Beating the bushes: Kip Wells gives hope to us all

Sunday afternoon, on the way home to NY from a family function in the Philly area, my grown nephew John and I stopped in Camden, NJ to see an Atlantic League game between the hometown RiverSharks and the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs.

Field level, behind the plate, day of game: $1,300 at Yankee Stadium; $13 at Campbell’s Stadium.
(And nice work with the cellphone camera, young John Autin!)

It was an entertaining back-and-forth contest, with fairly good play by both squads. Neither errors nor walks were numerous, and there were some very fine fielding plays, including a perfect throw by catcher Raul Padron to nail a stunned base-thief, and a sensational leaping grab of a Baltimore chop behind the mound by southpaw reliever Ricky Barrett (bio), who landed flat on his back but still slung the ball to first in time to thwart a rally. Each side parked one over the fence, including a monster blast by Casey Benjamin (bio).

The stadium and the setting were nicer than I’d expected, facing the base of the Ben Franklin Bridge, and the few hundred fans who braved the 95-degree heat saw the home team win, 4-3, even though Pedro Feliz (the biggest former “star” in uniform) didn’t see action. And if you’ve ever wondered what became of Chin-Lung Hu (bio), the ex-Dodger SS who hit .176 in a couple hundred ABs, he was the starting DH for the Blue Crabs, going 2 for 4 with a double.

And what does this have to do with Kip Wells?

Two years ago, Kip Wells was clinging to the bottom of the pro baseball ladder — I picture him as Luke Skywalker at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, clutching in agony that Cloud City weathervane and mourning his useless limb. Wells was 33 years old and toiling in the Atlantic League, and not even pitching well there (although he was better than Sidney Ponson, of course). After some early big-league success — consecutive qualifying years as Pittsburgh’s de facto ace, with ERA+ of 118 or better — Wells had gone 25-55 with a 5.32 ERA over his next 6 seasons, twice leading the NL in losses (deservedly) and seeping slowly through the MLB safety net. In one 6-year span, Wells was property of 10 different MLB clubs. His 2010 signing with the Long Island Ducks was met with fan-board derision; and if he pitched anywhere in 2011, those stats haven’t found their way to B-R yet.

Miraculously this May, the Millennium Falcon swooped in and Leia grafted a new hand … er, the Padres signed Wells and sent him to AAA Tucson. And despite no apparent success there — 4.97 ERA in 7 starts, with a 1.74 WHIP (gulp!), more walks than Ks and darn few of the latter — San Diego called him back to the majors a week ago, to more derision. His first start, a loss to Houston, was inconclusive but not encouraging. But then came Sunday.

While my godson and I watched “lucky” fans clothed as sumo wrestlers and aerosol cans(?) cavorting on a backwater greensward where Wells had lately trudged, Kip himself was in Coors Field — where he’d allowed 29 runs in 20.2 career innings — improbably blanking the Rockies for 7 stanzas on just 83 pitches in a 2-0 win. His sac bunt helped produce the insurance run in the 7th, and with his last delivery in the bottom half he retired Eric Young for the first time in four career chances. It was the fourth scoreless start of 7+ IP in Coors this year, all by the visitors.

Wells is slated to start again this Friday in Petco Park, where he has allowed just 5 runs in 21 career innings. His last Petco outing was memorable: 4 scoreless frames to earn the win for Colorado in a 22-inning, 2-1 victory, the longest MLB game since 1984. He’ll face the Reds this time, for whom he earned his last two big-league wins in 2009 before his trek through the nether circuits.

There’s no logical reason to expect Wells to last long in the majors; he still doesn’t miss many bats, so if his location isn’t perfect, trouble lurks. But I wish him the best of luck. The Atlantic League is a fun place to watch a ballgame, but I doubt it’s much fun for an ex-big-leaguer to see his career end there.

27 thoughts on “Beating the bushes: Kip Wells gives hope to us all

  1. 1
    Brandon says:

    Looks like an awesome setting for a ball game. The bridge looks magnificent!

  2. 2
    Alan says:

    Hey, that sounds like a good ol’ day at the ballyard! Nice to imagine you and J together, wish I coulda joined you. Too bad Pepe Feliz couldn’t get in the game, I remember his weak-hitting ways all too well from Giants days, but he was always a pretty good glove man.

    • 3
      John Autin says:

      I assure you, sir, it was every bit of “a big, bright, sunshiny day at the ballyard,” but neither George Kell nor Al Kaline were on hand to add color commentary.

      I was hoping to see a-Bruce a-“Bodkey” listed as one of the Atlantic League managers, but I’m happy to report the following:

      — Ron Karkovice is a coach for the Camden RiverSharks;
      — Sparky Lyle manages the Somerset Patriots;
      — Butch Hobson is skipper of the Lancaster Barnstomers;
      — Gary Gaetti helms the Sugar Land Skeeters (his pitching coach is Britt Burns); and
      — ol’ Andy Etchebarren has the reins of the York Revolution!

      Why, we could practically have a Strat-O tournament with those fellers right there!

      (Of course, if you’re actually not the Alan I think you are, this comment will seem sorta crazy, but I don’t mind.)

      • 4
        Jim Bouldin says:

        I’ll bet the guy wearing the aerosol can was the misplaced mascot of the Sugar Land Skeeters.

        Seriously, the Sugar Land Skeeters? Do they have Blood Donation Night as one of their promotions?

        • 6
          John Autin says:

          The aerosol can race (no foolin’!) was sponsored by the Eastern Aerosol Association.

          About those Sugar Land (Texas) Skeeters … what are they doing in a league with 7 teams in the New England/Atlantic Coast region? This is their first year in the league, by the way. The travel must be brutal.

          I would have guessed that these teams traveled by bus, not plane — but the posted schedule shows the Skeeters playing a day game in Bridgeport, CT on July 4, then a night game at home the next day.

          P.S. The newsletter I picked up at Camden (free!) has rosters for only 6 of the 8 teams, omitting the Bridgeport Bluefish and the Long Island Ducks. So add Willie Upshaw and Kevin Baez to the list of MLB veterans managing in the Atlantic League. (The Blue Crabs are the only team without one, as Patrick Osborn never rose above AA.)

      • 5
        Alan says:

        Wow, you guys DO have some star-power in that Atlantic League. Now I know where all the ol’ ballplayers go to, when they don’t get jobs at the big-league level.
        Good ol’ Sparky Lyle. That ’77 Strat-o card was a doozy!

  3. 9
    Andy says:

    I have been over that bridge more times than I can count. Nice post, JA.

    • 11
      Kenny says:

      Yeah, I’ve been over that bridge more times than you have – by car, by train. And for anyone that doesn’t know: it’s the Ben Franklin Bridge between Philadelphia PA and Camden NJ.

  4. 10
    Jason Z says:

    I wonder if manager Sparky is known to sit on birthday cakes

    BTW, Andy, just bought Pinstripe Empire and am loving it.

    Thanks for the tip.

    • 22
      Andy says:

      Glad to hear it. I think Marty Appel is going to achieve legend status with that book.

      • 26
        Jason Z says:

        As a 36 year Yankee fan, first game was 4/24/76 against
        the Royals, I agree.

        I have read dozens of Yankee books over the years, but as
        Appel points out in the beginning, this is the first comprehensive team history written in almost 70 years. He
        sources the first book to cover the beginning and then carries
        us right up to the present.

        It is a wonderful gift, and thanks again for mentioning it.

  5. 13
    MikeD says:

    How long a trip outside NYC is that park? I’ve been to a high percentage of minor league parks in the tri-state region, but Campbell Stadium was not on my list…until now.

    I’ll try and pick a day when it’s less than 95.

    • 20
      John Autin says:

      MikeD — Google rates it a 2-hour drive from midtown Manhattan to Campbell’s Stadium in Camden, NJ.

      Have you been to the Rockland Boulders of the Can-Am League? If you’re north of NYC, it’s an easy hop over the Tappan Zee Bridge — just 30 minutes from my home in Westchester.

      • 24
        MikeD says:

        Thanks. No I have not, although I’m a little less familiar with the indie teams. I have a friend who lives over in Pomona. Surprised he never mentioned them. I’ll have to give it a look. All-you-can-eat, dollar hot dog night looks like one where I can do some damage.

    • 23
      Andy says:

      Camden is just outside Philly, so you can gauge it from there.

  6. 14
    Ed says:

    100% off topic but the White Sox are threatening the record for most runs in a shutout (22). They’re up too 18, bases loaded, one out in the bottom of the 7th.

  7. 15
    Larry says:

    I would love to see a game between the Sugar Land Skeeters and the Houston Astros. I think the Skeeters could win at least 1 game of a 3 game series.

  8. 16
    Luis Gomez says:

    Excellent post, John. I’m one of those guys who can’t get enough baseball, and tht’s why I love minor leagues baseball. I think Spring Training Leagues, Minor Leagues, Independent Leagues and Winter Leagues are a great/cheap way to spend and enjoy an afternoon with our loved ones, specially the little ones.

    • 17
      John Autin says:

      Thanks, Luis!

      I haven’t seen as many of the area minor-league teams as I might, but I’m always glad they’re around when the “let’s go see a ballgame!” mood strikes.

      One suggestion I’d offer these low-level pro teams: Hire a comic instead of the wannabe-emcees I’ve seen who are all poise & polish but no spontaneous fun. If we have to watch a race between two aerosol can costumes, the guy or gal with the microphone should help us get a laugh out of it.

      • 18
        Luis Gomez says:

        The P.A. announcer in the local Winter League stadium has a great line; whenever somebody sends a salute to another person in the stands he says: (example) Your attention please, Mr ______, your wife is looking for you in Gate number 2. (It’s funnier than it sounds if you are actually there) 😉

  9. 19
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Well, with respect to the Skeeters’ upcoming promotions, there’s good and bad news, depending on one’s perspective. Still remaining are…

    – Reggy the Purple Party Dude, and Buzz Brigade Peanut Butter and Jelly Banquet
    – Batman Night with Batman Themed Fireworks
    – Skeeters Baseball Hat Giveaway
    – Salute to Cricket and Money Mailer Monday
    – Martial Arts Night
    – Dance Night
    – Cheerleading Night
    – Breakin BBoy McCoy night (featuring the break-dancing batboy, BB McCoy)
    – Engineering Night and Pocket Protector Giveaway
    – Boy Scout Campout and Elvis Themed Fireworks Spectacular

    – and best of all…the Human Fireball, Ted Batchelor: “The bases are sure to be smoking after this game…from Stuntman Ted Batchelor as he LIGHTS HIMSELF ON FIRE after the game and does a complete trip around the bases. Yes, you read that correctly. After the game, Ted and his crew will light him on fire and he will take a stroll around the bases.”

    I’m disappointed to report that Blood Donation Night is not on the list, at least for this year.

  10. 27
    Tmckelv says:

    Thanks for the story John, it is wonderful. I can’t believe it is too easy for players to make it from the Independent League to the majors. It is a bunch of guys that really just want to play.

    I live within 15 minutes of the Somerset Patriots Stadium. It is actually quite nice. I have only been to a few games (less than 10), but we did go to see Rickey Henderson a few years ago during his Newark Bears days.

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