Dylan Bundy, Expectations, and Minor League Baseball

Tim and I arrived at Prince George’s County Stadium on Wednesday night at about 6:30 PM.  We decided to make the trip south to Bowie the day before.  Wednesday night was going to be Game #1 the Eastern League (AA) playoffs, Orioles uber-prospect Dylan Bundy was scheduled to pitch, and five days without attending a live baseball game is just far too long.  We walked into the stadium – the sun beginning to set over the left field wall.  We reached the concourse and took survey of the situation.  Tim was the first to speak up. “Where is everyone?”

He meant the fans, but the stadium was seemingly void of any human activity.  There were no players in dugouts or on the field.  No grounds crew personnel tending to the infield.  If there were 100 fans in the stands, I would be surprised.  We are used to sparsely attended games – insert your own OPACY joke here – but this was a whole new level.  The stadium seemed so empty – so lifeless and silent.  We had pre-ordered tickets the day before, assuming a good crowd would show up to watch Bundy pitch and the Baysox compete in a playoff game.  We tend to jump the gun in assuming an event is going to be more crowded than it really is – a trait we both inherited from our father – but this was really unexpected.

An usher kindly helped us to our seats.  We sat there, killing time before the first pitch.  I said something to Tim and immediately lowered my already soft-speaking voice as it cut through the silence of the stadium.  We spent most of the game whispering back and forth one to another.  Before the first pitch Tim smirked.  “I am spoiled,” he said matter-of-factly.  “I just can’t get into Minor League games anymore.”  I rolled my eyes and gently scolded him for his lack of appreciation, while at the same time I secretly agreed with him.

The PA announcer came over the speakers at around 7:00 PM and began introducing the coaches and players – starting first with the visiting Akron Aeros and then moving onto the home town Baysox.  I felt bad watching the Aero players shuffle onto the field when their names were called to almost zero reaction from the audience.  I watched the Baysox players leaning on the railing of the dugout and glancing over their shoulders every now and again at the small crowd.  Must not be a good feeling to make the playoffs and have nobody show up, I thought.  Watching the players take the field for the introductions, I suddenly became aware of how young they are all – Bundy is a only 19.  I sheepishly removed my freebie Baysox cap I had gotten years earlier – I felt weird being a 28 year-old guy wearing a hat as a “fan” of a bunch of teenagers and college-aged kids.

The Baysox players fared better than their Akron counterparts during the on-field introductions.  The guys that had been on the team the longest – the backup catcher Caleb Joseph; utility infielder Buck Britton; pitchers Eddie Gamboa and Tim Bascom – received the loudest reactions from the Bowie faithful.  It has to be a bittersweet feeling.  Sure it is always nice to have people applaud for you but I am certain they are aware that the reaction is largely a byproduct of the fact that they have been members of the Baysox longer than anyone else – a surefire sign that their ascent to the Majors as stalled momentarily if not indefinitely.

As the lines filled up and the National Anthem was underway, I took one more look at the players standing on the field.  Having felt mainly sorry for them up until this point, I had a bit of a revelation.  Sure, there might not be many people in the stands.  And yea, most of these guys are never going to sniff the Major Leagues.  So what?  They are at least getting to make a living playing what is, in my estimation, the greatest sport there is.  At least they are getting to do what they love and are having fun doing it for a little longer.  It is not perfect, but what is?

And if by some chance some of the players don’t enjoy what they are doing and are merely hanging on because they know or believe that it is their only option for making a living, well, then join the club.

Dylan Bundy took the mound, looking every bit of his 19 years of age.  A fierce competitor with an unmatched work ethic and a 98 MPH fastball, Bundy is on the fast track to the Majors.  In fact, it was only within the last two weeks that the Orioles officially announced that the 19-year old would not be joining the Orioles for their September playoff run – a move that would have been very aggressive, although not without precedent.  From afar, Bundy can come off as humorless.  His answers in interviews are brief and to the point.  In the goofy world of Minor League Baseball, he stands out for his serious, no nonsense demeanor.

In the first inning, Bundy strikes out the Akron leadoff on three pitches – all fastballs and all reaching 95 MPH and above on the stadium radar gun.  The Aeros second hitter on this night is Lonnie Chisenhall.  As the 12 year-old kid behind me accurately and clumsily states, Chisenhall is “in the MLB”.  Chisenhall – typically a third baseman for the Cleveland Indians – is rehabbing from an injury.  Major League Baseball rules allow Major League players to rehab in the minors for up to 20 days without any impact on their contract status.  The rule allows teams to send down Major League players on a rehab assignment even during the Minor League playoffs.  If that seems a tad unfair – to add a Major League player to a Minor League roster during the playoffs – it is because it sort of is.  It is within the rules though, so it is perfectly legal if not entirely kosher.

Major Leaguer or not, Chisenhall is no match for Bundy in his first at bat and he too goes down on three pitches, swinging through a curveball in the dirt for strike 3.  For the hell of it, Bundy strikes the third batter to complete his perfect 1st inning.

After the top of the first, I took my iPhone out of my pocket and my thumbs made a mad dash to the MLB At Bat app to check on the score of the Orioles’ game.  The fact that the O’s have been playing so well allowed me to feel “okay” about being away from my television for one game, but I still needed constant updates.  While watching the Gameday feed, Adam Jones homers to put the O’s up 1-0.  At Bat broke in with a “Love Look-in”.  Tim and I huddle around the iPhone screen watching replays of the hit.  I subscribe to MLB.TV but the O’s game is blacked out on that service anywhere in Maryland due to MLB broadcast restrictions, so the live look-in is all we had.

The look-in lasts a while – long enough to see all of Matt Wieters’ at bat – during which I hold my phone out in front of me inviting others to see the game.  I expect to hear some Bowie residents marvel at the technology I hold in my hands, but no such marveling ever occurs.  I slyly turn over my left shoulder to try and figure out why my fellow fans aren’t awestruck by the fact that I am able to watch the Orioles’ game on my phone.  That is when I notice the 60 year-old retired couple behind me.  The wife has her smart phone clutched in her hand and at that moment, reports to her husband that Jones just hit a homerun.  I then turn over my other shoulder – surely the 12 year old boy will be impressed with my use of technology, right?  Wrong.  He already knows the news as well, most likely from the guy behind him listening to the radio feed on his phone.  I turn back around and see the guy in front me scrolling through a FanGraphs article on his iPhone.  Nobody is impressed with me because everyone is already doing the same thing I am doing.

I forget sometimes that technology is so pervasive these days that things like following the game on your phone are common place.  In pro wrestling – a business that quite literally sprung out of the shadowy dealings of the Carnival industry – the people involved tend to look down upon and deride the “internet” fans.  Their thinking is that these “internet fans” know all of the tricks of the trade and spend their energy providing negative critiques, while their real fan base stays off the internet and still buys into the con.  The truth is that all of the fans are on the internet and are thus “internet fans”.  In 2012, it is silly to believe they have many fans that aren’t on the internet.  In 2012, it is also silly to assume that I was going to be the only one in Bowie utilizing technology to follow the Orioles game in Toronto.

In between the first and second inning, the roaming Baysox employee that leads the fans in interactive activities between each inning, ascends to the top of the dugout in front of us.  He has a front row fan with him, who can win our entire section 20% off our next visit to a Greene Turtle restaurant if he can correctly identify which of the three animated turtle shells on the video screen holds the animated baseball.  I turned away – back to the Orioles on my phone – and we never did find out if he won us our 20% off coupon.  In the second inning, Buck Britton steps to the plate for the Baysox.  In addition to being the brother of a Major League pitcher, Buck also had the good fortune on this night of being the “IHOP Batter of the Game”.  Tim and I tried to figure out what that entailed – our best guess was that all fans received an IHOP coupon if Buck managed a hit – but we never did find out as Buck failed to get a hit during the game (although we appreciated his well-worked walk in the 5th inning).

With Buck up, I glance at the “WaWa” sign in left-centerfield that implied all fans would win some sort of WaWa themed prize if a ball was hit over the advertisement for a homerun.  After the second inning was completed, a Baysox employee gave away a free pizza to the fan that cheered the loudest.  The Baysox might be lacking the polish and flare of a Major League game, but with a little luck a person could watch a ball game and have discounted or free meals for the rest of the week at their disposal.  You aren’t going to find that at Camden Yards.

Bundy’s next few innings don’t go as smoothly as the first.  He lets up a few hits and gives the Aeros the lead after surrendering a solo homerun.  A few rows behind us, an older man begins to grumble.

“Bundy needs to throw more curveballs.  His fastball needs work.” [When the Aeros pitcher is on the mound] “See, if Bundy threw more off speed pitches like that, he would be more successful.”

We roll our eyes at the expert comments.  Later on, the same guy laments the fact that the Orioles declined to bring Bundy up to work out of the bullpen in September as had been heavily rumored.  A fan sitting near him agrees.  The Orioles might not have a chance to make the playoffs for 15 more years they argue – they should do everything in their power right now to make sure they get in and go far.  Why protect Bundy’s arm, they ask?  He might get injured next season and never amount to anything, so the Orioles might as well ride him now for all he is worth.

I have a lot of issues with that viewpoint – you don’t rush a potentially long term impact player for a possible one-year bump, especially when it is no sure thing that the prospect will be significantly better than the other available options.  That aside, it made me think about to the technology thought I had earlier in the game.  Sure, it is pretty much a “good thing” that we can access all of this information and data instantaneously.  At the same time, I feel like we get so much information that we often aren’t able to full or accurately digest it all.  Intentionally or not, we sometimes only pick up a piece of the story and pass it on as the full story.  Or worse, we pick up pieces of the story, mesh them together, and spit out misinformed information as if it is gospel.  These guys knew the Orioles were thinking about promoting Bundy.  This is information that 20 or 30 years ago would have  never reached the general public like that.  Now that they are able to get that information, Joe Fan can draw a conclusion on it and pass it along, despite not fully understanding all of the implications.

You hear this kind of misinformation or wrongly-informed-opinions a lot of time at games.  My favorite from this season?  The guy sitting behind us at the Rangers game in May who told his friends that Wei-Yen was a 20 year-old Korean rookie pitcher and that because the Orioles broke Korean Baseball League protocols, the O’s are now banned from scouting there.  He took two true stories – Wei-Yen Chen being a  [Taiwanese] rookie pitcher for the O’s and the O’s being banned from Korea for not using the proper channels to scout a 17-year old pitching prospect – and mangled the two into one interesting, but totally incorrect, tale.

The two guys conversing about Bundy then went onto make it clear that the Orioles need to make the playoffs this year – anything less will be disappointing.  It is a sentiment I have heard often over the past few days and I worry that some people are setting themselves up to be disappointed.  A good season doesn’t necessarily need to end with the O’s in the playoffs, even if that is the goal all of us fans really want to see them reach.

Cutting through the silence the entire game was a lone facing screaming and yelling with every pitch.  The fan – who was confined to a real chair – was enjoying himself the entire time chanting and yelling the same words of encouragement over and over.

“Let’s Go Bay-Sox!”

“Dyl-an Bund-y!”

[With two strikes on a batter] “Finish him!”

You don’t hear stuff like that much at Major League games for two reasons:  (1)  The park is usually full enough and big enough that a lone voice cannot be heard by everyone and (2)  Most people that are inclined to yell loudly at Major League games are often drunk and/or just shouting complete nonsense in a vain attempt to get over as the star of the show.  It’s annoying.  This poor guy was pumped and ready to go from the first pitch and did his damnedest to let the Baysox players know he was behind them.  It was refreshing. Slowly but surely, more voices began to obliterate the earlier silence.  A fan a section over from us might have been one of the best hecklers I have heard at a baseball game at any level.  His lines were funny and witty.  His timing – impeccable.  Nothing vulgar and he avoided the big heckler mistake of trying to be too cute or smart with his lines.  He found a bit or two that worked – mainly yelling at the opposing pitcher that a Baysox runner was going to steal or getting on the pitcher for taking too much time – and stuck with them.  When the Baysox starting scoring, mainly on homeruns (like Parent club like Affiliate), the crowd got into things.  I found myself yelling out the names of players who – up until this point – I had only read about.  I am sure most people at the game were not necessarily hardcore Baysox fans, every time the Sox did something good, there was a big reaction.  Over on the hill right behind the 3rd base side bullpen, a father and daughter threw a ball back and forth inside the stadium – another even you will only find in a Minor League stadium.

Zealous Wheeler was picked up by the Orioles as a minor league free agent over the winter.  Wheeler was initially lumped in the same group of minor league signings with guys like Steve Tolleson, Jai Miller, Nick Johnson, Miguel Gonzalez, and Stu Pomeranz.  However, after a very slow start at Norfolk, Wheeler was demoted to Bowie and it became clear that he was a tick below guys like Tolleson, Johnson, Gonzalez, or Pomeranz who all contributed in Baltimore this summer.  Listed at 5’10, 200 pounds, both the height and weight might be a tad generous.  Tim took one look at Zealous (great name by the way) out at third and commented that unless a ball is hit right at him, he’s not going to be able to get to it.  Of course that ensure that Wheeler would make two fantastic defensive plays – one on a diving catch to his left and another to start a crucial 5-4-3 double play.  If that wasn’t enough to endear him to us, Wheeler also used “Big Poppa” by Notorious B.I.G. as his at-bat walk up music.  It was as perfect of a theme song for a particular player as we have heard recently.

Dylan Bundy exited the game with his Baysox up 3-1 after pitching 6 good – if unspectacular – innings.  We looked out at the Bowie bullpen, hoping to catch a glimpse of 2012 1st round pick Kevin Gaussman warming up, which would signify his entry into the game.  Gaussman never warmed up and after the Baysox were retired in the bottom half of the six, we decided to call it a night.

The Orioles were tied 2-2 and my iPhone was rapidly dying from having the MLB At Bat app open the entire game.  By the time we got to the car, the Blue Jays had runners on 1st and 3rd with nobody out.  By the time we got to the first light outside of the stadium, the Blue Jays had taken a 3-2 lead on a safety squeeze.  By the time we reached the interstate, the O’s were down 6-2.  I turned the car radio at that point to a music station.   For the first time since I was in middle school, the Orioles will be battling for a playoff spot in September.  There will be plenty of time ahead to fret over and be anxious about the Orioles.  At least for that one night, it was nice to get away all of that – all of the unnecessary and often times ridiculous worrying about the Orioles – and enjoy a nice night of baseball.  It was a good reminder that it is all just a game and regardless of how this season ends for the Orioles, I will never be truly disappointed or depressed by watching baseball.