Minor League Stories: Let Them Be Royals

Minor League Stories:  Let Them Be Royals

Yesterday, the Kansas City Royals won the American League pennant for the first time in 29 years and advanced to the World Series by sweeping the Baltimore Orioles.  It’s not the first time a Royals team has beaten an Orioles team to advance to a championship though. The series though was filled with a lot

Yesterday, the Kansas City Royals won the American League pennant for the first time in 29 years and advanced to the World Series by sweeping the Baltimore Orioles.  It’s not the first time a Royals team has beaten an Orioles team to advance to a championship though.

The series though was filled with a lot of emotion on my side along with a flood of memories from the years I spent just before going to work in Minor League Baseball and everything that’s happened since.  In fact, I could credit the Kansas City Royals moving their Class-A affiliate from Baseball City to Wilmington, Delaware with a lot of my formative development and love for the game of baseball.

In 1992, my parents and I went to Orlando for a family vacation.  This trip was filled with some “oh, that’s weird moments”.  Like my high school’s band staying in the hotel next to the one we stayed in for a couple of days to start the trip.  Or my mom catching a cold, in Florida, in August, and pushing it on me!  Or my dad and I giving my mom time to rest while we stripped central Florida of all of its Mike Gartner cards.  I was 14 years old, had just finished my freshman year in high school and my first year behind the microphone for the JV baseball team at W. T. Woodson High School.

My mom coming down with a cold started it all.  As my dad and I went out looking for baseball card shops, we stumbled upon the Osceola County Stadium.  On the marquee in front, “Astros vs. Baseball City 6 p.m. DH”.  We’d been on baseball trips before, but this wasn’t one of them.  We didn’t have any plans to go to a baseball game, especially after finding out the Orlando Sun Rays played the final game of their home season the day we arrived in Orlando.  Early on, I’d always been intrigued by some of the different names in sports; I had to see Peninsula Pilots play because of their name, loved when I had the chance to see teams from small towns nobody had ever heard of, and yearned at the chance to see a team play from a town all about baseball.  I knew of Baseball City from the short-lived amusement park which also hosted a TV show broadcast on ESPN.  I had to see them play.

Well, this was the opportunity.  So my dad and I talked it over, drove back to a Blimpie just down the street from the stadium, called my mom to see if it was ok that we went to the game and to find out what she wanted to eat.  We went back, bought tickets, took the subs back to the resort we were staying in, and headed back to the ballpark.

Now remember, I came from the Carolina League, stadiums were supposed to be filled at the end of the season, on a weekend with the team a winner.  This was Florida whose Spring Training games were sold out, I could see it on TV.  Talk about culture shock.  There were 47 fans at the start of the first game.  47.  Yes, 47.  That’s the Florida State League in a nutshell.  Upon surveying the stadium, and taking our seats for all of about two minutes, we realized a few things.

  1. Getting a foul ball wouldn’t be that hard, especially since we walked into the stadium and grabbed one almost right away, yes that quickly.  We wound up with 4 from those games, without really even trying.  I think I gave away a few too.
  2. We could probably move down to the better seats and nobody would really care because, we were responsible for a 4% increase in attendance that night.
  3. We were not in the Carolina League any more.

During this time, the San Francisco Giants were considering moving their team to the domed stadium in St. Petersburg (yeah, the same one I would make my Major League debut in a few years later), so we talked to a few people at the ballpark about that, about the lack of attendance and a few other things.  When there aren’t that many people in the stadium, you realize quickly that it’s possible to meet the entire crowd.  Since this was the end of the season, they were giving away all kinds of prizes.  My dad and I both won that first night.

The big thing about that first night was I met a catcher for Baseball City, he wore 28 and would have an impact on my life beyond anything anyone could have imagined.  Andy Stewart was that catcher and the reason I talked to him was because I was a catcher too.  I asked all kinds of questions, he helped me with my stance (which I changed to his style after that), showed me his batting gloves (which were a brand I’d never heard of but started using because they were comfortable), how to rotate the hips to get a quicker release to second base, and how to receive the ball better.  He even let me try on his catcher’s mitt.

Andy would catch a pitcher named Damon Pollard who was also a really great guy to talk to.  During the game, since I would up sitting near the bullpen, he and I would chat.  There’s really not much to do in the FSL so if someone is willing to hold a conversation and does so, you hold that conversation.

Also during that series, there was a kid that made his Class-A debut and play center field.  His name, Johnny Damon, who would go on to become the first person since Babe Ruth to win a World Series with the Red Sox and then the Yankees.  Johnny and I would become well acquainted two years later in Wilmington.

Getting to talk to these players, meet them, and see that they’re pretty cool guys opened me up to being able to meet more players.  I was intrigued more about how players handled the day-to-day of being professional players, and how they took the time to talk to the fans.  It blurred the lines a lot for me.

Those players that night, led to us coming back the next night and seeing the second double header in as many days.  The Baseball City Royals would move to Wilmington the next season.  Andy told us about it originally and we’d planned to swing through Wilmington, NC (seemed to make more sense in the Carolina League) on the way to Myrtle Beach on family vacations and to catch them when they came through Prince William (now Potomac) and Frederick.

Since they moved to Delaware instead, it meant they’d be in the same division at Prince William and Frederick and we’d get to see them more.  That first season in Wilmington, I counted the days to the first time my dad and I would be able to get to Frederick to see the team.  Andy was with them, as were several others we’d met the previous year, though some had moved on to other organizations.  When Andy came out of the clubhouse, I’d asked him to sign a card from the 1992 Baseball City Royals team set that we’d purchased during the offseason.  Andy kind of looked at me and my dad and I tried to jog his memory.

“Andy, do you remember Osceola?  Last year?  End of the season?” I asked.

“OH YEAH!!!!  Oh my God, how are you doing???” Andy replied.

I’m now 15 years old and a baseball player knows who I am.  I was floored.  It opened a great dialog as Andy pulled guys who’d played in Baseball City last year and pointed us out to them, “Hey, they were in Osceola last year and came to see us.”  Andy was happy to find out we lived close and could see them play at a couple of parks.

Because of that, I was able to meet a lot of the players, get to know them a little and became a fan of the Wilmington Blue Rocks.  We saw them play in Frederick, Prince William, Wilmington, Durham and Kinston that year.  It was in Durham that I saw the only triple play I’ve ever seen, Kinston ended a long losing streak the team was on, and Wilmington I ran into a Pirates scout and think I might’ve helped Jon Lieber get traded.  It was also during that Wilmington trip that a couple of the Prince William players I’d gotten to know saw me in the hotel.  Jorge Posada and I played one of those baseball-pinball games and I beat him.  Andy Pettitte was there and recognized me from seeing me around Prince William (which was my home park in reality).  Whatever happened to those guys?

At the end of 1993, the Wilmington Blue Rocks would advance to the Carolina League championship round, which they would lose, after beating the Frederick Keys, a Baltimore affiliate, 2-0 in the best-of-three series.

The following season, 1994, would be a big year for me, and little did I understand how.  My announcing would see me move to wrestling, lacrosse and soccer, in addition to baseball, basketball and football, but while announcing a soccer match one night my dad showed me an ad in the newspaper for P. A. announcers for a collegiate summer league.  I called the number and was hired to announce at South Lakes High School.  South Lakes, in Reston, Virginia, is where Grant Hill went to high school.

During those games, I would do what I’d normally do.  Because the scouts were unaccustomed to hearing announcing and music at games, they would come up to the pressbox to find out who was announcing.  I got to meet a lot of scouts that year, a lot of the pitchers who were on rest, and a few other people in baseball.  One of those scouts was an assistant baseball coach and former player at George Mason University named Dayton Moore.  Dayton told me how much he enjoyed my announcing and my baseball knowledge.  He was impressed with what I could do and even suggested that I come with him and announce at George Mason, which I would go on to inquire about, but that’s a whole other story.

There were nights that representatives from the league would tell me Dayton was impressed with my work.  I found it strange that his job was to find on-field talent, and he’s talking me up.  We had quite a few conversations over the season about baseball, tendencies, situations (like why don’t more batters get a green light on 3-0) and other things.

A few years later I would call upon Dayton to help put in a good word for me when the P. A. announcer position for the Atlanta Braves opened up.  He was the Assistant GM, I figured why not use my network.  That was the last time I talked to him however, not because of anything that was said, just more because my aim to work in baseball changed and I felt like I might be asking too much.

Now, Dayton is the GM of the Royals, in the World Series, with a third base coach in Mike Jirschele, who was the manager of the 1994 Wilmington Blue Rocks who won the Carolina League championship that season (that was a wire-to-wire team, wow!) and one that I had the chance to batboy for (there’s another story there!).  In fact, I was a batboy for the Keys when the Blue Rocks clinched the second half of the Carolina League championship (after also winning the first half) with a win in the opening game of the final series against the Keys.  The second time a Royals team defeated a Baltimore team to advance to a championship.  In those years, winning both halves meant you had a rest while the other division played their best-of-three series.  Wilmington easily won that championship in 1994.

Andy Stewart would go on to play for the Royals later in his career, recording a double to right as his first Major League hit against the Chicago White Sox.  The Royals were in Baltimore a couple of days before the rosters expanded, we didn’t get to see Andy at Camden Yards, but a few others were there that I’d gotten to know.  He would also play in the Olympics with Team Canada, and during their training season, they played an exhibition at Oriole Park at Camden Yards against the Greek National Team.  The Olympics were in Athens that year, and a youngster named Nick Markakis played for Greece.  The other catcher for Canada that year was Pete LaForest, who’d played for one of my teams in St. Petersburg.  It’s amazing what kind of network you can develop just by being around a baseball team!

In my life, I’ve seen a championship won in the Carolina League (1994 Wilmington Blue Rocks), Florida State League (2000 Daytona Cubs), Southern League (1999 Orlando Rays and 2003 Carolina Mudcats) and announced playoff games in the Carolina League (2004 Potomac Cannons, ironically against Wilmington), Florida State League (1998 Tampa Yankees), California League (2002 Modesto A’s), and Southern League (1999 Orlando Rays and 2003 Carolina Mudcats).  I was in attendance at one of the games of the AAA World Series in 1999 and was in attendance for Game 5 of the 1996 American League Championship Series that the Yankees (with Pettitte and Posada) won, though I was rooting for the Orioles.

I have never been to a World Series game.  In fact, since 2006, I have only been to one Major League game.  Am I excited though, for the Royals, absolutely.  Their organization has drafted many fine players and people over the years, they deserve it.

Jarrod Wronski

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