So Long, Cashman Field: The Beauty of Minor League Baseball

It was a sunny, 105-degree day at the friendly confines of Cashman Field, home of the Las Vegas 51s. With less than 10,000 seats in the park, maybe only 100 were actually filled about an hour before game time. There wasn’t a single player on the field, but there was my dad and I, sitting in the front row right above the home dugout as we always do.

We saw a stocky figure rise out of the dugout, and upon a closer look, we both recognized that it was Las Vegas 51s’ pitching coach Glenn Abbott. Upon his appearance, my dad immediately exclaimed, “Hey, you’re Glenn Abbott! An original Mariner!”

My dad clearly knew his facts, because Abbott was indeed an original Seattle Mariner. After playing four seasons with the Oakland A’s from 1973 to 1976, Abbott was selected in the 1976 expansion draft and ended up playing for the Mariners longer than any other player from their original roster. The starting pitcher went 62-83 with a 4.39 ERA for his career, and now found himself as the pitching coach of the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate.

Abbott took a seat in the 51s “bullpen” (which was really just a row of chairs on the field right below the front row). Besides the maintenance guy cleaning the pitching rubber for the starting pitcher to warm up, there was no one else around. So my dad struck up a friendly chat with the original Mariner about the experience of being drafted to play for an expansion team. It was no formal interview; just two guys casually sitting around and chatting.

A few minutes later, out comes left-handed reliever David Roseboom with a pair of goggles over his hat. Roseboom had pitched well the previous day in his season debut, firing a perfect inning with two strikeouts. The man had had multiple career setbacks and injuries, however, and before the previous day’s start owned an 8.31 ERA in 18 Triple-A games.

Roseboom took a seat next to Abbott and had a discussion with his pitching coach about the use of glasses while pitching. Apparently, the lenses were negatively affecting David’s ability to see straight while on the mound, and the two of them discussed alternatives and strategies to reducing this impediment.

As you can probably tell, one of the beauties of going to a minor league baseball game is the fact that you can get so up close and personal with the players and coaches. How many times at Mets games have you gotten to sit around and chat with Dave Eiland and Jerry Blevins? Probably very few. And you get to practically sit in the bullpen to watch the game for under $20 a person. How is this anything other than awesome?!

My dad, a lifelong Mets fan, started going to Cashman Field to see some 51s action in the spring of 2014. Back when he used to go without me, he collected some great up-close photos of future Mets such as Noah SyndergaardJacob deGrom, and Steven Matz before they were household names among Mets fans.

Then 51s Pitching Coach Frank Viola Delivering Noah Syndergaard Water

After he went a couple times, I basically begged him to let me come with him, so I started tagging along in 2015. Some of my first player interactions included Dilson HerreraGavin Cecchini, and Kevin Plawecki, who were all signing for fans in the front row before the game. All three of them were super friendly, thanking the fans for coming out to watch them play with laughter and smiles.

Gavin Cecchini socializes with fans before game.

After Plawecki was done signing, he went back to the bullpen home plate to warm up the starting pitcher. With the bullpen being so close to the front row, over our many visits to Las Vegas we were able to take tons of close-up pictures and videos. At one point, Plawecki stood up to adjust his cup, and my dad stopped to take a picture of him. Plawecki turned towards him and blurted out, “Should I smile?” Laughing, he crouched back down to continue catching.

The players weren’t the only people we had friendly relations with. Over time, my dad and I began to befriend the ushers and all the people who worked at the small community that was Cashman Field. There was the curly-haired guy who at some point got a promotion from usher to head usher, and his wife who also worked at the ballpark with him. There was Steve, who gave us a game-used ball to collect signatures on. There was always the same friendly guy who handed us our programs. Then there was our buddy Frank, who usually patrolled the area where we sat and was extremely nice and engaging to all the fans and even some of the players.

My dad takes a selfie with our favorite usher Frank at our last 51s game.

When Dominic Smith arose from the dugout to warm up, Frank saw him and let out a casual “Hey Dom! How ya doin’!”

Smith, smiling, said “I’m doin’ great man. Excited to play today.”

“Hey that was a nice double you crushed last night. Gonna get three hits today?”

A smirking smith Smith replied, “Well, hopefully” and he jogged off to join his teammates.

At most games, in the front row closer to home plate sat Dominic Smith‘s grandma. She was his biggest fan, and cheered for him like a parent or grandparent would cheer for a little kid at his first Little League game. She absolutely loved watching him play, and came to all the games she could because she loved her grandson and was excited for him.

I distinctly remember one game where Smith smashed an opposite field homer, and his grandma went absolutely nuts, jumping out of her seat screaming with an exasperated look of sheer joy and happiness on her face. A lot of the people in our section started cheering just because of her, and it was a very heartwarming moment as Smith crossed home plate and she pointed to him saying “That’s my grandson!”

One day, sitting in the section next to Smith’s grandma happened to be former Mets manager Terry Collins. Collins, who is now a special assistant to the General Manager, was simply there to observe the minor league players. He visited some of the other Mets minor league teams in 2018 as well now that his career as a manager is officially over.

We didn’t even know that Collins was at that game until the very end when a guy next to us told us. Then we peeked over and we’re like, “Yep, that’s Terry Collins.” My dad went over to try to meet him while I stayed in my seat.

I watched the whole thing from my seat as my dad politely went up to Terry and asked to take a selfie. The lady next to him got up out of her seat to get out of the way while my dad took the picture, and my dad came back to the seats with a huge smile on his face and a hilarious selfie with none other than Terry Collins.

After the game ended, Collins was pretty quick to get out of his seat and walk up the aisle. On his way he stopped to shake hands and have a quick chat with that nice usher Frank, but other than that he seemed like he wanted to get out of there sooner than later.

As soon as I saw him stop to talk to Frank, I quickly got up and ditched my dad, sprinting up the aisle because I wanted to have some sort of interaction with Terry Collins. Sure, I had my quibbles with Collins’s strategies as a manager, but he was still a big name who had done a lot for this team and organization.

I reached the top of the steps onto the platform at roughly the same time as Collins. As he walked by me, I briefly stopped to shake his hand and I thanked him for all he did for the Mets. “You bet!” the giddy old man exclaimed as he cheerfully but hurriedly speed-walked towards the exit.

Overall, Cashman Field always had such a great vibe. It wasn’t the cleanest stadium in the world, and it certainly wasn’t the biggest, but there was a small community-like atmosphere that is hard to describe or experience anywhere else. Being so close to the players, it almost feels like you’re a part of the game. At some of my first 51s games, I sat in the front row practically right next to where Paul Sewald always sat. Sewald spent nearly the entire game cracking witty jokes and comments, and it felt like I was one of the relievers sitting in the bullpen with him.

About the funniest personality I ever came across was reliever Kevin McGowan, who just seemed like such a silly, fun-loving guy, always having fun with little kids and laughing with the ushers and fans.

The atmosphere of the bullpen in general was always lots of fun. Until it was time for one of them to start warming up to come into a game, it was just a bunch of guys sitting around casually and cracking jokes with each other.

There was also legendary third-string catcher, bullpen catcher and pitcher Jeff Glenn, who in the span of a season probably spent no more than 20 days on the active roster.

He was almost like a player-coach, a catcher with a smart baseball mind who was great at handling the pitching staff but didn’t have much of a bat at all. For most of the season, the 51s would just put him on the “DL,” and they activated him if they happened to need an extra catcher for whatever reason. He was also one of the 51s’ go-to emergency pitchers when the game got out of hand, and in 2018 the catcher actually racked up more outs recorded as a pitcher than at-bats as a hitter. Glenn is a career .216 hitter over the span of nine minor league seasons, all within the Mets organization.

The most fun part about the bullpen was the Bocce ball competition before every game. A longtime ritual in the 51s’ bullpen, the fierce competition would break out after the position players had finished warming up and gone back in the dugout. Each reliever grabbed a baseball and lined up on the pitching rubber in the bullpen. They then took turns tossing the ball to try to get it to roll as close to home plate as possible. After everyone had gone, the loser (whoever’s ball was furthest from home plate) would be heckled, and his punishment was having to catch the ceremonial first pitch at the next game.

I also was lucky enough to get to see Michael Conforto in 2016 when he was briefly sent down after he had been struggling offensively with the Mets. You’d think an accomplished Major Leaguer, a guy who had hit home runs in the World Series, would be grumpy and unhappy being down there and would avoid any fan interaction. But before the game, Michael was the first one out there, and two middle-aged guys who were clearly huge Mets fans were talking to him about how much they admired him and couldn’t wait to see him back in New York. While he was there, he was also nice enough to sign a ball for me. I’m sure he was disappointed and frustrated to not be in the Majors at that time, but he was a real class act about the whole thing. And to his credit, he hit a blistering .422/.483/.727 in his 33 games down there en route to getting called back up.

Michael Conforto signs a jersey for a fan before a game.

While nearly all of the players were very friendly or at least respectful, a few players stuck out as being extra nice. First there was Plawecki, who I talked about earlier. Due to his early struggles at the Major League level but the fact that he always hit really well in Vegas, he was seemingly there every time we went. He would always sign for fans and such, but not only that, he would actually engage in conversations with my dad while he was warming up the starting pitcher.

For example, one time we were there the day after T.J. Rivera had been demoted, but we weren’t sure if he had made it in time for the game. So my dad asked Plawecki if he was there, and Kevin happily replied, telling him that he hadn’t quite made it in time for the game but that he’d definitely be there tomorrow. See, it’s this kind of stuff you don’t get at MLB games.

Another one of the nicest players was switch-hitting outfielder Victor Cruzado. Cruzado was an underrated hitter who was mostly just a minor league filler depth piece, but he completely flew under the radar as he actually posted pretty solid numbers making a decently fast progression through the Mets system. His career minor league batting line was .271/.366/.394, and he had speed and played good defense at all three outfield positions. It’s really a shame and somewhat mind-boggling that he couldn’t get even a minor league deal in 2018 despite being only 25 years old, and had to resort to playing independent ball.

Anyway, one time we showed up early to a game as always, and there wasn’t a soul on the field in the heat except for Cruzado, was standing outside the dugout, actually waiting for people to come to him. Some players sign and engage with fans because they feel like they have to, not because they want to, but not Cruzado. He seemed to have a passion for kids and making people happy, so I ran up to him with a ball and he happily signed it for me. He remembered me after that, too, because we waved and said hi to each other at various points throughout the game when he was coming into the dugout.

During summer break of last year, I was bored and had some time on my hands, so despite not being a talented artist whatsoever, I drew some of my favorite Mets minor leaguers. Among others such as Cecchini and Plawecki, I drew left-handed reliever Kyle Regnault, who I really liked because I had seen his Triple-A debut and I remember a stretch he had where he had been maintaining an ERA under 1. He also had a nice story about how he got there, which included going undrafted and playing three years in independent ball before he happened to meet the St. Lucie Mets pitching coach at a golf course and ended up signing a minor league deal with the Mets.

I brought my drawings to Las Vegas just in case there was an opportunity to show it to one of the players I drew or possibly even get a signature. You know, it’s one of those “Why not?” kind of things.

So before the game, I saw Regnault walk out of the dugout to sit in the bullpen, and I knew this was my shot. I quickly ran up to him and said, “Kyle! Look at this drawing I made of you.”

And Regnault actually recognized it, because I had Tweeted out a picture of my drawings a couple months earlier and Regnault had Retweeted it. I handed him the drawing and he laughed, saying “Wow, this is awesome, man.” I told him I knew I wasn’t the best artist but I did it for fun and he laughed again saying, “Nah man, it’s great.” I gave him a pen and he signed his name right above the drawing of him, and he even offered to shake my hand. Afterwards, my dad thanked him for signing the drawing and Regnault simply could not have been nicer. He even recognized me and said hi to me at games after that.

Another thing I remember about Regnault is that before a game, he played catch with the little son of 51s bullpen coach and former Major League pitcher Jeremy Accardo. Apparently it was “Take Your Kid to Work Day,” so for that day, the little Accardo was a member of the bullpen. The kid, whose name was Larson, sat next to Regnault and Matt Purke, who loved the kid and had lots of fun with him. Regnault played catch with Larson during warm-ups, and for probably being only eight years old or so, the kid had quite an arm. That’ll happen when your dad is a former MLB pitcher.

As pictured above, reliever Buddy Baumann was also one of the guys who had some fun with the kid. I mention Baumann because I had a fun little interaction with him right after Bocce had ended one day. As the relievers were walking off, my dad shouted, “Buddy!” and the guy was nice enough to come over and talk to us. The reason we wanted to talk to him is because his name was George “Buddy” Baumann IV. Similarly, my dad’s name is Joseph Hill IV and my name is Joseph Hill V. It isn’t very often that we get to meet someone who is a IV, so we just had to communicate with him about this. He was very friendly in the brief time we talked, and he mentioned that he does indeed have a son named George Baumman V.

The final major player interaction that I want to share is the most recent one which I had with top first base prospect Peter Alonso. On his jog back in from warm-ups, he stopped by the front row to sign for some kids. I went up to him not to get anything signed, but just because I wanted to meet him. When he finished signing for the kids and turned towards me, he put his hand out with a blank expression on his face like he was expecting me to hand him a ball. But to his surprise, I didn’t give him anything.

I immediately started by greeting him and introducing myself as a writer for MetsMerized. I asked him if he knows MetsMerized and he said, “Oh, yeah I do,” and I knew he would because he’s been interviewed by writers of this site on multiple occasions. I also mentioned senior writer Michael Mayer, who was one of the writers who has interviewed him, and he did indeed remember that interview. He told me that it was great to meet me and he even shook my hand. It was a brief, but exciting moment meeting a guy who has a chance to be a really good MLB player in the near future.

While it’s clear that all the players were generally super nice, at the end of the day they were still minor league baseball players who were putting in maximum effort to perform as well as humanly possible in an attempt at being given a shot in the show. Some were just minor league filler type players who honestly had no chance of receiving a promotion, but even those guys put in tons of work because that’s how they even got as far as they did. Others were prospects who had risen through the Mets system from a young age and were looking to make that final step. There was also an occasional Conforto or Zack Wheeler, an established Major Leaguer who’d been temporarily demoted to try to regain their rhythm and timing.

Because these were all minor leaguers trying desperately to make it to the Majors, there was no lack of frustration shown. Just like in the Majors, helmets were slammed, f-bombs were exclaimed, and gloves were thrown. After all, baseball is a business, and these players had a lot on the line, especially due to the dramatic gap in salary for a Major Leaguer compared to a minor leaguer.

A frustrated Kevin Kaczmarski walks back after making an out.

A lot of the expressions of frustration are only shown behind clubhouse doors, but there were still plenty of instances where you could see and hear it from these guys. Easily the best example of a self-temper flaring in public was former Mets reliever Scott Rice, who was clearly not very happy to be down in the minors.

I don’t remember the specifics of the game, but I do remember that Rice had just had a terrible outing. There were walks, home runs, doubles, etc., and Rice was not having a fun time out there at all. In fact, he looked miserable. Eventually, then-manager Wally Backman had decided to end Rice’s misery by pulling him from the game. A dejected Rice forcefully handed Backman the ball and began walking in towards the dugout.

Rice took a long, slow trudge from the mound to the dugout, clearly looking disgruntled and frustrated with his head angled down at the ground. His face remained motionless until he reached the final steps of the walk, just a couple steps in front of the dugout. Still walking straight in my direction, he finally lifted his head up, where he just so happened to be making direct eye contact with a 14-year old Mojo Hill. And seemingly out of nowhere, these words spewed out of his mouth:

“Motherf–ker! Where the f–k was the f–king strike zone?!”

Hoo boy. Guess Big Scott wasn’t loving the ump’s zone that night.

Without another word, he continued his long trudge into the dugout, where I can imagine the meltdown continued from the frustrated reliever. Meanwhile, I just sat speechless in the front row, thinking, “Did he just say what I thought he said?”

It was almost hard to believe that this was the same Scott Rice who I had seen plenty of times on TV at home pitching for the Mets. From what I could tell, he had always seemed like a sweet, nice, average kind of guy who was a hard worker and a good teammate. Now, this brief outburst doesn’t necessarily say that he was not any of those things. But to hear those words come out of the mouth of such a seemingly harmless figure really put everything into perspective. That kind of stuff probably happens all the time in Major League Baseball games, and in fact a lot of much worse stuff probably happens. We just rarely see or hear about it because it happens behind closed doors or without a mic.

The sound of a minor league baseball game is one of the coolest aspects about it because you hear all the little things that you don’t normally get to hear at an MLB game. A player pops up, and he will often follow it with an expletive or two, then a “Dang, I got under that one” to the first-base coach as he jogs back into the dugout. The dugout was right in front of where we always sat, so we could see the facial expressions they made coming in, often displaying extreme frustration, anger, or sadness, clearly disappointed in the quality of their at-bat.

Of course, there’s always the heckling. One of the worst cases was this past season when Joey Wong was playing (or attempting to play) second base for the 51s. Poor Joey Wong. I’m sure he’s a nice guy. But that night, he did not resemble that of a professional baseball player, and the drunk fan behind me wouldn’t let him hear the end of it.

In case you are unaware, Joey Wong is a 30-year-old journeyman minor leaguer who has never made the Majors and likely never will. He’s a career .239 hitter who has hit a whopping 20 home runs in over 2500 minor league at-bats. The Mets were his third Major League organization, following the Rockies and Mariners, and he is now a minor league free agent. He’s one of those not-very-exciting minor league filler type pieces. He’s not expected to perform particularly well or even be in consideration for a Major League promotion, he’s just there to fill a spot in the lineup and hopefully not completely stink it up.

Well, Wong didn’t have the best night. He went 0-4 with two strikeouts and made multiple defensive mistakes including an error on a routine throw.

The fan had been on Wong all night after every out he made, screeching typical insults like “My God this guy sucks!”, “Hey Joey, what are you now, 0-100?”, and “Who even is this loser?! He’s batting .000!”

The fan spent nearly the entire night with his buddy picking on poor little 5’10” Joey Wong, who I’m sure was trying his best. But when the two guys really lost it was in the top of the eighth, with Gerson Bautista pitching, and Wong fielded a ground ball and tried for the force but made a terrible throw past the shortstop Phillip Evans.

“Oh my GOD, Joey! My grandma could have fielded that! Go back to Little League!” The guy exploded in the row behind us, and both my dad and I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at the extreme level of hatred these guys had for an innocent little minor leaguer. And the thing about minor league baseball is that those players can hear every word you say, especially when you’re shouting like that guy was. Of course, he pretended not to hear and didn’t show any obvious reaction to it, but you could see it on his face that he was not the happiest man in the world at that moment. But trust me, considering the distance from our seat where Wong was standing, any person with half an ear could have heard the guy.

The 51s lost that game 18-7 in ugly fashion. Joey Wong went 0-8 in his illustrious and memorable career as a Las Vegas 51.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget just how close you are to the players, and you might say something that you later regret. This happened to my dad a little while back when left-handed reliever Josh Edgin was entering a game.

When my dad saw that it was Edgin who was coming in to pitch, he rolled his eyes and blurted out, “Don’t walk the first hitter!” Edgin immediately turned and looked at my dad with a smirk before heading out to the mound. My dad had kind of an “oops” moment right then, as he didn’t mean for Edgin to hear him say that.

My dad tells pitchers to not walk the first hitter all the time when we’re at home watching Mets games, because obviously they can’t hear him through a TV screen. And often, that reliever has actually been Edgin, who has had stints with the Mets in multiple seasons. And more than once, Edgin has come into the game and, wouldn’t you know it, actually walked the first hitter, which was easily one of my dad’s top baseball pet peeves.

It was also a lot of fun to see the players get excited and show emotion from such a close distance. Especially the kids trying to prove themselves sometimes showed sheer joy because they were just having fun playing baseball and proving themselves at a higher level.

Zack Wheeler was one of the most fun players to watch this past season, and it was at the second game of the season after he had failed to make the Opening Day roster following a rough Spring Training. From the beginning during his warm-up, Wheeler did not look thrilled to be there. He had a glum expression on his face that was basically saying “I shouldn’t be here.” He knew he was capable of pitching in the Majors, and his demotion had come as somewhat of a surprise.

Zack Wheeler warms up before the second game of the season after not making the Mets Opening Day roster.

The grumpy Wheeler went out to the mound and pitched a very solid game, trying to prove that he didn’t belong there. He had even collected a hit in his first at-bat.

He came up to the plate again in the bottom of the fourth, having thrown four scoreless innings with the 51s up 1-0. Luis Guillorme was on second base with two outs, and Wheeler slapped another single, driving home the run to make it 2-0. A 2-out RBI for Wheeler, who was now 2-2!

Matt den Dekker then stepped up to the plate, and ripped an RBI double that sent Wheeler racing around third and in to score. And as he crossed home plate, he had the biggest grin I’ve ever seen, smiling from ear to ear as he excitedly sprinted into the dugout. It was warm and refreshing to see this guy, who had been acting grumpy all game, have some fun and display his joy for the game.

As I’ve become obsessed with Mets baseball and have really furthered my passion for it through writing for this blog, going to Vegas for a few games with my dad on various breaks had become one of my favorite hobbies and traditions. The move of the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate to Syracuse was a great move for the team, and I’m happy about that. But I’m really going to miss having my favorite minor league team just a 40-minute plane ride away. I hope to go lots more minor league baseball games in the future, because there’s really nothing else in the world that’s like it. Major League games are great, but minor league games are something special, a unique experience that cannot be replicated in any way other than to actually experience it for yourself.

So if you have a minor league team near you, even if it’s an affiliate of some team you don’t care about, I urge you to head down to the ballpark and get some cheap tickets in the first few rows, because it’s a ton of fun and will leave you with memories that last forever.

About Mojo Hill 68 Articles
Joseph “Mojo” Hill is an avid baseball fan in LA who loves writing about the Mets majors and minors online. He was at the Bartolo home run game and the Utley “slide” game. He is also captain of his high school’s varsity tennis team and a section leader in the marching band. You can follow him on Twitter @mojohill22