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Something Old, Something New
Jeff Pearlman
October 04, 1999
At the Triple A series, Vancouver's youth was too much for Charlotte's veterans
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October 04, 1999

Something Old, Something New

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

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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 Good-enesque (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.

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