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Mozzicato Time!

Get your Franks here.

I recently attended a Class A game between the Quad City River Bandits and the Cedar Rapids Kernels (Twins). The purpose was to witness the first High A start for 2021 first-round pick Frank Mozzicato. There were a few other players on the Bandit’s roster that I wanted to get a firsthand look at, but the star attraction was Mozzicato.

It was an unseasonably cool night for July, just 71 degrees at first pitch with a breeze from the north. Frank must have been jacked up because he bounced two of his warmup pitches to the screen. Once the game started, he was fine.

He gave up an infield single to the first batter he faced, Tanner Schobel, who is probably the best player on the Cedar Rapids squad and quite possibly the best player on either team. Bandits third baseman, Enrique Valdez, made a nice backhanded stop on the hit and nearly got Schobel with the throw.

After that, Mozzicato settled down and breezed through the first two innings, recording four strikeouts and two fly ball outs. His fastball was topping out at 91-92 and his curve was consistent at 80-81 mph.

Mozzicato ran into some problems in the third. After recording the first out, he lost command of the strike zone and at one point, ten of his next twelve pitches were called balls. That resulted in two consecutive walks, sandwiched around a mound visit. An RBI single plated a run, before he rallied with another strikeout and a fly ball to end the inning.

The fourth was not good. Leadoff hitter Noah Miller stroked a triple that had left fielder River Town looking like he was playing on ice. The next hitter stroked an RBI single, followed by a stolen base and two consecutive walks. I thought manager Brooks Conrad should have pulled him at this point. His fastball was ticking down to 88 and his curve was only clocking at 78. Mozzicato hadn’t pitched in a few weeks, having gone on the disabled list for an unspecified clubhouse injury. He looked like he was gassed. Maybe Conrad wanted him to throw a certain number of pitches, final score be damned. Mozzicato rallied with another strikeout on his curve, but issued a bases loaded walk to Schobel which finally brought Conrad out of the dugout.

Final line: 3 23 innings, 6 strikeouts, four hits, five walks.

I can see why Dayton Moore liked the kid. He reminds me a bit of Tom Glavine and if his career ends up being even half as good as Glavine’s, it’ll be a huge win for the Royals. He has a good presence on the mound and when he’s throwing strikes, is a very efficient pitcher.

On the other hand, I can see why many scouts and talent evaluators thought he was a reach at pick #7. His fastball will need more juice to make it to the majors. From my vantage point behind home plate, it looked like he was relying primarily on his fastball and curve. You can probably survive in Class A on that, but he’ll need another pitch (or two) to have a successful big-league career. He’s barely 20, having just turned that on June 19. He should fill out more as he ages and gets his man muscle, which should add some velocity to his fastball and help his stamina. The potential is there, the million-dollar question is: can the Royals help him develop more velocity and a secondary pitch, perhaps a slider and hopefully, a change-up to complement his current repertoire? That part worries me, given the Royals’ glaring inability to develop in-house, top line pitchers.

One interesting thing about the Class A games I’ve attended: most are high scoring affairs yet there was not a single hitter on either team with a batting average above .300. This game was no exception. Cedar Rapids overcame a 5 to 1 deficit to win 9 to 6. The Kernel’s top hitter, Tanner Schobel clocked in with a .290 average. The Bandit’s top hitter, Cayden Wallace sports a .271 average.

Strikeout rates for hitter’s on both teams hover in the 30% range. There were some bright spots. Wallace looks like a guy who will eventually make it to Kauffman. He played collegiately at Arkansas, and you could tell that he was more advanced than the guys who came out of high school or the international pools. In this game, he cranked a rifle shot home run, followed by two singles and a stolen base. His brother Paxton, who prepped at Wichita State, is already in Omaha and it’d be super cool to see both brothers in Kansas City. This certainly gives credence to the idea that it’s less risky to be drafting college talent as opposed to a high school player.

Javier Vaz started the game in center field. He played at Vanderbilt before the Royals nabbed him in the 2022 draft. He’s got good speed, 20 stolen bases this season, but is very slight, coming in at 5’9, 165, and that might be stretching it. One great thing about baseball is that a smaller player can make it. We’ve seen it with Freddie Patek, Jose Altuve and Dustin Pedroia, just to name three. Vaz has some infield/outfield versatility, which the Royals love.

Another player who stood out was shortstop Shervyen Newton. The Royals picked him up in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft out of the Phillies organization. He’s a big dude at 6’4, 210 and looks like an NFL wide receiver. He had soft hands at short and looked good at the plate, blasting a three-run home run to dead center, followed by an RBI double. That outburst only brought his average to .160. At age 24, he’ll need to develop quickly if he wants to taste the majors.

I’d love to see River Town make the Royals roster someday, for no other reason than he has one of the coolest baseball names ever. The other player I wanted to see was catcher Carter Jensen. One of the youngest baby Royals (he just turned 20 last week), he did an excellent job behind the plate. He has a strong and accurate arm and if his bat can catch up (.188 average) he could work his way to KC. That would be something to see, as he’s a Kansas City native, having played at Park Hill high school.

I was hoping to see Gavin Cross, last season’s #1 pick, but he was given the night off. Cross is off to a slow start, only hitting .208 at Quad City.

The more minor league ball I watch, the more I believe that what we see at any level is what we’ll see at the big-league level. If a guy is a .220 hitter in his minor league career, no matter how toolsy or athletic he is, he won’t magically hit .300 in the big leagues. Case in point, Adalberto Mondesi. His minor league career slash was .256/.302/.408. His big league slash? .244/.280/.408. Yet all we heard from the Royals brass, for years, was how he was going to develop into a superstar. Maya Angelou said, when someone shows you who they are, believe them. I think that is also the truth when it comes to baseball.

Speaking of Frank’s

July 4th means a lot of things: America’s independence, fireworks, patriotism, family cookouts and baseball among other things. It’s also the date of Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest. I started watching this spectacle, and it is a spectacle in the best sense of the word, several years ago and now I can’t miss it. It’s the Super Bowl and World Series all wrapped up in one tight, gastronomical package. The star of the show is a guy named Joey Chestnut. I’m sure you either know of him or have heard about his exploits. When you type his name into Google, it comes back with almost 28 million entries, so yeah, the guy is famous. He’s also incredible, really. He is to hot dog eating what UCLA was to college basketball from 1964 to 1975. In the 2021 contest he ate 76 dogs, buns and all, in ten minutes. I watched every minute with morbid fascination. I probably don’t eat 76 hot dogs in ten years, let alone in one brief setting.

We had a senior class high school party after graduation and part of it included a hot dog eating contest. I begged off, being well past my prime as a mass inhaler of food. When I went through my growth spurt at age 14, like most young men, I had a ravenous appetite. I once ate 24 slices of pizza in one setting. I devoured an entire pork roast in another, interrupted by my mom, who just wanted to get the supper dishes done. By 17, I was over the hill, save for one brief window as a college freshman when I downed 25 soft tacos at Taco Tico one evening. That was part of a four-man, 100 taco onslaught that left the Tico staff speechless.

Nowadays, I limit my gorging to donuts or margaritas, much to the dismay of my doctor. At the Class event, my friend Joel Kuchera won by downing something like 7 or 8 dogs in ten minutes, still an impressive feat. Joel’s dad, Paul, who passed away recently, was also single-handedly responsible for keeping me in baseball another year. One season, I played the same position as one of the coaches’ sons, so naturally I wasn’t getting much action. Late one game, I got a pinch-hitting opportunity and lined a ball between third and short. As I ran to first, I overheard Paul, who was umpiring that night, say, “that was a great hit”. That little bit of positive reinforcement was enough to make me come out the next summer, which ended up being one of the best baseball summers of my life. So, thank you Paul.

Chestnut, who’s not a particularly large man, is in another class of eater. He’s Babe Ruth, Dan Gable, Wayne Gretzky and Jim Brown of competitive eating all rolled into one. Chestnut has won the Nathan’s contest 15 times since he first entered in 2005. Impressive. But he’s not a one-trick pony. Chestnut also holds the Major League Eating record in 54 different categories including chicken wings (182 in 30 minutes), hard boiled eggs (141 in 8 minutes) and Twinkies (121 in 6 minutes).

Chestnut’s 76 dogs are somewhere north of 20,000 calories, in case you’ve been wondering. I often wondered what he did AFTER the contest ended. My guess, and this is strictly a guess, was that he would go somewhere private and vomit up his cache. Nathan’s officials hilariously call this “a reversal of fortune”. If that happens during the competition, an eater is disqualified. In a recent interview, Chestnut says after a contest, he retires to his hotel room, drinks some lemon water and takes a nap. He did admit that he sweats profusely after a competition and the sweat smells like, well, hot dogs. He says he feels normal after about two days.

The 2023 contest was delayed by rain and lightning for two hours. The Emcee of the event is a man named George Shea, resplendent in his straw boater, tie and blazer. Shea is a true showman, every bit as good as the very best WWE or baseball announcers. The contestants come from all over the world. Besides several from the states, there were competitive eaters from Canada, Japan, Australia, Nigeria and the country that made all of this possible, Britain.

One minute in and Chestnut has downed 11 dogs.

One dogger was a former nude model, another a retired pro wrestler. A third was a retired Kentucky State Trooper, who resembled the karate instructor in Napoleon Dynamite. One of the American contestants sported a red, white and blue mohawk and had his own cheering section of attractive female fans. That’s the way competitive eaters roll.

Two minutes in and Chestnut is at 20 dogs and beginning to pull away.

Chestnut hails from Westfield, Indiana, a leafy suburb of Indianapolis. His nickname is Jaws, and when you see him, you understand. He looks like a guy you’d like to have a beer with, but that jaw looks like he could unhinge it, like a snake swallowing larger prey.

Five minutes in and Chestnut has opened a sizable lead while downing 40 dogs.

When Shea introduced Chestnut with a long and eloquent screed, the crowd went wild. He’s the star of the show, the one the crowd has come out to see. Chestnut took the stage, looking intense. He’s jacked up for the event, like a heavyweight boxer stepping into the ring.

Eight minutes in and he’s at 54 dogs.

Chestnut’s eating style can best be described as vicious. He eats two dogs at a time followed by a bun which has been saturated in water. He eats with his eyes closed and rarely moves his hand far from his mouth. I’ve seen that look dozens of times in bars throughout the Midwest, a look that says, “stand back because whatever’s in my stomach is on its way up”. Yet Chestnut never has a reversal of fortune. He somehow manages to keep his enormous food intake down.

Chestnut finishes with 62 dogs, well ahead of the second-place finisher. It’s his 16th title. Afterwards, he’s in good spirits as Shea does the obligatory post-eating interview. Enjoy him while you can, because once he’s gone, it’s hard to imagine another of his caliber. As they say, ‘Merica.