When Phil Hughes made his first rehab start in Trenton on Wednesday in front of New York media and Yankees brass like Brian Cashman and Reggie Jackson, the Thunder front office may have figured that it was in the midst of one of the biggest moments of the season.
It looks like there are much bigger moments just ahead.
Hours after Hughes and a horde of media members left Mercer County Waterfront Park, word spread that Yankees captain Derek Jeter is likely to play two rehab games there over Fourth of July weekend.
The five-time World Champion, just six hits shy of 3,000 for his career, went out of action with a strained calf on June 13 and completed a workout, part of which included infield practice with prospect David Adams, in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday. He is expected to play both Saturday and Sunday as part of a four-game set with visiting Altoona.
Although there has been no official announcement from the Yankees about Jeter's rehab assignment, MLB.com has reported that the 37-year-old shortstop is "planning on a two-game rehab stint" in the Eastern League. Seats at both of those games sold out very quickly, according to Thunder general manager and chief operating officer Will Smith.
"Saturday sold out overnight [Wednesday into Thursday]," he said. "Sunday's game sold out [Thursday] during the day."
Standing room tickets remain available to both games.
Notable rehab appearances are nothing new for Trenton, which has been affiliated with the Yankees since 2003. Roger Clemens stopped in Trenton in 2007 in his comeback to the Yankees. Andy Pettitte started an Eastern League playoff game last season.
Jeter himself rehabbed with the team in its first season as a Yankees affiliate, but those events may not realistically compare to what's coming this weekend: perhaps the most popular baseball player in the world -- just days away from achieving a rare baseball milestone -- stopping by for tune up.
"Everyone I talked to last night is aware and kind of asking. There's an energy about it, and right now it feels kind of like the calm before the storm," said Smith. "We had a game last night, and we have a game tonight. It will probably get mad around here on Saturday and Sunday."
Smith said three of Trenton's top five single-game attendance records came during Jeter's 2003 stint, adding, "we're hoping he bumps a couple of those out of the way."
Pettitte's 2010 rehab with the Thunder came during the playoffs, when Minor League Baseball teams don't typically draw their biggest crowds. The Trenton club was pleased by the increase in attendance the veteran southpaw brought, selling 8,000 tickets.
"Pettitte was big in so much as it was during the playoffs as well. It's hard to sell playoff tickets. ...It was kind of neat to see the tickets sell in small quantities, but many, many ticket orders," rather than large, group orders, Smith said. "Everyone who bought tickets were baseball fans.
"[Pettitte's appearance] was not totally dissimilar to this. Interest has been heightened around Derek Jeter."
Fans, no doubt, wonder about what kind of opportunities they'll have to watch Jeter warm up, or what the odds are they'll be able to score an autograph. The athlete's top priority clearly must be preparing himself to return to the Yankees, and nobody can be certain what kind of challenges he'll be faced with this weekend. Those with the Thunder in 2003 recounted to Smith that Jeter gave what time he could to the fans in his 2003 rehab stint.
"At that time, I think we did a good job to get fans in early," he said. "We let them in early to watch practice. He was very accommodating with fans and signed some autographs. He was accessible as much as he can be from the field. We'll wait until we see him here. I hope fans definitely can get up close a little bit with him. He's a big star, and there's going to be a lot [going on]."
The Thunder reportedly drew 9,134 for Clemens' May 23, 2007, start, which is a Trenton record.
"We hope to touch the kind of numbers we had for Clemens," Smith said. "[But] we had a couple weeks to prepare [for that appearance]."
Jeter will also have to contend with another group seeking his attention: members of the media. That particular frenzy may be minimized by other factors, believes Thunder director of public relations Bill Cook.
"Media-wise, being a holiday weekend and the Mets and Yankees [squaring off in New York], as well... I'm kind of curious to see what media response is going to be. With Clemens, we had to issue 150 press passes. We have a ways to go to get to that number."
As of Friday morning, Cook had issued 39 press credentials for Saturday.
"There's still a lot of outlets that we expect to hear from [once an official announcement is made]," he said.
The timing of the veteran's appearance may contribute further to demand for tickets.
"It's always a big weekend, July 4 weekend. We were hoping to sell out [anyway]," said Smith. "Naturally, we see a large spike [in ticket sales] as the week progresses leading up to July 3 and 4. But this spike came a bit earlier."
Some other things were planned differently because of the holiday weekend, Smith said. Eastern League games are typically played as matinees on Sunday's, but because many families will have Monday free, the July 3 game is set for 7:05 p.m.
The Thunder's promotional schedule was also designed to draw a big crowd this weekend. The team will have a longer than usual fireworks show after each game, and the first 3,000 fans aged five-15 through the gates on Saturday will receive a pack of Yankees Silly Bandz.