Apr. 11—Some who’ve been around Scranton/Wilkes-Barre baseball long enough are used to waiting on the game.
Just look back eight years, to the spring of 2013, when the RailRiders debuted after a season on the road. They came home to a stadium so wonderfully refurbished, it was essentially new. They came home with a new name and a new identity and, in a real way, provided a new experience to fans and garnered one for themselves.
Waking up this morning, it has been exactly two years since the RailRiders played a home opener at PNC Field, and 582 days since any kind of game that mattered was contested there. Their official return, in a game that actually counts and in front of fans that will be allowed to watch it, won’t come for another 30 days, when they face Lehigh Valley on May 11.
There’s enough time to look forward to that, for sure. And there will be plenty of time to discuss all the ways RailRiders baseball in 2021 is going to look different than it ever has before, given that the International League no longer exists.
But it’s pretty remarkable to look back to that last home opener, because it provides a pretty good idea just how much the game itself has changed, as well.
Stars were out
Seems like forever ago, but that night was a pretty future-star-studded opener at PNC Field.
The leadoff man, third hitter and fourth hitter in the lineup for the opposing Buffalo Bisons that night: shortstop Bo Bichette, third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and second baseman Cavan Biggio. We knew at the time they were three of the best prospects in the game, and today, they’ve got a combined 444 games worth of major league experience under their belts. Never mind the fact they have combined for 441 hits, 70 homers and 231 RBIs.
They were the Blue Jays’ franchise future back then. Now, they have been the present for so long, they almost seem like veteran players in that lineup.
The RailRiders had a pretty good group of young players who’d become Yankees contributors. Mike Ford has played in 79 major league games since that night, and Thairo Estrada was a somewhat valuable utility man over the last two seasons before being designated for assignment last week.
Point is, it’s kind of amazing how much time has gone past us since then, how much development time was lost to the pandemic by those like the three Toronto starts who weren’t already on the cusp, and how some players are going to be starting all over again two years later. Of the players in the starting lineup that night for the RailRiders, only Ford and outfielder Trey Amburgey have a shot to be in the 2021 starting lineup next month.
Most of that opening day roster for the RailRiders isn’t even in the Yankees organization anymore.
That game turned into a bit of an adventure, too.
The RailRiders scored four in the first and had a 7-1 lead after four before the Bisons stormed back to tie it on a three-run homer by Anthony Alford in the seventh inning.
Ultimately, the game was decided in the 10th inning, in exciting fashion with the extra-inning rule in place on a trial basis in Triple-A for the second consecutive season.
Alford started the 10th on second and got thrown out trying to steal third before the Bisons even had a chance to advance him. In the bottom of the inning, the RailRiders scored when their pace-of-play runner, the speedy Billy Burns, went to third on a wild pitch with one out and scored on a roller in front of the plate by utility man Armando Alvarez.
The RailRiders won without advancing the runner, and without hitting the ball past the mound. It was the sort of ending that made the extra-inning rule kind of, sort of, neat here. But even then, who would have thought it would be a staple in the majors by 2021?
The league will say it’s not, but let’s face it: The clubs probably like this rule. Games haven’t gone on forever. Pitchers who have been treated with greater care health-wise in recent years aren’t asked to throw multiple innings out of necessity in extra-inning games. And some teams are better suited to win extra-inning games now than others are. They aren’t going to be so willing to just dump a rule that gives them a competitive advantage.
That day back in 2019, it was a pace-of-play initiative. Last season, when it was placed into effect around the league, it was done so as a health and safety measure. Now, it might stick as a matter of good sense for clubs who simply don’t want to risk a pitching injury moving forward.
A lot has changed in two years, for sure. The International League is gone. The extra-inning rule is here. And the RailRiders as you knew them are largely off chasing dreams elsewhere.
It will be a big transition come next month. But it could be more difficult.
Just look at those Bisons. They haven’t played a home opener since the RailRiders visited on April 4, 2019. And with the Blue Jays slated to play home games at Sahlen Field again this summer, the Bisons will temporarily call Trenton — the Yankees’ Double-A affiliate before dropping it in the minor league shuffle over the offseason — home this summer. It will be three years between home openers for Bisons fans. That is, assuming the Bisons are back in 2022.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sports columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.