The great thing about minor league baseball is the opportunity to see prospects and future big leaguers play in a more fan-friendly atmosphere. The Wilmington Blue Rocks have had their share of prospects and players that have made it to “the Show”, but so have their opponents.
My #18 top Blue Rocks moment is…
Seeing all of the prospects and future big leaguers on the opposing teams.
My first experience in Wilmington came late in 1995 and I had the chance to attend the Carolina League playoffs. The Blue Rocks met Kinston, which was a well-pitched series (as expected). The Indians had Bartolo Colon in their rotation and Richie Sexson manning first base.
In 1996, I had the chance to see Jaret Wright start for the Indians. He lost in May to Matt Saier. Wright allowed four runs on seven hits and two walks over five innings. He struck out two. He actually settled down after the first inning, when he allowed a two out walk and four straight hits to push across the four runs. The big hit came from Carlos Mendez, a two-run triple for the big man. After that, Wright allowed base runners, but escaped jams. Prior to that game, Wright had a 0.93 ERA in seven CL starts (four earned runs allowed).
First baseman Sean Casey batted third for the Indians and went 2-for-4. He drove in their lone run in the sixth inning. At that point in the season, Casey was third in the CL in hitting at .327.
1997 was the transition period for the Atlanta Braves, as they were in their final season in Durham. Jason Marquis was in that rotation. He was frustrating to watch, as he would pitch well, but always have one bad inning.
With the Carolina League All-Star Game in Wilmington in 1998, I had a chance to see all of the best players in the league, though not all of them made the team. One of them was Rick Ankiel, who completely dominated the league while with Prince William and was named the Pitcher of the Year. 1998 was also a summer of traveling for me and my family and we had a chance to see Ankiel a few times. He was just as nice of a person as he was good at pitching.
Joe Crede was an All-Star and was one of the best third baseman I had seen. He also had one of the best offensive season in the CL. He was second in the league in batting average (.315), third in homeruns (20), and first in RBIs (88). Jerry Hairston was another All-Star, at second base for Frederick.
1999 was my first year as an usher in Wilmington, along with Myrtle Beach’s first year in the league. I had the chance to see the best double play combination I had ever seen in shortstop Rafael Furcal and second baseman Marcus Giles. They helped carry the Pelicans to a shared CL Championship.
In 2000, I saw a glimpse of the greatest player I have ever seen, Albert Pujols. He didn’t spend much time in Potomac, but you knew he was way better than everyone else. The ball just sounded different coming off his bat. Salem also had a talent laden group of players that went on to play important roles in Colorado, like Matt Holliday, Garrett Atkins, and Aaron Cook. Chone Figgins went on to fame with the Angels and then Seattle and Juan Uribe went on to help the SF Giants win a World Series in 2010. I also had a chance to see and meet Steve Bechler in Frederick. I was heart-broken when he died in 2003.
I cannot remember if it was in 1999 or 2000 when he was pitching for Kinston, but I do remember the moment. It was a hot, summer Sunday afternoon game in Wilmington. If you have ever been out East, Sunday afternoon games in the summer are brutal. I was excited to see the starter for Kinston, CC Sabathia. It didn’t turn out as I had hoped: he left after just one inning due to heat exhaustion. If I wasn’t working, I probably would have left. I did finally get to see him pitch in person in 2001 during spring training.
2002 was stacked with future big leaguers. Myrtle Beach had Adam Wainwright, Kelly Johnson, Roman Colon, and Adam LaRoche. Wainwright became one of my all-time favorite pitchers that season. Ryan Church pounded homeruns off the Frawley Stadium scoreboard before being promoted and then traded to Montreal. Lynchburg had one of the best rotations I had seen, with Sean Burnett leading the way (along with Jason Sharber, Landon Jacobsen, Jeff Bennett, Mike Connolly, and DJ Carrasco). They also had future big leaguers all over their roster with Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Jose Castillo, and Ronny Paulino.
More recently, I saw Matt Wieters in his short stay with Frederick in 2008. In 2011, my first season in the press box, Myrtle Beach (which is now affiliated with Texas) had Mike Olt and Robbie Ross. Lynchburg (now with Atlanta) had shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Frederick had Manny Machado at shortstop.
Baseball in Wilmington has been good to me over the years. You never know who you might see that could be the next big leaguer and you can say “I remember when…”