Monday, March 03, 2008

Our extensive coverage of former Independent Baseball players in major league spring training camps continues every Monday-Wednesday-Friday in this space through this month while our lengthy Independent Baseball Insider columns are available for subscriptions at

The Year Is Fuzzy, But Not the Details

When Ryan Smith Played His First Exhibition Game

Ryan Smith's first two Cactus League appearances in his first official spring training non-roster invitation season seemingly have been pretty routine, but then how could they top his very first major league exhibition game eight or nine springs ago with the New York Mets.

Now 28 and in camp with the Chicago White Sox at Tucson, Smith was approaching legal voting age back in 1999 or 2000 (he is not certain which year; I believe '99) and was on one of those one-day trips from the minor league camp to the major league team as an extra player. He had been a seventh-round draft choice in '98, but Smith had no expectation of getting into the game against Houston.

He had been warming pitchers up, and before the ninth inning ran from the bullpen to catch Armando Benitez's warmup throws. "I had my hat on backwards, and didn't even have a mask", Smith told me recently. After about five of Benitez's bullet-like throws no one still had shown up to catch so Smith turned and looked toward the dugout.

To his amazement, Manager Bobby Valentine was motioning that he was to stay behind the plate. Mike Piazza had left the game earlier, and Todd Pratt had just finished hitting. Someone eventually brought out Pratt's skull cap and a mask and the young backstop from Mifflinburg, PA was in his first major league exhibition game.

"I was shocked to be in the game," Smith says today, and mighty, mighty happy, especially since his Mom and Dad were at the Grapefruit League contest.

Smith, whose career we profiled recently in one of our Independent Baseball Insider columns, has played in five Independent leagues since that time (Northeast, Northern, Can-Am, Golden and United), spent last summer in Triple-A and twice has spelled regular Chisox catcher A. J. Pierzynski in the young Cactus League season with more opportunities no doubt still ahead.

HOMER OFF SANTANA EARNS MORE AT-BATS--Juan Gonzalez's quest to get back to the majors--he last played professionally with the Long Island (NY) Ducks in the Atlantic League in 2006--is at a point where the St. Louis Cardinals are sufficiently intrigued to give the two-time MVP more plate appearances. One reason was his greeting of new New York Mets hero Johan Santana in his very first inning of work Friday. Gonzalez sent the first pitch his saw over the left-field fence for a three-run homer. Gonzalez had been moved up to fifth in the Cards' batting order Sunday although he went 0-for-3 against Florida pitching. Onetime Sioux Falls (SD) Canaries first baseman Tagg Bozied started that game for the Marlins, going 0-for-2 but collecting an RBI on a bases-loaded walk and later scoring. Bozied had a double and another RBI two days earlier.

LINDSEY ROBBED OF ROUND-TRIPPER--John Lindsey, the rookie first baseman signed away from the New Jersey Jackals (Can-Am League) who we will profile in the Independent Baseball Insider this Thursday, is continuing to find decent playing time with the Dodgers. After winning one game in the bottom of the ninth, Lindsey had a near-certain home run taken away on a leaping catch at the left-field fence against the Mets Saturday.

AN ALL-INDEPENDENT MATCHUP--Hard-throwing New York Yankees rookie Scott Patterson faced Phillies catcher Chris Coste Sunday in a matchup of two players with nearly a decade of Independent Baseball between them. Patterson, who was facing his only batter of the day (and, I believe, his first of spring training) got Coste to bounce out to end a threat. Patterson is a veteran of the Atlantic (Lancaster, PA) and Frontier (Gateway, Sauget, IL) Leagues while Coste started in the long-departed Prairie League, then spent four seasons with his hometown Fargo (ND) RedHawks of the Northern League. Another Frontier Leaguer, Justin Christian, who was playing centerfield for the Yankees, drove in the game-tying run in the eighth inning. The game was called after nine innings as a 7-7 tie. Christian played his Indy baseball for River City (O'Fallon, MO).

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GULIN, WINKELSAS MAKE APPEARANCES--Lindsay Gulin and Joe Winkelsas got at least one-day opportunities with major league teams Sunday, jumping our count of onetime Independent players in camps to 50. The left-handed Gulin, 12-6 at Double-A Huntsville last season, worked a scoreless inning (1 hit, 1 strikeout) in Milwaukee's 4-2 home win over the Angels. He had superb years with Lincoln, NE (2006) and St. Paul, MN (1999). Winkelsas, in Atlanta's farm system last season, gave up a hit, walk and two runs in an inning for the White Sox. Winkelsas's Independent time was with Somerset, NJ in the Atlantic League, Elmira, NY in the Northeast League and the traveling Grays of the Can-Am League.

THE LONG ROAD BACK--Adam Pettyjohn, who first had to overcome a life-threatening illness long before he could even think of getting back to the major leagues (Detroit, 2001), can at least savor hurling in a big-league exhibition again. After toiling for Long Beach, CA, of the Golden League in 2005-06 then signing with Milwaukee, Pettyjohn is an invitee with Cincinnati this spring. He hurled a scoreless inning against Tampa Bay Friday.

THIS 'N THAT--Tike Redman (York, PA, Atlantic) has been slowed by the flu in the Baltimore camp...George Sherrill (Northern and Frontier Leagues) shook off his hamstring problem to pitch an inning for the O's Sunday. Washington got to the potential Baltimore closer for two hits and a run, but it had to feel encouraging to be able to make his first appearance since the big trade that brought him from Seattle...highly-regarded Max Scherzer, less than a year removed from Fort Worth, TX of the American Association, gave up a solo homer to Joe Crede in two innings for Arizona Saturday...Gary Knotts (Atlantic League champion Newark, NJ, 2007), got the win in a two-inning, one-hit outing for Philadelphia Friday...another '07 Atlantic Leaguer, outfielder Jorge Piedra (Long Island) played the full nine innings for Florida Friday, going 2-for-2 and scoring a run. He played briefly, but did not have an official at-bat Sunday...Luke Hochevar (Fort Worth) hurled two scoreless innings in his second appearance for Kansas City on Sunday, striking out two and giving up one hit.

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