The four short-season leagues are now in full swing, an annual June occurrence that contributes immeasurably to the richness of the Minor League Baseball landscape.
A few of the stories worth following include the Tigers' first season in Norwich, Conn., two first-round Draft picks suiting up for the Lowell Spinners, (Kolbrin Vitek and Bryce Brentz) and Delino DeShields' managerial debut in Billings coinciding with his son's first-round selection in the 2010 Draft.
But perhaps no club is as imbued with story lines as the Northwest League's Eugene Emeralds, who have just entered a season of significant beginnings and endings. The club is enjoying its first season in sparkling PK Park, while also welcoming new leadership in the person of first-year general manager Allan Benavides. But on the field, the team is playing its final campaign under the guidance of manager Greg Riddoch. The veteran skipper, who once piloted the San Diego Padres, has a history in Eugene that dates back to 1975.
The Chronicles of Riddoch
Riddoch, who will turn 65 this season, has perhaps the most diverse resume of anyone within the game of baseball. He played five seasons (1966-71) in the Cincinnati Reds organization, culminating in a player-coach position in the Double-A Eastern League. He worked as a substitute teacher throughout his playing career, a profession which he pursued full-time after retiring. But Riddoch didn't leave baseball entirely, and a scouting position in his native Colorado eventually led to a summer job managing the Emeralds (in 1975-76 and 1978-81).
"I thought to myself 'What a great job this is,'" said Riddoch of his first stint with the Emeralds. "I can be a teacher throughout the year and then teach the game of baseball in the summer. It was like a vacation for my family and I, with my kids working as the batboys."
Riddoch went on to work in a variety of front-office positions in Cincinnati under the tutelage of legendary Big Red Machine architect Bob Howsam. He left the organization during the turmoil of the Marge Schott era and pursued a doctorate in psychology. Riddoch later worked as a coach for the Padres under Larry Bowa, and he was promoted to manager after Bowa was fired.
But, through it all, teaching remained Riddoch's passion. The desire to work with young players, most of whom have just entered the professional ranks, is what motivated Riddoch to return to Eugene in 2007. The clubhouse is his classroom, and he regularly lectures his players on everything from dealing with failure to breathing exercises to pre-pitch psychological routines.
"It's a gigantic transition [to professional baseball], and a lot of these kids don't come prepared," said Riddoch, citing difficulties such as long bus rides and a relentless schedule. "[First-year players] often don't know how to set goals that are non-outcome based. They'll think they're going to get five hits and then after one line-out they've already failed. But a good approach and a quality at-bat is all that matters. Whether you made an out or not is irrelevant."
Riddoch is clearly still enamored with teaching his young charges, but a nagging back injury, the desire to be with his family and the difficulty of dealing managing his type II diabetes while on the road had led to his decision to hang up the spikes.
"It's a young man's game," he said.
Riddoch hopes to remain in the Padres organization as a "mental skills coach" and exudes optimism regarding his post-managerial career.
"Maybe I'm being selfish, but teaching is what I need to fill my cup with in order to feel worthwhile," he said. "I feel blessed that I've been able to make a difference, and the rewards have been unbelievable. I'll feel that way regardless of where I am."
A new energy
The Ems' all-time winningest manager's final season in Eugene is also general manager Allan Benavides' first. Benavides takes over for long-time GM Bob Beban, who now serves as the club's vice-chairman, but the Beban family remains well-represented in the front office. His son, Bryan, is assistant GM, and his wife, Eileen, serves as director of business operations.
Benavides' previous employer was the Lake Elsinore Storm, a team that has a developed a national reputation for its irreverent promotional approach (including a recent "Obscure Sports Night" that included on-field fish tossing and 2008's infamous distribution of "Subtle Butt" flatulence neutralizers as part of All-You-Can-Eat Night).
"Given my background with the Storm, I think there were a lot of questions regarding what my approach would be. [It was] like a new circus coming to town, with me as the ringleader," said Benavides. "But the main goal will always be family entertainment, because that's what Minor League Baseball is about."
Benavides and his staff ruffled a few feathers (and gained a lot of attention) with an April Fool's prank, announcing that suspended University of Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli would pitch for the club. All three local newscasts ran the story and were none too pleased when they had to retract it.
This humorous, risk-taking approach is reflected in the Emeralds promotional schedule, with highlights including a local geography-themed "Tri-Butte Night," a salute to the movie The Goonies and a BYOP (Bring Your Own Pool) Party.
"We want to create memories, keep everyone entertained and broaden the fan base," said Benavides. "The feedback after the opening homestand was really positive. People kept on telling us that they were having a lot of fun, and that was great to hear after the amount of work it took to get to this point."
Leaving the past behind
The opening homestand was certainly a memorable one for the fans of Eugene, as it marked the first time the team played at PK Park after more than four decades at Civic Stadium (which first opened its doors in 1938). PK Park is owned by the University of Oregon, and the Emeralds share the facility with the school's baseball team.
PK Park features a pristine playing field, wraparound concourse and state-of-art scoreboard, which one would expect from a new facility. But the stadium was built for college as opposed to professional baseball, and is therefore lacking in offices and storage areas. Furthermore, the absence of a visitor's locker room means that opposing players must dress at the nearby football stadium and then walk to PK Park with equipment in tow.
"The playing surface and stands are beautiful, but [PK Park] is not yet conducive to professional baseball," said Riddoch. "I say 'yet' because they are entering phase three of a five-phase construction process."
PK Park will only continue to improve as it moves toward total compliance with professional standards, but it will never be able to replace Civic Stadium in the hearts and minds of Emeralds fans.
"[Civic Stadium] was 72 years old and had a lot of flavor, a lot of ambience," said Riddoch. "Parents would bring their children, who in turn would bring their children, who would one day bring their children. It was the summertime thing to do in the city of Eugene and spanned the generations. But the old gal really was on her last legs.
"Both [stadiums] have their unique charms," he added. "But it's like comparing a cell phone to the Pony Express. We're moving from one end of the spectrum to the other."