It was on a sleepy Sunday morning in Pittsburgh when Phil Hughes discovered what the Futures Game is all about. He walked out the side door of his four-star hotel, climbed onto the luxurious team bus and, as baseball’s future stars rode along deserted streets to nearby PNC Park, only a few blocks away, he noticed something odd:
A police escort.
“They were laying it on pretty thick,” Hughes said with a laugh. “I mean, there was nobody there, no traffic, nothing. Totally unnecessary. But it was still pretty cool.”
As was just about everything else, Hughes said, everything but his pitching. But that’s the point — the Futures Game, which will be played for the 16th time Sunday at Target Field, was designed to allow baseball fans to see the prospects they’ve heard so much about. However, it’s also about letting the players see what life will be like once they reach the major leagues.
“They make it very evident why you’d want to stick” in the majors, said Alex Meyer, who will reprise his 2012 appearance with the U.S. team this weekend. “Just from the moment you walk in the clubhouse, you start to notice all the extras that you don’t get in the minor leagues.”
Extras like the roomy, stately clubhouse, the extravagant pre- and postgame buffet, the high-end hotels and gift bags. Hughes remembers receiving a Flip video camera, cutting-edge technology at the time, among his 2006 goodies.
“Being a minor league guy, being used to having four roommates and playing in tiny towns before small crowds, it’s pretty great to go off for a few days and be treated absolutely first-class,” said Hughes, who treasures the experience — he still has his framed U.S. jersey displayed at home — even though he gave up three runs and a George Kottaras home run in his only inning of work. “It was the first time most of us had had that sort of exposure, with the crowd in the stands, and being on TV, being asked for autographs. I remember they asked us all to sign 12 dozen baseballs, and we’re like, ‘Really? Me?’ ”
Those baseballs are collectors’ items today, considering Hughes’ U.S. team included such players as Ryan Braun, Troy Tulowitzki, Hunter Pence, Billy Butler and his current catcher and 2014 All-Star, Kurt Suzuki.
The rosters the U.S. and World teams will field Sunday likely will have a similar talent level, since most of the best prospects will be present. Meyer, having a strong season at Class AAA Rochester, makes his second appearance, after retiring both hitters he faced as a Class A pitcher in the Nationals organization in 2012, for the Americans. The World team includes a pair of future Twins players: pitcher Jose Berrios, a Class AA righthander who has been named the World team’s starter by manager Bert Blyleven, and New Britain first baseman Kennys Vargas, a Class AA slugger who has 15 home runs this season.
Both rosters are full of star power, with home-run hitters such as Texas prospect Joey Gallo and former No. 2 overall pick Kris Bryant of the Cubs — each third baseman has already bashed 31 home runs this season — dotting the U.S. team. Exceptional fielders in shortstop Francisco Lindor of the Indians and Angels third baseman Jose Rondon are on the World team. “Even with the injuries, the teams are loaded,” said Mike Radcliff, Twins vice president of player personnel, referring to injuries to stars Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano of the Twins, Carlos Correa of the Astros and Francellis Montas of the White Sox. “I’m always interested to see how the pitchers do against those lineups, in that environment.”
No wonder. Meyer says the environment is what he remembers most about his 2012 appearance at Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium. “The bullpen door opened, and I ran onto the field, and my whole peripheral [vision] was full of people,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything but people. It’s as close to a big-league environment as I’ve ever been a part of.”
With two years more experience, he expects this year to be far less nerve-racking, but it’s still his first appearance in front of what someday soon could be his home-field fans. “I’ve never set foot on the Target Field mound,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting.”
Exciting for the Twins to watch their future players take on the best, too.
“[Meyer] deserves it. He’s had a couple of setbacks, but overall he’s been having a very strong season,” Twins GM Terry Ryan said of Meyer, who features a 97-mph fastball and a slider that comes close to 90. “His numbers aren’t as good as a couple of other guys, maybe, but he’s throwing the ball very well.”
So is Berrios, who at just 20 tore up the Florida State League with a 1.96 ERA in 16 starts before being promoted to New Britain. “I’ve pitched with him in camp, and he can do things on the mound that most guys that young haven’t learned yet,” Meyer said. “You can see he’s going to be great.”
For Vargas, the Futures Game won’t even be the most exciting day of his week; he went home to Puerto Rico earlier in the week for the birth of his first child. Now, he can share the excitement with Twins fans. “They should get there early, to watch him take [batting practice],” Meyer suggested. “He has as much power as anyone in baseball, not just the minors.”
Mostly, the players are looking forward to living a big-league life, win or lose, for a couple of days. “When you’re used to Holiday Inn in the minors,” Hughes said, “the Ritz makes quite an impact.”