Category: Feature

Chukars notebook: A melting pot of different cultural backgrounds, Latin players attempt to integrate with Chukars

By Luke O’Roark | Post Register | @LukeORoark
Chukars’ employee Andrew Scarlata said two Latino Chukars players, instead of driving, once pegged his bike to go to the local grocery store a couple miles down the road.

Another time, one player wanted to order Domino’s Pizza 30 minutes before a game’s first pitch.

Scarlata’s quick tales aren’t malicious — rather, examples of cultural barriers some players may face when being drafted from overseas into the MLB’s farming system.

Chukars’ Julio Gonzalez and Chukars’ Freddy Fermin have a meeting at the mound with pitcher Chukars’ Janser Lara, center, during game one of three against the Voyagers at Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls, Id., Friday, August 11, 2017. (Photo/ John Roark, jroark@postregister.com)

“I’ve realized that these guys will probably need some sort of help or information or support when they come to the U.S., a completely different culture,” said Scarlata, who was in the Dominican Republic last summer and worked with a few Chukars players like Freddy Fermin. “Some guys handle it differently than others. A lot of times with the Latin players … having money is a total 180 for them. Language-wise, it’s all about commitment.”

The Chukars — a rookie-level affiliate of the Kansas City Royals — have seven Spanish-speaking players on their roster this season.

Scarlata, who was hired by Chukars’ general manager Kevin Greene because of his close relationship with the seven players, said they receive English classes in their hotel have gone on a fishing trips and even visited Tautphaus Park to help become acclimated to Idaho Falls — an overwhelmingly white, English speaking area of the United States.

The percentage of Hispanic or Latino population in Idaho Falls is 12.8 percent of the total general populous, according to city-data.com.

“The Royals do a really good job. They have classes for the Latin players, and we communicate a lot,” Jake Wakamatsu said. “I think it’s a good thing for all of us to get together and just learn about each other’s cultures and about each other.”

The Spanish-speaking players, like Fermin and Cristhian Vasquez, have used the developmental league to not only hone their craft, but to understand American culture, societal norms and the English language.

Fermin, in a translated interview with Scarlata, said it can be an adjustment for them, though.

“It is hard,” Fermin said. “It is difficult with the language barrier, but I’m learning new words every day by talking with the coaches and learning inside the clubhouse every day.”

According to the Society for American Baseball Research, a study by Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt found that 27.4 percent of MLB players identified as Latino.

The MLB and MiLB has slowly, but surely, become more inclusive over the years to accommodate other players’ backgrounds.

For an example, the MLB mandated that all teams provide interpreters for players with limited or no English proficiency in 2016, according to NPR.

“I know if I were playing or managing in Latin America today and had to speak Spanish, I would want a translator, just because the nuances of everything you say can be misunderstood or taken out of context,” Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia told USA Today in 2016.

Chukars’ Cristhian Vasquez runs to third base during game one of three against the Voyagers at Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls, Id., Friday, August 11, 2017. (Photo/ John Roark, jroark@postregister.com)

Chukars’ pitching coach Jeff Suppan and designated hitter Darrell Miller, Jr. said they recognized the language (and cultural) barrier that happens since the Chukars are a melting pot of players from the likes of Georgia, California, Venezuela, Arizona and the Dominican Republic.

“Every year, almost half the team is Latin,” right fielder Amalani Fukofuka said during the preseason. “So, it’s good to try and get to know them a little more and learn a little Spanish to communicate. You can mess with them sometimes, and they’re usually cool to talk to.”

Suppan pitched 17 years in the majors, communicating with players of multiple Latin backgrounds. He said the cultural and language barrier “is just baseball.”

“Hopefully, you just mesh as a team,” Suppan said. “So, I might come in with a California accent, somebody else comes in with a Georgia accent, a Philly accent, somebody is a Spanish speaker and you kinda blend and have your own language together.”

Suppan added that “team language” is a universal component to sports.

Miller, who occasionally has to communicate with Spanish-speaking pitchers during games, agreed.

“I know it can be a challenge in clubhouses, but being a member of the Royals, and knowing what they’re about, we mesh really well — whether or not we can understand each other sometimes,” Miller said. “Baseball has a universal language, and I do know a little bit of Spanish, and these guys work their tails off … It might be broken in our communication but again, you know what they’re trying to say. They know what you’re trying to say.”

The term “universal language” as Miller and Suppan described comes with just playing the sport.

No matter if a player is from South America or North Dakota, the objective is still to score as many runs as possible before three outs.

Chukars’ Julio Gonzalez runs to first base during game one of three against the Voyagers at Melaleuca Field in Idaho Falls, Id., Friday, August 11, 2017. (Photo/ John Roark, jroark@postregister.com)

Win or lose, Scarlata said he takes responsibility for the Latin players in Idaho Falls, though. He has tried to be empathetic to people of different backgrounds attempting to merge into the United States.

“They’re really like kids, when you think about it,” Scarlata said. “You go into a place, you don’t know the language very well, and you’re here to play baseball and all you know is that there’s a town around you. They’ve really impressed me coming here.”

Chukars notebook: Midway through season, Chukars still seeking consistency

By Luke O’Roark | Post Register | @Lukeoroark
Editor’s note: Every Sunday, Luke O’Roark will break down the Chukars, the Pioneer League, and give some insight on what’s going on inside the Kansas City affiliate.
Saturday is the start of a new season in the Pioneer League. Teams go back to 0-0 for the second half of the year.
For the Chukars, specifically, Saturday means a clean slate.
Idaho Falls finished in last the Pioneer League south division at 17-21. And if it wants to make the Pioneer League playoffs, it will need to use its clean slate to find some consistency.

Idaho Falls’ Julio Gonzales makes the throw to first base after getting the force-out on Missoula’s Dominic Miroglio at second base during Monday night’s game at Melaleuca Field. The double play ended the sixth inning.

“It feels good, as a team, to know that we get a clean slate,” catcher Darrell Miller Jr. said. “And we have an opportunity to make the playoffs in the second half.”
Even with a developmental mindset, as players attempt to perfect different components of their game, the Chukars’ play have fluctuated through the first 38 games.
On some nights, the hits have come in droves for the Chukars’ offense. Other nights, it’s been quiet.
The Chukars have plenty of hitters that have looked solid at the plate (Chris Hudgins, Matt Moralez, Amalani Fukofuka, Travis Jones, Robby Rinn and Miller Jr.) but it now needs more everyday players.
Only four players — Tyler Straub, Cristhian Vasquez, Fukofuka and Rinn — have played 30-plus games this year.
In general, the Chukars have only had 17 players come to the plate — a league-low.
Ogden, for context, had 25 players come to the plate during the first half of the season. The result: the Raptors are one of the best offenses in the league.
“I like the way the compete,” manager Justin Gemoll said. “We’re just striving for consistency, in all three facets of the game: pitching, hitting and defense. At this level, sometimes you have some of those, sometimes you don’t.”
Pitching has been hot-and-cold for Idaho Falls, too.
Midseason acquisitions like Holden Capps has tightened the Chukars’ command on the mound that lacked early in the year. But, the Chukars’ bullpen has statistically struggled.
They rank last in team ERA (6.86), hits allowed (474) and earned runs (256) allowed. The Chukars have allowed 10 or more runs in 13 games this season.
Defensively, the Chukars had 21-straight games with an error.
So, maybe, a clean slate is a good thing.
“Our goal as coaches is to get them better and move them through the system,” Gemoll said.

First half MVPs:

Robby Rinn — Arguably the Chukars best hitter. Rinn leads the team in hits, RBIs, total bases (with Fukofuka) and is third in batting average (.357).

Amalani Fukofuka — one of the Chukars’ most consistent players. Has played well in right field and at the three spot in the lineup. Leads the team in stolen bases (13).

Darrell Miller Jr. — Miller Jr. has shown plenty of power in 76 at-bats this season. He also garnered five hits in a game … twice.

Vance Vizcaino — Athletic and a utility-type of player during his tenure with the Chukars, Vizcaino has moved up the Kansas City Royals’ farming system. He now plays for single-A Lexington.

Chukars infielder Tyler Straub (18) gets ready to catch the ball while Brewers infielder Dallas Carroll (29) goes to slide to the base during a regular season game at Melaluca on Wednesday night.

Holden Capps — Selected to the Pioneer League All-Star team, Capps has been a good mid-season acquisition for the Chukars. In three starts, has a 4.05 ERA and a 1-1 record on the mound.

Janser Lara — Also an All-Star, Lara has gone 2-1 in four starts with the Chukars this season.

Michael Silva — A solid reliever for Idaho Falls. Has a 3.44 ERA in nine games and 18.1 innings pitched.

Team Transactions (as of July 23-29):

– The Chukars received right-handed pitcher Dillon Drabble from the Arizona League on July 25.

First half standings:

North division

Billings Mustangs (CIN): 18-18 (.500)

Missoula Osprey (ARI): 18-19 (.486)

Helena Brewers (MIL): 15-22 (.405)

Great Falls Voyagers (CWS): 14-23 (.378)

South division

Orem Owlz (LAA): 26-11 (.703)

Ogden Raptors (LAD): 23-15 (.605)

Grand Junction Rockies (COL): 18-20 (.474)

Idaho Falls Chukars (KC): 17-21 (.447)

Chukars’ notebook: Just like the rest of the MLB, Chukars’ games can go long

By Luke O’Roark | Post Register | @Lukeoroark
Editors note: Every Sunday, Luke O’Roark will break down the Chukars, the Pioneer League, and give some insight on what’s going on inside the Kansas City affiliate.

Fans enjoy witnessing a Chukars’ win, but, it may take them a while to see one.
Friday the Chukars beat the Brewers easily, 13-1, in… three hours and 38 minutes. It wasn’t even the longest game of the season — that was Idaho Falls’ 13-10 win over Grand Junction on June 22.
It took four (!) hours.
For context: MLB games took about two hours and 56 minutes in 2015, according to a Fox Sports report. The average time increased to three hours and 26 seconds in 2016, per ESPN.
Intriguingly, MLB games are taking longer today than a they were decade ago, according to research from Baseball Reference.com.
“It’s tough,” Vance Vizcaino said of how long some games go. “We’ve got good opponents and our pitchers throw well and they throw strikes. And when we face good hitters, they’ll get hits.”
Still, the Chukars are trending around three hours a game in 2017.
In the month of July (so far), the average Chukars’ game takes two hours and 58 minutes. Eight of the Chukars’ 19 games took three hours or longer.

(FILE) Idaho Falls’ Julio Gonzales makes the throw to first base after getting the force-out on Missoula’s Dominic Miroglio at second base during Monday night’s game at Melaleuca Field. The double play ended the sixth inning.

The Chukars’ 12 games in June took even longer: three hours and 16 minutes. Nine of their 12 games went past the three-hour mark.
Considering the Chukars’ normal start time at home (7:15 p.m.), most games don’t finish until 10-10:30 p.m.
The quickest Chukars game this year was Tuesday’s 6-1 win against Missoula at two hours and 18 minutes.
“I mean, this game, it was 15-11 so that kind of explains (why it went long) a little bit,” Chukars catcher Chris Hudgins said on July 15. “I don’t know, really. We have extra time in between innings where we’re doing some stuff, entertaining the crowd so that could be a big part of it, but it could also depend on the tempo of the game.”
The justification behind why baseball games — whether at Melaleuca Field or the Kansas City Royals’s Kauffman Stadium — take so long? It depends on who you ask.
The length of baseball games has, historically, been longer than its major sports contemporaries because of pitches, time in between innings and the natural structure of the sport.
The MLB has tried to implement new rules in order to speed up the game. But baseball games are still about the same length of a “Lord of the Rings” movie.
“I wish I knew the answer,” Chukars’ manager Justin Gemoll said after Idaho Falls’ home opener. “Maybe an earlier start time would get us done earlier. We had a long day last night. We left (Grand Junction) around midnight and rolled in here around 8:30 in the morning, so quick turnaround.”
The Chukars are the only Pioneer League team to start home games at 7:15 during Monday through Saturday. Other teams start anywhere from 6:05 p.m. (Billings) to 7 p.m. (Ogden).
Pitcher David McKay said he actually enjoys the later starts.
“It’s not bad,” he said. “You get to sleep in.”
Secondly, the Pioneer League is also a developmental level for the MLB’s farming system. Players are trying different pitches and perfecting different components of their respective games.
With errors and mistakes being made, games have the potential to go longer because of more batters, pitches and chances for games to be extended. Vin Scully told the Boston Globe in a 2013 article that even minuscule changes, like Velcro, have added time to baseball games.

(FILE) Chukars infielder Offerman Collado (1) runs to second base during a regular season game against the Brewers on Wednesday night at Melaluca Field.

Other theories include the amount of promotions before first pitches and between innings.
“I don’t know,” pitcher Michael Silva said. “It’s just the game of baseball. Every game can be different and it happens everyday.”

Chukars transactions (as of July 18-22)

– The Chukars received outfielder Travis Jones from the Burlington Royals on July 19. Idaho Falls is Jones’ third destination this year. He played seven games for Burlington and nine games in the Arizona League before arriving in Idaho Falls.

Around the Pioneer League

With the first half of the regular season coming to a close, Orem leads the league at 23-8. Ogden is second in the Pioneer League South division (behind the Owlz) at 17-14. Grand Junction is third at 15-15. Idaho Falls is in fourth at 14-17.

In the North division, Billings (15-15) is only 0.5 games ahead of Missoula (15-16) atop of the standings. Helena is third (14-17), as Great Falls has the worst record in the league at 10-21.

Chukars notebook: Rinn continues to improve

By Luke O’Roark | Post Register | @Lukeoroark
Editors note: Luke O’Roark will break down the Chukars, the Pioneer League, and give some insight on what’s going on inside the Kansas City affiliate every week. Normally on Sundays, this week’s notebook comes on a Tuesday.

Robby Rinn has been all over the place.

Robby Rinn (via Chukars media)

Massachusetts. Rhode Island. Arizona. Idaho Falls. He’s been racking up the air miles since he was drafted in the 25th round by the Royals in 2016.

He’s also been racking up the hits since joining the Chukars this summer.

Rinn leads Idaho Falls in hits (33), at-bats (101), walks (16) and RBIs (24, good for third in the Pioneer League). For the Chukars, he’s second in doubles (7), tied for second in home runs (3), third in total bases (50), third in on-base percentage (.429), fifth in slugging (.495) and fourth in batting average (.327).

O.K., you probably get it — Rinn can do it all.

“He is very consistent for us,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “He’s got good at-bats and doesn’t try to do too much.”

Rinn’s handy work with a baseball bat began attending private schools in Warwick, Rhode Island and Worcester, Massachusetts before walking on at Bryant University.

From there, he was drafted by the Royals in the 2016 MLB draft and spent 2016 in the Arizona League. He batted .280 in 189 at-bats, with 53 hits and 31 RBIs in 50 games.

Rinn, 24, has continued to improve in Idaho Falls.

“You get here and the players are more polished for sure,” Rinn said on June 26. “I mean, kids are still a lot more polished than I am, it’s just a different style it seems … Yeah, I’m from a small school and it was even hard for me to get to that small school because of the recruiting process in college, too, and it was hard for me to even get to this point so I’m just appreciating it.”

Gemoll said Rinn is the type of hitter managers look for in the middle of order. Rinn is batting fourth behind Amalani Fukofuka, and found some luck: he’s notched eight hits in the previous 10 games.

“He’s a strong guy, and keeps swinging in the zone as much as possible,” Chukars’ hitting coach Damon Hollins said. “Just gotta keep going up there and get his pitch.”

Team transactions (from July 8-17):

– The Chukars received Julio Gonzalez from the Burlington Royals, as Ricky Aracena was assigned to the Lexington Legends. Aracena played six games for Idaho Falls, registering 10 hits and 10 runs while batting .385.

– Dalton Griffin was listed as “suspended” on July 12, according to MiLB.com league transactions. Chukars manager Justin Gemoll did not clarify the reasoning behind the suspension. Griffin, 19, last played on July 7 against Ogden. He had one at-bat.

– On July 11, the Chukars swapped three players with the Arizona League Royals: Pitchers Danny Hrbek, Andrew Beckwith and Holden Capps came to Idaho Falls. In return, Jose De Leon, Randy Acevedo and Adres Sotillet were assigned to the Arizona League.

– Left-handed pitcher Josh Mitchell was also assigned to the Chukars on July 11.

– Vance Vizcaino was transferred to the Lexington Legends on July 15. Vizcaino was vital to the Chukars’ offense this season. He batted .287 with 25 hits and 16 RBIs in 22 games. Gemoll called Vizcaino “athletic” and “smart” on the field and is a player who can play multiple outfield positions.

– Jonathan McCray was assigned to the Wilmington Blue Rocks on Monday. It will be McCray’s second stint in Carolina. With the Chukars, McCray tallied 30 hits, 54 total bases and 14 RBIs in 22 games.

Around the Pioneer League (as of July 17):

– Orem is the best team in the Pioneer League, sitting at 19-7. Missoula and Billings leads the Pioneer League North Division at 14-13. Idaho Falls is tied for fourth in the South Division at 12-15 (7.5 games behind Orem).

– Speaking of Billings, the Mustangs recently acquired Reds’ first-round pick Hunter Greene, according to the Billings Gazette. Greene was selected second overall in this year’s draft, signing a $7.23 million signing bonus.

– Orem and Ogden continue to be the league’s top offenses. Orem leads the league in hits (326), runs (237), RBIs (212) and batting average (.326). Ogden has the most home runs with 43 and OPS at .946.

– In terms of pitching, Great Falls leads the league in team pitching with a 4.39 ERA. The Voyagers have allowed a league-low 12 home runs.

– Grand Junction’s Shael Mendoza is the league’s hits-leader at 41. Orem’s David MacKinnon leads the league in batting average at .468.

– Billings’ Moises Nova holds the league’s best ERA at 2.49 in 21.2 innings pitched.

Chukars notebook: Life at Melaleuca Field

By Luke O’Roark | Loroark@postregister.com | @Lukeoroark
Editors note: Every Sunday, Luke O’Roark will break down the Chukars, the Pioneer League, and give some insight on what’s going on inside the Kansas City affiliate.

Jake Anderson and Troy Prigmore, interns for the Chukars, unfold the United States flag behind Melaleuca Field’s center wall. It’s mid-Friday, and the last day of Idaho Falls’ four-game home stand against Ogden.

Shamilee Danklefsen, 19, laughs while getting the ‘play ball kid’ ready at Melaleuca Field on Friday night. Danklefsen has been working at Melaleuca for three years and said she absolutely loves working there.

Wrestling with the flag, attempting to hoist it correctly on the pole, Anderson’s white shirt reads: “Eat. Sleep. Baseball.”

If you work for the Chukars — a minor league affiliate for the Kansas City Royals — the words on Anderson’s shirt probably ring true.

Working at the minor league ballpark is as continuous as it is rigorous.

“Common day for us on gameday is 9 (a.m.) to 11 (p.m.),” Chukars general manager Kevin Greene said. “And when you do seven games in a row, it’s long hours, but it’s only 38 games.”

Anderson and Prigmore are two of six interns, and two of about 50 game-day staffers, that keep Melaleuca Field alive during the Chukars’ 38 home games this summer.

They handle a variety of tasks. This past Friday they soothed a flustered customer, upset over the team’s recent jersey giveaway, and talked to promoters during waves of phone calls.

“Gameday staff”, a collective unit hired by Greene to work part-time, have their own roles.

Rikki Gant ushers, trying to keep stadium-goers positive, with a towel in hand and a smile. Jayda Andrews works concessions (on a night which saw fans galvanize over half-off burgers, causing strenuous lines). Sammee Madero serves beer and drinks for the third base-side suites. All do it despite the relatively low pay and long hours.

“There’s a lot of stuff that we have to do that might not be the funnest thing,” said Andrews, stacking napkins at one of the ballpark’s food stands. “But there’s also a lot of things that are really fun and, yeah, I love this job.”

From around noon to 4 p.m., the Chukars’ office, a cozy room littered with bobble heads, paper and a colossal white board with promotion ideas, is casual and jovial.

“It’s like musical chairs in here,” says Logan Ratick, as he paces in-and-out of the office. The tan office phone alarms interns reading ESPN headlines and catching up on national sports. A candle burns at one of the desks.

“Yeah, we’ll get that, don’t worry,” Prigmore says regarding the candle.

By 4:30 p.m. the pace inside the office quickens noticeably.

Greene, barefoot, coordinates his paid interns — who to call, what resources are needed for the nightly promotions. Assistant general manager Josh Michalsen answers a call, the phone in his left ear and an ear bud listening to a conference call in the other.

The staff is meticulously preparing to have every detail of Friday night perfect.

“Hey Jake,” Ratick says to Anderson.

“Hey Logan,” Anderson responds.

“You look a little pooped,” says Ratick, printing game notes and lineups for both teams.

The game day staff begins to roll into the corner office around 5 p.m.

By 6 p.m., Melaleuca Field is in full throttle. The aura of beef patties swallows the main entrance.

Javier Hernandez walks into the Chukars’ press box.

“What’s up, bro?” he says lively to his co-workers.

Trace Laird takes Johnnie Sue Elliott’s ticket at Melaleuca Field on Friday night.

The Chukars’ public address announcer uses the side gig in order to help his kids attend Watersprings Christian School.

“Can you keep a secret?” Hernandez says. “Don’t tell Kevin Greene, but I would probably do this for nothin’. This is something awesome.”

No one at Melaleuca Field will be finished with their specific task until about 11 p.m. — long after fans have left and kids have ran the bases.

Long after the Chukars head to the clubhouse, beating the Raptors 7-4, there’s still some trash to be picked up in the stands and the infield needs to be maintained.

“It’s rewarding and humbling,” intern Todd Zollinger said. “Casual fans may not always see everything we do. I certainly didn’t until I worked here.”

For road games, the interns work a more traditional 9-to-5 in the office. There’s always “something to take care of,” per Zollinger.

But even when on the road, Ratick, Idaho Falls’ color commentator alongside John Balginy, doesn’t stop.

“Eat. Sleep. Baseball.” is a lifestyle.

The recent Syracuse grad said he wakes up around 8:45 a.m. to read local news.

After a quick workout, he then heads to the park to handle the Chukars game notes and update the Chukars’ stats. Ratick is the team’s middleman: handling information between the managers, local media outlets and the public.

He spends most of Friday adding details to his game notes, interviewing Chukars’ hitting coach Damon Hollins and updating the team’s ever-changing lineups.

Per Ratick, his day laxes only when the Chukars’ broadcast begins.

“To see these guys come in with their eyes wide open, and like the players, they’re looking for a shot at the bigs,” said Balginy, who calls MiLB offices in New York after every half inning to give a quick rundown of the game.

Logan Ratick talks on air during the Chukars game against the Raptors at Melaleuca Field on Friday night.

Like the rest of the staff, Ratick doesn’t get finished until way past Idaho Falls’ final frame. He still has to write his game recap from home, even after he and Balginy sign off.

And on this Friday, he doesn’t leave the press box until about 11 p.m, close to 11 hours after he first walked into the ballpark.

The next day, it’s back on the grind. Ratick said he has to wake up around 7 a.m. to do some laundry and catch Idaho Falls’ bus ride to Orem at 8 a.m.

Eat. Sleep. Baseball.

“I’d rather be doing this than working any other type of job,” Ratick said.

Chukars transactions (as of July 8)

The Chukars assigned Robert Garcia, a left-handed pitcher from the AZL Royals on June 6.
Idaho Falls assigned Damon Olds from the Arizona League. Olds is a 22-year-old, right-handed pitcher from Indiana State.
The Chukars assigned their first left-handed pitcher of the month by acquiring Jordan Floyd from Burlington and the Arizona Royals on June 30. Floyd was drafted by the Royals in the 10th round of the 2017 MLB Draft. He was reassigned to Burlington on July 3.
Cody Nesbit was assigned to Lexington Legends on July 3. He pitched three games (2-0) for Idaho Falls and had an ERA of 4.66.

Around the Pioneer League (as of July 8)

The Chukars are third in the Pioneer League South Division at 9-11, ahead of Grand Junction (7-13) and behind Ogden (10-10). Orem (14-6) is in first.
Billings (12-8) leads the North Division. Missoula and Helena are tied for secod at 10-10 and Great Falls (8-12) is fourth.
Chukars’ first baseman Robby Rinn leads is second in the Pioneer League with 21 RBIs.
Great Falls’ Chris Comito (1-1) leads the Pioneer League with a 2.31 ERA.
Orem is the Pioneer League’s best offensive team: 187 runs (1st), 250 hits (1st), .333 team batting average (1st). Ogden has the most home runs of any team with 31.
Great Falls leads the league in ERA with 4.12. Idaho Falls is in last (7.50).

Chukars notebook: Chukars may face problem with pitcher shortage

By Luke O’Roark | Loroark@postregister.com | @Lukeoroark
Editors note: Every Sunday, Luke O’Roark will break down the Chukars, the Pioneer League, and give some insight on what’s going on inside the Kansas City affiliate.

The Idaho Falls bullpen was a bit rattled.
Chukars pitchers had just given up 18 hits to Grand Junction at home and surrendered five home runs in a 14-3 loss which saw fans leave after the seventh frame.

Andres Sotillet pitches against Grand Junction. The Chukars lost 14-3. (Photo by Taylor Carpenter)

After 10-straight games, the Chukars had used up almost all 13 pitches on their roster. And they still had 12 more games before their first day off on July 11.
One pitcher, Michael Silva, was seen practicing his fastball late the night before their 14-3 thrashing.
The shortage of pitchers on this year’s Chukars roster could be a concern — at least in the first half of the season.
“We don’t really worry about that stuff,” Chukars manager Justin Gemoll said. “That’s out of our control. We just work the guys that we got here.”
To add on to the shortage, all 13 pitchers are right handed.
And there’s not much they can do about it.
“I was shocked, too,” Silva said when he saw the Chukars didn’t have any southpaws. “It is what it is, honestly. We just have to make due with what we got and what we got is pretty good.”
Because of the MLB’s minor league system, the Chukars don’t decide the makeup of their roster. They simply have to work with the players given from the Kansas City Royals’ front office.
So, if a Chukars player is doing well, they might not be wearing the maroon and grey for too long.
And while the system has given Chukars a chance to move up (Jonathan McCray was recently moved up to Triple-A), it puts Idaho Falls in a bind. The Chukars have the fewest pitchers available on any given night. Orem and Grand Junction have the most in the Pioneer League with 22. Other teams range anywhere from 16 (Missoula) to 19 (Billings).
And this shortage has affected it statistically: Idaho Falls has the second-worst team ERA in the Pioneer League (7.36) but has pitched the third-most innings (99), as of Friday.
“We have faith and trust in all the right-handed pitchers we have,” Silva said. “Because it’s all we have.”
This isn’t anything new for Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan, who’s in his third year in Idaho Falls.
Suppan said last year he had to work with the opposite — mostly left handed pitchers. The 17-year MLB veteran added that the purpose of the minors is trying to get pitchers to work on certain pitches, not worrying about aligning certain pitchers against certain batters like one might see at higher levels.
“It is a part of the minors” Suppan said. “I coach who’s here and try to get each guy better.”
Robby Rinn, one of the Chukars’ best hitters this season (he leads the league with 19 RBIs), said he’s noticed how Idaho Falls only has righties in the bullpen.
But he said it hasn’t affected his at-bats during practice or games.
“We’ve been facing a lot of righty’s, actually, except for Orem, but other than that we’ve been heavy righty the whole entire season so far,” Rinn said.
Jake Wakamatsu echoed a similar sentiment for the Chukars’ short bullpen. It’s just a component of the minors Idaho Falls will have to live with.
“That’s tough, too,” Wakamatsu said. “Hopefully we’ll get some guys coming up to help the bullpen.”

Recent Chukars Acquisitions (as of June 30)

• Emmanuel Estevez was recently acquired by the Royals-Arizona League affiliate. Estevez’s departure shrinks the Chukars’ bullpen to 12.

• Jonathan McCray was assigned to triple-A (Omaha Storm Chasers) on June 28 and then returned two days later. He has batted .361 in eight games with Idaho Falls.

• The Chukars acquired the Royals’ 16th round pick in this year’s draft: catcher Chris Hudgins.

Around the Pioneer League (as of June 30)

• Orem and Billings are tied for first in the Pioneer League. The Owls (7-4) have beaten the Chukars twice (10-6 on June 23; 9-3 on June 14) and lost to them once (9-7 on Thursday) this season. Great Falls, Ogden and Idaho Falls are all tied for second in league standings at (6-5).

• The Chukars are tied for second in the South Division behind the Owlz. Both teams feature some of the best offenses in the league (Owlz are batting .342; Chukars’ team batting average is a .309).

• In the North Division, Billings tops the standings at 7-4. The Mustangs have gone 6-4 in the previous 10 games.

• Ogden’s Cristian Santana has the league’s highest batting average (.537) in 41 at-bats this season. Chukars first baseman Robby Rinn, who’s from Rhode Island, leads the league with 17 RBIs.

• Billings has the two best pitchers in the league: Tyler Mondile and Moises Nova. Mondile has a 0.90 ERA in 10 innings pitched. Nova has a 0.96 ERA in 9 and ⅓ innings pitched.

Fukofuka looks to return to MVP-like form during second stint with Chukars

Chukars outfiielderAmalani Fukofuka (8) poses for a portrait during the 2017 Chukars Media Day on Saturday afternoon. The Chukars opening game is this Monday at Grand Junction Rockies.
Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com, 6/17/2017, Lens 30, ISO 200, FStop {fstop}, Shutter 1/250, Aperature {aperature},

By Luke O’Roark | Post Register
Amalani Fukofuka was a bit earnest coming out of the Chukars’ bullpen Saturday.
He, along with the rest of the team, had just taken official team portraits during media day. They had an exhibition game that night against the Idaho Falls Bandits — an American Legion Baseball team of local high schoolers. Melaleuca Field was supposed to be lax.
But Fukofuka, the former Chukars MVP is back — focused and ready to be a leader in his second stint in Idaho Falls.
“I remember a lot,” Fukofuka said. “(2015) was one of my favorite years I played. I love the people. I love the area. I’m excited to play.”
Fukofuka returns to Idaho Falls in search of the confidence that made him a fan favorite two seasons ago with the Chukars. He’s serious about returning to top form.
During his first go-around at Melaleuca, Fukofuka tallied 95 hits, 38 RBIs and three home runs in 280 plate appearances. He batted .339 in 67 games.
But he struggled last summer with the Lexington Legends, the next stop in the Kansas City Royals’ minor league system. His batting average dipped to .200 in 110 games with the Legends. He struck out 136 times. He had just 110 total bases in 2016, a drop from his 140 total bases a year prior with the Chukars (he also did it in 43 less games).
“I was striking out a lot in Lexington,” Fukofuka said. “So, I’m making a few adjustments to my swing. Here’s the place to do it, adjust, so I can get back up there.”
Chukars’ manager Justin Gemoll said Fukofuka started to put more pressure on himself during his tenure with the Legends and got “out of his game plan”.

Chukars manager Justin Gemoll talks to reporters during the 2017 Chukars Media Day on Saturday afternoon.
Taylor Carpenter / tcarpenter@postregister.com, 6/17/2017, Lens 125, ISO 200, FStop {fstop}, Shutter 1/640, Aperature {aperature},

“He’s got all the tools,” Gemoll said. “Just getting back to trusting himself and relaxing a little bit.”
A return to Melaleuca could help the 21-year-old. Change can be a good thing. And Fukofuka has the right attitude and characteristics to turn it around, Gemoll said.
“He’s very responsible and he does what he needs to do,” Gemoll said. “Professional athletes, a lot of the dedication, confidence, is behind closed doors and fans don’t always see that. But it’s how you take care of yourself off the field, how hard you workout in the gym, what you’re eating.
(Fukofuka) checks all those boxes.”
Idaho Falls provides a second-chance for Fukofuka. For others, it provides a new beginning.
Jake Wakamatsu, son of Royals’ bench coach Don, broke his right hand a year ago. He only played three games for the Royals’ Arizona League team.
Wakamatsu has had a journey of his own: he was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays out of high school in the 48th round. He decided to attend Arizona State. But after recruiting scandals hovered around ASU in 2011-2012, he transferred to Arizona Christian University. Then, he broke his throwing hand.
He said he just wants to see the field again after a year hiatus. Now healthy, Wakamatsu has a chance to build up his repertoire and advance up through the Royals’ minor system.
“Anytime I get on the field, just play my hardest,” Wakamatsu said. “And just see how it goes. Try to keep moving up.”

Chukars’ groundskeeper cultivates baseball passion

Melaleuca Field grounds keeper Ryan Coleman, finishes spray painting the batters box for a recent Chukars game against the Great Falls Voyagers. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)
Melaleuca Field grounds keeper Ryan Coleman, finishes spray painting the batters box for a recent Chukars game against the Great Falls Voyagers. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)

By KEVIN TREVELLYAN
ktrevellyan@postregister.com

Baseball fans take their seats by the hundreds during any given summer evening at Melaleuca Field to watch the Idaho Falls Chukars play.

The announcer lists batters’ names as they step up to home plate. Foul-tipped balls arc in the warm air into the parking lot while players stand watching the game with their arms hanging over the dugout railing.

Elsewhere, usually behind home plate and anonymous to fans watching baseballs skid across the closely trimmed outfield grass, Ryan Coleman sits in the grandstand — likely one of the sport’s youngest professional head groundskeepers.

For Coleman, 24, game days usually run from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m.; he’s there long after fans go home and pitchers have begun strapping ice packs to their arms.

Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman pulls a “nail drag” across the home plate area at Melaleuca Field with his intern, Bryan Duffy. The nail drag levels out the ground and allows the groundskeepers to smooth it with rakes. (Kevin Trevellyan / ktrevellyan@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman pulls a “nail drag” across the home plate area at Melaleuca Field with his intern, Bryan Duffy. The nail drag levels out the ground and allows the groundskeepers to smooth it with rakes. (Kevin Trevellyan / ktrevellyan@postregister.com)

The field requires rehab of its own. Gouges taken out of the infield dirt after a runner slides spike-first into second base need filling; the pitcher’s mound has to be smoothed over.

Maintaining every aspect of the field, from home plate to the dirt warning track, takes immense attention to detail — and an even bigger affinity for the game itself.

“The field, she’s kind of tricky. And if you’re not constantly thinking of ways to improve it, or make it safer and better for the players, I think you’re just going to fall behind,” Coleman said. “We have long days and short nights. You have to love baseball to do it.”

This is Coleman’s second year managing the Chukars’ grounds, and like the players laboring for a chance at the bigs, he too has an eye on advancement within baseball.

Coleman played infield at Feather River College in California, and Concordia University in Portland, Ore. In the summers between he managed fields for Oregon-based Athletic Field Design.

“He showed interest and passion. Usually when I hire someone they’re just there to get money; they don’t want to get into the industry,” said Coleman’s mentor, Athletic Field Design owner Mike Hebrard. “I think he’d do anything he could to keep playing, but this is the next best thing.”

Hebrard recommended Coleman for the Chukars job after hearing about it from an old college baseball teammate.

“He had no girlfriend, no dog — he was perfect, because it’s a lot of hours,” Hebrard said. “You have to throw the clock out the window. There’s no clock in baseball, and there’s no clock in groundskeeping.”

Coleman, post-playing days, enjoys talking to Chukars’ coaches or golfing with some of the players, “just being around baseball really.”

He developed a perfectionist’s eye working on Little League Softball World Series fields with Hebrard.

Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman waters the field in preparation for a Chukars’ game against the Great Falls Voyagers. He and intern Bryan Duffy, left, often work 15-hour days during homestands, fighting a losing battle to bandage the field after the beating it takes each game. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman waters the field in preparation for a Chukars’ game against the Great Falls Voyagers. He and intern Bryan Duffy, left, often work 15-hour days during homestands, fighting a losing battle to bandage the field after the beating it takes each game. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)

“We’re on ESPN, so that field has to look perfect every time,” Coleman said. “That was one thing my boss always harped on. I know we’re not on TV here in Idaho Falls, but I still try to take what I learned from him and teach it to my guys now.”

Coleman works with intern Bryan Duffy. It’s just them when the Chukars are away; Coleman has a few more interns working for him before home games.

“When he got here he didn’t have a significant amount of experience, but he’s done an exceptional job, especially for the lack of help I provide him — a lot of Minor League ballparks have entire grounds crews,” said Chukars General Manager Kevin Greene. “It might seem thankless at times because you’re out there by yourself busting it, but you get a couple years experience and you work your way up just like a player might.”

Eastern Idaho presents unique maintenance challenges compared to the damp Pacific Northwest where Coleman grew up; he’s contradicting nature’s course every time he pours a soil additive into the outfield at Melaleuca.

“We have real poor soil here for growing grass,” said Brad Clayton, Falls Fertilizer consultant. “Especially when there’s a baseball game there almost every day in warmer months between high school and the pros.”

Coleman works with Clayton to figure out which materials the field needs — which fertilizers and nitrogen supplements will strike the proper pH balance to allow Idaho Falls’ clay soil to accept grass roots.

“It’s always hot and always windy; that’s the toughest part,” Coleman said. “You have to keep the infield dirt moist when it’s 90 degrees outside and winds are blowing 20 mph; it sucks the water right out of the ground.”
Coleman expects to work for the Chukars at least through next season, but he’s keeping his eye on the possibility of another job higher up the professional baseball hierarchy, possibly for an A or AA team.

“If I can make a field look perfect in Idaho Falls with the little resources I have, when I have more supplies at another job I can make that field even better,” Coleman said. “The attention to detail is the biggest thing to me.”

Coleman’s age and lack of formal field management education is unusual in his field.

“A majority of our members — 72 percent — has either a degree or certificate in some sort of turf grass management, most of them have studied agronomy or turf grass science,” said Kim Heck, Chief Executive Officer of the Sports Turf Managers Association. “And at 24, he would definitely be one of the youngest heads groundskeepers in Minor League Baseball.”

Though he doesn’t have a degree, Coleman’s education is ongoing, whether its leafing through the newest issue of SportsTurf Magazine, or picking the brain of the Kansas City Royals’ head groundskeeper.

Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman rakes the dirt around home plate before a recent Chukars’ home game against the Great Falls Voyagers. Nine innings of batters tapping their toes and stomping into the dirt as they swing the bat makes a mess of Coleman’s delicate patching. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)
Idaho Falls Chukars head groundskeeper Ryan Coleman rakes the dirt around home plate before a recent Chukars’ home game against the Great Falls Voyagers. Nine innings of batters tapping their toes and stomping into the dirt as they swing the bat makes a mess of Coleman’s delicate patching. (Bill Schaefer for the Post Register / prphoto@postregister.com)

Wednesday afternoon while the Chukars were in Grand Junction, Colo., Coleman worked on the field with Duffy.

Away stretches give groundskeepers time to properly fix the spots they had to bandage during the previous home stretch.

Sprinklers sprayed water throughout the field while Coleman and Duffy worked on a gash near third base.

“Did they win last night?” Duffy said.

“They lost, Luna threw seven good innings then they gave it up to a lefty,” Coleman said, shoveling clay and soil onto the infield.

Afterward they dragged a rectangular wooden frame full of downward-facing nails across the home plate area, leveling out a hump where the umpire stands.

Little holes pockmarked the ground where batters dug their feet into the earth. A record of innate player tics common from Little League to Major League Baseball can be found all over the field.

“It kills Bryan and I to see it sometimes,” Coleman says with a smile. “Most of the batters are righties, and the hole next to home plate gets gnarly.”

They wet the hole and packed it with fresh clay; just like you would in a pottery class, Coleman said, as he scored lines in the clay and added another layer. He pounded the repair with a heavy, flat-bottomed tool, and squatted to run his hands across the material. The only record of his work was the wet spot left on the smooth ground.

During games, Coleman’s available in case there’s an emergency. Though he usually takes a seat behind home plate, he’ll meander around the grandstand. Knowing that they’re unaware of his presence, Coleman enjoys hearing people talk about how the field looks.

After playing baseball since childhood, making a career of the sport hasn’t hampered his enjoyment of it.

“It makes me love baseball more, knowing what goes into it. My uncle manages a golf course, and the last thing he wants to do after work is play nine holes. As long as that doesn’t happen to me, I’m stoked,” Coleman said. “I get to watch baseball during my break, what’s better than that?”

Ogden hosts stressful, successful all-star game

The players line up for the Canadian National Anthem prior to Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game in Ogden, Utah. (Victor Flores / vflores@postregister.com)
The players line up for the Canadian National Anthem prior to Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game in Ogden, Utah. (Victor Flores / vflores@postregister.com)

Many things occupied Dave Baggott’s mind Tuesday afternoon, but one overruled the rest.

“The game’s about to start pretty soon, but I’m more excited about going to bed without turning the alarm on,” Baggott said with a laugh.

The Ogden Raptors’ president was referencing Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game at Lindquist Field in Ogden, Utah. Baggott and his staff prepared for this game for the better part of a year, and the workload reached exhausting levels Monday and Tuesday.

Ogden was responsible for all of the festivities’ expenses, and the club will collect all of the revenue, Baggott said. The Raptors might not net a profit, but Baggott was proud of the event even before the game began.

“It’s not hard work, it’s just three times the work because normally you’re dealing with one team and one fan base,” Baggott said. “This is a culmination of a year’s worth of work, and we’ll see what the payoff is.”

Ogden announced it would host the 2016 all-star game during last year’s inaugural game in Spokane, Wash. Minor League Baseball officially approved it near the end of the 2015 season, allowing Baggott and company to move forward with the event schedule, ticket packages, TV deals, etc.

The festivities started Monday evening. Players and executives arrived sporadically throughout the day. The players talked to the media at 4:15 p.m., then left for dinner at Needles Lodge at Snowbasin Ski Resort. The players, executives, media and others involved rode gondolas up to the resort.

“I’m not real big on heights, so I’m glad it was the gondolas they were using and not the T-bars,” Minor League Baseball president Pat O’Conner said. “I talked with a few young men (about the gondola ride) and said, ‘You ever seen anything like that?’ And they said, ‘Never.’ And they may never again.”

Tuesday’s festivities began with a fan fest at 3:30 p.m. Vendors lined the street outside of Lindquist Field, and fans received autographs from the all-stars. Then fans entered the stadium.

General admission tickets cost $18 while bleacher and grass area seats were $12, up from $12 and $6, respectively, for Raptors games. Each ticket served as a voucher that would get fans into four Raptors games for free (a $48 value). Baggott also sold 10-ticket packs that would give fans season tickets for the 2017 season. He said about 20 people

Idaho Falls catcher Meibrys Viloria connects for a single during Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star game in Ogden, Utah. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)
Idaho Falls catcher Meibrys Viloria connects for a single during Tuesday’s Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star game in Ogden, Utah. (Courtesy of Steve Thayer)

purchased such packages.

“The expense to put on the all-star game is probably five times greater than putting on a normal game,” Baggott said. “So there’s a lot on the line.”

The all-star game was preceded by a home run derby. Idaho Falls Chukars’ catcher Meibrys Viloria participated in the derby, which was won by Salem-Keizer’s Gio Brusa. The main attraction started at 7:15 p.m., and the Northwest League won 11-5. The announced attendance was 5,339. The game wasn’t broadcast live, but it will air on Root Sports (Rocky Mountain region) at 2 p.m. Friday and 6 p.m. Sunday.

Next year’s game will be played in Hillsboro, Ore. (home of the Hillsboro Hops), pending MiLB approval.

“We’ll do a postmortem and a debrief,” O’Conner said. “We’ll check with all of the Major League affiliates that participated, and we’ll move forward and ask for an extension.”

Baggott said two things constituted a successful event: a significant profit and minimal mistakes. He wouldn’t know about the first category until after the game, but everything leading up to the game went smoothly, and nothing went noticeably awry during the game. He was also happy to give Ogden exposure, regardless of money.

A successful end to the night, however, had different standards to Baggott.

“We’ll have a little postgame party upstairs at the BBQ for an hour after the game,” Baggott said. “And then I want everybody to get out of my ballpark and go home because I want to go to sleep (laughs).”

Chukars’ all-stars took giant leaps this season

Chukars third baseman Manny Olloque grabs a foul ground ball during the game against the Orem Owlz on June 22 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)
Chukars third baseman Manny Olloque grabs a foul ground ball during the game against the Orem Owlz on June 22 at Melaleuca Field. (Pat Sutphin / psutphin@postregister.com)

Last Wednesday, the Chukars lost to Missoula on a walkoff home run. The man who served up the homer was Brian Bayliss, who discovered he was a Pioneer League All-Star hours earlier.

Bayliss’ all-star selection couldn’t fully neutralize the sting of the walkoff, but it softened the blow. The second annual Pioneer League-Northwest League All-Star Game is a good reminder to Bayliss and the Chukars’ other four all-stars Alex Luna, Yeison Melo, Manny Olloque and Meibrys Viloria of the larger picture. They’ve taken strides toward the higher levels of affiliated baseball over the last month and a half.

“It’s an honor,” Olloque said. “Just keep going. We’ve got plenty of season left. Improve on it.”

All five of I.F.’s All-Stars have gone through some version of the same story: they’ve broken through this season afterlackluster 2015 campaigns. Viloria might be the most glaring example.

The 19-year-old catcher leads the Pioneer League in batting average (.448), slugging percentage (.776), OPS (1.269), doubles(17) and total bases (97). Viloria has drawn only 10 walks, but that does not mean he’s impatient.

“He knows what he’s looking for,” Chukars hitting coach Andre David said. “If there’s a fastball on the outer half, and hedoesn’t like it, he’d rather be 0 and 1 than 0 for 1. Taking nothing away from his aggressiveness. It’s a controlledaggressiveness.”

Why take a walk when you get a pitch you can crush?

Viloria has 20 extra-base hits, including the six home runs that landed him in Tuesday’s home run derby and in the starting lineup for the game to follow. He had 39 hits last year with Burlington. None went for extra bases.

“I was working hard last year,” Viloria said in Spanish through I.F. bench coach Ramon Castro. “I tried hitting the ball (hard)but I couldn’t do it last year. I wasn’t focused. This year, I’m more focused, relaxed, I see the ball better and I have moreconfidence.”

Olloque hit .169 with a .438 OPS in 18 games with the Arizona League Royals that summer after battling a thumb injury. Hehas been plenty healthy this summer.

Olloque’s .342 batting average and .895 OPS netted him the start at third base for Tuesday’s game.

“He recovers really well,” David said. “If the pitcher makes a good pitch or a good couple pitches, it doesn’t phase him.”

Melo had the best 2015 season of I.F.’s all-stars, hitting .318 in 43 games for the Arizona League Royals. His OPS, however, was .772. That number is .919 this season, thanks in large part to 12 doubles, four triples and three home runs. Melo leads the Pioneer League in hits (58) and RBIs (39).

“We have done some things that have allowed him to be more in a position to see the fastball,” David said. “If it’s a breaking ball that he can get to or they hang, he’s in a better position to (hit) that, but he’s also recognizing, for the most part, the ones he can’t handle.”

Luna had a 4.54 ERA in 41.2 innings with Burlington last year. In 40 innings this season, he leads the Pioneer League in ERA (2.48) and the team in strikeouts (42). He’s issued just seven walks.

“We want to fill up the strike zone, and he’s able to do that,” Chukars pitching coach Jeff Suppan said. “It makes the hitters more aggressive. Then he can pick, he can change speeds, and he does that well.”

Luna will miss the game due to a strained oblique, and Bayliss filled his vacancy. Bayliss played for the Chukars last year and finished with a 6.39 ERA in 25.1 innings. His ERA is 3.24 in 16.2 innings this year, and he allowed only one earned run his first 10 innings. Suppan said Bayliss has been effective in throwing his changeup off his sinking fastball, and he tries to get hitters to chase his curveball.

The five all-star Chukars aren’t close to their major goal, but Tuesday’s game validates the progress they’ve made.

“I continued working hard,” Melo said. “I want to make the next level next year.”