I was a season ticket holder with the Augusta GreenJackets for five years. The GreenJackets are the Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. With 70 home games a year at this level, you see a lot of 19, 20, and 21 year old baseball players attempting to climb their way up to the major leagues. For the most part, they all look the same; but once in a while you see something special.
It was a hot summer night in 2012. My night started out the same as they always did, me standing in front of the starting lineups on the wall filling out my scorecard; I have kept score at every game I have ever attended. I took my seat, Section F, Row 6, Seat 3, right behind the left handers’ batter’s box. The first two batters for the West Virginia Power (Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates) were nothing special. Then the announcer said, “Batting third, centerfielder, Gregory Polanco.”
I looked up and said, “Wow.” He just looked different; at 6’ 4” and 220 pounds, he looked like he could be fast and strong – what the baseball purists like to call a “five tool player.” The best analogy I can make is with race horses. When I was stationed at Barksdale AFB, I lived about two miles from Louisiana Downs, the 6th largest thoroughbred track in America. Every year they had the Super Derby Festival of Racing, which culminated with the Super Derby, a $1 Million Grade 1 Stakes race for the best 3 year olds in the country. Horses that run in the Super Derby (many of the same horses that competed in the Triple Crown earlier in the year) do not look anything like horses that run in $4,000 claiming races on a Monday afternoon at Louisiana Downs.
Compared to the other players, Gregory Polanco looked like Unbridled (1990 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, who finished 2nd in the Super Derby), the prettiest horse I ever saw in person; while the other 17 players on the field looked like $4,000 claimers. In his first at bat, he hit a two hopper to the shortstop and beat it out by two steps. He then stole second on the first pitch and scored on a single a few pitches later. I don’t remember what he
did in his second at bat, but in his third trip to the plate, he hit an absolute bomb over the right centerfield fence. He also ran down everything in centerfield and even though he did not have an assist that night, he made a couple of throws that drew huge gasps from the crowd.
In four innings, he had exhibited all five tools (speed, arm strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, and fielding) at a level rarely seen in Class A. My son goes to school in Pittsburgh, so I texted him a simple message, “Remember this name, Gregory Polanco.” On June 10th of this year, he was called up to the Pirates, where he immediately set the Pirates’ record for longest hitting streak to start a career with hits in his first 11 games. As Pirate Manager Clint Hurdle said, “It’s special. He’s cleared a number of (firsts) off. It gives you goose bumps anytime you hear a ‘Not since Clemente,’ that gets your attention” (Sawchik, 2014).
I now live in Daphne, AL and am fortunate to have two Class AA teams about 30 minutes away in each direction. I try to go to a Mobile BayBears (AA for the Arizona Diamondbacks) or Pensacola Blue Wahoos (AA for Cincinnati Reds) at least once a week. The great thing about minor league baseball is you never know when you are going to see the next player that “just looks different;” the next Gregory Polanco.
Sawchik, T. (2014). Polanco sets Pirate record for longest hitting streak to start career. TribLIVE Sports. Retrieved from: triblive.com/sports/pirates/6311679-74/Polanco-game-career#axzz3A7ocBenz.
Stephen L. Butler, Ed.D., the Dean of Academic Affairs at the United States Sports Academy, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Dr. Butler has been a huge baseball fan for over 50 years.