One down. Fifty-one to go. As the Hartford Yard Goats coasted to the first win in franchise history on Thursday afternoon in Richmond, the Colorado Rockies’ new Double-A affiliate also kicked off their notorious 52-game road trip that will send them across the northeast for the next two months as they wait for developers and construction companies to put the finishing touches on Dunkin’ Donuts Park back at home in Connecticut.
And while the Yard Goats’ road trip is already the stuff of legend among those who follow Rockies prospects and minor league affiliates, it’s not completely unheard of across minor league baseball. In fact, just last year, the Biloxi Shuckers, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Double-A affiliate in the Southern League, went on their own 54-game road trip to begin the season while waiting for their brand new MGM Park to be finished on the coast of southern Mississippi.
"It’s really kind of eerily similar," says Chris Harris, the director of broadcasting and public relations for the Shuckers. "I don’t envy Hartford in the least, that’s for sure. But looking back on it, you’re glad you experienced it, and we got a lot of exposure."
"But," he adds, chuckling, "I wouldn’t do it again."
Once was enough for Harris and the rest of the Shuckers’ players and staff, having survived a nearly 3,000 mile odyssey of bus rides across the American south for the first two months of the 2015 season when their ballpark hit construction delays just a few months before the season. And just as has been the case in Hartford, conflict between developers, construction companies, and city government put the Shuckers in an impossible position just before their inaugural season was to begin.
Biloxi's desolate beaches after the BP oil spill. Image via Mario Tama/Getty Images
"It was the perfect storm of things happening, and from my perspective being the public relations guy, it was the perfect human interest story," Harris admits. "It was a team with kind of a Bull Durham type story, living on the road on a bus, living out of suitcases."
"Plus, you had a team that was winning," Harris adds, referencing the Shuckers’ on-field play that took them to the Southern League playoffs. "And then you're talking about a place that had been hit by Hurricane Katrina, and had been hit by an oil spill, and was a rebuilding community. Man, it was an experience."
There are differences, of course; the Yard Goats’ new ballpark is about ten miles away from their old one, where they were known as the New Britain Rock Cats. The Shuckers’ move took them more than 400 miles away from their previous outpost in Huntsville, Alabama. While the Yard Goats were able to keep personnel after the move, then, the Shuckers only moved one full-time employee from Huntsville to Biloxi. That alone set the new Southern League franchise behind the eight ball, and made the lead-up to their road trip that much more hectic.
Travis Sarandos, who covers the Brewers’ minor league affiliates and prospects for SB Nation sister site Brew Crew Ball, found it interesting how Milwaukee approached the Shuckers’ trip, especially considering the big league club’s Triple-A and High-A affiliates bracketing Biloxi weren’t an ideal place to move talent from a player development perspective.
"That was an interesting situation the Brewers found themselves in, because they really had less-than-ideal scenarios going on at both the Double-A and Triple-A levels that summer," Sarandos says. "Obviously Biloxi was dealing with the road trip, but with the affiliate shuffle, as you know, Colorado Springs is a really tough place to evaluate talent. It's really not an ideal place to have your top affiliate unless your Major League team plays in the same kind of environment. And the High-A affiliate, Brevard County, is sort of as extreme as Colorado Springs, except for pitchers, so it's also not a wonderful place to keep players stashed."
And judging by the talent they sent straight away to Double-A Biloxi, the Brewers obviously resisted stashing or hiding top prospects to protect them from the road trip. Top prospect Orlando Arcia and other well-regarded minor leaguers in their system spent the entire road trip with Biloxi, taking their lumps and learning at the second-highest level of minor league baseball while living out of hotels for more than two months.
"If anything, they were more willing to put some of their best prospects here and leave them here longer throughout stretches," Harris says. "That’s something that I was concerned about, I thought there was no way they’d want to send us Arcia, or Tyrone Taylor, who was very highly rated. But they were not scared at all."
"They never made a move just because we were on the road," Harris adds. "If anything, the Brewers kept them here just because they wanted to keep that camaraderie and they didn’t want to mess up what this team had going. Then, when they started winning, and they saw they had something special here, they left it alone."
Harris pauses, jumping back in to volunteer an observation for the Yard Goats and Rockies based on his experiences last summer.
"I think the first couple of weeks will be a huge indicator," he says. "If they get off to a rocky start, they might do something to shake things up a little bit, but if they get off to a good start…"
Harris pauses again.
"To be honest, in the back of our minds, we may not have said it out loud, but we wondered if this was going to be an absolute cluster," he admits. "We were all in the back of our minds thinking this is going to be an absolute disaster, a mess. Whatever adjective you want to throw in. So I don’t know if we all expected the worst and hoped for the best, but the groundwork was laid in February and March. We put a plan together and we went through with it."
★ ★ ★
The company line for a club’s front office in a situation such as the Yard Goats’ trip has to be positive, doesn’t it? You can’t really expect executives, coaches, players, or staff to be negative about a road trip before it even starts. And yet, even acknowledging that obvious angle, Hartford’s assistant general manager Mike Abramson seems pretty happy to have been rallying his staff the last several months to prepare for this journey.
"I call it the ‘new normal’ more than hectic, but we’re all having so much fun, that it’s hard to complain," Abramson says. "The staff has been great. And having the opportunity to build something from the ground up, and play an integral role in that process, is very fulfilling."
For Abramson, who also runs the Yard Goats’ notoriously funny Twitter account, the emotional state in preparing for a daunting road trip is maybe the opposite of what one would expect from a minor league executive.
"The biggest challenge is having to roll things out to the public one at a time," he admits, counter intuitively—especially considering Harris spoke so extensively about not always having enough time to get everything done that the Shuckers needed last summer.
"We have a master plan in which we believe strongly, and often times I’d just like to roll it all out to everyone all at once because I’m so excited," Abramson adds. "But from a marketing standpoint, we’ve had so much success drawing things out slowly with the team name, the branding, the merchandise, the mascots, the uniforms, specific sponsors and partners. And there’s still so much more to come."
"We have been so busy trying to put together our inaugural season in Hartford that personally, I haven’t thought much about starting the season on the road," admits Jeff Dooley, the Yard Goats’ radio broadcaster and media liaison. "This is obviously not an ideal situation for our players so we want to make it as comfortable for them as we can. But I think once our players see what they have waiting for them later in the season, it will help them through the first part of the year."
But the biggest part of what’s left to come—at least for baseball fans—is the on-field product. The Yard Goats are undefeated after Thursday, a good start to their road trip and to Rockies prospect Kyle Freeland’s summer. While that won’t continue for too much longer, Colorado’s front office isn’t going to allow any excuses to fester when it comes to on-field performance, repeatedly citing Biloxi as a reason for high expectations in Hartford.
"Whatever it is, fifty or whatever the number is, Biloxi did it last year and they survived, they nearly won the whole darn thing," Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich told Purple Row earlier this winter. "So you can sit here and complain about it, but where does that get you? We will deal with it and make the absolute best of it like Biloxi did, and we will learn from them. They obviously handled it really well in a lot of different areas. We’ll take lessons from them and make the absolute most of it."
Bridich’s attitude will go a long way to set the tone from the top down in the Rockies’ organization, and other player development executives have been following the lead ever since the Yard Goats’ trip became a reality months ago.
"That’s a critical club for us, and that group being together and growing together and cutting their teeth at this level, that’s a group we want to go on this trip," says Chris Forbes, the Rockies’ manager of player development, of the roster assigned to Hartford to start the season. "Plus, some of the trips are quick-hitters. I know it seems when it comes out that they’re touring with Led Zeppelin, and everything is on the bus, but they are going to acclimate extremely well to it. I think they are going to look back at the trip later on, and they are going to laugh about it."
"And look at what they did," Forbes adds, referring back to the Shuckers, just like Bridich. "Look at how that year went. Obviously [the trip] is something that’s in the back of our mind, but at least speaking for Zach [Wilson, the Rockies’ senior director of player development] and I, I don’t think it’s something we’ve ever really stressed about."
Maybe not surprisingly, the players haven’t stressed too much about it, either. "Baseball is baseball," I was told repeatedly by those the Rockies sent to Hartford at the end of spring training. And digging deeper, while it appears the players are thinking a bit more about the trip than they initially let on, they still don’t seem too anxious about spending more than two months on the road.
"I have thought about it, yeah, especially since I’m from Connecticut, and I’d be twenty minutes from home," says Matt Carasiti, the Yard Goats’ closer. "But 50 games on the road? It’s just another challenge. It’s the minor leagues, we’re used to doing crazy stuff, so it’s just another thing I can check off the list, but I don’t really think about it too much."
"It’s definitely crossed my mind," Rockies top prospect and Yard Goats third baseman Ryan McMahon adds. "But we’re still just playing baseball. We’d still be going on the road all the time, there would still be bus trips all over the place, and now, it’s just staying in the hotel a little bit longer."
"It’s still the same game," he adds, "you’ve still got to show up and play the game every day."
Just as the game remains the same, and just as Harris and the Shuckers have previously walked the path the Yard Goats are now beginning, so too have previous minor leaguers taken on the Eastern League. Those players—like Rockies outfielder Mike Tauchman, who is starting 2016 in Triple-A Albuquerque after spending last summer in Double-A New Britain—also have advice for this season's Yard Goats.
"The road trip is going to be something, but really, every pitcher is a little bit better, and you don’t have the benefit of those outrageous hitting parks," Tauchman says, contextualizing what this summer's Yard Goats will deal with coming from High-A Modesto in the California League.
"It really makes you focus, because everybody is so talented," he adds. "If you’re not focused, if you’re not locked in mentally, you look up and it’s the sixth inning and you’re 0-for-3, and you don’t know how it happened. That league is about taking advantage of each at-bat, and doing your best to limit the amount of at-bats you end up giving away."
★ ★ ★
Chris Harris speaks like a man alternately relieved his crazy summer actually worked out last year, and wiser for the wear after having successfully navigated a wild road trip and learning its lessons. But whether it was the Shuckers’ good luck, the club’s astute front office management, or most likely a little bit of both, one thing shouldn’t be ignored, because it really seems to have cured all of Biloxi's ills: road trip or not, last summer’s Shuckers were good.
"They never used that ‘hey, we don’t have a home crowd, we’re always living out of a suitcase, we’re living out of a hotel,’ excuse," Harris says. "And the guys came together. I played college baseball, and it reminded me more of a college baseball team. The guys hung out together, more than I usually see with a team. The camaraderie was more of a college team. And, of course, they won."
Win they did; even with the road trip that ate up most of the club’s first half, the Shuckers entered the season’s midway point 18 games over .500, at 43-25, tied for the best record in the Southern League and a full nine-and-a-half games ahead of the second-place team in their division. Ironically, it was the second half of their season when they actually got to play home games that the Shuckers came back down to earth.
"They were actually much better in the first half of the season, when they qualified for the playoffs on that road trip," Sarandos notes. "I think they really gelled over the trip. Everyone seemed to buy in, which I would think isn't easy."
Second half aside, Biloxi still finished the summer 19 games above .500, at 78-59, and made it all the way to the league’s championship playoff series under manager Carlos Subero. There, they lost to the Chattanooga Lookouts in five games.
"I give Subero a lot of credit," Harris says. "Right from the get-go in spring training, he made it sink in with those guys that you can’t use this as an excuse, and they didn’t. I never heard any complaints about it."
Harris wasn’t the only one to notice Subero’s good work, either; after the season, the Brewers promoted the minor league manager, naming him the first base and infield coach for the big league club this summer.
"The Brewers really made an astute move this offseason bringing Subero up to the major league club," Sarandos says. "The players on that [Biloxi] team will see a familiar face when they get up the big leagues, and it'll be someone they associate with success."
It wasn’t just Subero that was rewarded for Biloxi’s wild summer, though. The Brewers called up several players straight from Double-A to the big leagues in September, a reward for succeeding in a difficult situation that year in the Southern League.
"I think a big part of the decision to bring up a big contingent from Biloxi was an opportunity to reward some of the players that suffered through the long road trip," Sarandos surmises. "They not only survived, but thrived. The Brewers also played an exhibition game in Biloxi at the end of spring training this year, which was a nice move."
In Harris' mind, the trip itself may have been the reason the team was so successful; sure, long bus rides for months on end isn’t an ideal way to spend free time, but the hotel life day in and day out meant the Shuckers went nearly distraction-free for the first 54 games of their summer.
"You get a lot of distractions sometimes when you settle back at home, but with these guys it was basically just bus, ballpark, hotel, bus, ballpark, hotel, every day," Harris says. "There wasn’t much time to do anything else in these places. There’s not a ton of stuff around outside of a few restaurants, so there weren’t really a whole lot of chances to get distracted. It was pretty much all baseball."
★ ★ ★
We introduced you to Mike Gorrasi yesterday in a seven-part series on the Modesto Nuts; the Executive Vice President of HWS Baseball, Gorrasi oversees the daily business activities of the Rockies’ High-A affiliate in the California League. As coincidence would have it, though, Gorrasi's work for that ownership group also has him overseeing the Double-A Mobile BayBears, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ affiliate in the Southern League.
With that, he saw first hand the Shuckers’ road trip last summer—Biloxi and Mobile are in the same league, separated by just an hour-long bus ride—and he has a unique perspective for the organizational ally Yard Goats as they embark on their own trip beginning this week.
"In business, in sports, or in life, things are going to happen," Gorrasi says. "You can be as prepared as you can be, but things are going to come that will throw you off. You can’t be surprised by them, and only focus your energies on what you can control."
"So I think although it’s not what anybody wanted, Biloxi was a good example of how to minimize distractions," Gorrasi adds. "There are going to be a lot of distractions traveling on the road. But it’s also a good learning experience, I think. You have to block out all that noise, and focus between the lines when the lights are on. It’ll be interesting to see how Hartford handles it."
Thus far, the Yard Goats have handled things very well, at least by all public indications. The Rockies extended their player development contract with the club earlier this offseason, before ever playing a game in Hartford—a sure sign the big league organization believed strongly in its Double-A affiliate. And from the Rockies’ end, things are going very well in the new relationship, despite the—pardon the pun—bump in the road.
"Everything that we understand about them and worked with them, it’s a quality organization," Bridich says. "It’s a moment in time, it affects one part of a long season. I’m sure if you talked to the Biloxi players, without putting words in their mouth, they found out a lot about themselves in that situation last year and we have an opportunity for our kids and our guys who are involved in the situation to find out about themselves."
A summer of bags and buses in Biloxi. Image via Chris Harris.
Forbes, having just shipped off some of the organization’s most important prospects to the Eastern League outpost, echoes that sentiment.
"Hartford has been really good," he says. "That’s all we can ask, is this going to be a two-way street? Sometimes we do things a little bit different. And that’s important, because we are going to be a homegrown club, so we have to do things a certain way. They’ve been great about it. They’ve made our players feel very comfortable."
Another benefit of the road trip and brand new stadium comes in the ability to create from the ground-up a facility the Rockies want—and Hartford has been amenable to putting together a good situation for their big league affiliate.
"We want the best for the staff and the players, the best situations, and we walked into a pretty good one there," Forbes says of the Yard Goats. "They’ve constantly been communicating with us, ‘what do you guys want? What do you want here?’ And that’s been great. They are tailoring to us as much as we are tailoring to them, so it’s a very good partnership."
Both Abramson and Dooley agree.
"The Rockies have been tremendous," Abramson says, bluntly. "They believed in what we were looking to do in Hartford from the very start, and continue to believe and demonstrate that belief with public support of the extended road trip, the team branding, and the player development contract."
"Excellent partners in the truest sense of the word," he sums up.
"One thing that is very important to the Yard Goats is being involved in the community and having our players visit schools, hospitals, and libraries, as well hosting youth clinics and promoting baseball," Dooley adds. "The Rockies have the same values and feel it’s important to have their players work in the community as part of their development in the minor leagues. They are a good fit for the Yard Goats."
★ ★ ★
Chris Harris and the rest of the Shuckers’ front office staff seems to have worked hard to prepare for whatever they could ahead of the team’s crazy road trip, but there is one thing he didn’t count on: national media attention. An ESPN feature and film coupled with all kinds of daily attention from national media outlets—often just because of the wackiness of the trip—quickly became a fact of life for the Shuckers, and they had to scramble to adjust.
"That was one thing that I don’t think the Brewers were really too thrilled about at first," Harris admits of the media’s focus on the team. "Come on, these are minor league players. These aren’t veterans who know how to deal with the media, who are used to having cameras in their face, who are used to waking up in the morning and seeing themselves on ESPN getting texts and phone calls from everybody saying ‘hey I just saw you on SportsCenter.’ I think that was very concerning to the Brewers, and I was a little nervous about it, too."
The Shuckers faced constant media attention. Image via Chris Harris.
"But our guys handled it flawlessly," he continues. "They bought into the fact that cameras were going to be following them around, and they might not have the privacy they were normally used to in a clubhouse, but they enjoyed it, and everybody wants to feel like the rock star. I don’t think they really understood the magnitude of the attention they were getting, and after a while, the camera crew kind of became a part of the team."
That being said, though, Harris even now still worries a bit that the team’s strong season and talented roster were overlooked by the media in favor of the crazier aspects of the road trip itself.
"I can’t think of another minor league team that’s ever had that type of attention on it," he says, "but I think we became a bit of a novelty. People were more concerned with the Bull Durham aspect of it than the player development or the winning."
"But the fact that we were winning," he adds, "that solves a lot of problems. That helps."
★ ★ ★
The Shuckers may not have counted on media attention last summer, but if you know anything about the Yard Goats’ attitude towards public relations, you’d understand Abramson and Dooley are not only prepared for an onslaught—they welcome it. Undoubtedly, part of that is learning the lessons of the Shuckers before them, but there’s also the Yard Goats’ desire to embrace media new and old from literally day one of their existence.
"I am never concerned about media attention," Dooley admits. "We always welcome media attention to our club as it helps promote our product locally and nationally. I certainly think there will be a lot of interest on what is going on and that can only help support the game of baseball and the exciting things going on in Hartford."
"There seems to be so much positivity around the team and our organization that we’re not worried about press," Abramson adds. "We invite it. Everyone really seems to get it. And the fans are just excited to get into that beautiful ballpark."
Abramson, with a brain geared at least in part to the goofiness that is Twitter, has been thinking all winter about how to get the most out of the road trip for the club’s followers.
"I’m really hoping to engage a few of the players to help with social media takeovers for some of the trips," he admits. "We really want the fans to feel the season has begun, and get to know they players, even though they’re not playing in Hartford at the start."
The Yard Goats have thus far worked hard to grow that excitement before the season, and now as it begins, and Abramson has already seen the dividends paid when he focuses on the club’s social media accounts.
"The fans, pardon the pun, are ready to Eat Up whatever we put out there," he says. "We’ve been very fortunate. I thought the jingle would go over well, but I was surprised at just how well it went over, particularly that people really seemed to get the retro, kitschy nature of it. I’m so pleased."
★ ★ ★
"I’m going to be honest, I don’t envy them in the least," Chris Harris says of the Yard Goats’ road trip, laughing. "But I will be watching from the beach here in Biloxi, and I will be watching with great interest. Last year was a perfect storm for us, and I hope that for Hartford it works out the same way. Their stadium looks unbelievable, and in the long run, I hope it all works out."
Harris and the rest of the Shuckers’ front office is more uniquely qualified than most to comment on the Yard Goats’ road trip, after all. Biloxi’s broadcaster still remembers the lessons he learned last summer, dealing with everything from travel plans to media relations and even new stadium tours when the club finally got back home to Mississippi in early June—and those lessons leave him with advice very unique to this situation.
"I wish I could go back and tell myself to take a deep breath," Harris admits, chuckling at the memories. "Everything felt like the end of the world. There were so many things that I felt, ‘gosh, we gotta get this done, and we gotta do this, too.’ But you know what? It was OK. Because when we opened up in Biloxi on June 6, it was amazing. Once we got in that stadium nobody really cared about the trip, or the construction delays, because we had a brand new stadium that was maybe the best thing most of these people had ever seen before."
And for Harris, the road trip and associated challenges brought him a really, really simple piece of wisdom for the Yard Goats and any other team going through something similar in the future.
"Communicate with your fans," he sums up about the biggest takeaways from the Shuckers’ long summer. "We communicated with people that bought tickets, and our sponsors, and kept them updated at least on a weekly basis. That was huge, and we had zero issues with season ticket holders or sponsors. They all bought in."
MGM Park, Biloxi's finished product. Image via Benton Reed.
Life is good—or, at least, more manageable—for Harris and the Shuckers now. They’ll play 29 of their first 54 games at MGM Park this summer, a much better draw than the same stretch a year ago. Their longest road trip this year is a 14-day, 13-game trip to three Southern League cities in mid-May; a challenge, sure, but far from last summer’s odyssey. That being said, don’t expect Harris to take his relatively lighter schedule this summer for granted.
"Any help the Yard Goats need, I will be happy to grant it," he says. "But otherwise, I will sit back, grab my popcorn, and watch."
"The stress, the everything, yeah…" he trails off. "I was never so happy for the end of a season so I could actually detox from baseball for a few months."
Gorrasi agrees, and from his perspective being close to now two different clubs that have taken a months-long odyssey, he sees the good waiting later ahead of the challenges facing the Yard Goats' immediate future.
"In the month of April I’m going to be happy I’m in Modesto," Gorrasi says, admitting he's relieved about his club's strong situation with the Rockies. "But once June comes or whenever they open up, and they’ve got this brand new ballpark, I’m going to be jealous. It’s going to be a nice situation."
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," he adds. "And that’s the beautiful ballpark. Biloxi has a beautiful ballpark now, and I’ve seen the renderings in Hartford. It looks like it’s going to be amazing."
It's funny how that works; for the next two months, the Rockies' Double-A affiliate will be minor league pariahs, destined to live out their daily existence on a bus as the nomads no city will hold for more than a few days at a time. But as games wear on, and the light at the end of the tunnel grows larger and larger, suddenly the perspective will begin to change. Survive this wild, wacky two-month road trip, and the Hartford Yard Goats will walk into one of the most enviable situations in all of minor league baseball.
One down. Fifty-one to go.