MANCHESTER -- Fisher Cats and Sea Dogs. Put them together on a baseball diamond, and it’s like a powder keg on the Fourth of July. Something grand is going to happen.
Controversy. Record crowds. Walk-off wins. For the past nine seasons, the Eastern League foes have created a harmonious mix of entertainment, rostering star players like Aaron Hill, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Ricky Romero, and, most recently, Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsbury.
Crawford, who has the most career triples (112) among active major leaguers, ripped a three-bagger to give fans at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium a glimpse of the talent that earned him a $142 million contract.
Unfortunately, the homestand took an ugly turn when Crawford alleged a racial slur was directed at him before Thursday’s game. The story went berserk, appearing as a top headline on ESPN.com and giving talk-show hosts a day of fodder.
Crawford also said fans in the Eastern League have been great, but one comment about a pregame encounter inadvertently cast a negative light on New Hampshire. TV reporters from Boston and Maine arrived on Friday for live on-field reports, giving more legs to the story. The Fisher Cats were compelled to issue a long and detailed statement and apology to Crawford, who played two games in Manchester before shifting his rehab assignment to Triple-A Pawtucket.
The Sea Dogs and Fisher Cats have been nothing short of sensational. Fans made it great. The series with Portland drew 23,312 fans, breaking the franchise record for a three-game set in Manchester. The previous record (22,619) was established in 2009 during a series in which John Smoltz pitched for the Sea Dogs.
In Friday night’s game, Ellsbury relied on spectators at the Hilton Garden Inn patio for updates on the Red Sox-Yankees game.
“They loved it. I enjoyed it, too. They were telling me (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) hit a three-run home run,” Ellsbury said. “Fans have been great to me. They were great when I was coming through the minor leagues.”
The Red Sox have never hesitated to send their big-league stars to Manchester on rehab assignments. Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched before a standing room-only crowd in 2009. Smoltz helped draw the largest attendance (8,903) in Fisher Cats history.
The excitement of last week’s series may never be duplicated at the Delta Dental diamond. Crawford and Ellsbury had hits in both games they played, and Red Sox prospects Bryce Brentz and Jackie Bradley Jr., were just as fun to watch. Bradley went 6-for-13 in the series and leads Minor League Baseball with a .471 on-base percentage.
On Friday, Bradley singled home Ellsbury on a play that united the Red Sox center fielder of the present with the center fielder of the future. Fisher Cats center fielder Jake Marisnick, a big-time prospect called up from Single-A Dunedin last week, charged the liner up the middle and fired a laser beam toward home plate, nearly throwing out Ellsbury.
It was the type of play you can only find at Double-A, where elite youngsters are knocking on the door to the majors. Ellsbury, who bought Outback steaks for the Sea Dogs on Friday, gave everyone a taste of big-league All-Star baseball.
In Ellsbury’s final at-bat against the Fisher Cats, he lofted a fly ball to center field that was corralled by Marisnick. Then, on the video board in right-center, a hilarious video of Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live was played. Only in the Eastern League. Now that’s just great entertainment.
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FISHER TRACKS: Former Fisher Cats reliever Tim Collins, a second-year reliever with the Royals, contributed to a pair of wins against the Blue Jays last week. The 5-foot-7 lefty struck out ex-Fisher Cat Adam Lind but served up a solo homer to J.P. Arencibia. Collins, of Worcester, Mass., originally signed with Toronto as an undrafted free agent.
Blue Jays reliever Sam Dyson, called up from the Fisher Cats on Thursday, made his big-league debut against the Royals and struck out Yuniesky Betancourt with a trademark sinker.
Arizona second baseman Aaron Hill was omitted from the National League All-Star Game roster despite batting .297 with 11 homers and twice hitting for the cycle last month.
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FARM REPORT: Winnisquam Regional of Tilton graduate Jordan Cote made another strong appearance for the Gulf Coast League Yankees, throwing 4 2/3 innings without yielding an earned run on Friday. Cote has pitched a team-leading 18 2/3 innings for the baby Yanks, posting a 2-0 record and 1.45 ERA. Cote also leads the club with 17 strikeouts, walking only three. ... Teammate Joey Maher of Bedford went 0-1 with a 4.00 ERA in his first nine innings (three appearances) for the GCL Yankees.
Pirates farmhand Jeff Locke threw a one-hit masterpiece on July 4, working seven innings and striking out six to beat Louisville. Locke, a Kennett High of Conway product, improved to 7-4 (2.92 ERA) for Triple-A Indianapolis.
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WOOD BATS: The Keene Swamp Bats are thumping through the New England Collegiate Baseball League, winning of 18 of their first 22 games. Catcher Frank Schwindel of St. John’s University homered in three straight wins for Keene. The reigning NECBL Player of the Week gave the Swamp Bats a spark against Laconia on July 4, leading off the second inning with a homer. The NECBL’s best pure hitter has been Danny Collins of Troy University, who leads the 10-team circuit with a .413 average and 10 home runs.
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Staff writer Kevin Gray covers pro baseball for the New Hampshire Union Leader and New Hampshire Sunday News. His email address is email@example.com. Twitter: @graymatter11.