I have lived in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for almost seven years, seeing my fair share of Norfolk Tides (Baltimore's AAA team) games through the years. There were always various reasons to be excited, but this year is different: in a good way.
If you are American, even if you hate the boring, slow game of baseball, you will find happiness in a baseball stadium. And, while a Major League game has the weight and gravity befitting of a quest for championship, the minor leagues brings a mystique in its own way.
There is motley crew of players on every roster: the grizzled AAAA veterans, once traded for Gary Sheffield and a bag of cotton candy; the hyped 1st round draft picks with endless potential, who start the year at a .150 batting average; the burnt outs who were heralded as the savior of a team, The Armada (or some cheeky other knickname). All of these individuals, united together, take the field every Summer night while some guy in an LSD-inspired mascot costume helps entertain some hundreds of people in the stands. They have one goal: make it to The Show (including the mascot guy, I assume).
The Baltimore Orioles and their new winning ways have sent changes down through their system. I remember explaining to my wife and friends why they should care about Radhames Liz, or David Hernandez, or Lou Montanez, because it was inevitable that the MLB-equivalents in black and orange were not going to last long. The rare Matt Wieters / Brian Matusz / Rehab Assignment would come along and I'd get to honestly say, "That guy out there: he'll be a major leaguer soon, and we'll see him on TV" without remorse.
So few times in the past few years did fans get to see someone go from Norfolk to Baltimore on merits beyond being the least-worst option.
But there is a new club in town. There was last year -- and somehow, it's better this year. Now, Norfolk has more than a few real, valid reasons to be excited as a fan. There are prospects, resurgent stories, and even what I can only describe as larks. I could go down the roster and tell you why each guy has a story and a reason to cheer for (almost), but here are my top picks:
These guys are in discussions daily about how they can contribute to the Major League team. They haven't entirely figured it out yet, and some have a better idea than others, but each one of these guys on the mound at Norfolk is worth watching. They each have their own unique path to where they are right now, but as of this writing, they are all at Norfolk, and they could all realistically contribute a winning effort at the MLB level tomorrow if given that chance.
Each of these guys have had a shot, or even a full career, in the Majors, but they don't think their done yet. You could probably guess that they've been given a salary from Baltimore's front office for mostly their knowledge of the game, but they're no slouches. They get up every day expecting to earn their way back to Camden Yards. It's poetic and kind of inspiring, and you can't help but root for them.
If you have a group of prospects that are worth your time, you should be able to read their names on a list and imagine a troupe of super heroes who will save a city in peril with their inhuman abilities. Norfolk is no exception. Each one of these guys have performed thus-far in their careers to demand the attention of other team's scouts. Even Mark Hendrickson's family probably comes just to see them play, and those people have got to be SICK of baseball by now.
These guys are a total wildcard. It's almost the most fun. Valencia doesn't fit in to the Lark category as he did in the beginning of the year, but only because he went up to Baltimore and got things done. So might Pridie, if he got the chance. Gamboa is like a Late Night Talk Show host tearing up his cue cards and just improvising: it might not work, but it's exciting and could be better than anything else. Add to the mix that Dan Duquette signs players like a wily investor gambling on penny stocks, and it's a scene.
This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but it's what I have in my mind when I go drive up to Harbor Park for an evening of Smithfield BBQ and baseball. And what if all of these guys are duds? That's okay, because Baltimore has real talent. This year, baseball in Norfolk is a lot of fun, and very promising. I recommend trying to make a trip before the big league's rosters expand and you miss all of these boats.