Throw down some money in front of a minor-league baseball player, Craig Maddox joked, and they'll crank up the competition level just a little bit.
So that was how Maddox, the Gary SouthShore Railcats' catcher, walked away from the American Association All-Star Skills Competition on Monday night $500 richer, and carrying a trophy to mark his winning 10 home runs in the derby. That ain't chump change in the indie leagues. "The fans were great, so I tried to put on a little bit of a show for them," Maddox said after claiming victory. "It was fun. It's going to be a memory I'll never forget."
Especially, perhaps, since Maddox was a bit of an underdog coming into the derby final at Shaw Park. The Railcats aren't known for playing a big power game, and Maddox has knocked just five hits out of the park in 50 games this season; last year he did five in 68, the year before five in 63. His opponent in the final, on the other hand, is big-swingin' Lincoln Saltdogs first baseman Ian Gac, who has snapped 15 homers in 49 games.
But Gac only managed to put four big ones on the board, before dinging his 10th out. "I was telling some guys, 'man, I just hope he doesn't get into a groove,'" Maddox said. "'Cause I've seen that guy hit some impressive home runs, and he did tonight. Fortunately for me, he was able to get four out, and I was able to get (at least) five."
As he was busy hitting them, the crowd roared -- because hey, who doesn't like to see a string of home runs? These things are just for fun, and as the first day of the two-day American Association all-star competitions rolled out, that was the vibe around the park. The weather was perfectly pleasant, neither too cold nor too hot, and the skyboxes were hung with banners, either red-white-and-blue or dotted with red maple leaves.
The crowd turn-out was robust: the Goldeyes official attendance stood at 4,884. That's a pretty good showing, for a skills competition from American Association stars who aren't household names, except in the most Fish-friendly homes. Before the show, the line-up for autographs on the field was long enough not everyone had time to get their squiggle of ink.
It was a languid sort of event, and even the players spread out their legs in the dirt by the dugouts to watch it unfold. It started with a media skills competition, full of -- with regards to my colleagues -- missed swings and errant pitches. Outgoing Winnipeg mayor and Goldeyes owner Sam Katz turned up, in shorts and sandals, for a relaxed sort of on-field presentation.
Then some of the 40 all-stars went through their paces. In the base-running race, Goldeyes infielder Ryan Pineda put in a fast showing for the home crowd, but Wichita Wingnuts outfielder Carlo Testa eventually dashed to a win, sprinting from second base to home plate in 7.03 seconds. Laredo Lemurs outfielder Nick Van Stratten tossed out the tightest fielding accuracy, throwing from centre field to a home plate.
After the skills competition was done, fans crowded down around the Goldeyes dugout to collect autographs from the players. Among the most in demand: former Goldeyes starting pitcher Matt Rusch, who famously hurled the Fish to their 2012 American Association championship game. He left in the off-season, accepting a trade to the Trois-Rivieres Aigles of the Can-Am League so that he and his fiancee could return to her Quebec home.
But when he heard Winnipeg would host an all-star game that included the Can-Am League, he hoped he'd make the cut. "That's definitely a goal I set for myself," said Rusch, who is 5-5 with a 3.00 ERA in 13 games this season. "I wanted to come back, because I love the fans and love the city... I spent two years with (the Goldeyes), and I went through a lot with them."
Then there's the other part, the getting to know the guys you always see across the field, tangle with on the bags, glare at from across the plate. It's not often that all-star events come around in the minor leagues. "It's fun to get out here with guys that you compete against, and maybe don't get to develop a personal relationship with," Maddox said. "I can definitely speak for Team North -- they are definitely a bunch of great guys."