Kids run the bases after the Senators 7-2 loss to the Binghamton Mets (AA) on Sunday, August 12, 2012. Photo by Stephen Walker.

Down on the Farm: A Wonderful Day in Harrisburg

One of the most enjoyable aspects of following a Major League Baseball team is checking out the club’s farm system from time to time. With multiple sources of information on the Internet, fans can easily track the progress of top prospects whenever the mood strikes them.

Sometimes, though, nothing beats seeing things with your own eyes. Fortunately, three Nationals minor league clubs, AA Harrisburg, High A Potomac, and Low A Hagerstown all play within easy driving distance of the Washington, D.C. area.

After waiting nearly the entire summer to take in a minor league contest, my family and I traveled to Harrisburg on Sunday, August 12 to watch the Senators battle the Binghamton Mets. With the gracious help of the Senators’ Director of Digital and New Media, Ashley Grotte (look for more about Ashley in an interview to follow later this month), I knew that Sunday’s were special afternoons for kids 12 and under who attend games at Harrisburg’s beautiful Metro Bank Park on City Island.

Children who join the Senators’ Kids Club — it’s free — get a barrel full of benefits — free admission to the game, a free meal (hot dog, potato chips and a Slushee – a wholesome, tasty lunch Mom’s will love), 25% discount at the team store and, best of all, the chance to play catch on the field before the game and run the bases after. For kids who arrive early, an array of inflatable baseball activities, obstacle courses and slides await, all gratis.

Since I have a 9-year old who is crazy about baseball, these perks made him feel like a king. Even better, during batting practice, a home run ball ricocheted off of a metal pole and nearly rebounded off of my head. Christian deftly tracked and retrieved the ball. To my surprise, he gave the prize to a 5-year old named Tristan that he befriended in the left field bleachers.

A Senators player, probably a pitcher shagging flies, noticed Christian’s generosity. He called out to my son and flipped him another ball, an official Eastern League model. During the game, Christian snagged a tee shirt fired from an air cannon in the fifth inning.

While the recently renovated Metro Bank Park has recovered from last September’s flooding and is back to its pre-flooded beauty and intimacy, this Senators team is a bit underwhelming. The pitching is pedestrian. Most of the Nats’ top prospects like Alex Meyer (recently promoted to Potomac), Robbie Ray (struggling at Potomac), and Lucas Giolito (just starting his professional career in the Gulf Coast League) are in lower rungs of the farm system. While Harrisburg’s ace Daniel Rosenbaum looked like an uber-prospect in the first half of the season, he has regressed to a 7-9 record and 3.91 ERA. A soft-tosser, Rosenbaum is looking more like organizational fodder or a throw-in for a low level trade over the next season or two.

At the game my family attended, starting pitcher Paul Demny (6-7, 5.48 ERA) struggled. While he has a 94-95 MPH fastball, it is straight as an arrow. His breaking balls lack bite and late movement. While he could get two strikes on a batter, he rarely had the stuff to put them away, the mark of a pitcher who may have reached his apex as a professional. By the third inning, the Mets’ batters had timed Demny so well he looked like he was throwing batting practice. After 2 2/3 innings, his day was over and Harrisburg trailed 4-0 and eventually lost 7-2.

Metro Bank Park, the picturesque home of the Harrisburg Senators, the Washington Nationals' Eastern League (AA) Affiliate. Photo by Stephen Walker.

A few interesting side notes — Brian Broderick, the Rule 5 player who made the 2011 Nationals Opening Day roster and appeared briefly for the St. Louis Cardinals, is back in the organization. He pitched 3 1/3 innings of mostly effective relief. Following Broderick was Zech Zinicola. In 2010, Zinicola looked ticketed for a spot in the Washington bullpen, before injuries and a second violation of the Minor League Drug Prevention and Treatment Program (automatic 50-day suspension) derailed his ascent.

For the position players, promotion (Eury Perez to AAA) and injuries to top players Jeff Kobernus and Chris Rahl have decimated the team. While Brian Goodwin, recently promoted two levels from Hagerstown, gets used to life in a much tougher league, Destin Hood (.229/.292/.323, .614 OPS) and Justin Bloxom (.244/.311/.398, .709 OPS) have struggled. In fact, Harrisburg has one of the Eastern League’s poorest offenses. The game we attended occurred before first round pick Anthony Rendon had arrived.

The team’s record is 56-67, good for 5th place in the six-team Western Division. Whether from injuries or the grind of a long season, the Senators played uninspired baseball, looking listless at bat, in the field, and even running out to their positions. The long, hot summer seems to have ground the whole team down.

Still, minor league baseball has charms that transcend whatever happens on the field. The perks for the kids, county fair atmosphere, homespun goodness of the Harrisburg people, who are suffering tough times in this still struggling economy, and the goofy games between innings (my wife and I were caught on the “Kiss Cam” while my 18-year old son, on camera, shook his head in disdain), combine to make any day at the game there a good one (although Metro Bank Park is probably more picturesque in the evenings when darkness covers some of the city’s distress and wear).

After the game, we walked across an old iron suspension pedestrian bridge, a cool breeze in our faces, the Susquehanna River swirling grandly below us. With Christian clutching his baseball and savoring the memories of catch in the outfield and running the same bases the big guys touched during the game, it was a memorable day everyone ought to experience at least once every summer.

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