#7–Last Hurrah

Hello out there again and for the last time from Arizona.  The Arizona Fall League season has only one game remaining, so I think you all know what that means: season in review time.  Thankfully for myself and my teammates I get to do this now rather than two weeks ago when the review probably would have read something like this:

frowny face.jpg 


As it stands now I think that on the whole most of us are still extremely disappointed in our individual and team performance overall, but mercifully we’ve been playing much better lately (8-7 in our last 15 games).  Then again, there was really nowhere to go but up at that point, what with being 4-18 and having lost 10 consecutive games and all, but improvement is improvement and we’ll take it.  My personal performance here mirrored my regular season in having a rather dreadful start followed by improved play at the end once I ironed out a few things, so hopefully I can carry that into the offseason (I hear that there are a lot fewer runs scored in the Minnesota Winter-break League).  The off-field experience has been great.  I enjoyed getting out and seeing a bit of the area and hopefully I’ll be able to take in a bit more of it when I’m back out here for spring training in March.  By that time hopefully the people of Arizona will have realized that they can call radio stations to request songs other than “Mrs. Officer” but you never can tell.  Living with Chuck Lofgren and Erik “Rick” Stiller has been great as well and thanks to these two jokesters I think I acquired at least half a dozen new nicknames, but I guess that’s the price I’ll have to pay.  Thanks for surfing over and stopping by and that about does it for me from Arizona.

#6–The Rafters’ Last Sigh

Well, it is official:  with our latest effort (a 16-4 drubbing at the hands of Mesa) we have been eliminated from playoff contention.  Actually, when you consider that at one point we were 4-17 and had lost ten games in a row it is mildly impressive that we managed to stave off elimination as long as we did, but obviously disappointing nonetheless.  Today’s game encapsulates our season pretty well.  There were a couple errors and the concomitant unearned runs, several home runs allowed and a paucity of hits.  I managed to get 2.1 quality innings in but also gave up a solo home run, which pretty much typifies the up and down nature of my fall league experience thus far.

Now that the season is winding down, I’m sure the question on everybody’s mind is “what are you going to be doing now that you can’t ride buses, shag batting practice and all the other things you ‘love’ doing during the year?”  Interesting I should have you ask, because I have the answers right here for you.  In the short term I plan on starting out with a bang by getting back up to Fargo for the North Dakota State v. South Dakota State football game:  the battle for the Dakota Marker Trophy.  I haven’t been to a game at the Fargo Dome in a while and I’m really looking forward to it, but unfortunately it means leaving for Fargo about two hours after I step off a plane from Arizona.  Oh well, I’ll deal.  In the longer term I’m going to be living back in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area and trying to strike a balance between recuperating from a long season and getting ready for next year, which can be hard.  At this point of the year the motivation to lift and workout is pretty low but obviously it has to get done so it usually does..  I’ll be heading to Cleveland in January for three weeks for the winter development program which should be a good chance to work with some of the major league staff.  Other than that, I’ll just be trying to enjoy not having to shag bp, catching up with old friends and looking forward to kicking off spring training at our new facility in Arizona.

That’s all for this week, but stay tuned as I’ll be back with another couple installments to let you know how everything wraps up out here and whatever else comes to mind.

“Guest Blogger :Chuck Lofgren”

images23 yeee.jpgA Note on the Personal Side of Chuck Lofgren

   I am a 22-year old professional baseball player who was drafted out of Junipero Serra High School in 2004.  My main goal in life is to get to the major leagues where I would like to enjoy a long career as a pitcher. I am also attending the University of Phoenix where I have obtained my AA degree and I am currently working on my Bachelor’s degree.  My second goal is to obtain a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice within the next two years.
I’ve always enjoyed playing baseball from the time I was seven years old. I played on several All-Star and travel teams when I was young and when I was 15 years old, I was chosen to play on the USA baseball team representing the United States in Vera Cruz, Mexico. We won the gold medal and many of the players who were on my team are now playing for various teams in the major leagues. I went on to play for the USA baseball team in Venezuela when I was 16 years old and in Curacao, Netherlands Antilles when I was 17 years old. I was a two-way player on each of these teams because in addition to pitching, I was also a good hitter.
When I was drafted by the Cleveland Indians in 2004, my contract was expanded so that I was allowed to pitch and hit. Unfortunately a collision at home plate ended my hitting career abruptly because the Indians did not want me to get injured hitting if they ultimately see me as a pitcher.
I have spent four full seasons in the minor leagues working my way up from Rookie ball to Double/Triple A in 2007 and 2008. I attended major league Spring Training the last two years and became familiar with all the aspects and responsibilities of a professional baseball career.  I am currently participating in the Arizona Fall league where I am playing for the Surprise Rafters. The Arizona Fall League is an exciting competitive program. I’m very happy that I was chosen to participate because, after struggling through the regular season in 2008, I believe I have begun to correct the mechanical and personal issues that have plagued me for the past year and a half.  Although I have not produced a good statistical record in the fall league, I believe I have made great strides in commanding of my fastball and I’ve been able to get ahead of batters in the count in recent games. I’m working diligently to perfect my pitching skills and get back to where I was at the previous years. 
I know I have the confidence and the ability to become a talented major league pitcher in the future.  I have an extremely competitive spirit that burns inside of me and drives me to be a winner. Nothing can stop the hunger I have to reach my dream in being a major league ball player.
While in Arizona, I am living at my house with Neil Wagner and Erik Stiller who are also teammates with the Cleveland Indians. They are both very intelligent, talented ball players who have a bright future ahead of them. We have enjoyed our time together and getting to know each other on a personal basis. We spent time with my parents when we first arrived in September and we were spoiled by my mom’s home cooking for the first two weeks we were here. We’ve been attending our games every day and working out at the gym, running, playing video games and going to movies in our spare time. My parents will be returning next week for the balance of the fall league season and we are all looking forward to more of mom’s good home cooking.
The weather in Arizona at this time is terrific and quite conducive for playing games during the afternoon or in the evening. I’m looking forward to Spring Training at our new stadium in Goodyear, Arizona this spring. I feel very confident this upcoming year will be a good one for myself and let me achieve my goals I have worked towards my entire life.

#5–There and Back Again

Hello again.  Well, I hate to say I told you so but the Surprise Rafters have begun to turn things around on a small scale.  We’ve won three of our last four games and have been playing better overall in all three phases of the game.  To be fair, we are still 7-18 and the “magic number” that eliminates us from playoff contention is six with only 25 games played in a 38 game season, but…small steps.  I have still been pitching in frustratingly close proximity to success but I feel like I’ve thrown the ball well the last couple times out so I guess I’ll just have to hang in there.

I’ve had a reasonably interesting week since the last time I checked in.  I finally got off my duff and got out around the area a little bit over the weekend.  The first place I went was the Boyce Thompson Arboretum about an hour from where I’m staying in Mesa.  The arboretum is run by the University of Arizona and consists of 320 acres of various plants and demonstration gardens.  While it was definitely different than any previous arboretum I have been to up in Minnesota where we actually have water (the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is absolutely gorgeous), there were some beautiful views and landscape arrangements that made the drive and the walking in the heat well worth it.  I also took in the Phoenix Zoo over the weekend, which was enjoyable as well.  As zoos go it was not overly large and we had the misfortune to be there on a hot day when most of the animals were lounging around trying to beat the heat and several others were off exhibit for various reasons, but overall a nice experience.

Other than my two little excursions, the bulk of my excitement has come from trying to put a dent in The World Without End and watching coverage of the recent election.  I was extremely happy to see Barack Obama win, but I was definitely in the minority on our team, as an approximate electoral map of the Surprise Rafters would look something like this:

While I was certainly happy to see that Barack won the presidency, I was almost as happy about my fellow Minnesotans passing an initiative to provide additional funds for conservation, parks and trails, and the arts.  Minnesotans were denied another ridiculous political figure, however, when comedian and former Saturday Night Live contributor Al Franken was defeated in a U.S. Senate race.  Well, I think that’s about all I have for you today but check back next week for another update and whatever else I decide to prattle on about.

#4–Streak Without End

Well, as I write this entry I find myself in much the same situation as I did while writing my previous entry: in the midst of a bad losing streak and not pitching to the standards I like to hold myself to.  While I certainly wouldn’t argue that I’ve been throwing the ball well, what is rather maddening is that I have pitched fairly well overall but been bitten in the butt by a small number of poorly timed costly mistakes.  However, it is encouraging to realize that I’m not that far from getting things dialed in and putting up some zeroes.

We certainly haven’t been playing particularly well in any of the three phases of the game, but the effort level is still there on the part of the players and coaches so hopefully the worm will turn sometime soon.  Sadly, I have more experience than I would really prefer when it comes to enduring awful losing streaks.  After winning the North Central Conference title at North Dakota State in 2004 I went to Mankato, MN to play for the MoonDogs in the Northwoods League for the summer (with future minor league teammate and pitcher Kevin Dixon hitting cleanup).  We promptly went 21-43, including a four game winning streak to avoid having the worst record in the league’s history.  Upon returning to NDSU, my teammates and I endured what could only be described as sheer agony in NDSU’s first season in Division-I, going 10-43-1 in a season that featured a 0-22-1 start and a total run differential of minus 225.  For those of you too busy cringing to do the math that totals up to 31-86-1 in a 118 game stretch.  I–along with current Rafter teammates Russell Mitchell, Erik Stiller, Chad Tracy and Jamie Hoffman–also had a rough go of it in the Hawaii Winter League last year at 13-24.  Ah, the memories.

In an attempt to keep things light-hearted and in their proper perspective, I would like to share with you the five worst sports teams of all-time.  Your 2008 Surprise Rafters are on the verge of turning things around, but these teams just made your stomach turn.

5. 1991-92 Minnesota Timberwolves, 15-67

This team was so bad that it made later fans of the awful Christian Laettner-era T-Wolves point to this team and claim improvement.  In assembling this team the front office neglected rule #1 of professional sports: your best player should never be named Pooh.

4. 2001 Carolina Panthers, 1-15

Another terrible team with a Minnesota connection, the 2001 Panthers–led by St. Paul native Chris Weinke–is the only NFL team ever to win its first game (over who else, the Vikings) and lose its final 15.

3. 1979-82 Northwestern Football

They lost 34 straight games (a 1-A record) and got outscored by 40+ points per game in a winless 1981 season.  Combine that with purple uniforms and it just isn’t pretty.

2. 1899 Cleveland Spiders, 20-134

This team never really had a chance.  Their owners bought the St. Louis Browns after the Browns posted a then-worst ever record of 39-111 (.260) and “traded” all of Cleveland’s good players, including Cy Young to St. Louis.  The result, a MLB all-time worst .130 win percentage, 6 ten-plus game losing streaks and a 1-40 stretch to end the season.  Ouch, ouch, ouch.

1. 1976 Tampa Bay Bucaneers, 0-14

I wonder if Steve Spurrier puts this down on his resume?  They got outscored by 285 points on the season, got shut out five times and had by far the worst uniforms in the history of professional sports.  They also managed to go winless for the first 12 games of the following season, which is almost impressively futile.

Well, that’s it for this week.  I’ve got some plans to get out and see a bit of the area this weekend so look for that as well as updates on the winning streak we are hopefully about to start in the next installment.

#3–The Voyage of the Jetta

Hey, back again for another installment.  At the moment our record stands at 4-10 and this week hasn’t been real kind to us as we’ve gone 0-3 and gotten outscored 44-5 including a 28-1 loss on Monday.  Let’s just say it’s been more Roy Munson than Thurman Munson so far this week, but I’m sure we’ll pull it together and start playing better soon.

Thus far the Fall League experience has been pretty good.  I’m living with Erik Stiller and Chuck Lofgren at Chuck’s house in Mesa.  Chuck’s place is really nice and living with Erik (who I lived with in Hawaii last year as well) and Chuck (one of the biggest goofballs in the business) has been great and rarely dull, but there is the significant drawback of being about an hour away from our home field in Surprise.  In an attempt to be a bit more eco-friendly we’ve been carpooling with Wes Hodges and Stephen Head, and I imagine we look rather comical with Erik (6’5″), Chuck (6’3″), Wes (6’3″) and Stephen (6’3″) and myself packing into a rather small vehicle.  By the way, with those four monsters in tow, who do you think gets stuck in the back middle seat most of the time?  (I am officially required to complain but it isn’t that bad).  We’ve had the good fortune to have Chuck’s parents in town so the three of us have been getting some good home cooked meals which is always nice, especially since they tend to be few and far between during the year.

The on-field experience has been good as well.  Obviously we would all prefer to have a better record and be performing a bit more consistently, but playing against this level of competition has been great at forcing me to make adjustments and be on my game.  We also have a good group of guys on this team, which helps to keep morale up in the face of the scorching afternoon sun.  I’ll be back with more updates and what passes for insight in the upcoming weeks.  Catch you later.

Guest Blogger: Wes Hodges

wes_hodges.jpgHi, my name is Wes Hodges and I play in the Indians organization.  I was raised in Ooltewah, Tennessee and I have lived there my whole life.  It is a small, quaint place in the mountains with lakes.  This is my first time to Arizona and it is totally different than what I am used to.  There are no trees, no grass, but it’s nice when it’s not 95 degrees! I played in Akron this year and it was good.  I had a solid season and stayed healthy all year.  While I am playing here in the Fall League I am staying with my good friend, Trevor Crowe, at his place in Tempe.  He played here in 2006 and 2007. I enjoy watching football on my day off and I’m big into fantasy football.  In fact, my team is 5-0.  So far the highlight of my time here was going to a Cardinals game.  I got to see the Cardinals/Bills game.  I want to go to the Grand Canyon if I have the time.  I know a lot of the guys here; I’ve played with them at some level either during the regular season, college, or Team USA.  We play our home games in Surprise and it’s a really nice facility.  I’m working hard to keep improving and I am glad to be here.

#2–Different Hours

Hey, I’m back for round two and I’ll start by updating you on how things have been going for us so far.  Thus far we’re 2-4 in our first six games, but we could very easily be 4-2 with a bounce or call going our way in a couple of those games so for the most part all of us are feeling fairly good about how we’ve played thus far.  I’ve thrown twice, doing well in one appearance and not quite as well the other, but it’s still very early.  We get a reprieve from the afternoon sun tomorrow with our first night game of the fall.  I have nothing against day games, but the game just seems to get ratcheted up another notch when the sun goes down and you’re playing under the lights.  Needless to say I’m looking forward to it.

While most of attention in the fall league (and professional baseball as a whole) is paid to the time that we as players spend between the lines playing the games, taking batting practice and doing fielding work, there is actually a surprising amount of down time spent both on buses and at the field on game days.  As any position player will be happy to tell you (over and over again, I might add), this is particularly true of us pitchers, and different guys find different ways of filling/killing time.

Probably the most universal clubhouse distraction is watching SportsCenter reruns over and over again until everyone knows every word of the telecast by heart, but sports in general are always big.  Especially now with the major league playoffs going, college football to talk smack about (go Bison!), and the NFL and all its fantasy football implications there is almost always sport in some form being watched in most clubhouses.  Cards, texting and music are popular choices as well, but I usually tend to go the reading route.

Since I’ve been out of college and had a chance to direct my attention to some slightly more interesting subjects, down time at the field and on the bus have worked out to be the perfect times to indulge my enjoyment for reading (and giving my entries literary titles).  I have always been a fairly prolific reader and I like to dabble all over the spectrum in terms of material.  Everything from Richard Dawkins and Desmond Morris to J.R.R. Tolkien and Stephen Dunn are fair game and it seems like the more reading I do the more I find to do.  I just (finally!) finished Ken Follett’s novel Pillars of the Earth, which was outstanding but a bit long at a shade under a thousand pages.  As if I didn’t learn my lesson the first time I’m going to start in on the doorstop-sized sequel The World Without End as soon as I finish the series of Hannibal Lecter novels by Thomas Harris which I recently started (also very good).

Well, I think I’ll stop before I ramble on too much more about literature, but I’ll be back with another update in the near future and one of these times I’ll get around to answering a couple of the questions that have been queuing up as well as any more that you may have for me.  Catch you later.

#1–Narrative of the Life of Neil Wagner

Hey out there, this is Neil Wagner.  I play in the Cleveland Indians’ Minor League system and I’m going to be sharing my Arizona Fall League experience with you in this blog while I’m out here, so I’ll start by letting you know a little bit about myself.

I grew up in Minnesota in Eden Prairie, which is a suburb of Minneapolis.  I managed to fly somewhat under the radar throughout most of my high school career, and as a result I was faced with somewhat limited college choices if I wanted to continue playing baseball, but I eventually settled on North Dakota State University in Fargo, ND.  NDSU is known more for its football program (8 Division II national championships, currently No. 6 in the I-AA polls, Go Herd!), women’s basketball (five national championships), and school of agriculture than it is for baseball, but when I saw Newman Outdoor field on my tour, I decided it was the place for me.  Playing in Fargo, despite the less than ideal baseball weather, was a great experience, and winning our conference in 2004 is still one of my proudest baseball moments.

I got drafted by the Indians in 2005 after a rough junior year in which NDSU was transitioning from D-II to Division I, and I signed at the end of the summer.  There were a lot of adjustments I had to make moving from NDSU to professional baseball, starting with getting used to being half a foot shorter than basically all the other pitchers (especially true with all the monsters we have on our AFL team).  I also had to start essentially from scratch in terms of throwing offspeed pitches, which I never did a whole lot of in high school and college.  The curveball I threw my first year in Mahoning Valley is still somewhat of a recurring joke among the guys I played with there, but I’d like to think I’ve adjusted pretty well overall.  I spent most of this season playing for Kinston in the high-A Carolina League and got called up to our Double-A affiliate, Akron, for about the last month of the season including the playoffs.  Double-A is a whole different beast.  Hitters are a lot more adept at picking up patterns and zoning out bad pitches, but it was a good learning experience for me and hopefully I can continue to refine my pitches and delivery this fall.

I’m really excited to get the ball rolling on the Arizona Fall League season and continue working on doing the things I need to do to make that step to the big leagues.  Having my pitching coach from last year, Ruben Niebla, on staff should make things a little easier for me since he knows me and helped me out a lot last year (especially in scrapping my aforementioned curveball).  So far it has been great getting to know some of the faces that are usually in the other dugout and catching up with some of the guys I played with in the Hawaiian Winter League last year, but I think I speak for all the guys when I say we’re all ready to get out of Spring Training mode and get between the lines for some live game action.  I’ll be checking in throughout the fall league to bring you updates and also share a bit of myself and my experience in the fall league, so look for more in the near future.