Here’s part one of my Eastern League Past, Present and Future series…it’s a little different than how it ran in today’s Hunterdon County Democrat. Space issues kind of prevented me from turning this into what I wanted it to be, so it’s not all that great…but still, I suppose it’s worth checking out.
Over the past two seasons, Democrat sportswriter Mike Ashmore has been talking to Eastern League alumni, players currently in the league and players expected to join the league for this feature. In part one of the three part series, he takes a look at some of Major League Baseball’s brightest stars with Eastern League experience.
Before C.C. Sabathia was a Cy Young Award winning pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, he was one of the top prospects in the Eastern League during the 2000 season, pitching for the Akron Aeros.
Sabathia went 3-7 with a 3.59 ERA in 17 games for the Aeros before making the jump to the big leagues the following season.
“Akron was nice, we had a pretty good team,” Sabathia said.
“I don’t really remember pitching that well for them, but I had some good games and some good memories. It was definitely a tough league, a lot of guys that were in that league then are in the big leagues now.”
Sabathia also pointed to some similarities between his old stomping grounds and his current one that helped him along the way.
“Akron helped me because it’s kind of like Cleveland,” he said.
“It’s a big city with a lot of fans, and there’s a lot of attention. That definitely gets you ready for the big leagues.”
An added benefit for Sabathia was that he got to play for current Indians manager Eric Wedge, who at the time was making his way up through the system and serving as Akron skipper.
“I grew up with Wedgie, I’ve been playing for him my whole life,” said Sabathia, who also played for Wedge in Single-A Kinston the previous season.
“If you look at the relationship we have now, it’s a great relationship. He got a chance to see me as a kid, and to develop into a grown man now. It just makes our relationship a lot better.”
And about the jump from Double-A to the big leagues, which few players are able to and even fewer are able to do as successfully as the three-time All-Star ultimately has, Sabathia said it wasn’t as difficult as you might think.
“The Eastern League was pretty tough, so it really wasn’t that different to be honest,” he said.
“I hate it to say it like that, but it wasn’t for me. I just kind of fell into a good team, and had some good veterans around me, and they helped me get off to a successful season.”
After coming up with the Minnesota Twins organization, Doug Mientkiewicz has bounced around the big leagues quite a bit lately, playing for five different teams over the past four seasons.
He also famously caught the last out of the 2004 World Series for the Red Sox, and eventually donated the ball to the Hall of Fame.
But before all that, he put up solid numbers in 1998 and 1999 for the New Britain Rock Cats, and it seemed like all his days in the big leagues might not ever happen.
So what was his experience like there?
“Too long,” Mientkiewicz replied.
“I felt like that league prepared me more for the big leagues than Triple-A did. Having to go back there twice wasn’t fun, but the people there were great and they had a new ballpark, so it was a nice experience.”
Lenny DiNardo might be best remembered so far in his short career as one of the pitchers who helped Boston break their long drought and win a World Series in 2004.
But just a year prior to that, he was making a name for himself with the Binghamton Mets of the Eastern League. He tells a spooky tale of life in the minor leagues.
“I lived at the Grand Royale, right off of State Street,” DiNardo said.
“It was supposed to be haunted, and every time I got off the elevator, there were old black and white pictures of judges. And I swear to God, the eyes followed you when you went down the halls. It was kind of like staying at the Magic Kingdom haunted house.”
OK, so life in the big leagues is a little different than it is in the minors. You knew that already. But what about the league itself?
“It was fun, I guess I spent not even half the year in Double-A there,” he said.
“I had Bobby Ojeda as my pitching coach, and Howard Johnson was there as well. John Stearns was the had coach, he used to catch for the Mets. It was a good experience, and it was my first taste of Double-A. It was challenging, it was very challenging to go out there.”
Next month, Mike takes a look at players who spent 2007 in the Eastern League. For quotes that didn’t make this article and extended Trenton Thunder coverage, visit thunderbaseball.wordpress.com
Contact Mike at mashmore98 AT gmail.com