Richmond baseball: I’ve got a feeling…

…that tonight’s going to be a good start.

Your Richmond Flying Squirrels open the season tonight in Bowie, Maryland (radio: WRNL/910 at 6:30).  One week from tonight is Opening Day at the renovated Diamond (I won’t be there, but I’ll make at least one game of opening weekend).

Why do I think this is going to be a good start?

The core of the 2010 Squirrels come from the 2009 San Jose Giants, the champions of the California League.  Those in the know about baseball think that this year’s team could, in time, rival the famed Great Eight (1993’s Richmond Braves, which had eventual major leaguers starting at all 8 field positions) for major league success.

At least, there’s a good chance you will see some Squirrels promoted directly to San Francisco this season.  In recent years, the real prospects play on our new level of minor league ball (the Double-A Eastern League) rather than our former level (triple-A International League).  Triple-A leagues are for spare parts for emergencies, Double-A leagues are where potential future major leaguers get their seasoning.

In addition, San Francisco puts a lot more effort into stocking their minor league teams than the Braves did over their last few seasons.  Richmond baseball fans may have to get used to seeing the team’s record hovering well over .500, and there’s a good chance we’ll have to hold the week after Labor Day for the Eastern League playoffs.

Oh, by the way… when I do go see the Squirrels play, it won’t be the first time I’ve seen this franchise play a home game.  The Squirrels trace their history back through Norwich (1995-2009), Albany (1983-1994), and West Haven (1972-1982).  While this franchise was in Albany, I checked out an Albany-Colonie Yankees game during a road trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame in the late ‘80s… a trip that was most notable, for me, for a drive from Cooperstown to Albany with a broken alternator belt (thus, nothing to recharge the car’s battery) in 90-degree weather.  I couldn’t run the radio, or air conditioning.  It was a LONG drive… 🙂

Some basics for new Squirrels and Eastern League fans:

San Francisco Giants

The Squirrels are part of the San Francisco organization, the second year of a 2-year Player Development Contract that followed the club down from Connecticut.

The full organization:

Triple-A: Fresno Grizzlies (Pacific Coast League)
Double-A: Richmond Flying Squirrels (Eastern League)
High Single-A: San Jose Giants (California League)
Low Single-A: Augusta GreenJackets (South Atlantic League)
Short Single-A: Salem-Keizer Volcanoes (Northwest League)

The three levels of Single-A are for different kinds of players: High Single-A, where Richmond will get most of its mid-season replacements from, is for players with a couple of years of minor league experience.  Low Single-A is generally for second-year pros.  Short Single-A is where newly-drafted pros start in mid-June.

For the record, and based on the way the Richmond front office is talking to the media, I remain convinced that the affiliation with San Francisco is for this year only, and that Richmond will do everything in its power to affiliate with the Washington Nationals for 2011.  If that happens, I expect the team to be called the Richmond Nationals at that point.

Eastern League

The Eastern League is one of three Double-A leagues, all of which are east of the Rocky Mountains, which is why San Francisco’s Double-A team is here rather than, say, San Jose.

There are 12 teams in the Eastern League:

  • Western Division
    • Akron Aeros (Cleveland Indians) – 3 games at the Diamond
    • Altoona Curve (Pittsburgh Pirates) – 15 games
    • Bowie Baysox (Baltimore Orioles) – 15 games
    • Erie SeaWolves (Detroit Tigers) – 7 games
    • Harrisburg Senators (Washington Nationals – for now?) – 3 games
    • Richmond Flying Squirrels (San Francisco Giants)
  • Eastern Division
    • Binghamton Mets (New York Mets) – 3 games
    • New Britain Rock Cats (Minnesota Twins) – 6 games
    • New Hampshire Fisher Cats (Toronto Blue Jays) – 3 games
    • Portland Sea Dogs (Boston Red Sox) – 3 games
    • Reading Phillies (Philadelphia Phillies) – 10 games
    • Trenton Thunder (New York Yankees) – 3 games

One quirk of minor league baseball is the much-loved (ha!) designated-hitter rule.  On this level, it’s only used when one or both teams are affiliated with American League franchises.  There are 7 AL affiliates in the Eastern League, and 5 NL affliates (including the Squirrels).   Due to geographic scheduling, the Squirrels play 79 of their 142 games against those 7 AL teams, so that means we get the comic value of pitchers hitting in the other 63 games (31 at home).  Once you’ve seen pitchers hit for the first time in several years (as the DH is used for all games in Rookie and Single-A competition), you’ll understand the “comic value” reference.  You or I could hit better than some Double-A pitchers.

The bottom line?  Baseball is back in Richmond.  Play ball!


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