Independent Baseball Chatter
By Bob Wirz
Much of the attention when the American Association opens its season Friday will be on handsome new CHS Field in St. Paul and refurbished Joe Becker Stadium in Joplin, where the 13-team league’s newest entry will play, although the blend of returning all-star players and newcomers, some with major league experience, also heighten interest in the league as it starts its 10th season.
Among returning players, no one perhaps deserves the spotlight more than Winnipeg first baseman Casey Haerther, who flirted with the magic .400 hitting barrier for a long time last season before settling for a .360 average (second in the league) while helping the Goldeyes record their winningest season of the 21 campaigns they have had in Independent play.
Haerther played winter baseball in Nicaragua and was in minor league spring training with Baltimore, but he seems energized for another season of trying to help Winnipeg win its second American Association title (2012). “The camaraderie was amazing with those guys (last year’s team),” he told The Winnipeg Free Press about the time training camp opened this month. “It loosens everything up, and we were a loose clubhouse last year. But when we got on the field, we played well, and we played hard, and that’s all Rick (Forney, manager) has ever asked of us.”
Winnipeg and the other 11 teams will be trying to take the league championship away from defending champion Wichita, which does not seem to have relaxed its quest for another great year. The Wingnuts do not have a great many returnees although 12-game winner Jason Van Skike and 10-game winner Tim Brown are back. Kevin Hooper‘s new faces include 32-year-old infielder Alberto Gonzalez, who has played with five major league teams, totaling more than 100 games in each of the 2009-10-11 seasons and well over 400 contests in all.
Thielbar Has Memories of Midway Stadium
St. Paul’s CHS Field will start showing its own personality and developing new memories although many a player has lasting thoughts of venerable Midway Stadium, including southpaw Caleb Thielbar, one of nine former American Association players who have been in the major leagues already this season.
“I think, just the atmosphere there was awesome,” the native Minnesotan, who played in the stadium with the Saints, told hamlineoracle.com. His memories include: “The day when they had the big fireworks game on July Fourth, and Memorial Day when they had people sitting on the warning track all the way around the field because there were too many people to fit in the stands. That was kind of a once in a lifetime thing to see. You’re just not going to get that anywhere else in organized baseball but St. Paul somehow managed to pull it off. It was pretty fun.”
T-Bones’ Kris Johnson Sharp in Japan
Add Kris Johnson to the list of American Association grads finding their way–and making more money–in Japan. The 30-year-old southpaw, a 6-3, 3.23 starter for the Kansas City T-Bones in ’11 who got into seven games (four starts) with Minnesota and Pittsburgh (0-3, 5.25) the last two seasons, accepted a presumably lucrative deal to pitch for the Hiroshima Carp this season.
He has adapted beautifully, starting with a one-hit shutout in his debut. Johnson was 4-0 with a league-best 0.71 ERA at last report, including 28 innings over his last four starts in which he had not allowed an earned run.
“A lot of it is adjusting on the fly,” he told JapanTimes. “You hear a lot of things, but until you actually go out there and experience it, I don’t think you get the full gist of it. These guys are really hard to put away, which kind of fits my style. I like to get a lot of early contact, I’m not going to strike out a lot of guys.
“So it’s just going out and throwing more strikes, quality strikes, because these guys, they’re good contact hitters. If you make a mistake, yeah they’ll put it in the seats, but a lot of these guys can put it wherever they want. A little more concentration than back home, but otherwise, it’s just baseball.”