As the host city for the 106th annual Baseball Winter Meetings, Nashville is very much in the baseball news. However, the city's Pacific Coast League team, the three-time defending American North Division champion Nashville Sounds, have been a little less visible than host clubs generally are when the event is held in a Major League city.
So here's a chance to learn a little more about the team and what's been going on in Music City when it comes to baseball. And who better to talk about it all with than Maurice Patton, long-time baseball writer at the Nashville Tennesseean, and Chuck Valenches, the Sounds' play-by-play radio voice.
Patton has covered the club off and on since 1994, while Valenches came to Nashville 10 years ago and is in his 17th year in Minor League Baseball.
MiLB.com: What is the current status of the Player Development Agreement (PDA) between the Sounds and the Milwaukee Brewers and how do you guys feel about the relationship and what the organization has brought to the team?
Patton: The status of the PDA is through the end of the '09 season. I think it's been a great situation for Nashville. From the very beginning, the Brewers have put some talent in here, both rising youthful talent and some Minor League free agents, and they've had success on the field. And I think that's combined with some other factors that have really created some excitement around the team through its affiliation with Milwaukee.
Valenches: The Brewers have been an awesome affiliation. We've won the division three straight years, every year that we've been with them. They seem to bring just top-flight prospects every year. The first year, we had Rickie Weeks and Prince Fielder; the next year, Corey Hart finished his polishing up down here and then you had Tony Gwynn Jr.; and this past season, we had Ryan Braun and Yovani Gallardo, the Rookie of the Year and a guy who legitimately could have been Rookie of the Year. It's been incredible.
I know when the Brewers came here we hoped we had a new ballpark on the horizon, and there's been a hiccup in that. The Brewers have asked us to make some changes to Greer Stadium and we're making them. But it's been one of my favorite affiliates ever. I really liked people in other organizations I worked with, but with the Brewers you not only have guys who should be very successful Major League players, but you have guys like [Sounds manager] Frank Kremblas, who I think could make a very good coach or manager.
MiLB.com: Please explain what the stadium situation is.
Valenches: The financing with our development partner didn't work out. There are a few things we probably could have done better, and looking back at it there are probably some things we wouldn't do the same way as far as our dealings with the city. But overall, we had a good plan in place. We were not only willing to pay for the whole ballpark but also to finance 53 percent of it privately. And I think right now the city is being very cautious, and I think we'll keep working with the new mayor and hopefully will get something done. Nobody was more disappointed when the deal didn't work out than we were. I'd love to see us in a new ballpark downtown and I know everyone with the Sounds felt the same way, as did the Brewers.
MiLB.com: What kind of changes are you working on in the offseason to make the Brewers happy?
Valenches: We're doing new clubhouses, we've redone the lights, really just things to make things better for the players and the coaches.
MiLB.com: Who are your top three favorite players you've covered since the Brewers came to town?
Patton: I really, as a baseball person who loves the game, loved Corey Hart, his combination of power and speed, especially for a guy who's 6-foot-5. You don't expect him to be able to run the way he does and I love what he can do on the baseball field.
Prince Fielder, you've gotta love him, his energy and enthusiasm for the game. And while everybody sees him as an offensive guy, I think he's a better defensive first baseman than a lot of people give him credit for. I'm kind of stuck on a third one because it's not like there's been anyone here with the Brewers that I haven't liked.
MiLB.com: What about a sleeper guy that no one might know about?
Patton: [Shortstop] Steve Scarborough. The first year the Brewers were here, we had him. He had done a little pitching prior to turning pro and Frank [Kremblas], being the riverboat gambler that he is, liked to throw those guys up on the mound in interesting situations. So Steve got relief appearances where he was surprisingly effective. He liked his athleticism and he was just effective enough to make it work. He never did get up to the Majors, but he was fun to watch.
Valenches: Prince Fielder may be my favorite guy to come through so far. I really liked Corey Hart as well because he was such an underrated, multi-talented guy, though I don't think he'll be underrated much longer. But Prince was the kind of guy that you could just tell he knew how to play the game at a very young age and had no fear at all about leading a team. He played without fear, had a lot of confidence in his abilities and did a great job of leading by example.
Another guy I loved covering in the Scarborough mode was [infielder] Chris Barnwell. He reminds me a lot of Frank [Kremblas] in a lot of ways. He's smart defensively, he can make quick adjustments to his game. When we were getting off to great starts in '06 and '07, he was the center of the team. He anchored the team defensively. And just a great guy.
Another guy, even though we butted heads in a friendly fashion, was [outfielder] Andy Abad. One of the things I really like about the Brewers is when they construct their Triple-A team, they have these great prospects, but they also go out and make an effort to get guys like Andy Abad or [veterans] Joe Dillon and R.A. Dickey, great guys with great character who will tell younger players how to "act right." Veteran players who know how to lead.
Patton: Before we get away from this, I know we'd both be remiss if we didn't mention among our favorites Tony Gwynn Jr.
Valenches: Oh, yeah.
Patton: I had the great good fortune of covering the Triple-A All-Star Game in Toledo when he played in it two years ago and getting to interview "daddy" when I was up there. It was one of the hardest interviews I've done because I was in awe of this guy. But he really puts you at ease, and Tony Jr. is a smaller chip off the old block. He's a really great guy and one of those people you want to see do well because he is such a good guy.
Valenches: You see some players who have grown up in baseball families and you can see them sort of trying to take advantage of their bloodlines or genes, but then you see guys like Prince and Tony who really get what playing the game in a team fashion is all about.
MiLB.com: How has winning three straight division championships affected the health of the franchise?
Valenches: Not to a huge degree, but in '05, when we went to the playoffs, we drew well and fans were really excited. I think a lot of fans are starting to appreciate that the Brewers aren't just putting guys in Nashville who will go up to the big leagues for a cup of coffee but who are going to the big leagues and becoming stars. And I think that's how it's affected us most. As far as affecting the franchise, aside from attendance and the perception of the talent we're putting on the field, it hasn't had a huge effect. We still do business the same way, centering things around making sure fans have a great time at the ballpark because you can only control what you can control.
Patton: I think there's been more interest in the Sounds. I think maybe that increased fan perception forces the media to pay more attention to them. It's tough to draw fans to the playoffs in September when school is getting started and the NFL is getting started and it's not really comfortable to be out there. So to be able to draw during the postseason is a pretty big deal. And I think people are only just now starting to associate the Sounds with being successful on the field, which is a little bit of a turnaround.