Jeff Jacobs: HR Derby Offbeat Fun Amid Serious Hopes And Dreams

NEW BRITAIN —

Bill Dowling thought for a moment about this night's intersection of minor league baseball and home run derby — the very definition of creative high jinks — broke into a big smile and shouted, "We are not a circus!"

Maybe not, but step right up and you will see some amazing things at the Eastern League home run derby. In 2002, Rock Cats leadoff hitter Lew Ford won the Double A event at Dodd Stadium in Norwich with only two homers. "Hey," Ford said in a classic response, "at least you know I'm clean."

Those were the days before the majors tested for steroids and Lew already had been tested twice that season. Folks probably wondered if the weird and wonderful folks in Reading should have been tested last year.

Behind protective netting, fans dined and drank in the infield dirt while the Eastern League home run derby was staged. David Cullen played guitar in a cage on the infield grass. In the outfield, a guy jumping up and down on a trampoline tried to rob home runs. There was a dunk tank out there and all sorts of crazy targets, like flamingos. Unlike in other years all the players and a few others, like Crazy Hot Dog Vendor [who rides around on a fake ostrich], competed.

"It was something new," said Bowie's Niuman Romero, who played in the 2012 All-Star Game for Erie and is the only one back for 2013. "You want to have fun here and you hope the fans do, too."

Chris Rahl won the 2012 event when he drove a ball off, yes, a giant crane in center field. It was nuts. And everyone seemed to agree it was fun.

"We were looking at a little restaurant ourselves at the edge of the outfield for this year's event," said Dowling, the Rock Cats president who regained daily operations of the team this season.

And?

"I vetoed it," said Dowling, who once worked under George Steinbrenner with the Yankees. "I said this is a little bit too quirky for me. Somebody might get hurt. I come from the Steinbrenner school of baseball. There's no blanking-blank way George would have allowed it on his field.

"You've got to have excitement and be creative, but it's like what [Supreme Court Justice] Potter Stewart said about pornography: I know it when I see it. I know when it crosses the line from baseball. I mean, for years, a guy wanted me to put a hot tub out in left field. I'm like, are you crazy?"

There was no pornography on the field Tuesday night, but there was Kevin Nathan of NBC Connecticut driving one to the wall. Rich Coppola of Fox CT, Paul Nanos of Fox Sports Radio, Jay Harris and Jay Crawford of ESPN and New Britain High catcher Kevin Dukes were among the celebrities competing in this home run derby.

Caleb Joseph of Bowie won the event.

"We did replicate some things Reading did," Dowling said. "We used their model of getting sponsors for kids. The Community Foundation of Greater New Britain bought 3,000 tickets and we're going to work with them to give some of the money to a local charity."

A crowd of 6,374 showed up at New Britain Stadium Tuesday night in a park that seats 6,146.

"We weren't sold out a couple of weeks ago and I was a little nervous, but both nights [including Wednesday's All-Star Game] are sold out," Dowling said. "I usually say the Rock Cats draw 10 percent hard core baseball fans and 90 percent families, but it's kind of the other way around for this. A lot of the fans wanted to see the top prospects."

Especially Yankee and Red Sox fans.

And that's why so many eyes will be on 6-7 Anthony Ranaudo Wednesday night when the Portland Sea Dogs righthander starts for the Eastern Division. He grew up a Yankees fan in New Jersey, but he has re-emerged as a guy high on the Red Sox radar.

"Yeah, I was definitely a Yankee fan growing up," Ranaudo said. "I went to a bunch of Yankee games. I was like every kid in New Jersey. I wanted to be like Derek Jeter."

By the time he was drafted out of LSU, seeing so many college peers move on to teams as future competitors, he no longer was a fan of one team. He was a fan of baseball.

"There was no letdown to be drafted by the Red Sox at all," Ranaudo said.

You deserve a cookie if you remember that Romero actually played for the Red Sox. He appeared in two games in 2010, went 0-for-4 in one at Tampa Bay made notable by the fact Rays manager Joe Maddon walked David Ortiz intentionally three times — once with a runner on first base — to get to Romero. He had entered the game when Kevin Youkilis hurt his ankle and three times Romero ended an inning — including the ninth — leaving six runners on base.

"I remember it, but I don't want to because it was the last one," said Romero, 28, who has flown through the Blue Jays, Phillies, Mets, Tigers and Orioles organizations since 2010. "I'm trying to do everything I can to go back."

The minor leagues are nothing if not a study of players, young and old, rising and falling, dreams bursting and others realized. Ranaudo got a $2.55 million signing bonus after being selected 39th overall in 2010, coming out of LSU in 2010. He was a hot prospect, but also dropped some because of a forearm injury. By 2012, a season reduced to nine starts because of a groin injury and shoulder fatigue, things were not looking so good.

Suddenly, they are looking very good. He's 8-2 with a 2.68 ERA at Portland. He struck out 13 in a game last month, tying a franchise record set by Jon Lester. Not only does he start in this one, he has been selected to pitch in the Futures Game on Sunday during the MLB All-Star festivities next week in New York.

"It's a great honor," Ranaudo said. "To pitch here to be picked to the Futures Game, I'm really excited about it. If people want to talk about my name moving up and stuff that's great, I'm just trying to focus on the fact that I'm healthy and confident again. I feel good about myself and the pitches I'm throwing."

There were nights in 2012 when Ranaudo was hitting 86, 87 on the gun with his fastball. Not fast enough.

"The command of my fastball and the power behind it," Ranaudo said when asked what the big difference is from 2012. "Last year I struggled with injures and mechanics. I felt like I was always behind and my velocity was way down. This year it's back. I've been sitting in the mid-90s and that's a huge confidence boost. Talk to any pitcher, knowing you have that in your back pocket, in and out, up and down. The consistency of my curveball and the development of my change-up has all played a part. To know I have three true pitches I can go to in any situation on any day is huge.

"The things that have happened this year are a tribute to the work I have put in, the Red Sox have put in and my physical therapist has. Obviously I want to be in Pawtucket, but Pawtucket isn't the final destination. I want to be in Boston."

And with that Ranaudo went and watched a home-run derby with Rich Coppola but no flamingos.

CHICAGO