Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Winemaker coaches future Athletics

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.


Cara said...

This is a great story! I love that you posit there may be a parallel in good coaching and good winemaking, maybe it's because I'm a baseball fan myself...but not for the As.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks, Cara. It's not a good time to be an A's fan anyway. We've learned that when everybody has the same info as Billy Beane, he's not special. But at least one of Jeff's former players might change things for the better.

Jack Everitt said...

With respect, "Chris Carter, also now at AAA, is an even better hitting prospect than Wallace.", this is the Understatement of the Year.

Was there a better hitter in all of the Minors this year than Carter?

W. Blake Gray said...

Let's hope not! But I've read that Jason Heyward of the Braves is considered the top position-player prospect in the minors.

Carter led the minor leagues in total bases, cut his strikeouts, boosted his batting average, dominated AA and had also raked in AAA in a late-season promotion. One day, people watching X-Files reruns will say, "Wow, this series was created by the AL All Star first baseman."

brandon knight said...

Jason Heyward looks like the real deal, and the Braves might have the next superstar on their hands. I read that the reason he dropped so far in the 2007 MLB Draft was because he got pitched around throughout high school and scouts couldnt get a good look at him.