It's a fact of life in New Jersey, a place mostly between two other places, that many of its iconic vistas are actually views of New York City or Philadelphia. But in the capital city of Trenton, an indelible sight offers a brash confidence, a statement of purpose, a mantra for the state and its ambitions. Spanning the Delaware River between Trenton and Morrisville, Pennsylvania, the Lower Trenton Bridge's south face announces itself in neon, a message slightly modified from the original phrase coined by S. Roy Heath, who won $25 in a 1910 contest to establish a slogan for the budding manufacturing center.
Heath's original winning phrase was "THE WORLD TAKES -- TRENTON MAKES." But today, the bridge at night glistens with a transposed version, 330 feet in length, 8 feet high, as much a symbol of the Garden State as the pork roll produced nearby: "TRENTON MAKES -- THE WORLD TAKES."
About a half-mile south of the landmark trussed span, the Double-A Eastern League's best players gathered in mid-July for the annual midsummer festivities, a smaller-scale version of the galaxy-rocking MLB All-Star experience that took place the next week in Washington, D.C. Minor League life is a never- ending series of metaphors, and the two-day event -- hosted by the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees' Double-A affiliate -- spared little in the way of symbolism. On Tuesday, shortly before the Home Run Derby, Rusted Root's mid-'90s hit "Send Me On My Way" played over the stadium speakers. One might struggle to find a song more appropriate to the occasion, seemingly singing on behalf of both the baseballs and the players themselves.
The Thunder entered the All-Star break 49-39, a half-game back in the Eastern League's Eastern Division. Between the on-field success and the perks afforded the host team, local fans had plenty of reasons to cheer during the two nights. Yankees prospect Abiatal Avelino was promoted to Triple-A Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre before he could enjoy the spectacle in Trenton, but his roster spot went to Thunder teammate Mandy Alvarez, who was joined by other names familiar to Yankees prospect-watchers, players such as Caleb Frare, James Reeves and Trey Amburgey. Additionally, the Thunder's coaching staff helmed the Eastern Division squad, with Jay Bell -- who also managed in the High-A Florida State League All-Star Game last year -- serving as skipper. Bell wanted the group to have fun. But it was still about winning.
"Even in this game, it's still about going out there and competing to win," Bell said. "I want them to understand that my reward as a coach, and their reward as players coming off the field, is that handshake after the game. So, hopefully we'll do that."
For Bell, the action started early. He threw to several different batters during the Home Run Derby, including Amburgey, who went last in the event. The rules, modeled after the Major League version, called for each batter to hit as many homers as possible in a four-minute round (with one timeout). After all eight hitters took their swings, the top two would advance to the championship round. As Amburgey took his place in the batter's box, the mark to reach was 13; with 10 seconds left, sitting on 10, Bell ramped up his pace, and Amburgey knocked two straight over the wall. But his last swing resulted in a pop-up, and the Thunder rep had to watch Reading's Deivi Grullon defeat Hartford's Sam Hilliard in the final.
Amburgey was exhausted afterward but pleased with his first taste of All-Star action. "Physically, that was one of the hardest things I've ever done," he said. "I've never had to hit that much consecutively. But to have the home-field crowd behind me, that was a good experience. It was a lot of fun."
He would get another chance for last- second heroics the next night. But in the interim, the Thunder players got to take in the joy of accomplishment, mixed with the ego-tickling thrill of a home crowd's recognition. Frare, a reliever for the Thunder who enjoyed an exceptional first half, spent a few minutes on the morning of the All-Star Game recalling growing up in tiny Miles City, Montana, where the nearest Costco was a mere 140-mile drive away in Billings, Montana. He still has never stepped foot in the Bronx. But it's impossible not to see how close he might be to having his life turned upside down. While he waits, he celebrates all that's in front of him in the moment, being where his feet are in the parlance of the Yankees' organizational code. "That's what I live for," he said. "I live for watching Trey have his success. I'm really looking forward to Reeves pitching tonight, seeing how he does. How Mandy does. I go to war every day with those guys for 140 games."
Reeves and Alvarez are anything but household names in the Bronx. Dillon Tate, who was selected to the team but couldn't play due to injury, is a top prospect, but the other Trenton representatives are still under the radar. And the Double-A All-Star Game, they hope, will soon be buried by bigger and better career highlights. As Bell prepared to lead the team, though, he noted that it was imperative that the players appreciate this specific moment in their lives. "Any time that you have success, that you're considered one of the better players in the league that particular year, I think that you should feel good about yourself, feel good about what you've accomplished in the game," Bell said. "And I think it should be a springboard to getting a little bit better. … It's that balance between thinking highly of yourself and, at the same time, maintaining some humility, as well."
There's something to that word choice, though. Frare mentioned how humbling the All-Star selection was. Alvarez echoed that, saying, "It's just humbling to be able to play in this game, thinking of all the greats that have played in the Double-A All-Star Game." Humility is good, and often called for, but might it be misplaced in this specific moment? Perhaps it's a matter of identifying the tiny line between self- assuredness and self-awareness. "If I put myself where I was, back when I was at this level, you have to be able to celebrate every milestone moment in your career," said Yankees legend Bernie Williams, who performed the national anthem at Arm & Hammer Park prior to the game. "Because you never know when it's going to end. So for these guys, they might have their sights on playing in the big leagues, but they don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. So this is a big time for them, and they should be celebrated and acknowledged for the years that they're having."
It being the Minors, there was something perfect about the pomp and circumstance of an All-Star Game being mixed with screwball antics. Tim Tebow was in the lineup as a representative of the Binghamton Rumble Ponies, which added to the event's attention and likely contributed to the 8,296 attendance figure, but that meant that a collection of national media members bore witness to all that makes Minor League Baseball such an absurdist joy. When Grullon won the Home Run Derby, his prize was a championship belt and a year's supply of Case's Pork Roll. The Pork Roll mascot -- the Thunder take the name of the local delicacy on Fridays -- was ubiquitous over the two days, and why not?
Between innings, there were the same bizarre interactive games familiar to Minor League patrons -- miniature bike races, dizzy races, eyeball races (won by the green eye, if you're scoring at home). It was all just heightened, exaggerated to appreciate the moment at hand. There was a contest for the best dog of the game (which seems silly in any event that features the Thunder's beloved bat dog, Rookie, a good, good boy who should win every contest ever, of every sort), but there were also the Budweiser Clydesdales on hand.
"This was two years in the making," Jeff Hurley, the Thunder general manager, said of Trenton's third time hosting the All-Star festivities. "We found out in 2016 we were going to host, so we threw out a lot of ideas. But I think when it comes down to it, you always put a twist on this type of game. You want to make it special, but you still want to stick to your grassroots, which is family fun, family entertainment -- just with Clydesdales [laughs]. People enjoy coming out to Trenton Thunder games, so why fix something that's not broken? We have a great product on the field and off the field. The ballpark is beautiful, and our entertainment is top-notch. So we went with what our fans want to see."
The on-field product was, indeed, great. The game included dramatic home runs by Jan Hernandez and Grullon, repeating his heroics from the previous night. The East pitchers retired the first 13 West batters, but the visitors broke through in the fifth inning, following up their first hit with three more to tie the game before Luigi Rodriguez took Frare deep in the top of the eighth to put the West ahead, 4-3. Binghamton's Patrick Mazeika singled to lead off the bottom of the ninth, then with two outs, Amburgey stepped into the box as the East's last hope. He laced a sharp liner to the wall in left field, just beyond the reach of Rodriguez. Mazeika sprinted home, and although there would be a penalty kicks-style hitting contest to determine a winner, the game officially went into the books as a tie.
For Amburgey, so close to enjoying a buzzer-beating celebration the night before, it was a fitting bookend. "I thought [Rodriguez] caught it, to be honest," he said. "I saw how they were playing and the way he was running, but once I heard the crowd explode I was like, 'All right, that's awesome, tie game.'"
"For Trey to come through like that in front of his home crowd is pretty special," Bell said.
The hitting contest that decided the game was everything you'd hope for in an event of this sort. It took longer to sort out the rules than it did to hold the matchup, which involved each team sending up one hitter to take two minutes of batting practice, with different point values awarded depending on where the ball landed. Any amount of time anyone spends trying to understand the concept is most assuredly a waste. In the end, the West's Will Craig out-somethinged Zach Green, but by that point, no one could pretend it mattered. Rodriguez was named the MVP, but perhaps fittingly, the night's most dramatic moment belonged to Amburgey.
From the fans' reaction in 2002, when then-commissioner Bud Selig declared the MLB All-Star Game to have ended in a tie, you'd have thought Selig had desecrated the graves of Abner Doubleday, Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. In Trenton, mostly everyone laughed, because that's what you're supposed to do. The fans were promised fireworks, and fireworks they received. They just had to wait a few more minutes, and in the interim, they shared a few laughs. Forget the motto on a nearby bridge; you may never find a better metaphor for all that makes the Minor Leagues so wonderful, and for all that made the event in Trenton such a terrific success, on the field, off the field and over the field.