4th of Jul | Story

Three of a kind


SAVANNAH, Georgia | When you live in Oklahoma, you tend to know more about your neighbors than when you live in, say, California or Florida or Texas. The state is large enough, just inside the top 20 in sheer area, but its population is relatively small and concentrated, less than 4 million at the last Census, with about 60 percent of that total packed in or right around Oklahoma City and Tulsa. “You put a team together from Oklahoma,” Michael Fulmer says, “everyone knows each other.”

Fulmer knows for fact. One of the top high school pitchers in the country last season, he raised plenty of eyebrows and radar guns after he pitched his way to a 10-2 record, a 0.72 earned run average and 127 strikeouts over 68 innings for Deer Creek High, situated about 20 miles north of Oklahoma City in Edmond. The New York Mets liked Fulmer enough to grab him 44th overall in the draft, June 6, 2011, low in the first round.

Even that high, he was the third Oklahoma high school pitcher drafted that night.

“Oklahoma had a fresh crop of high school guys. Every single one of them could play. Everybody was working hard.” — Savannah starting pitcher Michael Fulmer

The Baltimore Orioles had already tabbed Dylan Bundy of Owasso High fourth overall, and the Arizona Diamondbacks followed three picks and about 15 minutes later with their selection of Archie Bradley of Broken Arrow. For those uninitiated with Oklahoma geography, Owasso High is about 15 miles north of Tulsa, Broken Arrow High is about 15 miles south of Tulsa, and both are about 120 miles east of Oklahoma City and Deer Creek. Fulmer filled out the triumvirate a little later.

The three high school stars already knew plenty about each other before draft night. “Oklahoma had a fresh crop of high school guys,” Fulmer says. “Every single one of them could play. Everybody was working hard.”

Everybody is still working hard. Bundy has already climbed from Low-A Delmarva to High-A Frederick to Double-A Bowie and is considered the top prospect in the minors. Bradley has anchored the rotation for Low-A South Bend. Fulmer has done much of the same here in Low-A Savannah — a 7-6 record, a 2.74 ERA, 101 strikeouts over 108 innings and change, and a developing acuity for how to attack hitters. “Every single start, every single day, every single minute,” Fulmer says, no shortage of hyperbole. “I’m getting ready, asking a ton of questions.”

Fulmer started his long trip toward the Mets and Citi Field when he was still in elementary school. He pitched some, played more often out in the field, and always wanted to watch Curt Schilling. He was 8 when Schilling and Randy Johnson pushed the Arizona Diamondbacks to the 2001 World Series championship, two dominant forces. 

“I kind of based my mechanics off of him,” Fulmer says. “He attacked hitters with strike one and got the strikeouts when he needed them. He knew how to pitch.” Anything in particular? “He had that nasty splitter. I actually tried to throw a splitter because of him. It didn’t last more than a couple days.”

After the season, Fulmer will return to Oklahoma and prepare for his second season, for a probable spring training promotion to High-A St. Lucie or even Double-A Binghamton. He might call Bundy or Bradley to work out. He might stay closer to home. His younger brother, Austin, will be a high school freshman this fall. Scouts won’t raise their radar guns toward him, though. “We tried baseball with him,” Fulmer says, “and it’s not for him. He’s more of a computer guy.”

Maybe folks in the front office will be scouting him.


♦          ♦          ♦

Time for minor league trivia. Situated near the corner of East Victory Drive and Bee Road, not far from downtown Savannah, Grayson Stadium opened for the 1926 season and is so old its name is almost always preceded by the work Historic. Despite the extra adjective and decades of history, though, the park is not the oldest on our trip. What two parks opened earlier? (Keep reading for the answer.)

With the promise of fireworks after the game, the Sand Gnats scored first and last, just not often enough as the Charleston RiverDogs held on for a 3-2 Fourth of July win. Third baseman Aderlin Rodriguez led off the bottom of the second with his 14th home run and designated hitter Camden Maron slugged his third home run with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. The rest of the lineup combined for just two hits. The RiverDogs clumped their runs in the third and fourth innings to send the Sand Gnats reeling to their third straight loss.

Remember Frank Viola? The veteran starter with the dominant mustache and the Sweet Music moniker picked up 176 wins and one World Series championship during his 15 seasons with the Minnesota Twins, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds and Toronto Blue Jays. During his best seasons, he added the 1987 World Series MVP and the 1988 American League Cy Young Award to his long list of accomplishments. Now nearly two decades removed from his last game in the Majors, Viola is the pitching coach for the Sand Gnats, surrounded by young arms like Fulmer and lots of summer humidity. He missed four games of it this season, though. “I made a deal with the Mets in spring training this season,” he says. “The last couple of years, my daughter Brittany has been among the top divers in the country, so I knew there was a possibility of her making the Olympic team. I talked with the Mets when I was negotiating a contract and asked for a few days off to go to London. They said, ‘If she makes the Olympic team, you go.’” Brittany made the team. A converted gymnast who was persuaded to land “on her head instead of her feet,” she finished 15th in the 10-meter platform semifinal in London. Her father was “a nervous wreck.”

Want the answer? McCormick Field in Asheville, North Carolina, and Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach, Florida both opened before the first game at Grayson Stadium. The Tourists played the first game at McCormick on April 3, 1924. The old Islanders played their first game at The Jack, then referred to as Daytona City Island Ballpark, in 1920, though the park opened almost six seasons earlier on June 4, 1914.

And in random statistical news, the holiday spectacular opened with a stirring national anthem, belted perfectly by Sgt. Fischel in 1 minute and 20.2 seconds, the game started four minutes late, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter flied out to right. We skipped dinner at the park (long story) and pulled out of the lot not long after the last out to cover more miles back north to South Carolina. On the way, we saw fireworks in two states and celebrated with some chili and chicken nuggets at a truck stop Wendy’s.

Matt@AMinorLeagueSeason.com ♦ @MattLaWell ♦ @AMinorLgSeason

Want to read stories about the other teams on our schedule? Click here and scroll to the calendar.