I’ve had the unique pleasure to work in a minor league press box for the past 11 seasons and for a baseball junkie like me, there’s nothing like it.
One of the cool things for me is to meet the visiting radio guys from across the South Atlantic League. Many of the teams have radio play-by-play guys that are here today and gone the next, as they move up to better and brighter jobs in order to one day to get to the major leagues. But there are some names and faces you get used to seeing as they are synonymous with the teams and their cities.
Ed Jenson is one of those familiar faces I’ve come to know over the past decade. Ed has been the radio voice of the Greenville Drive since they began in 2005 and one of those faces I look forward to seeing each year when the Drive come to L.P. Frans Stadium in Hickory. No matter what I have going on with player interviews, setting up for my scorekeeping duties, etc. I try to make time to chat with Ed on that first game of a series to catch up. Mostly, it’s how each of our teams are doing – honest conversations, for better or worse.
When the Drive came to Hickory in late June for their lone series of the year, I arrived at the ballpark around 5 for a 7 p.m. game, set my briefcase down at my chair, then made my way to the visitor’s radio booth to say hello to Ed.
I pulled back the curtain, said, “Hey Ed, how’s it going?” When he turned around, my expression was such that you could’ve picked my jaw up off the ground. Ed’s response was, “Not very well.” He’d lost a ton of weight and his face was gaunt.
Ed had a couple of heart attacks over the past year and another heart situation during a series at Kannapolis that sent him to the hospital a few days. His travel bag at the time had not only his radio equipment, but a collection of nebulizers and medications and such. As we got to talking about what was happening, though the same strong radio voice was still present, it dawned on me that this could be the last time I see Ed.
Ed is a radio nut. He’s followed jobs from Iowa to Florida to Georgia to South Carolina doing a variety of sports. But his first love is baseball – correction, his first love is Greenville Drive baseball. To hear his stories – of which I’ve heard probably a lone chapter in a volume of work – is hearing a history of small town baseball.
As we talked on that June day, knowing that this is a man that could very well not come to Hickory again, I got Ed’s permission to do an interview about his life in radio, baseball, some of his favorite players, and life in general, including the plans he has for his own memorial service.
I typed up the interview quickly, but then as my own life has taken twists and turns, it sat on my computer waiting for the right day to post on my blog as other stories took precedent. About a month ago, I knew when it had to post – the closing day of the season.
Here is the interview.
How did you get from Storm Lake, Iowa to the South?
Jenson: I went from Storm Lake to Florida, then I went up into Georgia and up into South Carolina just following different jobs in radio and doing play-by-play as well.
Have you always done baseball?
Jenson: No, baseball, basketball, football, softball, wrestling – which you don’t want to think about doing.
I’m guessing that’s amateur wrestling and not the pro stuff.
Jenson: College and high school wrestling. You always wanted to have somebody that knew the different moves and calls. That was fun.
Did some Clemson baseball, St. Leo’s (FL) – that was a lot of fun. I did some Florida Gators games as well.
How did you get hooked up with the Drive?
Jenson: I was helping with the Greenville Braves when they were here and got to know Eric Jarinko, who at the time was the media relations guy coming with the Drive. We got to talking and he said, “I can either have you do PA and we can do play-by-play.” We just started off day one and he called me with about a week-and-a half to go and says, “We’re going to do the game.” And he said, “you’re going to do it.” I said, “oh my God, it’s a dream come true.”
So baseball has been your main sport?
Jenson: Baseball is my number one sport. Probably after baseball, I’d have to go basketball. I’ve not been a real big football lover.
What have you enjoyed about calling baseball?
Jenson: A lot people say, ‘How can you do baseball? It’s boring. There’s so much time in between.’ And I say, ‘To pinpoint one thing, it’s kind of hard.’ Just kind of growing up in the game and playing a lot of baseball, I guess I just fell in love with the game early in my life.
Did you every have the inclination to do this in the major league at some point?
Jenson: In the old days, yes (chuckles). Now, probably not. I mean, you’ve come to Greenville and you saw the ballclub. You come to the ballpark and you’ve seen the organization, it’s a Red Sox affiliate. I’m 65 years old, who wants to leave that kind of setup.
What’s struck you about working and staying in Greenville?
Jenson: It’s a great city, it really is. It continues to grow. We draw 5.000 people a night, every home game. It’ll be four to five and sometimes six-and-a-half a game. People just enjoy coming to the game, coming to the park. You look out and you see the stands filled, it puts a little extra spark in you.
What do you enjoy as far as the game on the field with the Drive? Obviously, you get the Red Sox product and you get to see them move up. What are some memories you have of the last ten years?
Jenson: Making it to the playoffs a couple of times. We did wrap up a divisional title at home and had a big dog pile out on the pitcher’s mound. The big party down in the locker room.
I guess it’s been fun to watch so many of the Drive players go from us, up to Salem, up to Portland and make the jump into the majors. I forget the count, but I think there are 15 or 16 former Drive players that are now wearing major league uniforms. Not necessarily with Boston, but playing in the major leagues.
Who do you remember most that has stuck out in your mind?
Jenson: (Anthony) Rizzo, who is with the Cubs. You’ve got (Mookie) Betts, (Clay) Buchholz. Those are the guys that really stuck in my head.
Were there any of those you saw in Greenville that you said immediately, this is going to be a major leaguer?
Jenson: Yeah, (Xander) Bogaerts is another one. The year that we had Bogaerts, we could see that it’s not going to take very long.
Betts is kind of a funny story, because he started off the year with us really slow, barely hit over .210, .215. But something tripped and boom, he’s gone. By August, he was up to Salem and upwards you go from there.
You and I talked yesterday about some of your medical issues and so on. You said you had two heart attacks?
Jenson: I’ve had two heart attacks, two stints and the guy says some serious infection in the chest. So, you’re having the good days and the bad days.
When was your last heart attack? You said a month-and-a half ago?
Jenson: Yep, I did. I had the first one back in November.
The other one was during the season?
Jenson: Right before.
Did you miss the first part of the season?
Jenson: Nope, I did not miss. I did miss a game in Kannapolis. We were playing a four-game series up there and I pulled in the fourth day and I just couldn’t move even out of the car. And they called the EMS and I told the guys from the EMS, “In two hours I’ve got to be on the air.” So they worked on me and we were in contact with the hospital. The EMS guys says, “How much time do you have before the ballgame?” And I said, “About an hour-and-a half, now.” And he said, “Well, you’re not going to make it.” He says, “We’re taking you to the hospital.” So they took me down to one of the hospitals in Charlotte. I was there for three days. I came back and I had a day off and then I went right back to work
This thing in Kannapolis, that was not your second heart attack?
Jenson: No, I thought it maybe was the third. That ended up being a real bad case of bronchitis that kind of set in and it forced me to have some heavy problems with breathing.
You said that you are taking different things now. You said you had a chest infection, or getting one?
Jenson: I’m real susceptible to be able to get it. I do take the medication. I have nebulizers when I do and this and that. Like I said, it’s a day-by-day thing. Some days you’re good, some days you’re bad. They put me on some medicine that they’re hoping that will take care and keep me going. That’s what I’m hoping for right now.
How long do you want to do this?
Jenson: Probably until I die.
Are we going to find you in a radio booth some afternoon or some evening?
Jenson: If that was the way I’d have to go, that’s the way I would want to go. Calling a game, or calling a playoff win.
What’s your prognosis long term?
Jenson: They say, “we feel confident that this (the medication) could work. But, if doesn’t, maybe a year, year-and-a-half. But they’re confident it could work if it’s treating right. And I said, “well, let’s hope it’s treated right.”
It’s not cognitive heart failure, is it?
Jenson: No, just some problems up there and they’ve got some spots there that they don’t like and that’s that.
Do they think that if it’s something that ‘s not going to heal that it will deteriorate over time?
Jenson: That’s the hope. (chuckles)
When you and I chatted yesterday, you said you’ve got your funeral planned?
Jenson: Yeah. If it happens, I want the funeral at the ballpark. I really do. That’s kind of my home away from the home where I’m at by myself. The people and the organization with the Drive, that’s a close family. I’d like to have it at the ballpark.
And you want the ashes placed there at the ballpark?
Jenson: Yeah, I’d love to. (laughs). Probably the federal government will have something to say about that.
Maybe they can put you in an urn, or something like that.
Jenson: Well, you never know. Obama’s approved stupider things, so you never know what could happen.
What do you want folks to remember about you?
Jenson: I can’t even think of anything for people to remember me. Just, don’t remember me, just live your life. Have fun with it because sometimes it’s short. That’s the thing: have fun. Treat people nice. Treat people the way you want to be treated. If you don’t, change your ways.
Is your family here?
Jenson: No, I don’t. All of my kids are up in Iowa. I’ve got a couple of grandchildren that live up in Iowa. I get a chance to talk with them a little bit by phone, and mostly we text back and forth. But like I tell them, hey, you guys have got a life. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be here.
How many kids?
Jenson: Three. I’ve got two boys and a girl. All grown up, thank goodness, and al in their 30s and enjoying life in Iowa.
Do they get to come down and see you at all?
Jenson: No. Being the fact that they’re so cotton-picking busy, they don’t. And I’m not going to force it on them. They’ve got their lives to lead. They’ve got wives and husband. I’m just, “Don’t worry about me; you’ve got to worry about your family first.”
Do you have a baseball dream that you want to see before you pass?
Jenson: Yeah, I’d like to go to Fenway. I’ve never been there. I would really love to see Fenway once. I was close, I got to see Pawtucket and I’ve been to Portland. But stupid me, I didn’t go to Boston. That’s one dream, before I go, I want to see Fenway, whether it’d be sitting in the stands, sitting in the dugout, sitting in the radio booth, or whatever.
When you and I talked, I was struck that you have a realistic attitude that time is short for you, likely. But then again, it’s short for everybody.
Jenson: It is. But I kind of go on the aspect that: it is what it is. Whatever happens, happens. I don’t have control. It’s the man upstairs. Every morning, I ask him, “Get me through another day.” That’s all I can say. That’s all I can ask for.
Lakewood BlueClaws second baseman Scott Kingery began his pro career at L.P. Frans Stadium on Thursday. The second-round pick (48th overall) of the Phillies early in June out of the University of Arizona singled in his first at-bat.
“Kind of a blooper into left,” said Kingery of his first live-game experience. “It doesn’t matter how it happens, as long as I got that first hit.”
He tripled later in the game and scored what was then a go-ahead run before the Hickory Crawdads rallied from two down to gain a walk-off win.
The success in Kingery’s pro debut is a taste of what many in the Phillies organization hope to see in the future.
Phillies’ scouting director Johnny Almaraz labeled Kingery as someone could be “a quick mover” in comments made to the media after the draft selection. In mlb.com’s article on Kingery, the opening paragraph mentioned him as someone who could succeed Phillies second baseman Chase Utley.
All of this is high praise for someone who was a walk-on at Arizona after receiving his only scholarship offer from Central Arizona College. With an eye to the future and the hope to improve his craft as a baseball player, Kingery made the choice to go to Arizona with the full backing of his family.
“My dad told me, ‘if you’re going to be a good player, you’ve got to take a chance at a D-1. So, if you want to go to Arizona and walk on, we’ll support your decision.’”
Kingery went on to play three seasons with the Wildcats under longtime head coach Andy Lopez. While there, Kingery won back-to-back batting titles in the Pac-12. His athleticism also played out in the field when he moved to second base for his junior season after playing in the outfield. Despite his inexperience at the position to start the season, he learned quickly and was named to the Pac-12 All-Defensive team.
“It was my first year at second base, so coming in there, I didn’t know what to expect,” Kingery said of the move. “I figured some stuff out in the fall. Coming out with that defensive All-Pac 12 team, that was a great feeling knowing that I can go into my first season and make some good plays on defense and end up being on the defensive team.”
But it is the bat that earned him the high draft slot. Kingery batted .392 in 54 games with a .984 OPS. Despite winning the Pac-12 batting title the year before, he didn’t feel he started getting noticed until earlier this season.
“My sophomore year I had a good year, but at the beginning of this year is when things started to happen,” Kingery said. “I began to come into contact with some scouts. Once the season started, it took off from there.”
While all of the talk of being a quick mover and a successor to Utley swirl around him, for now Kingery is simply hoping to learn the routine of being a pro.
“At this point, I’m just trying to be the best I can be right here and not thinking too far ahead. I’m just looking to compete here. Hopefully I can move fast, but right now, I’m just focused on this team.”
In June, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates chose Gerrit Cole – a pitcher for UCLA – as the first selection in the first-year player draft. Another 1,529 names were called over a three-day period in early June. Meanwhile at a short distance from UCLA, Jonathan Johnson – a four-year starter at second base for Loyola Marymount – waited those three days for news that never game. His name was never called.
Not ready to give up his dream of playing professional baseball, Johnson went the independent league route, first signing with Shreveport-Bossier of the American Association, and then with the Gateway Grizzlies of the Frontier League.
In 2013, during his second season with the Grizzlies, Johnson set a league record by reaching base in 65 straight games to start the season. Yet, his journey remained mired in the Frontier League.
He decided to give it one more try in 2014 with the hope of beginning a climb to the major leagues with an affiliation.
“I was going in telling my fiancée and my family that this most likely was going to be my last season,” said the Lakewood, Calif. native. “So, I guess that last season I went in there not worried about anything, stress free, just out there having fun with the returning teammates and the coaches I’d been playing for the past three years.”
Having proved himself as a reliable on-base percentage machine (his career OBP is .415 in five career seasons), Johnson was finally signed by the New York Mets midway through his season at Gateway.
While the road to get to what he hopes is a major league career has taken a different journey than he had originally hoped,” Johnson said the experience of the previous four seasons in independent leagues were worth it.”
“Going through independent ball is a longer route than most of the people that get drafted out of high school or college,” said Johnson. “I thought, was a good experience for me I learned a lot there. I met a lot of great guys that’d been through affiliate baseball. I heard stories from them. From that point, it was just all stories. Now I just get to live it.’
He put up an underwhelming .238/.394/.307 slash in 39 games with the Savannah Sand Gnats last year and was reassigned to Savannah this season.
Now at 26 – the second oldest position player in the South Atlantic League – Johnson understands that his learning curve may be a bit shorter than normal. Yet, he entered the season with the idea the he could bring something to his teammates, many of who are five to six years younger
“I’ve learned a lot playing from over the years – a lot of the mental side of it, knowing the game inside and out,” said Johnson. “I feel like that’s what I can bring to these younger guys who obviously already have the skill set, but they’re learning the game and knowing the game, that’s the intangibles that hopefully I can pass onto these younger guys.”
Not satisfied with merely being an elder statesman, Johnson has been a big factor in Savannah’s drive to try and capture the SAL’s Southern Division title for the first half. He leads the South Atlantic League with a .333 batting average, a .430 OBP and is second in OPS at .904. Mostly a contact, put the ball in play hitter, Johnson has also added a little pop to his bat. Having slugged over .400 just twice in a season – both coming at Loyola Marymount – Johnson has shown some gap power this year as he has 15 extra-base hits in 188 plate appearances (.474 slugging pct.).
For his work in sparking the Sand Gnats offense as their lead-off man, Johnson was rewarded last week with being named the starting second baseman for the Southern Division at the SAL All-AStar game.
The honor of the all-star selection is a far cry from this point last year when he was within a few months of walking away from the game forever. Johnson credits his support system for their constant encouragement to pursue his dreams, even when it seemed they were going nowhere fast.
“I’ve had a great support group from my friends and family back home,” said Johnson. “No one wanted me to stop. My dad has always been there supporting me. When I told him that it might’ve been my last year, he supported me in that. But I know deep down, he never wanted me to stop.”
Because of that support, Johnson expect that his dad will be the first person called if and when Johnson receives a major league promotion.
“I wouldn’t be here without him,” said Johnson. “He was my coach in Little League, my coach in Pony. He was there in high school. He’s been my biggest coach in my entire career.”
Four years ago, Gaston County native Jordan Edgerton helped lead South Point High to the state 3A title in baseball. Tonight, he returns to the region for the second time as a pro (Edgerton played in a four-game series at Kannapolis earlier in May) as the Rome Braves come to Hickory for four games starting with the resumption of a suspended game tonight.
Edgerton expects a large contingent of family and friends to make the drive up Hwy. 321 to catch the series.
“I’m sure they will be,” said Edgerton. “They’re only about 45 minutes away, so they wouldn’t have to stay in a hotel or anything. So, I’m sure they’ll be a decent crowd here.”
After playing his college ball at UNC Pembroke, the All-Peach Belt Conference selection became the ninth-round pick of the Atlanta Braves last June. Edgerton said he was excited about coming to the South Atlantic League because of the number of opportunities to play in front of his family during the start of his pro career.
“I’m lucky enough to be able to play in this league,” said Edgerton, “instead of maybe in the Midwest League, or somewhere out West where I wouldn’t be able to play in front of my family at all. So, this is definitely a blessed experience.”
He signed with the Braves and then went on to play for rookie level Danville (Va.) of the Appalachian League, where he hit .275 with 13 doubles, three homers and 43 RBI. He also showed a patient approach at the plate when he walked 29 times in 59 games with only 34 strikeouts. He was named to the post-season all-star team in the Appalachian League.
Edgerton said that the first taste of pro life in the Appy League prepared him for a first full season at Rome.
“Last year, the short season got my feet wet and got me ready for this year,” said the R-Braves third baseman. “It made me realize how much of a grind it really is. It got me a lot more prepared for that. This year, I’m just trying to go out there and play and not worry too much about it.”
Edgerton enters the series with a slash line of .307/ .356/ .380 with 31 RBI in 42 games, though he is batting only .179 (7-for-39) in his last ten games. Trying to work out of his current slump is one of the lessons he is learning as a pro and is a different experience that his college days.
“In college, you can get into a little slump on the weekend, and then you have Monday and Tuesday to work it out,” Edgerton explained. “You play a lesser team on Wednesday, then work it out Thursday and Friday. In pro ball, you get into a little slump, it’s go out there and play the next day. You’re facing a guy throwing a 90 mile-an-hour fastball at you.”
As a huge Braves fan growing up in the Southeast, Edgerton was excited when Atlanta took him in the draft. He had a chance to meet some of the Braves major leaguers at spring training and during last fall’s instructional league. However, it was the chance to talk with Hall-of-Fame manager Bobby Cox that is the most memorable encounter yet.
Edgerton said. “He came down and threw out a first pitch in Rome this year, and he just sat in the dugout and talked to us a little bit. He’s a cool guy. It was just weird seeing him on TV your whole life and then you get to meet him in person.”
As the Delmarva Shorebirds visit L.P. Frans Stadium this week, a familiar face from years ago returns to Hickory. Current Shorebirds pitching coach Blaine Beatty served in the same role for Hickory in 2000.
Since leaving the Crawdads after the season, Beatty returned to Hickory on the South Atlantic League circuit with Capital City (S.C.) in 2003 and 2004, as well as with Delmarva in 2009 when he served in the same role with the Shorebirds.
“To come back in here – it’s been a while since I’ve been here, I guess it as ’09 since I was last with (Delmarva),” Beatty said. “It’s always good to come back and see some of these towns and some of these places. It brings back a lot of good memories.”
Beatty’s 2000 team went on to send four pitchers and two catchers to the major leagues. The most highly-touted member of the group was David Williams, who still holds the Crawdads’ single-season mark in strikeouts (193) and Ks-per-nine innings (10.22). Williams went on to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds and New York Mets during a six-year, big league career.
“The biggest thing was that I had a really good relationship with him and his wife,” said Beatty. “The baseball, though, just to see him go on and go to the major leagues, that’s probably the most rewarding part of being a coach is to be a part of that.”
Another former big league pitcher that Beatty continues to stay in touch with is D.J. Carrasco, who went on to pitch in eight major league seasons with five different clubs. Beatty said he recently had an opportunity to help Carrasco with a teaching venture in New Zealand.
“He gave a lot of baseball instruction this past in New Zealand, where he traveled around and tried to get baseball integrated into their society there,” said Beatty. “I had sent him charts and stuff like that. So, I am very close to him… We stay in touch with DJ and his wife Autumn.”
Beatty says he still keeps in touch with the two catchers – J.R. House and Ronny Paulino – that went on to have major league stints.
“I had Paulino a couple of seasons ago,” said Beatty. “We (the Orioles) signed at the AA or AAA level. We had him at the AAA level. I spent some time with him, so it was good to reminisce…Once again, it’s really neat to rehash old times and we talk about those all the time.”
One of those old times with Paulino involved a game against the Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs.
“We got into a rain delay and they wanted to pull the tarps, because they were winning,” recalled Beatty. “Ronny Paulino was up to bat and I think they (the umps) were trying to get through it. He ended up hitting a home run to right field and then they pulled the tarp, so it ended up a tie game. We ended up playing it later and ended it up winning the game.”
Many of the group from the 2000 club went on to Lynchburg (Va.) with Beatty in 2002 and winning the Carolina League championship that season.
Beatty said, “We had a lot of guys go to the major leagues: Sean Burnett (’01), of course Ronny was with me then, DJ Carrasco, Jeff Bennett (’99-’00), Mike Johnston (’00-’01) and some of those names that I had then that came through here…It’s kind of neat to see those guys and to be a part of their careers and revel in as a coach.”
(Blogger’s note: This is the first of what I hope will be an on-going series about some of the players, coaches and managers from opposing teams that come to Hickory. The minor leagues has people with fascinating – ok, they are to me- stories and I hope to highlight one each home series. In the future, I hope this will include a series preview of sorts, but time ran out for this series.)
West Virginia Power’s top prospect according to mlb.com (Pittsburgh Pirates’ No. 9 prospect) is shortstop Cole Tucker, the parent club’s top pick (24th overall) in 2014. The native of Phoenix, Ariz. (Mountain Pointe High) has a slash line of .271/ .302/ .331 in 29 games with four doubles, a homer, nine RBI and 13 runs scored.
The 18-year-old, switch-hitting, shortstop has quickly taken to pro ball nearly a year after his high-school graduation.
“Making the jump from high school is a definite leap playing at a different level day in and day out. I’m feeling pretty well,” said Tucker. “I feel like I’m handling it well. I’m learning what I can from the different coaches and coordinators and the other guys. I’m just trying to be a sponge and soak up all of the information that I can. Being in pro ball, you’ve got to play at such a high level every day and I’m definitely getting used to it.”
Tucker has shown a good knack for making contact, fanning only 19 times in 129 plate appearances. One of the adjustments he says he’s had to make is simply seeing high-velocity pitchers on a day-to-day basis.
“In high school you might see a guy that throws 90 miles an hour maybe once a year,” Tucker said. “Now, you’re seeing it every day. Just playing at such a high level with such a level of intensity every day, it’s a big step up from high school, but, I’m getting used to it. I feel like I’m handling it well and I definitely feel like I belong here.
Tucker has a connection with two of the current Crawdads on the roster. He was a roommate with Josh Morgan during tryouts for USA baseball in Cary, NC two years ago.
“Josh is a great dude on and off the field,” said Tucker. “He plays hard. He plays the game the right way.”
He also has a shared connection with Hickory starter Luis Ortiz, who Tucker is scheduled to face on Wednesday. Tucker and Ortiz were a part of USA Baseball’s 18 & Under squad that won a gold medal at the Baseball World Cup in Taiwan in 2013.
Tucker said, “He’s (Ortiz) a great pitcher and he’s a good guy to know and a good teammate to be around. I can’t wait to see him and catch up with him when we get to Hickory.”
The experience that the two of them had halfway around the world was an experience that Tucker has left memories for a lifetime.
“Culturally, it was incredible,” said Tucker. “I mean getting to go to Asia and playing baseball against kids from all over the world. Just really getting to represent the United States was something that I’ll never forget. It’s something that I hope I get a chance to again one day, again. Just really getting close with that group of 19 other guys and that coaching staff and representing an organization as great as USA baseball was something that I’m grateful for. We still talk about it and think about it all the time. Going over there and winning gold was incredible.”
(Thanks to WV Power Media Relations Assistant Mike Baggerman for lineup interviews for this story. Also, thanks to Pitcher Dovydas Neverauskas, who was my original interviewee, but my recorder had other ideas.)