Something Old, Something New At the Triple A series, Vancouver's youth was too much for Charlotte's veterans

October 03, 1999

Nearly 70 years ago the construction firm of Six Companies Inc.
announced that it was looking for laborers to build what would
be known as the Hoover Dam. Thousands of families left their
homes for the dusty, largely uninhabited hills of southern
Nevada, where they hoped--prayed--work awaited. This was during
the Great Depression. It was summer when folk began to arrive;
there were daily doses of lip-cracking sun and temperatures
reaching 120[degrees]. Weary men would stand on lines for hours,
simply hoping their services would be put to use.

Please, God, grant me work....

It's two o'clock last Friday morning, and Todd Rizzo is sitting
in the Forum Lounge, one of numerous theme bars located in the
neon-spangled Monopoly board that is Las Vegas's Caesars Palace.
He's awaiting his second Bud Light. He needs work. "Let's be
honest," says Rizzo, gliding an index finger around the rim of
Bud Light number 1. "Coming here is a chance to be seen and,
hopefully, get a job for next year. I want to win"--Brandi, a
toga-wearing waitress, arrives with number 2, and Rizzo takes a
swig--"but what I really want is a job." Rizzo, a 28-year-old,
control-challenged lefthander for the Triple A Charlotte
Knights, offers the last seven words with a tone of desperation,
sounding more like an aspiring dam worker than a baseball player.

Over the six days that made up last week's Triple A World Series,
variations of his words would be offered repeatedly:

--It's great to be here, but what I really want is a job....

--I know I'm good enough to play up there. I just really need a
shot....

--If they give me the chance, I'll prove I can do the job....

It wasn't just Rizzo, but almost every member of the Knights and
the Vancouver Canadians, who, with a 16-2 romp last Saturday
night, beat Charlotte, three games to two, for the Triple A
title. There was the Knights' Dave Hollins, the onetime
Philadelphia Phillies World Series hero, angry over not
receiving a call-up from Charlotte's parent club, the Chicago
White Sox. There was Canadians speedster Terrence Long, just 23
but certain he could thrive in the Oakland outfield, if only he
were to be tapped by the parent A's. There were the two veteran
managers--Charlotte's Tom Spencer and Vancouver's Mike
Quade--shaking hands before the final game with an agreement, in
Quade's words, "that we do this again next year in the big
leagues."

For most of last week it was difficult to find anyone who
actually wanted to be at Cashman Field and not, say, shootin'
craps. In the press box a nightly game was made of counting the
fans. Early in the week the tally was fewer than 1,000. For
Saturday night's finale the unofficial count was 276. That
included Trixie, a light-brown golden retriever, a seat full of
empty beer cups and the pistachio-colored Alf wannabe that
passes as the Knights' mascot. It was depressing, not just for
the participants, but probably also for Las Vegas mayor Oscar
Goodman, who earlier in the week had hyped his town as a natural
for major league expansion. Maybe the lack of spectators had
something to do with the series' advertising campaign, which was
almost nonexistent. Maybe it was that the Triple A World Series,
in just its second season, has yet to become--in Vegas-speak--an
event. Maybe Las Vegans simply don't like baseball. "Gotta be
honest," Rizzo said. "If I lived in Vegas, I wouldn't go to a
baseball game either."

This was too bad, because Charlotte, the winner in the
International League, and Pacific Coast League champ
Vancouver--opposites in many ways--matched up beautifully. With
its $22 million payroll and ability to develop young talent on a
needed-right-now basis, Oakland boasts a roster chock-full o'
23-, 24- and 25-year-olds. The A's are so good, so young, that
there's not room enough in Oakland for all of the kiddie talent.
Hence Vancouver's roster was a who's who of Baseball America:
Long, the Series MVP who was acquired earlier this year from the
Mets; third baseman Adam Piatt, the Triple Crown winner for the
Double A Midland Rockhounds before he was promoted to the
Canadians on Aug. 31; lefty Mark Mulder, the No. 2 pick in the
1998 amateur draft; second baseman Joey Espada, a 24-year-old
Manny Trillo clone.

Charlotte, meanwhile, was typical of what Triple A--with the
exception of Vancouver and a few other teams--has become. Ten
years ago Triple A was still the breeding ground for prospects.
Jumping from Class A or Double A to the majors wasn't a common
notion back then. Nowadays, however, with $10 million bonus
babies and expansion-thinned talent in the big leagues, Double A
is what Triple A used to be. Triple A has become the place for
retreads, hangers-on and marginal pros, a few of whom may make
the bigs as emergency call-ups. "I still think some Triple A
time can help a guy," said Spencer, whose Knights included 16
players with big league experience (compared with the Canadians'
seven). Spencer, a soft-spoken Arizonan who, despite three
league titles in nine seasons as a manager, has been overlooked
for major league gigs, takes offense at the who-needs-Triple-A?
mentality. "Not as many guys come through here anymore, and it's
disappointing," he said. "In Double A you learn to hit a curve.
In Triple A you learn to hit an 0-2 curve. Experience is
everything."

There was no doubting Spencer's logic after Game 3, when his
geriatric gang used a dose of patience and smarts to win 4-2 and
take a 2-1 series lead. Vancouver's starter was 21-year-old
Barry Zito, a lefty who has sped through the minors with an
above-average fastball that sets up a Goodenesque (circa 1984)
looper of a curve. With a 2-0 lead, Zito began the fourth by
allowing Hollins, still fast at age 33, a bunt single down the
third base line. He started the next batter, centerfielder Jeff
Abbott, with a 93-mph fastball. Ball one. After a fastball for a
strike, Zito threw a curve that began at Abbott's head and broke
to his knees. Called strike two. "Great pitch," Abbott would
later say. "Really, really nice." So nice that Zito threw it
again. Thwack! Abbott launched the ball over the leftfield
fence. "I was pretty sure that curve was coming," said Abbott,
27, who hit 12 home runs with the White Sox last year. "I
would've had no idea three or four years ago, but you play long
enough, you pick up a few things."

Vancouver came back to sweep the next two, thanks to motivation
as much as to skill. Earlier in the week Long had been told by a
friend that a high-ranking minor league official had said
Vancouver didn't hit well enough to topple the powerful Knights.
(Indeed, the Canadians' 124 home runs ranked them 14th out of 16
teams in the Pacific Coast League.) Was such a statement
actually uttered? Who knows. Long, however, made sure to repeat
it to his teammates, many of whom took it as a personal knock.
Following a 9-7 Game 4 win last Friday night, Long paced through
the tiny Vancouver clubhouse, barking out "Who can't hit?" Long
batted .429 for the series, but he was not the only Canadian to
produce. In the Game 5 rout Long, Espada, Piatt, rightfielder
Mario Encarnacion and leftfielder Roberto Vaz had three hits
apiece. "We showed some people the truth," said Long, smiling in
his champagne-soaked T-shirt. "Never doubt the heart of a
champion."

As he spoke, Long grabbed a clump of Piatt's dark brown hair,
lathering it with the sweetest tasting shampoo $1.42 can buy.
Like many before him, Long had come to Nevada looking for work.
He found, for the moment, bliss.

COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO "Who can't hit?" barked series MVP Long (above), who batted .429 for the Canadians.

"In Double A you learn to hit a curve," says Spencer. "In Triple
A you learn to hit an 0-2 curve."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)