Hip-hop with salty language blasted through Greater Nevada Field on a sunny Tuesday afternoon when the reigning MVP in the Pacific Coast League had a question for his 65-year-old skipper: “Is this your music?”
Manager Greg Gross was known for his pinch-hitting prowess during his playing days, but he fielded the smart-aleck remark as if it were a routine popup: “Yep, I took the play list out of my car.”
It’s good to be the manager of Reno’s minor league squad, the defending PCL champions. The roster is filled with players with major league experience, including the aforementioned MVP first baseman Christian Walker, and there is a $10 million man in left-field.
Yasmany Tomas signed a lucrative multi-year contract after he defected from Cuba, but has struggled at the plate and with injuries. He’s been shipped down from the Aces Major League affiliate, the Arizona Diamondbacks, who owe him $42.5 million over the next three seasons, $10 million for 2018. The parent club wants him to work on his defense.
“We have him here to play,” Gross said. “He will be in the lineup most of the time. He’ll be in left field and he might DH some.”
The Aces 10th season starts at 6:35 p.m. Thursday, the opener in a five-game homestand against the Fresno Grizzlies, the Triple-A squad of the World Champion Houston Astros.
University of Nevada, Reno alumnus Braden Shipley will start for the Aces. The 26-year-old right-hander was the 15th pick in the 2013 Major League draft. This is his third season with the Aces. Right-hander Mike Hauschild will be on the mound for the Grizzlies. The 28 year old was on the Texas Rangers opening day roster last year.
This is the sixth coaching season with the Aces for Gross, nicknamed “G.G.,” who replaced Phil Nevin last year as manager. This season, the interim has been scratched from his title. He’s just the third manager in franchise history, along with[pullquote]Former Wolf Pack pitcher Braden Shipley will start tonight’s opening game against the Fresno Grizzlies.[/pullquote] Brett Butler and Nevin, who is now the New York Yankees third-base coach.
Gross played 17-years in the big leagues, mostly with the Philadelphia Phillies, and is fifth in all-time pinch hits. He still swings a bat with dexterity. With an unorthodox style, he tossed the ball with his left hand before taking left-handed swings to hit fly balls to outfielders during Tuesday’s practice.
He took a break from the flies and hip-hop to speak with a reporter, who asked about the strengths of the Aces.
“Experience,” he said. “They should be able to weather the ups and downs more than a young club would. Defense, especially the infield, is really strong. And we can switch guys around there. The bullpen, at least on paper, should be solid. The starters should be fine. They’ve had success.”
A new yet familiar face is behind the face mask of Reno’s trio of catchers. Anthony Recker is entering his 14th year as a professional. He’s played in the PCL with Sacramento and Las Vegas. He’s been in the show, too, suiting up with the Mets, Braves, A’s and Cubs. He’s the kind of veteran needed to help mentor developing pitchers.
“A pitcher needs to have conviction,” Recker said. “There are a lot of good young arms in the organization. I will push some buttons and see what I can get out of them.”
With 18 home runs in 552 Major League at bats, Recker has enough power for any ballpark, including the spacious confines in Reno.
“The wind is always blowing out to right,” he said. “It’s a big park but the ball carries very well here.”
Recker said he is an outdoorsman who looks forward to spending a summer in Reno. However, like all of the Aces, a call up to Arizona is the goal.
“(Triple-A to the majors) is the biggest jump and it’s toughest for pitchers more than it is for hitters,” Gross said. “They all have Major League stuff. It’s not the talent, it’s the mental hurdle. You cannot get away with mistakes up there.”
Life’s also pretty good down here in the Biggest Little City in the World.
“I didn’t realize how nice it was in the summer,” Gross said. “I heard High Desert and I thought of Phoenix. This is a really nice place to spend the summer. Lake Tahoe and Truckee are nearby. It might be the nicest place I’ve spent.”