My latest Red Wings game story is up over at Pickin’ Splinters. It was quite the night, as the Red Wings beat Omaha for the first time in decades (admittedly they haven’t played in decades) and there was an injury scare over the Nationals’ top prospect, Cade Cavalli. Also included in the story: Andrew Stevenson‘s dad strength!
Late last year, Major League Baseball made it official: the Negro Leagues between 1920 and 1948 were and always have been major league level. Their exclusion from records before now had been the result of the very same racism that had forced their existence in the first place. The issue of incomplete statistics and other forms of record-keeping (for example, which games were official league games and which were one of the countless exhibitions that Negro League teams held) have been largely (although not completely) corrected through an extreme amount of research and fact-finding. MLB and most major baseball historians agree: there is no major reason to continue to exclude the Negro Leagues and the statistics of their players from the official history books of MLB.
For many baseball fans in the internet age, though, it can be argued that nothing is official until Baseball Reference says it is. Although not the official decision-maker of what baseball statistics are and are not valid, it might as well be, so when the folks there announced that the Negro League statistics would be integrated (for lack of a better word) with the site’s pre-existing statistics, it was a big deal.
Which brings me to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. A good place to grow up depending on where you live in the area. Doesn’t deserve the reputation it has. For the purposes of this blog, what’s important though is that Rochester has one of the longest and most successful baseball histories in the country, outstripping even many major league cities. However, due to size and the proximity to other large cities it hadn’t had a Major League Baseball team since 1890’s American Association Broncos. The city had gone the entire 20th century without a MLB team.
Until now. Because, you see, in the waning days of the Negro Leagues, a member of the Negro National League played in Rochester. The New York Black Yankees were, of course, originally based in the New York City area. Founded in the early 30s and joining the NNL in 1936, they played in Paterson, N.J. or on Randalls Island when they weren’t barnstorming or playing away games. By 1948, with integration underway and finances taking a downward turn for many Negro League teams (especially in the New York City area), the Black Yankees headed upstate to Rochester, where they played the last year of their existence in Red Wing Stadium.
With MLB’s recent recognition of the Negro Leagues as major leagues, those 1948 New York Black Yankees are Rochester’s most recent Major League Baseball team. And it is time that Rochester also recognize them as such.
They were, admittedly, not very successful on the field, finishing 9-35 and coming in dead last in that year’s Negro National League standings. However, they still had some players who were considered good enough to represent the east in the Negro Leagues’ famed East-West All-Star Game. As the best players of Rochester’s last major league team, they deserve spots of honor at Frontier Field, perhaps on its Wall of Fame.
Those players are:
- George Crowe, who hit .345 and led the team in HR and RBI. After integration, he would go on to spend time with three different franchises, playing over 700 games before finishing as a career .270 hitter. He was named to the 1958 All-Star Game when he was with the Cincinnati Reds. For a time, he held the MLB record for career pinch-hit home runs.
- Robert Griffith was a two-way player. In his younger days, he’d often found himself in the top 10 of the pitching leaderboard for the NNL, but by 1948. he was 35-years-old and his best days were behind him. He was still the Black Yankees’ best pitcher, though, finishing with a 3-1 record and 4.33 ERA while throwing the team’s only shutout on the year. At the plate, he was less successful, although he still had a HR in his limited action.
- Finally, there was Marvin Barker, an infielder who was also the team’s manager who occasionally would also fill in on the pitcher’s mound. Like Griffith, Barker’s best days were behind him, although he still hit a respectable .293 (third-best on the team) and had an OPS of .734 (second only to Crowe).
This coming Saturday, the Red Wings will hold their annual Negro Leagues tribute. They will be wearing the uniforms of the Rochester American Giants, a team that played in the minor leagues of the Negro Leagues. Perhaps, though, they should be playing in the uniforms of the 1948 Black Yankees. And perhaps, in years ahead, the best players of Rochester’s last Major League Baseball team can have a place of honor somewhere in the stadium.
The Rochester Red Wings’ affiliation agreement with the Minnesota Twins ends this year. And while it’s entirely possible that it will be renewed, it’s also entirely possible it will not, as there is some discussion that, with the future of the Twins’ front office uncertain after the firing of Terry Ryan, now may be the time to again switch. This speculation is especially occurring because the New York Mets, one of the most popular MLB teams in the area, will also likely be available in the affiliation shuffle after this year, and the Mets are desperate to get a new affiliate closer to home, as opposed to distant Vegas.
However, I’m here to argue that the Red Wings should stick with the Twins, at least for another two years. Here’s why:
1. Don’t mess with success.
While it is true that the Red Wings have not had much postseason success during the Twins’ years, with only two appearances and no titles. However, this forgets that the Wings have been competitive for most of the Twins era and probably would have reached more postseasons if not for the tough IL North division and some bad luck. In 2014, for example, they were not eliminated until the final weekend of the year. 2015 saw something similar, and had the Red Wings finish with the same record as the previous two seasons, including the 2013 year where they made the playoffs. This season may see the Red Wings miss the playoffs despite currently having the third best record in the league.
It’s not the Twins fault that Rochester geographically lies in the International League’s toughest division, nor is it their fault that the IL doesn’t have a rule that kicks any team under .500 out of the playoffs, to be replaced by the Wild Card runner-up:
2. The Twins are a Better Farm System, from a winning perspective.
Here’s a look at the winning percentages of farm systems, as of August 3:
As you can see, the Twins are a respectable 10th place. This is the entire organization, from AAA all the way down to the lowest of Rookie leagues. The Mets, meanwhile, are sub-.500 and are at 19th. And if you go level by level, the Twins have a better team in most of them: The AAA Twins (the Red Wings) have a better record than the AAA Mets (Las Vegas). The AA Twins (Chattanooga) have a better record than the AA Mets (Binghamton). The low-A Twins (Cedar Rapids) have a better record than the low-A Mets (Columbia). The rookie-ball Twins (Elizabethton) have a better record than the rookie-ball Mets (Kingsport). The Twins even have a better record in the Gulf Coast League! The only minor-league level where both organizations have teams and the Mets have a better record than the Twins affiliate is the High-A Florida league.
It’s been said that the two biggest determinants of minor league team attendance are also the two things the local GM (in the minors, the GM is more of a business position, not like the position in MLB) has the least control over: how the team is doing, and how the weather is. Except that isn’t really true, as the Minor League team CAN decide who it affiliates with. And when you look at the success on the field up and down the minors, the Twins clearly are the better choice when it comes to wins than the the Mets.
3. The Twins have better prospects overall than the Mets.
One of the neatest things about Minor League Baseball is that you can see the stars of tomorrow. And in this case, the Twins have a better case than the Mets. At the beginning of the year, MLB.com listed the Twins as the fifth best farm system in baseball. While obviously this has likely changed as players like Max Kepler and Byron Buxton have headed to the big leagues, it should be noted that the Mets were nowhere to be found in the top ten this year, and another site (which ranked the Twins 8th) put the Mets all the way down at number 20.
4. The Mets probably wouldn’t cause the big attendance boost some people think.
My fellow Rochester seamheads will remember the Empire State Yankees. In 2012, as their stadium was being renovated, the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees (now the Scranton RailRiders) played their home games on the road, mostly in Rochester. Before the season, some Yankee fans were declaring that the people of Rochester would love them and support them even more than they did the Wings, that it was a dream come true, etc. etc.
Well, here’s the secret: The Empire State Yankees were a bust. Look at this news report from back then:
Yes, the Baby Bronx Bombers were in town and, with the exception of a Andy Pettitte rehab assignment, they drew flies, despite the fact they had a very good team. And the Yankees are definitely far more popular in Rochester than the Mets.
Now, admittedly, the fact that they were the “Empire State Yankees” and not the “Rochester Red Wings, AAA Affiliate of the New York Yankees” probably had a lot to do with it. But when you consider that attendance wasn’t particularly skyrockety for the Buffalo Bisons when they had the Mets affiliation (although to be fair, the Mets system was even worse back then), I think it’s safe to say that in general the affiliation doesn’t drive attendance all that much- winning and weather does. And as I showed with number two and number three, the Twins are a better choice for that.
5. The Mets have horrible owners.
Red Wings fans still speak in hushed tones about Orioles owner Peter Angelos. Why, the only people who hate Peter Angelos more than Red Wings fans are Orioles’ fans! GET IN LINE, NATS FANS, THIS SPOT IS TAKEN! Peter Angelos’ interference with minor league operations, general incompetence, breaking of traditions, and favoritism (intentional or not) to other teams in the Orioles’ system (especially the AA Bowie Baysox) led to the end of one of the longest affiliations in baseball. Well, say what you will about Angelos, but to the best of my knowledge he never ended up drowning in debt after being caught up in a massive Ponzi scheme and as a result been unspeakably cheap for his team that was in the World Series last season and plays in New York City. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has Peter Angelos been sued for firing somebody because she had a baby out of wedlock and then resolved it before it reached trial. And while I’m sure he (like, sadly, seemingly every single MLB owner) would sign somebody who was suspended for domestic abuse, he hasn’t as far as I know. Yet.
But you know who has done all of this? The owners of the New York Mets! Now, full disclosure, I own a very small (essentially symbolic) portion of the Rochester Red Wings (I covered this before). Not enough to make a difference, but I do own some. But let’s say I did own enough. Would I want to do business with the Wilpons?
No. No I would not.
6. The Red Wings shouldn’t be like other Minor League teams
Many minor league teams change affiliation with relative regularity. The Red Wings don’t- they were Cardinals affiliates from the late 20s to 1960, and then spent the rest of the 20th century and the first two years of the 21st with the Orioles. That means that it should still be another decade or two left with the Twins. Perhaps I’m just being a romantic, ignoring the business nature of modern baseball. And, to be sure, if everything was bad and the Red Wings were doing horrible with no good hope in the lower minors, I’d agree that perhaps it’s time to move on. But the Wings have been one of the most successful minor league franchises in history by not changing course at the first sign of trouble, and I see no reason to start swapping every decade or so now.
So… I say: stick with the Twins and nix the Mets. The reasons to stay with Minnesota lay in the evidence, and the reasons to go to the Mets are nowhere near as high as they seem.
And, besides, if the Mets want to be in Rochester so damn bad, maybe they can call back in two-to-four years. By that point, maybe whoever has replaced Terry Ryan will have shown how he will treat the minor leagues. And maybe they won’t be owned by the Wilpons either.
So, there is this guy. He’s a ballplayer. Not a particularly great or notable one, but still a ballplayer. He’s so desperate to keep playing that after college he moves to the land of his ancestors: Italy. He plays baseball there, is pretty good. Falls in love with a local. Marries her, they spend their days split between Massachusetts and Italy. They have a son.
That son follows in his father’s footsteps, growing up and playing baseball on two continents. Trials and tribulations- of his own making and of fate’s- seem to keep him from reaching his true potential, and after college he, like his father, finds his baseball career seemingly at an end. Except instead of across the sea, the son stays near home: Independent Ball. The last hope or only shot of the truly baseball-desperate. Pitiful salaries, long bus rides, no fame… only dreams.
He spends seven years there, occasionally leaving to represent Italia, the land where he grew up and where his mother was born. Most would quit, or at least consider other options. This guy doesn’t. He keeps going, and finally, when he’s in his late 20s, he’s doing so well he cannot be ignored. A major league organization signs him, and at age 28 he begins his first Minor League season, nearly four years older than his average teammate.
And he is a revelation, as he becomes one of the best hitters on a team with some of the farm system’s best prospects. The next year, in AAA, he does it again and is named MVP in the league, becoming a fan favorite in a Upstate New York town in a season that began with him pacing his ancestral home to it’s best showing in the history of the World Baseball Classic.
Except…. it’s not the end. He was called up. He doesn’t do all that well in his first stint in the show, but it’s a dream that he had scraped and clawed for so long, finally achieved. That offseason, with no guarantees of a roster spot the next season, he is offered a big money deal from a team in Korea. He could make more money than he ever has. He refuses, as it would mean shutting the door, perhaps permanently, on his Major League dreams.
At first, it seems he made the right decision. He gets a roster spot and starts the year on a historic tear, breaking the team RBI record for April that had been set by a legendary man. He hits a home run in front of his parents as they are interviewed on television, a birthday gift to his mother.
But then… it falls apart. April proves the exception, and in late May he is sent down to AAA… even as the program-covers that greet fans at the Major League ballpark bear his face. He goes back and forth like a yo-yo, but ultimately he spends more time in AAA than he does in the show.
For some, this would be the end. Those gasps of major league greatness would be all there would be. Not for him. The next year, after a good start in AAA, he goes to a third country: Canada. He never recaptures that April, and he doesn’t play every game… but he doesn’t need to. He’s another bat in a lineup of big bats. He has a career year, and he is a mainstay in the starting lineup during the postseason, where he hits two home runs.
It seems, perhaps, that he has finally arrived. But then, the next season, he starts on a slump. Some wonder if he might again get sent down. And then, late in April, the slump becomes the least of his worries.
He’s suspended for 80 games for using a Performance Enhancing Drug. An old one. East German. And suddenly, a story that seemed too extraordinary for Hollywood becomes one that is too real for Hollywood.
It’s the story of Chris Colabello, son of Lou Colabello. His has been a story of near-biblical persistence and long odds. A story that brought him from Italy and Massachusetts, through New Britain and Rochester and Minneapolis and Buffalo, and finally to Toronto. That he suddenly is caught using a Cold War-era PED in some ways casts a shroud of doubt on all of it.
There is, of course, no way of knowing if that is the case. It seems unlikely that he would have been using such a obvious and classic steroid for so long without getting caught. After all, this is a player who would have been subject not just to the MLB tests of the past few years, but also tests in the minors and in overseas competitions.
Perhaps he was using something else this whole time.
Perhaps it was just a mistake. It could have been a accident or (for the more conspiracy-prone) an act of malice by a trainer or pharmacist.
Or maybe, having finally truly tasted the highest heights of his profession, Chris Colabello thought he needed to do anything and everything he could to stay there, or perhaps even go higher. And perhaps, like Icarus, he got too close to the sun.
I don’t know. Nobody, aside perhaps from Colabello himself, knows.
And perhaps that is why his suspension is so unsettling to myself and many other baseball fans, particularly fans of the Twins and Blue Jays. An icon of hard work and perseverance, suddenly found to have been taking the easy way out. Over a decade of work, seemingly thrown away.
What this means… I’m not sure I’ll ever know. I’m not sure if we’ll ever know.
Perhaps it just means that Chris Colabello, like all of us… is human.
In 1988, the Rochester Red Wings won the Governor’s Cup championship under the helm of Johnny Oates and a team that included young guns like Steve Finley (would lead the league in batting, Pete Harnisch and Craig Worthington (who would be that year’s IL MVP) as well as veterans like Dale Berra and Jerry Narron, all while dealing with plenty of movement between AAA and the Orioles, who were infamously in the middle of their worst season ever. And while they lost a AAA championship with the American Association champion Indianapolis Indians, it remained the Red Wings’ first IL title since 1974.
So, it makes sense that that would be on the front of the following year’s program. Oh, it’s sort of bland, but it gets the message across: The Red Wings were defending champions!
Now, this program I have is a bit beaten up, and is missing a few pages, but most of it is intact, so go below the jump to read about what was in the 1989 Red Wings program, and click on any picture to make it bigger:
In this recurring piece, I look at the programs and yearbooks of my hometown Rochester Red Wings. This is the first part of the series.
In 1981, the Rochester Red Wings were, if nothing else, notable. They played in the longest game in baseball history- a 33-inning loss against Pawtucket that was begun in April and finished in June. Cal Ripken played his last full season in the minor leagues for Rochester. Future All-Star and Gold-Glover Mike Boddicker also played for Rochester that season.
So it’s as good a place as any to begin our look back at Rochester Red Wings programs/yearbooks.
(GO BELOW THE JUMP TO SEE)
Coming soon will be a new feature on this blog, in which I look back at the programs and yearbooks of the Rochester Red Wings, collected over the years by myself, my father, and in some cases myself through other means (like eBay or Red Wings yard sales).
Among the fun things that we shall see:
- Famous ballplayers when they were younger!
- Unintentionally comedic advertisements, prospect previews, and hairstyles! Hey, hindsight is always 20/20.
- The fall of the Orioles-Red Wings marriage!
- The rise of the Twins-Red Wings marriage!
- Special appearances by two current MLB announcers and one of the most powerful people in Buffalo sports, amongst others!
- And also a look at the 2000 AAA All-Star Game program!
So look out in the coming days as we begin back in a mysterious time known as…. THE EIGHTIES!
The setting, Frontier Field in Rochester, NY. July 4th. For some reason, the fireworks aren’t working yet. Desperate to keep the fans from getting annoyed, two heroes emerge: reliever Mark Hamburger and team mascot Spikes.
They do Yoga. Hilarity ensues.
And then, after I had finished taking pictures… HE STRAIGHT UP BREAK-DANCED.
Seriously, here’s the aftermath:
In 30 Teams, 30 Posts, I write a post about every MLB team in some way in the lead-up to the beginning of the 2015 season. Previous installments can be found here. Today, in the final installment, an open letter from a Rochester Red Wings fan to their parent club.
TO: Minnesota Twins
CC: General Manager Terry Ryan, CEO Jim Pohlad, Director of Minor League Operations Brad Stell, Manager Paul Molitor
SUBJECT: Sano and Buxton
I am writing as a fan of the Rochester Red Wings, your AAA club. You’ve been good to us over the years. We’ve made the playoffs twice and come close a few other times since this affiliation began, and we’ve been lucky enough to see Justin Morneau, Michael Cuddyer, Brian Dozier, Francisco Liriano, Denard Span, Grant Balfour, Glen Perkins, and many other fine players. We even got to have Joe Mauer and Joe Nathan stop by briefly on rehab assignments, which was nice.
But, not to sound ungrateful, we have a simple request for this coming season: Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton. We very much would like it if you had them stop here before you inevitably call them up in September (if not earlier), perhaps never to grace minor league fields again.
Now, we understand. Neither of them have been able to put much time in AA yet, and with a new affiliate in the Chattanooga Lookouts, you no doubt are looking to make a good first impression. And, what’s more, Chattanooga’s climate is probably way better for a young baseball player in April and May than Rochester’s is.
Seriously, the weather here in April can never seem to remember what season it is. Yesterday, I was in shorts, but this weekend, it could snow.
However, that doesn’t change the fact that, come June, Rochester would be the perfect place for Minnesota’s two biggest prospects since Mauer to prepare for the big leagues. The weather will be getting warmer, schools will start letting out, and Frontier Field will start getting packed. By the 4th of July, the stadium will be full basically every Friday night, with some fans packing cowbells and giveaway thunder-stix, much to the annoyance of some people.
And it’ll be even more special if we have Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano to cheer on. Some of us have been waiting for years to see them. So, please, if at all possible, don’t make them bypass AAA.
Thank you, and good luck on your upcoming season,
-A Rochester Red Wings Fan
Apologies for being late, but here are five things we learned from the 2014 Rochester Red Wings season:
3. As always, the fate of a Minor League Team is in large part outside of it’s control
Make no mistake, the purpose of AAA baseball teams is, and always will be, to provide a place for future MLB players to get ready for The Show. Winning is of only secondary importance, and, with rare exception, no AAA team will go the season with all of their key pieces untouched. What’s more, there are still the other hazards that haunt every baseball club: injuries, slumps, players that just don’t work out or underperform.
This year’s Red Wings were a perfect example of that. The Red Wings played 144 games this season. Only six position players were in at least 100 of them, only four were in at least 120 of them, and only two (Eric Farris, who’s “get to know your Wings” scoreboard segment was by far the best, and Aussie infielder James Beresford) were in at least 130 of them. Danny Santana, who many thought would be in Rochester for a good chunk of the season, ended up only playing 24 games, while Darin Mastroianni was lost to first the Majors and then to the Blue Jays through waivers after just four games. Chris Parmelee, the leading power threat through the first month of the season, was also gone early. The vaunted opening-day rotation of Alex Meyer, Trevor May, Yohan Pino, Logan Darnell and Kris Johnson saw all but Meyer spend at least some time in Minnesota, and the loss of May and Pino down the stretch especially hurt. If Rochester had all five of them all season, I see almost no way that they miss the playoffs, but, again, those are the breaks that come with being a AAA franchise.
And, of course, there were injuries, both in the majors (which led to certain players getting called up to replace the injured Twins) and down in the minors. The loss of Meyer to injury early in the third-to-last game of the season may well have doomed the Red Wings, as it forced them to burn Mark Hamburger, who was expected to pitch a must-win game against Pawtuckett the next day. Instead, the Red Wings had to have Jose Berrios, a 20-year-old (albeit one of the top prospects in the system) pitch that game, where he was beaten up on in a loss that ended the Wings’ playoff chances.
Health problems below AAA also put a wrench in the Wings’ season. At the start of the year, it was considered possible that top prospects Miguel Sano and (although more of a longshot) Byron Buxton could join by the end of the year. Sano got hurt and missed the whole season, and Buxton got a concussion in his first game in AA (although by that point it was clear he was probably not going to end up in Rochester by the end of the year).
Speaking of prospects, I think it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Rochester will ever see Kennys Vargas, who has gone .314 in 140 AB for the Twins since getting the call-up from AA. Prospects jumping from AA to MLB is less frequent in Minnesota’s system than it is in some others, but it does happen: Joe Mauer would never have played in Rochester if not for a injury so early in his rookie season in MLB, for example.
4. Of course, the above thing also can go the other way.
After the first month of the season, I don’t think anybody expected that Chris Colabello would be back in Rochester. He’d done great early in the year, after all, even winning AL Player of the Week at one point. Then he crashed back to earth and ended up spending more games in Rochester this season (61) than he would in Minneapolis (59). He did not receive a call-up at the end of the year and it’s almost certain that his time with Minnesota- and maybe even affiliated baseball in general- is at an end. But what must have been a horrible disappointment for Colabello was good news for the Red Wings, as he ended up leading the team in HRs. In his two seasons with the Red Wings, Colabello ended up batting .319 in 551 ABs, with 34 HRs and 114 RBIs. His OPS of .966 was spectacular. He will be missed, but hopefully he gets another shot at a permanent place in the Majors.
Similarly, Chris Herrmann was originally with the Twins to start the year, but ended up playing sizable time in Rochester, where he became one of the Wings’ best hitters. He’s now in Minnesota again as a September call-up.
The same sort of thing will no doubt happen next year, just as it happens every year.
5. The Mario-Coin Sound Is An Excellent Sound Effect For Scoring A Run
This season, when the Red Wings scored a run, the sound from Super Mario Brothers when you got a coin would play. They aren’t the only team that does it- I believe the Cleveland Indians do the same, and the Twins use the 1-Up Sound from SMB. It’s great, funny, and is also a good reminder that ultimately baseball is a game.
In fact, it even inspired me to try my hand at some artwork:
That’s Mario in a Rochester Red Wings jersey. I’m not entirely sure why I made it, but I find it funny and I’m glad I made it. Let’s just hope they don’t change the sound effect next year, otherwise this will just be ridiculous.
So, the 2014 season is over in Rochester. It’s far too early to guess what the 2015 season may bring: Will Gene Glynn return as manager? Will some players be lost to free agency or by making the jump to the big leagues? Will next year by the year that Sano and/or Buxton make the jump to AAA?
Only time will tell.