonged to Jeter.

Here is a 23-year-old kid, a year out of college who didn’t let greed blind him. He had no machinations of what any proposed bounty could do for him. Rather, he saw the situation for what it was.

Meanwhile, on sports talk radio Lopez was shredded by callers because he didn’t maximize the potential of the situation. To that I disagree. Lopez unknowingly took a stand. His good deed was paid forward.

Too often it’s all about me-me-me, or how my kid is the next great thing. Lost in the shuffle are the Christian Lopezes of the world.

If a stadium with more than 48,000 fans, and those who hear this story, learn to act selflessly when the world tells you otherwise, we’ll all be better.

What we should learn from Lopez doesn’t just apply to sports, but in life. Do some good and maybe some good will come back to you.

Fittingly, after Jeter, the second-largest ovation of the day was saved for Lopez.


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Giants bench coach Ron Wotus argues a call in 2009. Wotus will participate in his second World Series with San Francisco. (Photo credit: San Francisco Chronicle)

When the leaves change color and the air becomes crisp, Ron Wotus thinks of Connecticut.

His mind takes him back to the fields of his youth, vivid memories of soccer matches won and lost on penalty kicks. The Colchester, Conn., native had planned to return Monday for his annual visit home. But that will have to wait at least another week.

Wotus and the San Francisco Giants, for whom he serves as bench coach, begin the World Series tonight (7:57 p.m., FOX) against the Texas Rangers. It’s Wotus’ second Fall Classic after reaching it with the Giants in 2002.

In his 22nd season with the organization, Wotus joined as a player and worked his way up from minor league coach and manager to his current position, which he reached in 1999.

“The biggest thrill is getting back into the postseason,” he said. “I think anybody who is a competitor or in sports, you strive, your motivation is to win. That’s what you plan on doing when you go to spring training.

“There’s a sense of accomplishment when you execute and you perform. Certainly as a coach, that’s what you want the players to do. Getting into the playoffs and having a shot at going to the World Series is what you play for.”

The Giants last won the World Series in 1954.

Wotus was on the staff when the Giants played in their last World Series. He knows the opportunity to play in baseball’s biggest event doesn’t happen every year.

Just ask the Yankees.

“It’s very difficult to get where you are going; it’s one bad pitch, it’s a bloop hit, it’s a matter of inches on a hit or not,” Wotus said. “You really have to be appreciative when you get here and do everything you can to win.”

In 1979, Wotus graduated from Bacon Academy where he was an All-State honoree in baseball, basketball and soccer. He averaged 30 points per game on the hardwood and was the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 16th-round draft choice, but his heart was on the pitch. Wotus was All-New England in soccer and set the state scoring mark.

“I enjoyed them all, but soccer was special to me,” he said. “We enjoyed a lot of success. Not that I didn’t enjoy the other ones, but it was special. I had a lot of great coaches in Frank Aloia, Dave Shea and John McKiernan.

“Maybe it’s something about being outside and playing in the fall. Maybe it’s in my heart. I always come home in the fall. The fresh crisp air and the competition in soccer, I loved it growing up. I loved all the sports. That had a special place. I can’t put my finger on it but it was special to me.”

Wotus’ family still calls Colchester home, and several members were in Philadelphia on Saturday to watch the Giants beat the Phillies for the National League championship. He hopes to be back in Connecticut in January for the World Baseball Coaches Convention at Mohegan Sun.

Wotus’ All-State basketball photo and a basketball with his career point total are still on display at Bacon Academy. School legend Shea coached Wotus in basketball, and remembers him being all the things you want in a student-athlete: Hardworking, dedicated and a good teammate.

“He was a great competitor regardless of the score,” Shea said. “He always played hard and played to win, right up to the final buzzer.”

Joining Wotus on the Giants are eight former Norwich Navigators/Connecticut Defenders — Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Sergio Romo, Brian Wilson, Jonathan Sanchez, Travis Ishikawa, Pablo Sandoval and Nate Schierholtz. That gives this World Series a Connecticut feel.

Wotus said the topics that came up most among the teams’ alumni are the local fishing hot spots and the difficulties playing at Dodd Stadium.

“We talked a little bit,” he said. “The thing that always comes up is it was an extremely tough hitters’ park. It was difficult to hit there in Norwich. I certainly always told the guys I lived up the road in Colchester, and they knew where it was at. I always heard about how crazy it was in our area on the lakes.”

And if the Giants were to win the World Series, it may serve as the perfect send-off for Wotus, who expressed interested in the Pirates’ managerial opening to MLB.com. The Pirates drafted Wotus in 1979 out of Bacon Academy.

“It’s not really the right time for me to speak about it on the record,” he said. “I can’t say I’m definitely interested in managing Pittsburgh or any club that would be interested in me. That’s what I’d like to do and it’s certainly out of my control. That’s up to the people that are doing the hiring. … I’ve been here my whole career as a coach. The personal thing of managing is great, but it’s not at the forefront for me, it’s finishing a job that we set out to do here.

“This is what it’s all about right now.”

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Yankees draft pick Cito Culver overcame tragedy to reach professional baseball. (Photo courtesy ESPN)

NORWICH, Conn. — It wouldn’t be a stretch to believe Chris “Cito” Culver would fit in among the dozens of players depicted in the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Polite and smiling, Culver can’t believe he is living out his dream of playing professional baseball. In town this weekend with the Staten Island Yankees, Culver is a modern day Moonlight Graham.

It was so important for him to begin his career that he signed his first contract days after being drafted, a far cry from many of his peers.

There’s a certain warmth that he draws from the diamond, but when the topic changes from the game to what his family experienced two years ago, a sadness permeates his eyes.

Looking down for a second, Culver looks forward as he joins his teammates in their pre-game warm-ups and says, “It’s what keeps me going.”

Life hasn’t always been roses for New York’s first-round selection in June’s draft.

In March 2008, he woke up to find his father, Christopher, Sr., attempting to burn down the family home with him and his estranged wife inside. The house burned down but Cito, his two younger sisters and mother made it out alive. His father pleaded guilty to first-degree burglary, third-degree arson and first-degree criminal contempt, and is now serving a maximum nine-year sentence.

Fittingly, Culver says the biggest thing he’s learned over the first 42 games of his career is remaining positive.

“When you play every day, you’re going to have your good days and bad days, and you just have to learn to life with it, how to cope,” Culver said. “That’s something that’s big in this game because you’re not going to have a good day every day.”

When he’s on the field, however, the pain goes away.

Just a few days shy of his 18th birthday, Culver is as an unassuming baseball star in the making.

On the fourth pitch he sees in the batting cage, Culver slammed the offering high against the right field wall. There are no oohs and ahhs. Even with Yankees officials in attendance to watch their investment’s every move, Culver carries himself with the innocence of a child blissfully ignorant of the expectations placed at his feet.

From the moment the Yankees selected him, the switch-hitting shortstop has been anointed Derek Jeter’s heir apparent. The Yankees, he said, protect him from the pressure.

Growing up a Yankees fan in Rochester, N.Y., Culver even sounds like Jeter, his idol.

“It was really the highlight,” he said of being drafted by New York. “I’ve always wanted to be playing for the Yankees. It’s pretty much a dream come true for me.”

Staten Island’s hitting coach Ty Hawkins said Culver is still growing into the game.

“That’s one of the things, in the limited time of seeing him — his personality; he just seems like he really enjoys being here,” Hawkins said. “He doesn’t feel like he has to live up to any expectations. He just goes out and do what he can.”

Playing just his second game since being promoted to New York’s short-season team in Staten Island, N.Y., Culver hasn’t come down from the cloud he’s been on since June’s draft.

“It still doesn’t (seem real),” Culver said. “It still hasn’t sunk in. I just go out here playing every day. It’s really lost of fun.”

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NORWICH, Conn. — For more than a decade, Major League Baseball claimed it was waging a war against performance-enhancing drugs. Late last month it made a significant move to clean up the sport.

Baseball will begin blood testing non-40-man roster players in the minors for HGH, or human growth hormone. Major League Baseball does not need players’ consent to implement this random testing, because players in the minor leagues are not members of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

When the time comes for the union and MLB to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, blood testing is expected to be a contentious sticking point on both sides. But closer to home, those who are immediately affected — the Connecticut Tigers — support the testing.

“I don’t mind it, I think it’s a long time coming,” shortstop Ryan Soares said, adding there’s a sense of pride in being clean. “I think it’s a big step in the process of trying to clean the game up.”

The Tigers players who spoke on the topic said they have yet to be tested.

Players who test positive will receive a 50-game suspension, the same punishment levied for steroid use.

While testing in the minors for HGH is new, there has already been one suspension. Atlanta minor leaguer Jordan Schafer was suspended 50 games in 2008 after it was determined he purchased HGH.

A pitfall in the testing is the use of some nutritional supplements and medications, which give no advantage, leads to positive test results.

To combat this, players are advised to consult with their team trainer, who will let them know if a product is approved or not. On the major league level, there is a telephone hotline — in English and Spanish — players can use to make sure their purchases are in compliance.

The Detroit Tigers require their players to speak with the individual’s team trainer, strength and condition coach or the minor league strength coach in Lakeland, Fla., to gain approval. The latter makes the rounds, visiting affiliates to keep them abreast of policies regarding supplements, so that it’s never out of mind.

“That’s too bad,” Connecticut manager Howard Bushong said of the sometimes tricky supplement situation. “That’s why our whole organization has to be careful about them, the products that they purchase at a gym or a health food store. It may seem harmless — and it may be harmless. But if it’s against baseball’s rules, well then that’s the thing (that gets people into trouble).”

Not everyone is pleased with the testing. Don Catlin, a scientist who developed a urine test to detect HGH, said MLB’s method is flawed.

“The fact that it’s been around a few thousand tests and only one positive suggests either that there’s much less growth hormone being used than thought, which is doubtful, or the period of detectability is pretty short — a few hours,” Caitlin told The Associated Press. “It’s probably the latter.”

Other critics claim blood testing, because it can reveal more than the test’s intended purpose, is an invasion of privacy.

Even though the players association is reluctant to agree to testing because it doesn’t believe there is reliable, accurate testing, several players have come out in support of blood testing.

The likes of the Yankees’ Lance Berkman and Derek Jeter, as well as the Phillies’ Roy Oswalt, believe blood testing is a step in the right direction.

Their argument is if there isn’t anything to hide, why fight testing. The goal, after all, is to clean up the game.

It’s a sentiment echoed at Dodd Stadium.

“It’s good for me,” said Josh Ashenbrenner. “It’s good for the people who don’t use, because it gives us more of a chance (to succeed).”

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NORWICH, Conn. — High above the field at Dodd Stadium, Clemente Mendoza has an odd vantage point of the field he calls home.

On this day, Mendoza isn’t taking the field as a starting pitcher for the Connecticut Tigers. Instead, he’s learning how to view baseball — and life — differently by learning English.

The Venezuelan is one of six Tigers participating in the team’s English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class. The classes are conducted in association with the Norwich Department of Education.

With baseball featuring many players new to the United States, the Detroit Tigers are one of the franchises providing their players with an education in English.

Much like he would on the mound in his starts, Mendoza takes charge in the classroom.

Outgoing, friendly and further along in his understanding of English, Mendoza encourages his teammates in a situation that can be frightening for some.

“When you’re Latin, you don’t know English, so you’re afraid to speak to somebody,” Mendoza said. “You don’t like to make mistakes and that’s the reason people don’t learn English fast, because they’re afraid to make mistakes.”

Of those in the class, which meets as often as the schedule allows, three are from the Dominican Republic (Rayni Guichardo, Julio Rodriguez and Alexander Nunez), two are from Venezuela (Mendoza and Josue Carreno) and one is from Taiwan (Chao-Ting Tang).

Back to class

The players receive roughly 20 classes per season, as mandated by Connecticut’s Major League affiliate in Detroit. Throughout Detroit’s farm system, only the Double-A and Triple-A affiliates do not have ESOL classes, but that is predicated on the needs of those teams.

Taught by Jackie Shutsky, an adult education teacher with the city, the Tigers’ class structure encourages confidence and interaction with the players still developing language skills.

Adult education teacher Jackie Shutsky, left, leads a class which includes Connecticut Tigers Alexander Nunez, center, and Julio Rodriguez, right. (Photo courtesy the Norwich Bulletin).

There are textbooks, homework assignments and computer programs to assist in studying, as well as real-life situations in which the players can test their knowledge.

Because most of the players in the class haven’t been in a classroom setting in usually a few years before turning pro, class management is sometimes the biggest challenge. But so is the players’ tendency to speak their native language.

“That is difficult, they really fall back on it when they don’t understand something or when they’re asking each other something,” Shutsky said. “And it’s hard because they are a team and they’re so ingrained. It’s that piece (that) is so different than the classroom. In the classroom I can say, ‘No Spanish, only English.’ Here, they are such a team.”

Detroit Tigers International Player Programs Coordinator Sharon Lockwood oversees the classes throughout Detroit’s organization. She spent the previous decade in a similar capacity with the Cleveland Indians.

She mentions current big leaguers such as Victor Martinez, Fausto Carmona, Ramon Santiago and Jhonny Peralta as just a few who have benefited from these classes.

Star student

But it is Mendoza who she raves about.

“He just loves American things — the music, he loves shopping, communicating; he’s a communicator,” she said. “With guys like that, they’re naturally going to try to make that step.”

A year ago, Mendoza was hesitant to participate in English interviews, often asking for help. Now it is he who helps.

When Carreno speaks to the press, he seeks out Mendoza for assistance.

He knows how difficult it can be to work on baseball and English. The key, Mendoza said, is practice.

“You have to try to speak with coaches and teammates, so you have to practice your English every day,” said Mendoza, who added that verbs and pronunciation are his biggest hurdles.

In a recent class at the Yard Bar and Grill on the second floor of the stadium, the players sit around a table, discussing their homework assignment before moving on to the next lesson.

On this occasion, the Tigers were participating in role playing. Each took joy in watching the others perform their scripted parts.

The friendly ribbing between players helps them get added practice in the new language.

For this close-knit group, any reason is a good reason to tease — in English.

Necessary skill

For Rodriguez, who recently turned 21, the classes have heightened significance.

As a catcher, Rodriguez needs to be able to convey thoughts to his coaching staff as well as that night’s pitcher.

There’s no guarantee any of those people speak Spanish, so if Rodriguez, who was recently named a New York-Penn League All-Star, wants to continue to progress, he must learn English.

He is in his second year of classes and said it has become easier.

“It’s nice to communicate with the pitcher and manager,” Rodriguez said. “So if the manager goes to the mound, the pitcher is Latin and knows no English, I translate for the pitcher.”

Rodriguez uses phone conversations and chatting with friends via the Internet to improve his English.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” Connecticut manager Howard Bushing said. “Last year, when we had Rodriguez, he could hardly speak any English. And he’s put the effort in between last year and this year. He’s doing great, he’s communicating well.”


A player’s ability to thrive while learning a difficult language, Lockwood said, has a lot to do with their character. The more outgoing and motivated a person is, the more likely they are to succeed in grasping English. The frequency in which a player has to speak English can also determine success.

Norwich Board of Education Chairperson Charlie Jaskiewicz, who attended the class, said it takes three years to learn conversational English and five for scholarly English.

As a player’s career progress, the classes aren’t tailored to what level in the minors he is at, but the individual level at which he understands English.

Beginning this season, Detroit has implemented Comprehensive Adult Student Assignment Systems testing, or CASAS, to accurately measure listening and reading comprehension.

It isn’t the only means by which Lockwood determines what level to place each player, but it provides her a guide.

As it turned out, the curriculum she chose for the Tigers is the same one used by the city.

It’s not uncommon for players to not want to attend class, but as Lockwood points out, once they get into the swing of things they see the benefits.

“I don’t know of any of them who want to go to class,” she said. “Well, there may be a couple of them who secretly want to go to class, but they wouldn’t dare admit it to their teammates. … I find that as classes go on, they are into it and the light is going on, and they’re asking questions.”

Only now they can ask in two languages instead of one.

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NORWICH, Conn. — For 68 years, one of the components of Hall of Fame Weekend in Cooperstown, N.Y., was a game between two of baseball’s major league teams. But following 2008, baseball decided the scheduling of an in-season exhibition game became too troublesome to continue.

It was replaced by a game played on Father’s Day in the upstate New York hamlet that features a mix of Hall of Fame and not-so famous players.

The Connecticut Tigers will face the Tri-City ValleyCats at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But since 1991, one game that’s been consistent has been the regular-season contest played between two New York-Penn League franchises.

Today, the Connecticut Tigers play host to the Tri-City ValleyCats at 1 p.m. in Cooperstown. The weekend reaches its climax Sunday with the Hall of Fame induction ceremony.

“It’s amazing,” said Tigers general manager Andrew Weber. Connecticut’s game with Tri-City on Friday was postponed by rain to July 31. “From my standpoint, as a player, I would have dreamed of playing there. … With it being induction weekend, that’s ultimately what every guy on that field wants — is to end a career inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

The Tigers, or at least the franchise that was based in Oneonta, N.Y., had been associated with the game since its inception 19 years ago. Oneonta, then the team closest to Doubleday Field, was the home team. Since the team relocated to Norwich last spring after the schedule was produced, the Tigers kept their place in the game.

Weber said team owner E. Miles Prentice wants to keep Connecticut involved in the tradition of the game as long as the league, the Hall of Fame or Minor League Baseball don’t say otherwise.

“I can tell you, I doubt other teams will tell you they’ll voluntarily give up a Saturday home game to play there,” Weber said.

It’s uncertain whether the team will continue its participation, but Connecticut is doing everything it can to take advantage of the rare opportunity to play in Cooperstown.

For $40 or $50 (depending upon age), the team sold packages that included a seat on a chartered bus, a ticket to the game, admission to the Hall of Fame and a bagged lunch from Panera Bread. The offering was a success; Weber said every seat on the bus was sold, and that he hopes the team can send two buses next year.

Tigers manager Howard Bushong and three of his players were part of last season’s game with the ValleyCats.

“Playing in that stadium, playing in that game, makes you appreciate where you are and the opportunities that you have,” Bushong said. “Last year’s game is something I’ll never forget. I hope this year’s game is the same thing.”

With such a unique moment at hand, Bushong plans to give his players advice to cherish the opportunity while playing the game.

And it’s pretty neat to play before nearly 10,000 fans — including Hall of Famers — at the birthplace of baseball. Not that the players, most of who are in the first years of their careers, needed any more pressure.

It’s not unusual either to see players play a little harder and with a little more emotion.

“It’s like a dream for a player to play there,” said Tigers pitcher Clemente Mendoza. “Everyone wants to play there. It’s a really good experience.”

Bushong said the fans at the game are different than at any other game. No matter what uniform a player has on, they’ll cheer for him. It is truly a celebration of baseball.

“They just cheer to watch kids play,” he said. “Every time I have the opportunity — and I’ve been to Cooperstown four times — every time has been special. It gives me chills every time I go.”

If there’s a drawback in the experience it’s that with games the next day, both Connecticut (at Lowell) and Tri-City (at Vermont) don’t have a chance to explore the Hall of Fame. Even if the schedule was amended to give the teams time to check out the exhibits, finding enough hotel rooms for 70 to 80 people on induction weekend is close to impossible.

One possible solution would be to have Connecticut play at Tri-City the night before or the day after the game in Cooperstown.

Regardless of the logistics, the Tigers’ manager hopes the players appreciate the sojourn, especially because some of them are from other countries and may never have the chance to return.

Said Bushong: “I always hope it means as much to them as it does to me.”

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NORWICH, Conn. — Tigers assistant general manager C.J. Knudsen recalls working for the “worst team in all of professional baseball” in 2003.

That summer, Knudsen — then the general manager for the Vermont Expos — sent out a press release declaring he would sleep in the team’s dugout until the team won a game. With a 19-56 record, wins were hard to come by.

The team was so bad — and apparently so was Knudsen’s fortunes — that after each loss another front office member joined him in what become known as a Slump-er Party. Fans arrived at Centennial Field dressed in pajamas in support of the sleep-out.

“Centennial Field is the oldest ballpark in minor league baseball,” Knudsen said Wednesday before the Tigers’ game with Vermont was postponed by rain. “I tried not to think about the cemetery in right field or the light towers that are creaking in the wind and all the trash and everything that was blowing around in the wind after a game.

“That was night No. 1. About 10 minutes into my sleep, I got startled and I woke up. … There was a large skunk running across the front of the dugout. Needless to say, I didn’t get any sleep that night.”

Seven days and a few rainy nights later, Knudsen was able to sleep in his own bed.

It’s a time Knudsen reflects upon fondly, so it’s hard to fault him if these past few days have been emotional. With Connecticut hosting Vermont, a series that wraps up tonight at Dodd Stadium with a doubleheader beginning at 6:05 p.m., Knudsen is having a family reunion of sorts.

Knudsen interned with Vermont in 1995, and spent the first three weeks of his tenure driving around Vermont to hand out pocket schedules.

No one could have predicted he would spend 14 years with the franchise before departing in November. From his days attending games in his Little League uniform to becoming the team’s general manager, the Lake Monsters are never far from Knudsen’s heart.

“Toughest decision of my life,” he said of leaving the franchise. “I started out with them and that was my first full-time job. Blood, sweat and tears went into Centennial Field. I grew up in the Vermont area (Jonesville), so to be able to work for the minor league baseball team in the area that I grew up in was just awesome.”

Calling the experience of facing Vermont “very strange,” Knudsen is appreciating the chance to reconnect with familiar faces.

“There’s a certain excitement, a certain energy for me,” Knudsen said of welcoming his former team into town.

Mike Sullivan, Vermont’s long-time team bus driver, remembers Knudsen fondly.

“He’s always been very nice, pleasant,” Sullivan said. “He’s always looking out for the players and the fans — especially the fans. That’s the No. 1 thing in baseball, the fans.”

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NORWICH, Conn. — Put anyone, let alone a 22-year-old, into a foreign country with a language barrier and no family and it would be safe to say it would make for a difficult challenge.

Chao-Ting Tang is not here to learn about Colonial New England; nor is he planning on taking in the autumnal colors. Even with the ever-growing diversity in eastern Connecticut, Tang is not a tourist.

Here from Taiwan for his job as a professional baseball player, Tang is hoping that his time with the Connecticut Tigers will lead to bigger and better things.

Unlike most of his peers, Tang’s path to the major leagues requires a few extra hurdles. He doesn’t speak English and the transient nature of life in the minor leagues usually doesn’t allow too much time to become acclimated with any one location.

So far the adjustment to Norwich has gone smoothly.

“It’s really not that difficult because the host family is really nice and they’ve taken care of me really well,“ Tang said through his interpreter, Kenny Chang.

An undrafted free agent, Tang signed with the Detroit Tigers in April 2008. While there has been a steady influx of baseball talent from Asia over the past two decades, Tang’s signing is of particular significance. He is the first Taiwanese player signed by the Tigers.

There isn’t a great track record of Taiwanese players in professional baseball. Washington and former Yankees pitcher Chien-Ming Wang might be the best known. Dodgers pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo became the nation’s first All-Star this week.

Fortunately, the language of baseball translates easily on the field — even if the approach isn’t the same.

“In Taiwan, players treat this more like a job, as a profession,” Tang said. “Versus here, it seems like a lot of players treat it like a hobby or an interest.”

When he signed with the Tigers, Tang was widely considered the top amateur player in Taiwan.

“I’ve seen quite a bit of improvement since Year One,” Tang said. “I feel that the experience in pro baseball has shown me different techniques. It’s an eye opener.”

The eye opening doesn’t belong to Tang alone.

Bob Tobin welcomed Tang into his home as a volunteer host family.

“It’s been fabulous, no other word could describe it better,” said Tobin of opening his home to Tang. “He’s just a remarkable young guy.

“He’s just a great guy and has a tremendous work ethic about his profession.”

Tang’s become part of the family.

He’s taken Tobin’s 13-year-old son Ryan under his wing in a big brother-little brother relationship. When the Tigers are home, Tang will play basketball with the younger Tobin and pass along baseball tips. And when they go out for Chinese food, Tang does the ordering.

There are occasions when words get in the way, but non-verbal communication bridges that gap. And just in case that doesn’t work, Tang carries a electronic translator or the Tobins can text Chang to help troubleshoot.

“He’s a very, very easy going guy,” Bob Tobin said. “We drove him up to the house, he had a big smile on his face (and) said, ‘I like.’ … It’s been a completely positive experience.”

Helping hand

For its part, the Detroit organization does what it can to help ease its players’ transition to America.

With the exception of its Triple- and Double-A affiliates, the Tigers offer English-language classes in the minor league system. Classes are held twice a week, usually Monday and Wednesday during homestands, and help the players learn the language.

Sharon Lockwood is Detroit’s coordinator of international player programs. Based out of Lakeland, Fla., Lockwood is on call to handle any crisis that may arise.

Tang presented a different challenge than most. The vast majority of players who do not speak English communicate in Spanish. Few coaches or other personnel speak Mandarin Chinese.

When he played for West Michigan last season, which is located outside of Grand Rapids, Mich., Tang struggled with the early season cold. That’s exactly the sort of thing Lockwood keeps an eye out for.

“We’ve been lucky,” she said of language or cultural issues. “Most of it is the players’ hesitancy to ask for help because either they’re afraid to speak or they’re afraid they’ll get in trouble. They don’t know who to speak to, they don’t know procedures or culture. They catch on pretty quickly.”

On the field

Tang may be an outfielder, but looks up to Phillies second baseman Chase Utley as someone he would like to model himself after.

He first caught people’s attention when playing in the 2006 high school All-America game.

Over his first two minor league seasons, Tang had some mixed results. In his first year, he hit .222 with the Gulf Coast Tigers over 38 games. He began 2009 in the Gulf Coast League, hitting .207 and raising his on-base percentage by nearly 100 points in 22 games. That earned him a promotion to Single-A West Michigan, where Tang struggled against the tougher competition.

Through a 21-game sample, Tang’s batting average dropped to .197. It didn’t help matters that a large portion of his season was lost after he sustained facial fractures when he was hit by a relay throw on an attempted double play.

The 5-foot-11, 176-pound Tang began this season with High-A Lakeland of the Florida State League and saw poor results. A .209 average and slugging and on-base percentages below .300 were a bad sign. However, Tang appears to be finding his groove with Connecticut.

Playing mostly as a reserve, the left-handed hitter was hitting at a .300 clip through his first 13 games and most of his other statistics project to be at or near his career highs.

“I’m sure there are times when it’s difficult, but he’s a pretty smart kid,” Tigers manager Howard Bushong said. “I think he understands what we’re trying to get out of him. He plays as hard as anybody and usually takes advantage of it, the opportunities that he gets. He’s done a good job for us all the way around; he’s been fairly steady.”

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NORWICH, Conn. — The sights and smells are still vivid to Travis Fryman. It’s been 15 years since he last got a whiff of the tobacco pipe smoked by legendary manager Sparky Anderson.

Whether it’s Anderson’s pipe, or his traditional pre-game bowl of soup with a Spam sandwich, every moment with the Hall of Fame skipper is memorable to Fryman, the manager of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.

“Every day with Sparky Anderson was a thrill for me,” the Kentucky native said. “I grew up a Reds fan, like most people my age, the Big Red Machine. … To get to play for Sparky Anderson was the second-best thing to playing for the Reds in my mind.”

Former Tiger and Indian Travis Fryman is managing in Cleveland's farm system

Being around the likes of Anderson or teammates such as Alan Trammell, who helped teach Fryman the ropes in the majors, shaped who he would become. Fryman learned from Anderson’s patience — something the Scrappers’ skipper wasn’t known for as a player — and from his teammates’ willingness to pull him aside as soon as they felt words were necessary. That real-time guidance is something he hopes to share with his players.

It’s certainly rubbed off on those outside of the Indians’ farm system.

Connecticut Tigers catcher Eric Roof, who is from Paducah, Ky., grew up learning the lore of Fryman. Roof, whose father and uncle played in the majors, got to know Fryman.

Roof’s father, Gene, was Detroit’s first base coach from 1992-95.

“Travis is a great dude,” Eric Roof said. “I talked him last year because we played against him last year. Our family and his family still exchange Christmas cards every year. He’s even come down to Paducah to give a camp for my dad and his brother.

“I still remember that. That was back in 1994, so I was only eight years old. Growing up I was probably the biggest Travis Fryman fan you could think of.”

Great career

Fryman played 14 years in the majors, the first nine with Connecticut’s parent club, Detroit, before spending five seasons with Cleveland. The five-time All-Star was a .274 hitter with 223 home runs and 1,022 RBIs. He was also a Gold Glove winner at third base in 2000. Fryman’s first major league hit was a three-run homer against Kansas City’s Jeff Montgomery.

In his second season at the helm of the Scrappers, Fryman wasn’t sure if he wanted to get into managing. But after serving as a spring training instructor for the Indians, he decided to give managing a short-season team a try.

The schedule works out perfectly with his desire to spend as much time at home with his wife and three sons.

“It’s a way for me to have maximum impact on the game and minimum impact on my home life,” he said. “The half-season job is really a perfect fit for what I’m comfortable with and what my family is comfortable with at this point in time.”

In addition to managing Mahoning Valley, Fryman is also Cleveland’s primary organizational infield instructor and oversees infielders in the fall instructional league.

Despite his success on Lake Erie and his present allegiance, whenever Fryman thinks baseball he goes back to the organization that drafted him.

“When I dream or think about baseball, it’s always in a Tiger uniform,” he said. “I can’t really explain that — it just always is. In my mind’s eye, that’s what I see myself in. I love the Indians organization, proud to be associated with it, it’s a great place to work. But in my mind, I always had a Tigers uniform on.”

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More than a week after the rest of the Single-A New York-Penn League opened its 2010 season, the Connecticut Tigers will be the last of the14-team league to host a home game. That won’t come until Saturday night.

But the Tigers franchise, which relocated from Oneonta, N.Y., to Norwich this spring, faces an uphill battle, much like the Norwich Navigators/Connecticut Defenders, its predecessor at Dodd Stadium.

These days, the Defenders, who now call Richmond, Va., home, are the new darlings of Minor League Baseball.

The Tigers weren’t granted permission to move until April. As a result, they had a late start putting the necessary pieces in place — making what has been a tough place to succeed even tougher.
Connecticut is also battling the perception that, because the previous franchise failed, the new one is doomed, especially at a lower level of baseball.

Skip Sceery, a five-year season ticket holder with the Defenders, decided against a season package, saying the Tigers’ asking price “came out to more per game than the Defenders.”

Instead, the Stafford Springs, Conn. resident has a ticket plan with the New Britain Rock Cats.

Not impressed with the quality of short-season, Single-A baseball, Sceery enjoys seeing players who are within striking distance of the major leagues.

“If (the Tigers) were the only game in town, I’d go,” Sceery said.

It’s that first impression that matters, so the Tigers will staff the game with the expectation of a sellout crowd. General manager Andrew Weber and the rest of the Tigers staff are doing what they can to make the home opener run smoothly.

“The big thing for us is really celebrating,” he said. “It’s a big night for us. We want to focus on opening the gates and letting people in.”

Ticket sales for the opener have been modest. Weber said approximately 2,000 tickets have been sold for the game against Vermont, which will be followed by fireworks. He hopes the team experiences similar walk-up sales as it did earlier this month when UConn hosted an NCAA baseball regional at the stadium.

Roughly the same number of advance tickets were sold and day-of-game sales pushed the crowd to a near sellout.

The biggest task the Tigers have between now and when the gates open Saturday night will be ensuring the stadium is in tip-top shape.

“We want people to walk in and say, ‘Wow,’ ” Weber said.

Looking back

One person who knows all-too-well the challenges of operating a team at Dodd Stadium is Lou DiBella. The owner of the stadium’s last tenant relocated his team last fall. Renamed the Richmond Flying Squirrels, DiBella’s team is doing what the Norwich market never could — packing the house every night.

Excluding Triple-A franchises, which are at the highest level — and largest markets — of the minor leagues, only Frisco and Tulsa of the Double-A Texas League are drawing more fans per night than Richmond (6,209).

“I knew that it would be successful, but I’m somewhat surprised by the magnitude of the success and by how much the Squirrels have become part of the fabric of the community so quickly,” said DiBella, who called the team the “leaders” in family entertainment in their city.

Having pumped more than $2 million into renovations to The Diamond, the Flying Squirrels’ stadium, DiBella and his ownership group hope a new stadium will be in place in a few years. Last summer, when the relocation process was in high gear, Richmond-area residents were reluctant to get behind a taxpayer-supported ballpark. Now, the team is a smash hit, with attendance the highest it has been since 2003.

“We’re working as hard as we can … to begin discussions to work toward a new stadium,” he said.
DiBella harbors no ill will toward Eastern Connecticut. He understands the complications of having an out-of-the-way stadium, a smaller population from which to cultivate a fan base and trying economic times. He praised the efforts of his staff with the Defenders, which raised attendance three consecutive seasons, as well as the city and the quality of Dodd Stadium.

“I always thought, when we were the owners in Norwich, our hearts were always in the right place and we tried very hard to do the best we could with what we had,” DiBella said.

Changes on the way

Connecticut has to pay extra attention to the little things that can make or break the fan experience.
The Tigers learned during the NCAA regional how troublesome traffic in and out of the stadium can be. The traffic snarl was compounded by the team’s efforts to collect parking fees.

That will change Saturday. All three parking gates into the stadium will be open and fees will be collected after patrons have parked.

Inside the stadium, the leftfield concession stand known as the Frisco Fry Shack is now called the Hot Corner. On the opposite end of the concourse, what was once the Voodoo Grill is now Trumbull and Michigan, a nod to Connecticut’s parent club, the Detroit Tigers. It is the intersection where Tigers Stadium once stood. The team may even serve food reflecting the location of the visiting team, giving variety to ballpark fare.

The Tigers also have ads running through Comcast on ESPN, NESN and ABC Family channels, something the local affiliates haven’t done before.

“We’re trying to make it a great fan experience and let everyone know that baseball is back,” Weber said. “We’re looking forward to many great years of baseball at Dodd. This is the kick-off to it.”

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