Wednesday, July 7, 2010

God Said Ha

The great thing about minor-league games is that you never know whom you're going to see. The next big thing is always right around the corner.

But the bad thing is that even after you see them you're not necessarily sure whom you saw. After all, it's usually hard to tell on the basis of one game who the future star is and who's already over his head in short-season A ball. (Pretty much every high-school stud and hometown hero is in the latter category.)

I'm not talking about the famous—or at least name-recognizable—players on the way down, temporarily or permanently. We've seen any number of those, from Mark Grudzielanek at Oklahoma City, humongous Calvin Pickering at Omaha, and the Canseco brothers on the Newark Bears. Familiar players show up as coaches and managers on that level, too—among them Ryne Sandberg for the Tennessee Smokies and then the Iowa Cubs, Gabe Kapler in Greenville (well, briefly, anyway), and Damon Berryhill in Ogden. But all those guys qualify as big names on the right side of life's parabola—who essentially by definition are more recognizable than little names on the way up.

Not that there aren't players with asterisks and exclamation points and dingbats of all stripes dancing around them. Starlin Castro in double-A this April was one of them, as was Jeff Francis, whom we saw puree a fistful of batters in Wichita Tulsa in 2004. But those are by far the exception to the "who's that skinny guy with the forgettable name" phenomenon. Fans who stay in one place get to know the roster for a few months at least; we're usually starting from scratch.

Last year in Boise, we made note of shortstop Hak-Ju Lee, whom the Cubs promoted to Peoria this spring, along with his cross-keystone partner, Logan Watkins and a few others. Lee has phenomenal speed and showed a talent for getting on base. We'll be checking in on his progress at the end of the month at the Lake County Captains, but thanks to the annual Road to Wrigley game—in which a Cubs affiliate gets to play a game that counts at the mothership while the Cubs themselves are on the road—Watson and I got a preview earlier this week. Given how the Cubs have been playing, it might have been the best baseball we'll see at Wrigley this year.

The Chiefs were hosting the Kane County Cougars, but, geography being what it is, more of the 9,000 or so fans were rooting for the visitors. The game, which is now in its third year, is a bit of an odd spectacle, as it's in one of baseball's true temples yet it has all the between-innings nonsense of a game in the sticks (Famous Chickens and whatnot) and a small crowd. It's about the cheapest way to get a decent seat at Wrigley, though—seventeen clams apiece placed us eight rows back from the northern edge of the home dugout. Still, the "who is that guy" problem is fairly profound: Not only are most of the players unfamiliar 19-year-olds, but few of them will ever make it back to Wrigley in any professional capacity, let alone as a Cub.

As if we had not learned a lesson in Fort Wayne, we again went to a game in the company of a sweet but uninterested child. There were a lot of these critters there, one of whom got bonked on the head by a ball soft-tossed from the field by a well-intentioned coach. No tears ensued, but an ice pack was thoughtfully deployed.

The Chiefs got off to a slow start. Cougars pitcher Ian Krol (all together now: who?) of nearby Naperville—which evidently sucks—set down the first seven, and the score was an anemic 1-1 in the fourth. The Chiefs started to figure out Krol the second time through the order, and they had two runners on when a certain slight and speedy Korean stepped to the plate. Quickly down two strikes, he crushed the next pitch over the left-field ivy, putting the Chiefs ahead to stay. The non-Cougar fans in the stands roared their approval for... Jae-Hoon Ha?

Yes, the Cubs system is apparently crammed with Koreans. Our man Hak-Ju Lee made the MLB Futures Game this year, but the hero of this night was Ha. Isn't that always the way?

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