[EDITOR'S NOTE: Yeah I don't know either.]
Welcome to Lehigh Valley.
A frozen pocket in the shadows of Appalachia, the region is gifted with seclusion. Here, they were somehow immune to the 2006 housing crisis, adapted from hammering steel in the industrial age to more white collar work better suited for the era, and continue to push forward by being a state leader in renewable energy.
And it is here that we leave our prospects and rehabbing stars, presuming the hamlet by the river will keep them safe and return them to us when the time is right.
The Lehigh Valley IronPigs will be celebrating their status as the last link in the Phillies’ chain again this winter, with their annual Winter Banquet. Ruben Amaro will be there, as will Charlie Manuel, Erik Kratz, Kevin Frandsen, and all the rest.*
But probably not there will be a pair of starters; both seemingly fated for a final spot with the ‘Pigs; both without much of a shot at cracking the big league roster; both just trying to survive not only The Valley’s merciless winter… but each other.
It was early summer in Montgomery, Alabama.
The halls of Robert E. Lee High School were empty now, the weathered statue of Lee staring wistfully at the horizon on the school’s entryway would greet no more students until the fall. But one of the key members of the Generals’ baseball team had more reasons to be excited than the prospect of a cool summer full of activities.
His name was Brian Bass, and he was about to disappear into the same draft as Adrian Gonzalez and Chase Utley; but a bit further down the list, and by a much, much worse team.
It was the Royals who called Brian’s name, placing him in their Gulf Coast League affiliate, where the 18-year-old matched his innings pitched with his K count (44). His big moment was a start for the Single-A Charleston Alley Cats, in which he lasted four innings, allowed six hits, three runs, and fielded one ball cleanly, but left the game with a four-inning ERA of 6.75.
Brian continued his push through the minors the next year, and the next year, and the next year. In 2003, he posted a 2.84 ERA and led his team (now the Wilmington Blue Rocks) in strikeouts with 119. In early August, he decided it was time to get noticed.
In an August 6 game against the Winston-Salem Warthogs, 21-year-old Bass allowed a solo home run in the top of the ninth inning to Brian Becker, and left the game shortly thereafter, which the Blue Rocks won, 6-1. Thing was, the 8.2 innings prior had been utterly hitless for the ‘Hogs, as Bass worked through their lineup; a concentrated menace for the team that would eventually be crowned 2003 League Champions.
The performance bumped him up to the Royals’ 8th best prospect; and would be forever remembered as the Night Brian Bass Made Rocky Bluewinkle Dance.
Afterward, things declined.
Bass couldn’t buy a win in 2004 and middled out for the rest of his Royals career, eventually being released and scooped up by the Twins. Slowly transforming into a reliever to fit their needs, he appeared for the first time as a Major Leaguer on April 1, 2008, doing garbage duty in a 9-1 loss.
He’d spend the season with a mop in his hands, and eventually, got bumped back down to the minors in August. The rest of his days were a blur of outright releases, designations for assignment, and players to be named later, in a spiraling list of locales: Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Houston, Korea…
There’s a lot of Wilmington’s out there, and not all of them feature dancing blue moose.
Tom Cochran’s home town of Wilmington, Delaware is one of them. His high school, St. Mark’s, is more of a formidable wall than a sun-drenched facility guarded by a Southern general. While Brian Bass was having the best year of his career, young Tom was just hoping to make the draft.
The Boston Red Sox heard his pleas in 2003 and took pity on the 21-year-old, assimilating the Delaware High School All State pitcher into their mighty conglomerate. They stuck him with the Lowell Spinners, a team that was once home for Hanley Ramirez, Kevin Youkilis, and Jonathan Papelbon.
It wasn’t long before the Red Sox were unimpressed enough to release him into the wilds of the Independent Leagues. Cochran latched onto the Ohio Valley Redcoats, Washington Wildthings, and Worcester Tornadoes over the span of five years. He compiled 485.2 innings pitched in that time, allowing 198 runs and striking out 391.
The Redcoats are currently looking for a stadium to play in, if anybody knows anybody.
The Reds scouted and dug Cochran’s moxy, shifting him from the Lancaster Barnstormers to an organization with a team at the end of it. Even their patience wore thin at the end of a three-year period, and Cochran was again picked up–this time by the Phillies.
It was in glorious Lehigh Valley that he spent 2012, becoming one of Ryne Sandberg’s go-to weapons:
“[Cochran] was especially strong down the stretch for Ryne Sandberg, posting a 2.12 ERA in his last six starts (34 IP, 8 ER) while holding hitters to a .196 average (24-for-122).”
–Jeff Schuler, Hog Blog
And now, the endgame.
Two competitors, unable and unwilling to escape the game. Both have toiled through the minors in various states of duress–one, scraping against glory, another, weary from independent travel–but only one chance at job security in 2013.
Minor League baseball will break your heart, and for this pair of 30+-year-olds fighting to stay in baseball, it has to have come closing to breaking them. Cochran, with the lefty advantage and proven record; Bass, with the rich history and dreams of a better location on that last pitch to Brian Becker.
Lehigh Valley will host its great feast, and then the grating, visceral true nature of baseball will reveal itself, in the form of a standoff between two pitchers who’ve come so far with steps so quiet.
*of the front office.