Winemaker Jeff Gaffner has more than the average fan's interest in the Sacramento River Cats' attempt at winning another AAA baseball championship this year. Half of the Cats' infield used to play for him in Little League.
First baseman Tommy "Time" Everidge and third baseman Brett "The Walrus" Wallace are both Sonoma natives who played under Gaffner when they were kids. Now, they're in the highest minor league level for the Oakland Athletics.
Wallace, a 1st round draft pick of the St. Louis Cardinals who was traded to Oakland this summer, is considered one of the top hitting prospects in the minor leagues. Everidge, picked by the A's in the 10th round, was considered an organizational player without much chance at the bigs until this year, when a combination of injuries and ineffectiveness of the guys ahead of him led to a July call-up.
Gaffner remembers Wallace as a tough kid even at age 8.
"He got hit by a pitch once, and usually when a kid gets hit, you can forget about him for at least that day," Gaffner says. "Brett got right back in there and crowded the plate."
As for Everidge, Gaffner isn't surprised that he overcame the odds -- the A's are loaded with first basemen in the minors -- to make The Show. And even though he didn't hit well enough in 97 plate appearances to stay in Oakland (.224/.302/.365 for you baseball fans; about 80% as good as a league average hitter), Gaffner believes he'll be back.
"Tommy will outwork everybody," Gaffner says. "He'll just work and work until he gets back up."
That's a rosy outlook, but Tommy Time's road is blocked by other players. Chris Carter, also now at AAA, is an even better hitting prospect than Wallace. And the large-bodied Walrus ("He was always big-boned," Gaffner says) might need to move to first as well, creating a logjam.
I was amazed to learn a winemaker who consults for a half-dozen wineries, not to mention owning his own label, Saxon Brown, finds the time to coach Little League. Fortunately, baseball season and harvest don't overlap. And Gaffner says his own sons play, so he would be at the games anyway.
Is there any parallel between coaching baseball players and coaxing Pinot? If so, it may be in avoiding traumatic mistakes while letting each develop its own style.
Or maybe it's just in choosing the right piece of wood.