NEW YORK — Back when he was roaming the outfield for the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Brett Gardner tracked down exactly what he needed to get to a big stage.
So did a lot of this year’s World Series participants.
Call the battle between Philadelphia and New York the “Amtrak Series” if you’d like.
But its first connection was made in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“Playing Triple-A was great,” said Gardner, now New York’s part-time center fielder and pinch-runner extraordinaire who spent the first part of last season in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“You’re playing every day, you’re getting at-bats, getting an opportunity to improve,” Gardner said. “A lot of it against major league-caliber players, guys who have been in the big leagues before, and you’re playing alongside some guys who have been in the big leagues before. And when you have success, it ultimately boosts your confidence.”
Enough, sometimes, to become a World Series star.
Phillies All-Stars Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino all helped bring the 2008 world championship to Philadelphia – and all of them spent a good chunk of Triple-A games at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre preparing to make a big impact in the big leagues.
So did most of New York’s bullpen. Just this season, key late-inning relievers Phil Hughes and David Robertson pitched for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, which became New York’s Triple-A affiliate in 2007.
Before that, Northeastern Pennsylvania served as home to the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Red Barons - the Triple-A affiliate of the Phillies from 1989 through 2006.
That’s when most of Philadelphia’s current big names passed through.
Last year’s World Series MVP Cole Hamels sharpened up at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, slugger Howard honed his home run swing there, Rollins developed into a top prospect and Victorino became MVP of the International League - which helped convince the Phillies to give him a major league shot.
And they all gained enough self-certainty and trust in each other as SWB Red Barons to turn a franchise infamous for losing into a baseball powerhouse.
Take the case of Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, a light hitter who’s surprised everyone by hitting .346 with seven RBI through the 2009 playoffs.
“I played with him in ’05, he was the everyday catcher at Scranton,” Victorino said. “He had a great year there.”
Ruiz hit .300 for the Red Barons in 2005 and followed that with a .307 batting average in 2006, catching 100 games in both seasons playing for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
“Same thing with Howard,” Victorino said of his slugging teammate who won the National League MVP in 2006, a year after Howard batted .371 with 16 homers and 54 RBI in 61 games for the Red Barons. “When he was in Scranton, right before he got called up, you couldn’t get him out. It was the most amazing display of hitting I’ve ever seen. He just needed an opportunity.”
That’s what Robertson believes.
An effective late-inning reliever for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the end of last season and the beginning of this one, Robertson showed that same form to the world when he got to New York by escaping unscratched from pressure-packed late-inning jams and recording his first two playoff victories. One came in the American League Division Series and the second came against the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Championship Series.
Not bad for a guy whose biggest baseball moment until this month came when he pitched against Durham last September as the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees won the Governors’ Cup.
“It was just more a matter of getting confidence here,” Robertson said.
Hughes found his self-belief in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
A dominant starter for the SWB Yankees during last season’s Governors’ Cup run, Hughes was converted into an eighth-inning reliever shortly after arriving back in New York just before midseason this year. Even as he began 2008 pitching in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Hughes dreamed of ending it in a World Series with the Yankees.
“I sure hoped so,” Hughes said. “I didn’t think it’d be as a reliever. But things change.”
Including his own certainty about his ability to make it in the big leagues.
“I think the confidence (developed) more than anything,” Hughes said. “I pitched well in the (Arizona) Fall League last year, in spring training (this year) and I pitched well at Scranton. I was able to come up here in a good state of mind. Coming up, it kind of started a roll for me there in Scranton.”
When he looks around the Yankee Stadium during the 2009 World Series opener tonight, he’ll see a whole field of guys who can say the same thing.
Time: 7:57 p.m.
Pitchers: Philadelphia (Lee 7-4) at New York (Sabathia 19-8)