Opinion: Local connections participating in MLB playoffs
At this writing, the four major league teams that have advanced to their respective League Championship Series have been determined, and all of them have connections with the Triad. It just so happens that this year, most of the former Triad players still in post-season baseball have already hung up their spikes and now serve their respective team in a coaching capacity.
Undoubtedly, there was hope in the Chair City that the Tampa Bay Rays, who won the American League Wild Card slot, with a right-fielder from Thomasville named Wil Myers, would preserve against the Boston Red Sox, but that wasn’t meant to be. That being said, there are also Red Sox fans in the area, long-time Sox boosters, such as Thomasville Times reporter Eliot Duke, and also residents of the Madison-Mayodan area, where one of their own reached the Sox this year. Right-handed pitcher Allen Webster, 23, has a chance to be a good major leaguer, but he did not fare so well in the couple of chances he had to start for Boston this year and was left off the playoff roster. So was Andrew Miller, a southpaw who distinguished himself at the University of North Carolina before becoming a No. 1 draft pick (for the Florida Marlins). Miller, 28, was an integral piece to Boston’s bullpen, going 1-2; 2.64, with an incredible 48 strikeouts in only 30.2 innings, before injuring his foot in July and undergoing season-ending surgery.
Even without those players, the Red Sox are represented by Juan Nieves, former pitching coach for the Greensboro Bats and the Winston-Salem Warthogs, who now holds that position in Boston, and former Bats manager Brian Butterfield, now the Red Sox third-base coach. The Red Sox minor league infield coordinator is Andy Fox, who played with the Greensboro Hornets in 1992, when he was the New York Yankees second-round pick.
The Detroit Tigers, Boston’s opponent in the ALCS, have Toby Harrah as their assistant hitting coach. Harrah played with the old Burlington Senators, when they were in the Carolina League in 1968, before embarking on a 17-year big-league career as an infielder with 195 homers, leading the A.L. in walks in 1977.
In the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers are managed by Don Mattingly, who won the 1980 South Atlantic League batting championship, as well as league Player-of-the-Year honors as the right-fielder of the Greensboro Hornets. Mattingly went on to a 14-year career a first baseman with the Yankees, which included a big league MVP award, a batting championship, an RBI title, nine Gold Gloves, six All-Star appearances, three Silver Slugger awards and 222 home runs. He was also captain of the Yankees for six years before retiring due to back problems. While he has a better record than some in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Mattingly, whose number 23 has been retired by the Yanks, has yet to get the votes for that shrine. If he keeps managing like he has this year perhaps Donnie Ballgame can get in.
One reason for Mattingly’s success as a manager is his bench coach with the Dodgers, Trey Hillman. Hillman managed the Greensboro Bats in 1997, when he was considered a big-league skipper of the future. He has since managed the Kansas City Royals, as well as in Japan.
Battling the Dodgers for the N.L. pennant are the St. Louis Cardinals who have two relief pitchers of local interest. Randy Choate, a southpaw who hurled for the Greensboro Bats in 1998, is 38-years-old, but he signed a three-year contract with the Cards at the winter meetings and proved himself to be worth it this year. Coming out of the bullpen in 64 games, but only 35.2 innings, Choate went 2-1; 2.29. Choate is not a closer and neither is Cards right-hander Seth Maness, a Pinehurst native, who pitched at East Carolina. Maness, who turned 25 on Oct. 14, did get a save this year. More importantly, he won five games in relief, and had a 2.32 ERA.