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AZ SnakePit Interview: Life in Visalia, with Donny Baarns

It's not just fly-balls that were in the air at Visalia this season... [Photo credit: Chris Henstra]
It's not just fly-balls that were in the air at Visalia this season... [Photo credit: Chris Henstra]

If you follow the Diamondbacks minor-league system, you'll be aware of our High-A affiliate, the Visalia Rawhide, who suffered a heartbreaking sweep in the final week of the season, to miss out on a post-season spot. But they were also home to Arizona prospect Paul Goldschmidt, who hit 35 homers this season, a number surpassed by only two players in the entire minor-leagues. Donny Baarns, director of broadcasting for the Rawhide, was kind enough to take the time and answer some questions about our prospects, and life in the minor-leagues.

For those who don't know much about Visalia, beyond it being one of our minor-league affiliates - where is it located, and what kind of a town is it?

Visalia is in Central California, about 45 minutes south of Fresno. The town is in the heart of Tulare County, which, in turn, is the heart of Dairy Country. Most people have no idea, but California produces more dairy than Wisconsin, and Tulare County is the biggest dairy county in the state and the country. Beef cattle are also raised here; Harris Ranch, which provides most of the hamburger beef to the west coast fast food industry, is about fifteen minutes away. This is the main reason why the club went with "Rawhide" as the new team nickname a couple years ago.

We're also the "Gateway to the Sequoias," since to get to the national park, you have to pass through Visalia.

One of the neat things about our location is the fact that, on any given weekend, you can drive south to LA or San Diego, North to San Francisco, west to the coast, or east to the mountains.

Chase Field has its pool - what's cool or interesting about Recreation Park?

We have a big red barn in right-center field. It was just put in last year when the stadium was renovated. Its functional purpose is to act as our groundskeeper's supply shed, but it's also part of the outfield wall. If the ball hits the red side of the barn, it's still in play; if it hits the black roof, it's gone. So far, it's proved to be very difficult to reach; only 5 players have hit Barn Shots in 2 years; Marc Krauss and Josh Ford did it this year for the 'Hide. Honorable Mention goes to Ryan Wheeler, who hit one completely over the barn, which is a ridiculous poke.

Insert "can't hit the broad side of a barn" joke here. [Photo credit: Chris Henstra]

Tell us a bit about yourself...

My official title is Director of Broadcasting, so I'm the lead radio guy. I also work for the team year-round selling advertising, sponsorships, season tickets, and group outings. I've also become the team's historian (I keep a blog on team history that I'll start updating again in the off-season). Our club has a long history (founded in 1946) but nobody had really researched it, and I happened to be a History major in college, so that worked out well.

I've been here since May 2008; I moved up here to work for the team 2 days after my last final at Occidental College in LA. It was, you could say, a quick transition. I also broadcast junior hockey for the Fresno Monsters of the NAHL during the offseason, and do some other miscellaneous play-by-play/studio hosting for the ESPN Radio station in Fresno.

Patrick Corbin came over from the Angels in the Dan Haren trade, and his numbers seem very impressive. You gave him a rave review after his first start, but what more can you tell us about him, now he has some more games under his belt?

Patrick was excellent in the 8 starts that we saw from him. All the things I said in my first review (solid fastball, good changeup, and filthy slider) still stand. The only caveats are that after that first start, he was limited to three innings per outing as the Dbacks decided to be very careful with his arm. So we never got to see him over an extended game where he had to face lineups multiple times. Also, he made 6 of those 8 starts at our park, where it's very tough to hit in the first few innings (the sun shines off the center field wall as it sets, creating a weird backdrop for hitters). Still, despite those qualifiers, I'm cautiously very impressed.

Paul Goldschmidt had a monster season, getting named California League MVP. Is he the real deal? And, while his offense numbers are impressive, is his defense credible, or do you see a DH in the making?

In short, yes, and yes. He wound up with 35 homers and hit around .310, and there was nothing flukey about those numbers. His home runs weren't "Cal League homers" that just blew out of a small park. He crushes balls. Annihilates them. Takes away their dignity. At one point this year, the U.N. tabled a resolution to declare his treatment of baseballs an "unspeakable atrocity" (I may or may not have made that up).

Example: he hit a home run at our park that not only cleared the fence, it cleared the bowl of the skatepark out beyond left field. It was like the scene from the final chapter of "Moneyball." That bowl extends over 145 feet beyond the left field wall, which is 320 to begin with. So the ball had to travel at least 465, and quite probably a bit further than that. It was the kind of shot that had everyone, on both teams, still shaking their heads the next day, and agreeing that they'd never personally seen anything like it.

But what's most impressive about him is the fact that he can hit bombs to all fields. He has almost as much power to straightaway right as he does to his pull side. He hit another homer early this season to dead right field, into the teeth of a 20-mile-an-hour headwind, and still cleared the fence by plenty. The guy is crazy-strong and can hit the ball anywhere, and hits for average (and takes a lot of walks too). That's what, for me, makes him a rare, rare talent. I don't think he's getting talked about nearly enough. But just wait. He's the kind of guy that leaves home run legends in his wake. Years from now, people will tell stories of homers they saw Goldschmidt hit, and younger people won't believe them. He's not perfect; he does strike out a lot and will go through slumps just like any other hitter, and still has a couple holes in his swing. But he's scary.

Defensively, he exceeded expectations. He picks most balls, moves with very good agility for a guy his size, and generally is solid enough. I don't know if he'll win a Gold Glove there, but he's worked very hard on his defense, and it showed this year. The DHing can wait, hopefully, until he's in his late 30s.

That brings up the other thing that makes me believe he's destined for great things: he has a terrific work ethic. He's down-to-earth, mature, takes nothing for granted, and is driven. I know I'm sounding like a slobbering fanboy, but, well, after being around him for a full season, I kinda am. Barring injuries, you all will be too in a few years.

Looking down the lines at Recreation Park [Photo credit: Chris Henstra]

What other players have impressed you this season?

Marc Krauss, in any other year, would've been the star of this team; he hit 25 homers and was very solid all season long. He doesn't have opposite-field power like Goldschmidt, but he can hit the ball a long way as well. He hit one out of our stadium to right field, and to do that, you have to clear the visitor's bullpen (30 feet deep or so), the grass berm beyond that (at least another hundred feet, and that's elevated about 30 feet off ground-level) and a 10-foot tall wrought-iron fence at the back of the berm. He did.

Pitching-wise, Chase Anderson and Charles Brewer both looked very good. Anderson has this crazy changeup that looks like a knuckle-change but isn't. If that sounds confusing, it's even more so for hitters. Brewer just has four very solid pitches, locates well, and has great confidence. I think they'll both be in the big leagues in a couple years. Yonata Ortega joined us late in the season, and he had a lot of success closing ballgames. He's big and intimidating, with a deceptive motion and a fastball that touches 96 and is usually 93-94. He also has a good slider.

Josh Ford was a very inspirational story for us. He had missed the last two seasons with back-to-back Tommy John surgeries (!), but hung in there through all that rehab and came back to have a very solid season with us (19 homers). I don't know if he'll make the big leagues or not; he has some great tools, but he's lost a lot of valuable time and is already 25. He's a guy you root for, though, and I wouldn't count him out.

Rossmel Perez is still probably several years away, but he has the makings of an outstanding defensive catcher. Very quick, accurate arm. He gunned down a lot of baserunners this year, especially in the second half of the season as he improved.

When we're looking at numbers from Visalia, what should we take into account with regard to how Recreation Park plays? Is it seen as a hitter's or pitcher's stadium?

It really depends on the time of day and the time of year, and which part of the park you're talking about. As I mentioned earlier, for evening games, those first few innings are very tough on hitters before the sun has gone down, because it's very hard for them to pick up the ball. There's hardly any foul territory; home plate is 28 feet away from the backstop (we officially have the closest seats to the field of any pro ballpark in America), so that helps hitters most of the time, but sometimes it helps the pitcher too, because runners often can't score from third on a wild pitch.

The lines are shallow and you do see some pretty cheap homers to left field; on the other hand, the wall goes out steeply from there, and it's extremely difficult to hit a ball out to dead center. It's only 405, but it plays much bigger. I've been here three seasons, and I've only seen about 6 homers hit over that 405 sign. It's a graveyard.

Also, for the first couple months of the season (when it's still very cool here and the air is thick) the ball doesn't travel well. That changes once the weather warms up; you see many more balls leave the yard in the second half of the season when it's hot. In general, I'd say it leans just slightly toward the hitters, but not nearly as much as people think, and there are nights where you essentially have to write off your first at-bat or two because you just can't see the ball.

I'll add that the reputation of the California League as a hitter's paradise is a little overdone at times. Now, if you're in the South division and get to play in places like Lancaster or High Desert all the time, the numbers are unquestionably inflated (and the schedule is very unbalanced, so you play the vast majority of games against your own division).

But for guys in the North, which is our division, it's much tougher. The ballparks in our division are generally not that hitter-friendly. Modesto is 393 feet to the power alley in left-center, for heaven's sakes. It's very difficult to get a ball out of there. San Jose plays big. Bakersfield is just a nightmare for everybody, hitters included (It's 354 to center, yes, but the wind blows straight in and it's actually nearly impossible to hit one out on some nights; add in a tough backdrop and terrible playing conditions and it's just not fun at all). The only park in our division that consistently favors hitters is Stockton, really.

There's a reason that top pitchers in the league usually play in the North and top hitters are usually in the South, which makes what Goldschmidt did this year that much more impressive. So don't just discount a guy's numbers just because he plays in the Cal League. Look at which division he plays in, and if it's the North, take them a bit more seriously. The South's launchpads ruin the curve for the other half of the league.

Do you think it is harder for fans of minor-league teams, because of the constant turnover of players?

Sure, but fans generally understand that it's just part of the gig. They take a lot of pride when alumni reach the Major Leagues; that's part of the fun of seeing them first at this level. It's a very personal bragging right to be able to say that you saw that player before he was famous. It's like seeing a band at a local club before they become a household name.

Candy is Dandy at Recreation Park. [Photo credit: Chris Henstra]

Minor-league baseball is known for its inventive promos - what are some of the most memorable ones you've been involved in?

This year, we hosted a wedding at the ballpark; a couple who had met on a blind date at our park tied the knot at home plate; they had their reception in our Hall of Fame Club. (see picture at top) We also became the second team in the country to do a Candy Drop. After a game in May, we had a helicopter fly over the field and scatter candy all across the outfield; then we released all the kids to pick up as much as they could. It was like watching a swarm of piranhas pick a skeleton clean.

As the Rawhide approach the end of 2010, what have been the highlights (and lowlights!) of the season?

Besides watching Goldschmidt and Krauss for a fulll season, highlights include 10 walkoff wins at home, which is really an incredible number. 10 out of 70 home games ended in a walkoff hit. That'll probably never happen again. Among those, Alfredo Marte's game-winning single in the 10th inning of our 4th of July game in front of a packed house was pretty special.

The lowlight, obviously, was blowing a 4-game lead for the wild card with 6 games to play. We lost 5 of our last 6 games (including two different games where we led 6-0 at one point) while Modesto won their last 6 to edge us out by a game. That was very disappointing, because if we could've made it in, our starting rotation would've been pretty legit and we would've had as good a chance as anyone of winning the thing. It's also a shame to waste a year like Goldschmidt had.

But as I said on the postgame show after our last game, this is who this team was all year: they were a club that played a lot of close, exciting games, including a lot of games that probably shouldn't have been as close or exciting. They were fun and frustrating to watch in equal measures. It was a team with a lot of personality and character, but ultimately, it just came up short. But the positives, especially for Dbacks fans, outweighed the negatives.

[Thanks to Donny for his time and the marvelous and detailed responses. You can check out his web site, for audio samples and interviews with Rickey Henderson and Doug Harvey.]