Here’s an insightful peek into the life of a local minor leaguer

Photo courtesy of Carson Maxwell.

Ten years ago, I created a youth travel baseball team of top Little Leaguers, mostly from West University Place plus a few players from other leagues (I hate the word "ringers"). I named the team the Van Buren Boys, after the street gang that terrorized Kramer in the pizza parlor on Seinfeld. This group of 13-year-old All-Stars played the whole summer and racked up a lot of trophies. Note: one of the Van Buren Boys' lefty pitchers slept down the hall from me, so I still have those trophies. I pretend that I actually had something to do with winning them.

The Van Buren Boys' slugging shortstop was a kid named Carson Maxwell. Man, he could hit the ball a ton, well beyond his years. He went on to play ball for Lamar High School, Galveston Junior College and McNeese State. He was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks and sent to the Missoula (Montana) Osprey in the Rookie Advanced Pioneer League.

This summer, with Major League Baseball and coronavirus decimating the minor league system, Maxwell will be part of the 4-team professional league hosted by the Sugar Land Skeeters at Constellation Field. Fans will be allowed to attend games, up to 25 percent of Constellation Field's usual 7,500-seat capacity. Each team, consisting of former big leaguers and free agent minor leaguers, will play 28 games, starting July 10. Single games will be played Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with doubleheaders Saturdays and Sundays. Maxwell is waiting to learn which team he'll be placed on. In the meantime, I decided to play pepper with Maxwell … 10 hard-hitting questions plus a couple of soft-toss meatballs.

1. SportsMap: How did you enjoy living and playing baseball in Montana?

Carson Maxwell: It was so much different than what I expected, but I absolutely loved it. Playing ball every day and learning from former Major Leaguers was so much fun. Not to mention, it was my first visit to the mountains out west, which was surreal.

2. SM: What was the Skeeters tryout like?

CM: It was pretty much like any other tryout. Position players ran the 60-yard dash. We had three backhand throws from shortstop to show off our arms. Then we moved to our positions to take some ground balls. We threw one to first, turned a double play, and finished with a slow roller. After that, position players got one round of batting practice to show off some pop in our bats.

3. SM: What are your baseball goals now?

CM: My immediate goal is to have a good season and get picked up by a big-league team. My long-term goals haven't changed, meaning to make it to the Major Leagues and have an outstanding career. I'm taking it brick-by-brick and focusing on what's in front of me at the moment.

4. SM:Minor league players are notoriously underpaid. How much mac 'n' cheese did you eat last season in Montana?

CM: True! Lower-level minor leaguers are extremely underpaid. I did make enough to purchase essentials I needed to survive, like bats, gloves, cleats and other equipment. The Diamondbacks took decent care of the team and would feed us before and after games. My roommates and I were fortunate to have an amazing host family. They often bought us groceries. Late nights after home games, my roommates and I would get back to the house and absolutely destroy frozen pizzas.

5. SM: What's the best part of moving back to Houston and playing ball for the Skeeters league?

CM: I'm excited to be home and playing in a stadium where I'm very comfortable. I played four years of college playoffs in Constellation Field and won the Southland Conference championship my senior year at McNeese State.

6. SM: How much different was playing minor league ball from college ball, and what are you expecting from the Skeeters league?

CM: The main differences from college to the minors were pitching and mindset. In the minors you are facing the best pitchers from college, whereas in college I didn't always face the best guy on the other team. I also say mindset because if I had a bad midweek game in college, I would have a couple of days to shake it off and work on things. In the minors games are played every day, so if you've had a bad game you better have short-term memory because you can't let that distract you the next game or everything will just snowball.

7. SM: What will the Skeeters league look like during the coronavirus pandemic?

CM: It's going to be very interesting to say the least. One of the rules that I read in my packet is that the balls will be disinfected after they've been used. As of now, the rules say we aren't supposed to give out autographs to fans or hand out foul balls. No seeds, no gum chewing, avoid spitting. Pitchers will be allowed a wet rag in their back pocket so they don't lick their fingers, and no high fives, hugs or fist bumps after a home run or run scored. We are supposed to do our best at staying distant at all times, and we will be tested weekly for COVID-19.

8. SM: When you were a kid, you were typically the best player on the team. How did you deal with pro ball, where everybody was the best player when they were young.

CM: I've definitely tapped into a new level of work ethic. It's a tough situation because you want to help the team win, but you're also fighting for a job and to get called up to the next level of the minors. I loved learning from other players who had been playing in the minors for a while and players from other countries who were taught a different way to play the game.

Photo courtesy of Carson Maxwell.

9. SM: Tell me everything about your first professional home run.

CM: It was my first at-bat of the day in Billings, Montana. It was against a righthander who was throwing pretty hard. First pitch he hangs a slider up around my letters and I took it like a fool. I'm thinking he's coming with a fast ball second pitch, but he hangs another slider. I recognized it early because it was the same exact pitch and this time I took it deep to left field. I don't even remember feeling the ball hit the bat, I just knew I got it all.

10. SM: Is it true that minor league teams have groupies? Pretend your mother Alice isn't reading this. And for the record, I'm more afraid of her than you are.

CM: That's hilarious! I'm pretty sure a few of the guys had a couple of fans in each town we went to.

11. SM: Players in the Skeeters league will be offered hotel rooms, while players from Houston will be allowed to live at home. Which will you do?

CM: I'm staying home for the free meals and comfort of my own bed.

12. SM:Final question: how did you rate me as owner of the Van Buren Boys? Were my $100 Cuban cigars and gaudy jewelry a distraction? How about my constant yelling at the umpires and threatening to cut 13-year-old children from the team if they made an error? Remember, I still have the Van Buren Boys jerseys in my closet, including your X-Large number 11.

CM: I rate you as a top-notch owner and, to this day, the Van Buren Boys was the most fun team I ever played on! Hopefully one day we'll be able to frame that number 11 jersey and hang it somewhere.

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The Astros suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Yankees Thursday. Composite image by Brandon Strange.

After an impressive two-game sweep of the NL-best Mets at home earlier in the week, the Astros took to the road to begin a four-game series with the league-best Yankees on Thursday night. To little surprise, the series started with a bang (no, not a trash can bang) in more ways than one, confirming that this series should be a must-watch this weekend.

New York's comeback proves no lead will be safe

Right from the get-go, the loud Yankee Stadium faithful had their chance to rain boos down on Jose Altuve before showing some pleasure as he led off the series by being hit by a pitch. They were quickly, though only temporarily, quieted as Altuve would come in to score two batters later on a three-run blast by Alex Bregman.

Three-run homers seemed to be a theme, as New York would get one of their own to tie the game off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to tie the game, then Yordan Alvarez continued his dominant June by pushing the Astros back in front by three with another three-run bomb in the third, making it 6-3. That lead held through to the bottom of the ninth, where instead of holding it, Ryan Pressly issued two walks to set up the fourth homer of the game to tie things again before Aaron Judge would get a walk-off single to complete the impressive comeback.

Not only will we get to sit back and watch the slug-fest between Yordan and Judge this weekend, but it looks like with Alex Bregman swinging well again to round out the top of Houston's order, the Astros may be getting closer to their full power. So far in June, these two teams sit third and fourth in on-base percentage, with the Astros at .351 and the Yankees right behind at .350. That means we should continue to see scoring opportunities on both sides that can tilt momentum one way or the other as these lineups try to battle against the opposing pitcher.

How will the aces fare

Verlander vs. Judge, and Cole vs. Alvarez, need I say more? Although we won't see Justin Verlander go up against Gerrit Cole in the same game in this series (they should go head to head next Thursday, however), they will pitch on back-to-back days, with Houston's ace going Friday night and New York's on Saturday afternoon. Verlander is coming off his worst start of the year, a three and two-thirds inning outing where the White Sox put up seven runs, four earned, against him and knocked him out early to give him his third loss and increased his ERA from 1.94 to 2.30.

The last time he faced the Yankees was in the Bronx in the 2019 playoffs, in ALCS Game 5, where he went seven frames while allowing four runs, all on two homers in the first inning, which is all New York needed to grab the 4-1 victory to make it a 3-2 Houston lead in the series, which the Astros would go on to clinch in Game 6. So, with the double dose of bad taste in his mouth, it will be interesting to see if he can use that as the fuel to get back to the phenomenal form he's had this year or if the Yankees try to jump on him early like they did nearly three years ago.

Cole, meanwhile, is fresh off of two quality starts in a row against the Rays, where he allowed just one run on six hits with nineteen strikeouts over 13.1 innings of work. He's had his share of strife this season, though, including a seven-run shelling by the Twins earlier this month, along with a start in April where he couldn't make it through two innings against the Tigers. He's had success against his former club, most notably a complete-game shutout in Houston last July with twelve K's and holding the Astros to just three hits.

If the series opener was any indication, we are in for the treat of a playoff-caliber matchup, if not a potential ALCS preview that we may see in October. The Yankees showed why they have the best record and are the hottest team in baseball on Thursday night, but the Astros were only a good outing from their closer away from having a relatively lopsided win. The rivalry is real; the competition is close, and we get to enjoy the show.

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