Looking for Prospects, Listening for Community

One of my favorite things about attending a live baseball game is how it sounds. Sure, the pops and cracks of leather and wood on the field are comforting in their own right, but what I’m really talking about is the chatter. The constant din of anonymous talkers throwing out well-researched stats, or strongly felt opinions on pitchers’ hair length, or two-notches-too-loud questions about where the Bud Light guy is. And as much as I enjoy the ambient noise of a major-league ballpark, for my money, there is no baseball chatter that compares to that found in the stands of a high school game.

At the end of May, I attended my first live baseball game since 2019, a matchup on the South Side of Chicago between Marist High School and Marian Catholic. Heading into the game, Marist had the best record in Illinois, thanks in part to Noah Smith, their toolsy infielder, and our top-ranked high school prospect in the state. Also on the field was Smith’s Area Codes teammate and fellow Louisville commit, Eddie King Jr., playing in the outfield for Marian Catholic. But in the bleachers along the first base line, the chatter wasn’t about whether Smith would ever eliminate the sway in his swing and stabilize his head to more consistently identify breaking balls, or how hot a bat King was swinging after he smashed a double off the left-field wall (he had homered in the game the day before, also against Marist). Instead, I found myself seated in between a group of teens who had googled the team’s roster because one of them was pretty sure she’d sat next to one of the outfielders in Freshman Spanish, and a mom who spent the entire game playing defense against her toddler, who was intent on pulling on the cord coming out of the camera she had perched on the railing to record her older son’s performance on the field.

After the game, there were hugs and pats on the back from the parents in the stands, and awkward giggles from the group of girls I’d been sitting by, none of whom seemed keen on actually approaching any of the players. Marian Catholic won 9-7, issuing Marist its first conference loss of the season (and third loss overall), and knocking them down to second place in the state. If anyone in the stands noticed, they hid their disappointment well. But regardless of whether or not the audience at this mid-week, mid-afternoon high school game was aware of the stakes of the game itself, it was clear how much they cared about the players on the field. The sense of community was palpable. Even as an outsider, I felt like I’d attended an event that meant something to my fellow spectators – something specific, and unrelated to baseball.

The following weekend, my husband Dave and I made our first out-of-state trip in over 18 months, driving just over the border to take in a High-A game in Beloit, Wisconsin (and they say romance is dead). On our drive up Highway 90, Dave turned down the podcast we were listening to and asked, “So, what kinds of players are we going to see today?” It was a harder question than he realized he was asking. I told him that High-A (like most levels of the minors) is a bit of a hodgepodge, representing different stages of development towards the big leagues depending on the player, and that I’d point out some examples from the teams we were on our way to see: the Beloit Snappers (a Marlins affiliate) and the Peoria Chiefs (a Cardinals affiliate).

Pohlman Field, the Snappers’ home ballpark, is tucked away in a residential neighborhood, surrounded on all sides by typical midwestern homes: some with boats parked out front, all with pristinely manicured lawns. We entered the 3,501-capacity stadium and found our seats, and I looked around to see who else had decided to spend their Sunday afternoon at the ballpark. There were several Brewers jerseys, and Cubs and White Sox caps scattered throughout the grandstand, along with the state-mandated representation of Packers apparel, of course. I didn’t notice a single Marlins or Cardinals logo, but why would I? The current rosters of Snappers and Chiefs were far enough from the big leagues that the folks in the stands didn’t need to concern themselves with what teams the players were progressing towards. That wasn’t what brought them to the ballpark that afternoon. Instead, the sparse crowd at the small stadium highlighted a sense of community similar to the one I felt at the high school game on the South Side a few days earlier.

The starter for Beloit that day was Zach McCambley, a third-round pick from the 2020 draft out of Coastal Carolina. As we were watching him take his pre-game tosses, Dave leaned over and asked where in the High-A hodgepodge he fits. I explained that McCambley had put up respectable numbers as a swingman underclassman, but it was his performance in the Cape Cod League in 2019 – a 1.74 ERA with 24 strikeouts in his 20.2 innings – that truly started turning heads. He had been putting together an impressive 2020 college season before it came to a screeching halt due to the global pandemic. His High-A assignment is likely an indication that the Marlins want to challenge the young righty at the higher level of A-ball to ensure that his numbers at the Cape and his hot start to the 2020 season were repeatable and not mere mirages.

So far this season, McCambley’s assignment seems to have been an appropriate one. His best and longest outing of the first month of the season was seven innings of perfection on May 11 against the South Bend Cubs. He allowed eight hits in each of his next two games (the two starts preceding the one I attended), and while his 39 strikeouts and four walks on the season make for the third best K/BB in all of High-A, it’s clear that he’s taking the time necessary to hone his mechanics. Whereas in college his windup was a bit more fluid, it’s now reminiscent of one of those animatronic band members at Chuck-E-Cheese, moving deliberately from one pre-programmed position to the next. Glove up. Step off. Leg kick. Deliver.

Here’s some video I took during the game:

McCambley boasts arguably the best curveball of his class and hasn’t shied away from it early this season. That Sunday, he flashed his breaker a handful of times, but relied mostly on his fastball, which he located well as he fanned six over the course of his 4.1 innings.

As the Snappers took the field, I pointed a few more players out to Dave. On the left side of the infield were Angeudis Santos and Ynmanol Marinez, both of whom signed for over $1 million as teenagers out of the Dominican Republic. They both started in rookie ball (not together; Santos was still in the Red Sox organization at the time) and have since worked their way up to High-A, each with his own distinct areas of focus as they develop into potential big-leaguers. While the they had virtually identical stat lines on the afternoon, both going one-for-four with an RBI and two strikeouts, my takeaways were distinct. Marinez showed off some speed on a triple in the second but struggled to lay off breaking balls in the dirt in his subsequent plate appearances. He’s had a low walk percentage since his professional debut, so seeing him swinging and missing isn’t necessarily surprising. Conversely, Santos has always had an impressive ability to distinguish balls from strikes, so his two Ks are a bit out of character, and may simply be chalked up to it only being his third game with the Snappers after having been assigned there from the GCL just a few days earlier.

The Beloit lineup also featured two sons of former major leaguers: Griffin Conine and Nic Ready. Since before he was drafted, Conine has displayed dazzling power that has been unfortunately marred by a consistently (and concerningly) high K-rate. Going into the game that afternoon, he was riding a nine-game hitting streak, which he extended with a monster of a home run that soared over the tallest part of the wall in the deepest part of the park. But that bomb had been preceded by strikeouts in all three of his previous at-bats, so there is much work yet to be done if he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. Snappers’ first baseman Nic Ready’s baseball lineage may be lesser known to fans than Conine’s, but on that Sunday, his was the narrative that seemed to resonate most with the crowd. He had an RBI single in the sixth, and a couple of impressive defensive plays on scorchers down line, but it was the announcement before his first at-bat that brought the crowd to its feet.

As Ready walked toward the batter’s box, the PA announcer told the audience that the 2019 draft pick had just been promoted to First Lieutenant in the US Air Force. It was the day before Memorial Day, and with Monday being a league-wide off-day, this game was the closest they’d come to playing on the holiday. He tipped his helmet, acknowledging the standing ovation and seeming to make actual eye contact with members of the small crowd, many of whom were wearing hats or other apparel signifying their own military service. Not only did this moment serve to further connect Ready with the fans in attendance, it was also a reminder that for most minor leaguers, baseball hasn’t yet become a reliable way to make a living. Ready’s case is rather unique in that he was drafted out of the Air Force Academy, which mandates five years of active-duty service upon graduation (Ready’s requirements are slightly different, thanks to the World Class Athlete Program). But he’s certainly not the only one maintaining a solid backup plan in light of the difficult road to the majors still ahead (not to mention the abysmal pay before a player gets there).

Beloit went on to win the game, splitting their series against the Chiefs at three wins apiece. As Dave and I made our way out of the stadium and back to our car, I noticed a man sitting in a lawn chair in front of his home across the street from the ballpark, watching people file out and waving at the kids as they passed. Judging by the deep grooves in the grass formed by the legs of the chair, I guessed this was his routine after every game. He asked a little boy who won and the boy shrugged – either out of shyness, or simply because he’d spent the duration of the game more enamored with the Snappers’ mascot than with the happenings on the field – and looked up at his dad, who answered the question. The man in the lawn chair excitedly held up his hand for a high five, and the boy reached out to slap it as he passed. I’d wager the team meant more to this man than anyone who’d attended the game, and he didn’t even know who’d won. Maybe he didn’t care.

Later this year, the Snappers are scheduled to move into a new stadium – still in Beloit, but a few miles from their current home. It’s a minor move, geographically speaking, but it’s impossible to imagine it won’t be hard felt by the ballpark’s current neighbors. It makes me sad to think of this man removing his lawn chair from those grooves in the grass. And of course, it makes me think of all the small communities that lost affiliated ball clubs this past year.

Lower-level baseball is still baseball of course, but watching it in person, the differences from its major league cousin sometimes seem to outnumber its similarities. When someone in the stands at a major league ballpark yells words of encouragement (or scorn) at a player, addressing him by his first name, the player isn’t likely to hear it; the first-name basis is rooted in a false sense of familiarity. But when a guy in the stands in Beloit called out to the mound, “Just throw strikes, Zach,” there’s no doubt that McCambley heard him. And when a mom in the high school bleachers referred to a top-tier draft prospect as Noah, it may well be because she remembered driving him home from Little League.

In my first week of watching live baseball again, it seemed the further I got from the majors, the closer I felt to the players, and in many ways, the sport. There’s always a lot to take away from watching players as they develop, and it’s fun to speculate about who I’ll one day brag about having seen play before he was a household name. But more than anything, it’s helpful to witness the ways in which baseball continues to bring communities together, even if only for a few hours at a time.

Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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2 years ago

Great piece Tess! Glad to have you aboard here