The contest to decide the best Triple-A baseball team is not formatted as a seven-game series, and if it's played in either participant's home ballpark, that's only by chance. And falling, as it does, in mid-September, the winner-takes-all matchup often does not include the best players in the league, who -- if they are fortunate -- have been promoted to the Majors to help their parent clubs chase a postseason berth.
The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Yankees' International League affiliate, will host the 2017 Gildan Triple-A National Championship Game -- a nugget that's hard to miss if you scan the outfield wall at PNC Field. On a mid-May night at the RailRiders' home in Moosic, Penn., top Yankees farmhands -- such as outfielders Clint Frazier and Dustin Fowler and shortstop Tyler Wade -- square off against the Pawtucket Red Sox alongside constant reminders of the championship game to come.
For the players and coaches, winning games and preparing players for the Majors is serious business, but much about a night at PNC Field still celebrates all that makes the Minor Leagues so lovable -- from college students competing in on-field games in between innings to cornhole boards and Porcupine Putt-Putt set up near the Batter's Eye Bar and Grill beyond the outfield fence. For the championship game, which Scranton/Wilkes-Barre will host Sept. 19, RailRiders team president/chief operating officer Josh Olerud says the club will install a zip line that runs from above the top right corner of the batter's eye in center field all the way to the Budweiser Railhouse, which is located down the right-field line. You can watch some great baseball at Minor League parks across the country. But that's just half the show.
The RailRiders wear that lighthearted ethos on their sleeves, sometimes literally. The club introduced an alternate logo for the 2017 season -- the Baby Bomber -- which is a visualization of the term used to describe a Yankees contingent at the end of last season when Aaron Judge, Christopher Austin, Gary Sanchez and other young players were contributing at the Big League level. The RailRiders' front office staff took the term literally, modeling a new logo around what Olerud categorized as a "gritty baby" with a pacifier in its mouth, wearing a diaper and a stars and stripes top hat.
"The first couple months after we released it we couldn't keep merchandise on the shelf," Olerud said of the club's Sunday logo. "I definitely think it's an identity that means something. We'll continue to tweak it and play with it, and I think it's going to be a part of our identity, to a certain degree, for a long time."
That identity, though, is almost by definition fleeting. The players wearing the caricature can't stay babies forever as they strive to become Bombers. For all the tongue-in-cheek spectacle, the players on the field know that the lights shine brighter the closer they get to reaching the Major Leagues.
On the Doorstep
Yankee Stadium in 2017 sits in a world where a 25-year-old outfielder is Major League Baseball's most imposing power threat, a 24-year-old catcher is coming off the most impressive offensive start to a career in baseball history and a 23-year-old pitcher is handed the ball every fifth day. So who's to say Frazier, Wade or Chance Adams couldn't be Judge, Sanchez or Luis Severino one year from now?
"I think people are just developing a lot quicker now," said Frazier, MLB.com's 18th-rated prospect. "People are stronger, faster, bigger, smarter, so I think it's a tribute to that, to the technology people have, to video on guys that they're facing that day. I think it's just a tribute to how much hard work a lot of guys put in."
Frazier reached Triple-A for the first time as a 21-year-old in 2016, so he fits into his own narrative. The fifth overall pick in the 2013 Draft by the Cleveland Indians, he progressed steadily through the Tribe's farm system for three-and-a-half seasons before earning a promotion to Triple-A Columbus after just 89 Double-A games. The start of 2017 -- following his mid-2016 trade to the Yankees -- was rocky for the outfielder, but Frazier righted the ship, batting .286 through his first 14 May games.
A bevy of 22-year-olds are contributing to the current RailRiders' success. The Yankees promoted Adams from the Double-A Trenton Thunder to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on May 13, after he posted dominating numbers in the Eastern League. The right-hander made his Triple-A debut the next day and allowed just two hits in five shutout innings.
Wade and Fowler are also each getting their first taste of International League action. They can fly, ranking among IL leaders in hits, and they bat back-to-back atop the RailRiders' lineup most nights. When Didi Gregorius opened the season on the disabled list, Wade's name was even mentioned as a potential replacement. Each player knows New York is not too far away.
"I came into Spring Training from day one trying to win a job, trying to break with the team," Wade said. "I wasn't trying to do too much, I was just trying to be me and whatever happens, happens."
"We've got a great group of guys," Fowler adds. "We've got Tyler [Wade], Clint, [Justus] Sheffield. You can name plenty of guys that have bright futures ahead of them all in the same organization. We've got a bright future ahead of us."
Highs and Lows
Rob Refsnyder remembers the time when playing at Triple-A seemed like a novelty, when it was cause for an innocent enthusiasm. But nothing lasts forever. Prior to the RailRiders' May 16 game against Pawtucket, Refsnyder -- while unpacking his Yankees duffel bag in front of his locker at PNC Field -- reflects on his first promotion from Double-A to Triple-A in 2014.
"Everything was pretty rosy," he said. "You just have a different perspective on baseball and things like that. You're just trying to get to the Big Leagues for the first time."
On the same day that Adams made his Triple-A debut, Refsnyder was in the dugout at Yankee Stadium. It was Derek Jeter Night, and he watched all-time Yankees greats parade onto the field to honor No. 2. New York played Houston in a Mother's Day doubleheader, and Refsnyder was the club's designated 26th man.
The next day, Refsnyder was sent back to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre -- his fifth career return trip from New York -- and the RailRiders played a 12-inning nail-biter against Pawtucket in which veteran catcher Eddy Rodriguez belted a walk-off grand slam. The two entirely different events can -- in a vacuum -- be expected to elicit similar elation, but the second coming on the heels of the first can have a moderating affect.
"I think it's just important that the guys who have had success in the Big Leagues or have been to the Big Leagues in general have a good attitude and a good work ethic," Refsnyder said. "I think that rubs off on the younger guys. Younger guys can't be bitter about being in Triple-A if they see veterans who have been in the Big Leagues going about their business the right way."
The night after the Rodriguez walk-off slam, Bryan Mitchell readies for his third Triple-A start of the season after nine appearances out of the Yankees bullpen to start the year. He'll go 3 2⁄3 innings against Pawtucket and allow an earned run on five hits with three strikeouts.
How can a player be at his best with memories of chartered flights, Big League meal money and the Manhattan skyline floating through his mind? "You just gotta stay ready," Refsnyder said. "You've got good coaches here. I've had some success here. You just try to build on that and remember that every time you're up or down."
Wade could be described as a Refsnyder starter kit, and the Yankees are working to get him closer to the final product. On the same night that Mitchell starts against the PawSox, Wade plays his first career regular-season game in right field -- the sixth different position at which he started in 2017 after spending much of October and November learning to play the outfield in the Arizona Fall League.
"Reggie Willits, our outfield coordinator, really taught me and really made me feel at home in the outfield," Wade said. "And Carlos Mendoza, our field coordinator, really made me feel at home [at third base]. I feel at home literally wherever I'm at in the infield or outfield."
While Wade works on his defensive versatility, first baseman Mike Ford adjusts to a new level. The 24-year-old from New Jersey, playing in his third Triple-A game of the season, blasts his first RailRiders home run -- he would go deep again the next day -- and drills a two-run double, all while recognizing the challenges he will face one stop from the Bronx.
"It's not just going to be a fastball mistake, obviously, at this level," Ford said. "All these guys know how to pitch. If you get a breaking ball as a mistake, that's the mistake in the at-bat you've got to hit. It's just being ready for everything."
While helping players like Wade and Ford adjust will always be part of his job description, RailRiders Manager Al Pedrique knows there is more to his job than just helping players grow -- he has to have them ready to contribute in the Big Leagues at a moment's notice.
"Once you get to Double-A and Triple-A, it's about winning," Pedrique said. "I understand in the Minor Leagues you want to develop players, but once you get closer to the Big Leagues, personally that's the way I like to run the teams in Triple-A -- as close to what you're going to see in the Big Leagues. Once they get the call, they won't be shocked. They know what to expect when they get to New York."
We Got Next
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre won last season's Triple-A title game, and it's hard to miss reminders of the '16 championship while wandering through the Mohegan Sun Club on the suite level of PNC Field, where postgame photos and sports page headlines plaster the walls.
The International League champion RailRiders topped the El Paso Chihuahuas, winners of the Pacific Coast League, 3-1, on Sept. 20, 2016, at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn., to claim bragging rights as Triple-A's best team. Austin, Judge and Sanchez, who each played key roles in helping Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to the postseason, had graduated to the Bronx. In their places were Frazier, who had 30 Triple-A games to his name; Jordan Montgomery, making his seventh Triple-A start; and Ford, who had never played a game above Double-A.
"We lost some key players," Pedrique, the 2016 IL Manager of the Year, said after the championship game. "But I'm glad the guys who came in -- some guys from Double-A, some guys (who) stuck with us from the beginning -- played well, got an opportunity to become an everyday player and they did a great job."
Frazier, Ford and the rest of the guys currently suiting up for the RailRiders would love for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to make the playoffs, win the International League and take home the national title at PNC Field in September. But let's be real; they would much rather watch it happen from the Bronx, leaving the next crop of Baby Bombers to finish the job.