Cal Poly Baseball Players Persevere through the Minor Leagues

(This was originally an article for JOUR 203)

On June 4, 2019, Cal Poly pitcher Bobby Ay was drafted in the 9th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He now gets to add himself to the list of Cal Poly baseball alumni who are fighting through the grind of minor league baseball, going all the way back to 2011. Over the past decade, Cal Poly has had plenty of success in Baggett Stadium, but often times we see our favorite baseball players’ names disappear after graduation.  

This arduous process is not unheard of for most college baseball players, as the game of minor league baseball produces far more losers than winners.

In most sports it takes time to get to the top, which is why almost all major sports have lower talent leagues. Whether it’s the G-league for the NBA, the CHL for the NHL or even the former European League and soon-to-be XFL for the NFL, new players can almost always come to expect this addition to their professional career. 

Nowhere is that more true than the MLB, which has eight different levels of minor league teams, not including independent or international leagues. This, combined with over 1200 players being drafted each year (not including international prospects), means that to get to the MLB you have to prove you belong.

In the 2010s, 36 Cal Poly alumni have been drafted and played minor league baseball. The final addition to this list, Bobby Ay, was the only player drafted from Cal Poly in the 2019 MLB draft, the smallest number of the decade. The year before in 2018 three players were drafted, including Alex Mckenna, who recently was involved in a car accident. 

These players are Cal Poly’s new wave of talent, and are still looking to establish themselves in the minors. Teams typically give their prospects two years after being drafted to evaluate before releasing them, so once they survive this their minor league career is much more solidified.

As simple as it sounds, making it more than two years in the minors is far from a given. Twenty of Cal Poly’s 36 prospects couldn’t make it past this two year milestone, including every Cal Poly player drafted in 2016. With the high number of prospects entering the minors yearly, talent alone isn’t enough to stick around. To make a career out of baseball, you gotta have the intangibles.

Larry Lee, coach of Cal Poly’s baseball team since 2002, believes that coachability is a crucial part of making it up the minor league ranks. “Work hard, open minded, continue to get better on a monthly basis, it’s an impossible game to master so you just have to keep making small improvements. 

He also mentioned how unpredictable the success of certain players can be, saying that “there are very few sure things in baseball”. If you were drafted in the first round, you wouldn’t really be any more likely to make the majors than someone from the tenth round.

However, where you get drafted does determines the amount of money you make in your minor league career, which makes it more difficult to stick around if you get drafted in a later round. The 2015 Cal Poly draftees have found ways to defy this, with three people drafted after round 10 still playing in the minors. The five active players from this draft class are the most of any year.

If 2015 was the year of quantity, then 2012 was the year of quality. The two most successful Cal Poly baseball players from this decade were both drafted in 2012; Mitch Haniger and Mike Miller are the only two players this decade to have played in the MLB from Cal Poly. 

Mitch Haniger is one of the MLB’s rising stars, being rewarded an all-star appearance and Most Valuable Player votes in his only full year of MLB baseball. His 2019 season was cut short due to a ruptured testical and strained back. He is the only prospect to be drafted in the first round from Cal Poly this decade.

Mike Miller was drafted almost 300 spots later, but worked his way up to AAA ball in only 4 years. On June 27, 2016 he achieved his dream of playing in the MLB. After coming in as a defensive replacement in the top of the 9th inning down by 6, he grounded out to the shortstop. 

The game ended quickly thereafter, and so did Mike Miller’s MLB career. He has not played in the major leagues since that at-bat. He’s back in AAA ball now trying to get back to the show, but as of right now, his MLB career reads one game, one at-bat, one ground out.

Lee also touched on a second, equally as important factor in reaching success at the professional level: luck, especially for later round picks. “It’s really political, things really have to fall into place if you don’t sign for a lot of money,” Lee said. “Sometimes you just end up in the wrong organization, stuck behind some high level guys in the majors.” 

Quite frankly, for a lot of prospects, it just doesn’t work out.

While most of the other Cal Poly draft classes from this decade are remarkable for what was achieved in the diamond, the 2014 class was far more notable for what they did outside of the minors.

Nick Torres, the only player from this class still playing baseball professionally, has recently abandoned minor league baseball to play in the Mexican Baseball League. As baseball becomes more globally connected, playing in an international league is quickly becoming a viable pathway to the MLB.

Matt Imhof was one of the most highly touted prospects to come out of Cal Poly when he was drafted in the second round. Only three years into his career, at only 23, he experienced a freak accident while lifting weights and lost his eye. 

After major struggles with depression and self-identity following the injury, he announced his retirement to focus on life after baseball. 

Chris Hoo was the complete opposite as Imhof. Drafted very late, he was never particularly close to making the majors. After he was demoted back to A Ball, the Marlins offered him a job as a bullpen catcher, allowing him to fulfill his major league dream in a different way. 

Recently, he took a job at Cal Poly to work with the baseball team and be closer to his family in California.

Life after the minor leagues doesn’t always have to come at the expense of baseball. Giving up the grind of the minors doesn’t immediately void these prospect’s love for the game.

Nick Grim was the third and final player drafted in 2012. He didn’t have the same success as Haniger or Miller but he played minor league ball for a few years before calling it in 2016. He recently began playing in a low-level independent league called the Pecos League.

“I’m not really trying to get back into affiliated baseball, I just want to play for fun and it’s 10 minutes from my house,” said Grim about what motivated him to play in the Pecos League. “The chance to play [baseball here] in a competitive setting was more fun, especially now that my family can see me play”. 

Many other prospects have continued to quench their thirst for baseball post-retirement with similar independent leagues, which allows them to enjoy the intensity of professional baseball in a more comforting environment. Grim is still deciding if he’s going to play next year.

Baseball more than any other major sport is about patience. This translates aptly to the minor league process. Cal Poly alumni have had to struggle through the grind of uncomfortable bus rides, nights away from family, and constant pressure of performance all at a chance of their life-long goal of making the MLB. Even if it’s just for a single at-bat.

Luckily, these athletes are not isolated in their pursuits. The brotherhood created at Cal Poly between prospects doesn’t end at graduation, or even after the minors. They are forever connected by their sport, by their college, and by their dreams.

When asked about staying in touch with teammates, Grim laughed and mentioned that he talks to his teammates all the time, to “see what they’re up to”. Last Saturday, Grim, along with a bunch of other teammates attended 2014 draftee and bullpen catcher Chris Hoo’s wedding. 

Their names may have disappeared to us, but the brotherhood that was formed with each other will never wither.

How Tortillas Highlight the Highs and Lows of One of College Soccer’s Best Rivalries

(This was originally an article written for JOUR 203)

It’s a typical San Luis Obispo afternoon, and as the sun begins to drape behind Bishop Peak, over 11,000 soccer fans file into Cal Poly’s Spanos Stadium to watch the central coast’s biggest soccer game: Cal Poly vs UC Santa Barbara, otherwise known as the Blue-Green game. Although the sheer attendance of these games makes this one of the most significant collegiate rivalries, anyone familiar with these match-ups knows that what really makes it stand out is in the bleachers, hidden from the security staff: tortillas!

(Flickr)

On Nov. 2, thousands of tortillas littered the field, and dozens of fans were escorted out as UCSB defeated Cal Poly at home 2-0 in their second match-up of the year. Such has been the tradition for years, but as Cal Poly continues to crack down on tortilla throwing, the future of the flour-based rivalry looks increasingly unsustainable.

Recorded incidents of tortilla throwing between the schools have been reported since the 1990s, but it hardly took off overnight. Over the years, Cal Poly became increasingly involved in tortilla throwing during UCSB games, although it wasn’t a staple of the rivalry at first, mostly because there wasn’t one.

This began to change and starting in 2001, UC Santa Barbara won twelve straight games against Cal Poly, showing unadulterated dominance on the soccer field. Much like those games, Nov. 2 wasn’t the close match that many people anticipated. Despite only giving up three shots to UC Santa Barbara all game, they still scored two goals, giving Cal Poly an abysmal save percentage of 33%. Cal Poly had 19 shots, none of which went in. 

It wasn’t much prettier in the first game of the year either, as UCSB won 3-1 on October 5. Fittingly, this is the first time that UC Santa Barbara swept the season series against Cal Poly since 2006, the last year of UCSB’s 12 game win streak. Additionally, it marked the last year of UC Santa Barbara dominance over their central coast counterparts and the induction of the house that Spanos built.

Flickr

In 2007, Cal Poly finished construction on Spanos Stadium, and had their first winning season this century. They even split the season series, finally ending UCSB’s win streak. The rivalry was starting to take shape, and in 2008 it would solidify.

Its October 17, 2008, and a sold out crowd of 11,075 fill Spanos Stadium. It’s the highest selling regular season college soccer game of it’s decade. This is the teams first meeting of the year, and looks like an instant classic, still scoreless going into double overtime. Suddenly, a vodka bottle is thrown in the direction of UCSB’s goaltender from the south bleachers, several more bottles follow. The goaltender is ok but a delay of game is called by the referee, which kills Cal Poly’s momentum, and leads to a UCSB goal only a few moments after play resumes to end the game. An otherwise fantastic game became overshadowed by the projectiles that determined it. 

But how do we get to tortillas? In basketball, UCSB’s opponents shot technical free throws in multiple games because of tortillas thrown onto the court mid-game, including an incident (Feb. 13, 1997, against Pacific) where head coach Jerry Pimm pleaded with the fans mid-game to stop throwing them. The fans responded to his outcry by hitting him in the head with a tortilla. 

Cal Poly’s former head coach Paul Holocher also described the tradition as “stupid” and “not apart of being a fan of the game” in a press conference following a Blue-Green game. In terms of on the field play, it’s hard to argue that the act of throwing tortillas doesn’t dilute the on field product.

Even if the field conditions aren’t ideal, tortilla throwing has become so integrated in the Blue-Green rivalry it could be too late to turn back now. That bottle thrown in 2008 introduced thousands of college students to the rowdy, rambunctious atmosphere that makes soccer such a global force. The rivalry injected life into two otherwise insignificant NCAA programs.

In the years following 2008, Cal Poly and UCSB officially formalized and embraced the rivalry, even creating a website in 2012 showcasing the match-ups between the two teams in every collegiate sport.  Without a doubt, the Blue-Green rivalry had been established as one of the fastest growing in all of collegiate sports.

wayback machine

Since 2011, every single Blue-Green soccer game has sold out in Spanos Stadium. According to the NCAA, 17 of the 25 highest attendance non-tournament collegiate soccer games are Blue-Green rivalry games.

Despite this astounding attendance record accompanying the rivalry, there are signs of fatigue, with the last two Blue-Green games in Santa Barbara not cracking 10,000 in attendance for the first time since 2010. Around 2016 the website for the rivalry was deleted, and all the photos of the vodka incident were deleted too. Cal Poly also has increased the cohesion of their pat-downs, and number of security guards in the student section.

Kaitlyn Robles, a third-year student at Cal Poly, believes that the primary factor behind the crackdown is the cultural appropriation associated with throwing tortillas. “Cal Poly has been insisting for a few years since I got here that throwing tortillas is insensitive.” Robles also sees the lack of UCSB representation as a factor behind the accusation, saying “UCSB students don’t really come to the games in SLO as much, so probably not a good look for Cal Poly to throw most of [the tortillas, UCSB] are the Gauchos after all.” 

As Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara prepare for the next chapter of their rivalry, plenty of uncertainty about its future still remains. UCSB has been debating the retirement of their Gaucho mascot for something less insensitive, while Cal Poly has been making extremely concerted efforts to increase inclusivity following recent scandals. 

While the Blue-Green rivalry was once certainly a priority for both schools, the lower than average attendance and lack of parity between the two teams this season could spell the beginning of the end. Of course, tortilla throwing remains common practice at schools such as Texas Tech and there will likely always be people in support of the tradition. However, in an age where sports rivalries are becoming increasingly trivialized by students, tortillas might just have to stay in the grocery store.

On my way home from the Blue-Green game last Saturday, I met Hatim, an Uber driver who went to school at UCSB, but now lives in SLO. “I used to watch the games all the time, not much any more,” Hatim said. He was disappointed to hear that both of the Blue-Green games this year were quite one-sided. “You can’t always win everything.”

Westside Gunn – Pray for Paris ALBUM REVIEW

East Coast Hip-Hop/Hardcore Hip-Hop||Griselda Records

One of the more exciting artists coming out of the east coast rap scene, and 1/3rd of the coke-rap heavyweights Griselda. Westside Gunn has always intrigued me because of the unique energy he brings on every Griselda cut. It’s almost impossible to miss his expressive ad-libs on songs, and alongside the slow rise of Griselda to the top of the underground, I was excited to hear what he would deliver on Pray For Paris. Not to mention Griselda is coming off of a couple of solid projects, from Benny the Butcher’s The Plugs I Met to Griselda’s debut album WWCD

Unfortunately, despite presenting itself as a grandiose coke rap odyssey, the album seems to be more style than substance.

That being said, I really like the imagery that the album coveys throughout. Audio snippets like the 400 million intro and the Million Dollar Man outro at the end of Allah Sent Me gives this reader a taste of this unfathomably rich lifestyle that is consistent with most Griselda releases. Additionally, Pray for Paris has some of my favorite production across any Griselda project, with beats from Alchemist, DJ Premier, and even Tyler, the Creator on the song Party wit Pop Smoke. They go a long way towards establishing the lavish tone that Gunn is trying to convey on this album.

The album also starts off on a great note. After the 400 million intro we get a short verse and second-intro of sorts from Westside which leads into George Bondo, the first of two cuts featuring the rest of Griselda, and an easy highlight for the album with lyrics about weight, watches, and wealth. 

We also get a posse cut with Joey Bada$$ and Tyler, the Creator (who I wouldn’t have expected to have such a large role on this album) on 527, which goes over well as Bada$$ and Tyler both deliver verses that showcase their unique styles without the track sounding like a mess.

Unfortunately, the album begins its nosedive on French Toast, where Westside Gunn sings in his nasally, high-pitched voice throughout almost the entire track. There’s also a Wale feature, for some reason, that goes over as well as you would expect. The second Griselda cut Allah Sent Me isn’t much better and is a lot more forgettable than George Bondo.

The quality in the middle of the album doesn’t ever really recover, from the short and forgettable Euro Step and Versace, to the boring and underperformed Clairborne kick, where Gunn pitch-shits his vocals in a Tyleresque way, alongside an utterly unremarkable Boldy James verse. $500 Ounces offers the only redeeming moments with a great Alchemist beat and a good feature from the never-underwhelming Freddie Gibbs. Roc Marciano’s verse on this track doesn’t really do it for me, and I think it takes away from the song’s overall quality.

I do think the album does redeem itself on the tail end, as the last 3 tracks are all quite good. Shawn vs. Flair is probably the most playful song on the whole album, with more traditional 90s boom-bap production, and some of the albums more well-conceived verses. Party wit Pop Smoke is easily one of the better beats that Tyler, the Creator has ever put together, which accompanies possibly the two most cold-blooded verses on the album from Gunn and Keisha Plum. 

The closing track on the album ends the album on a fitting note, with one final verse about from Gunn along with something I’ve never seen before: a tap-dancing solo from Cartier Williams, which Gunn segues into quite cleverly through his verse. 

As a whole, I think despite this album’s inconsistency, at its best it delivers some of the most cold-blooded coke rap of 2020. Unfortunately, for every highlight on this album, there’s a corresponding low-light that weighs the album down, despite its great presentation and production throughout.

6 Bricks out of 10