Myrtle Beach Pelicans pitcher Cody Buckel
Editor’s Note: Shortly after the July issue of South Carolina Living went to press, pitcher Cody Buckel was called up to the Double-A Frisco Rough Riders. The former Myrtle Beach Pelican earned his first Texas League win July 4 on the road against the Arkansas Travelers by throwing six shutout innings and four strikeouts.
ON A SUNNY, BREEZY "THIRSTY THURSDAY" at Pelican Park at TicketReturn.com Field, fans of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans are still spilling inside the stadium as ace pitcher Cody Buckel delivers his first throw of the evening—a split-finger fastball, fouled off by the Carolina Mudcats’ lead-off batter, Tyler Holt.
It’s the first game of a mid-May double-header between the Single-A Advanced Carolina League rivals, and Buckel (pronounced Byoo-KEL) is coming off his second “Pitcher of the Week” honor of the season, having thrown a career-long seven innings the week before and leading the league with 41 strikeouts.
Lean and California-handsome, Buckel’s steely-blue eyes stare straight at Holt from beneath the flat brim of his Pelicans cap. He brings his glove to his stomach, kicks his left leg up, and fires another fastball, following through with his right hand down to his left hip and getting Holt to fly out to right field for the first out of the game. At 19, Buckel is both the Pelicans’ youngest player and the team’s hottest prospect for the major leagues. The Pelicans are a farm team for the Texas Rangers, and the big-league scouts are already comparing the right-hander to World Series-winning pitchers like Tim Lincecum and Roy Oswalt.
In fact, Buckel may not be in Myrtle Beach much longer, and that would suit the eager young pitcher just fine. Like all the players in the minor leagues, his ultimate goal is to play in the majors. Indeed, minor-league baseball teams are the very embodiment of the American Dream of upward mobility, as almost everyone working at the ballpark—the videographer, the announcer, the promotional director, the mascot, the head groundskeeper—wants to make it to “the show.”
“Obviously, I want to get to the big leagues as fast as I can,” Buckel says. He is sitting on a plastic fold-out chair inside the bullpen, two hours before the first game of the double-header, as Sublime’s “What I Got” blares on the loudspeaker and the visiting team finishes up batting practice. He discusses his aspirations with confidence, staring straight ahead as if focusing on a batter. “If it was in my hands, I would want to be in the big leagues this year.”
But only about 15 percent of minor-league players make it all the way to the majors, and even fewer enjoy sustained success. The Myrtle Beach Pelicans have sent their fair share of players to the show—Elvis Andrus, Jeff Francouer, Marcus Giles, Tim Hudson, Brian McCann, and even Tom Glavine, who pitched one game for the Pelicans on a rehab assignment.
Buckel is ready to add his name to that list, though he understands that process can be grueling.
“You got to work your way to it. But the goal is to get there as fast I can,” he says. “So far, I think, I’m on a pretty good pace.”
South Carolina’s minor league teams
Myrtle Beach Pelicans
League: Carolina League (Advanced A)
Affiliation: Texas Rangers
Ballpark: TicketReturn.com Field (seats 6,600)
Contact: (843) 918-6000; email@example.com
League: South Atlantic League (Class A)
Affiliation: New York Yankees
Ballpark: Joseph P. Riley, Jr. Park, aka “The Joe” (seats 6,000)
Contact: (843) 723-2641; firstname.lastname@example.org
League: South Atlantic League (Class A)
Affiliation: Boston Red Sox
Founded: 1977 (as Shelby Reds)
Ballpark: Fluor Field at the West End, aka “Little Fenway” (seats 5,700)
Contact: (864) 240-4500
League: International League (Class AAA)
Affiliation: Chicago White Sox
Founded: 1976 (as Charlotte Orioles)
Ballpark: Knights Stadium (in Fort Mill), aka “Knights Castle” (seats 10,000)
Contact: (803) 548-8050 ext. 2106
That pace seems to be quick in all things for the Simi Valley, Calif., native who was drafted by the Rangers right out of high school and earned a $450,000 signing bonus in the process. He excelled in his rookie season with the Hickory Crawdads, a lower single-A team in the Rangers’ organization, before advancing to Myrtle Beach this year. The buzz around the ballpark, however, has been that Buckel will likely get called up to finish the season with the Frisco Rough Riders, the Rangers’ Double-A team. His success, while potentially unfortunate for Pelicans fans who want to see him pitch all summer, will be welcome for Buckel.
“At each level, you’re getting closer to your dream—you’re getting closer to the big leagues,” he says. “You’ve got to be humble about it. Go up to the next level and continue doing what you’re doing and approach it like it’s the same game. It’s still on the same baseball field. The bases are still 90 feet, the rubber is still 60 feet, 6 inches. Obviously the talent’s a little bit better, but that’s just when you have to focus more and work harder.”
As he faces the second batter of the inning, Buckel starts working the plate with a combination of his six pitches—fastball, changeup, curveball, cutter, slider and a sinker/screwball combination (“It’s new to the repertoire, and I’m still kind of working on it.”). Buckel is, indeed, focused. Given all of the distractions around him, he has to be.
In tourist-centric Myrtle Beach, the Pelicans’ organization goes over the top with game-day promotions, rallying the crowd with a dizzying mixture of between-inning giveaways, French fry tosses, inflatable sumo wrestling matches, crowd noise competitions and lots of thundering music on the PA system.
“Almost every single night is opening night for us,” says Jen Borowski, the director of marketing and promotions. She is sitting inside her ballpark office, where discarded mascot heads and half-inflated beach balls are scattered over every available bit of floor space. “We have different fans almost every single night. We can’t have a let down—ever.”
“It’s all about making the memory,” explains Community Relations Manager Tyler Alewine, who also suits up for each game as Splash the Pelican. “For example, we lost 6–0 last night. But we got a letter this morning saying, ‘We were highly entertained, the food was good, the usher took care of us.’ Sports is really just making that memory.”
But for Cody Buckel and the other players, all this extracurricular spectacle—the dancing mascots, the Mario Brothers theme music blaring from the loudspeakers between batters, the barking hotdog and beer vendors, the ringing cell phones, the fans clutching dollar beers in the “Thirst Inning Deck”—are just distractions on the road to the show. Learning to deal with them, as well as off-the-field temptations that come with things like a huge signing bonus and a condo on the beach, is all just a part of preparing for the major leagues.
“I’m not a guy who goes out and drinks at the bar and tries to pick up every girl I see,” Buckel says. “I really just like relaxing, going out on a golf course, or just watching movies, playing on my iPhone, hanging out at the beach. There are distractions, but I don’t really worry about them.”
Winning isn’t everything
2012 ERA (as of June 18): 3.82 in 19 games (33 innings pitched)
High School: Loris High School
Draft: Texas Rangers, 30th round of the 2007 draft
BEN HENRY IS JUST THE KIND OF GUY you need to help pass the time in the bullpen—funny, gregarious, mustachioed and local. In fact, Henry is the only player from South Carolina on the Pelicans’ 26-man roster, having been drafted out of Loris High School, a half-hour’s drive from Myrtle Beach.
Selected by the Rangers in the 30th round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, Henry labored two seasons in the Arizona league and two seasons with the Short-A Spokane Indians. It was a difficult transition for a pitcher who helped his high school win a regional championship as a starter.
For the Hickory Crawdads last year, Henry struck out 67 batters and finished with the lowest ERA of his professional career at 2.38. Still, he wasn’t initially promoted to Single-A Advanced Myrtle Beach and broke camp in the Rangers’ extended spring training in the Dominican Republic. When Pelicans pitcher Ryan Rodebaugh was promoted to Frisco, Henry replaced him and made his way home to South Carolina.
Even if Henry, whose nickname is El Bigote (Spanish for “The Mustache”), may seem more like comic relief than pitching relief, he is serious when it comes to the game.
“We’re here to play baseball first,” he says. “My goal is to play in the big leagues. And Myrtle Beach just happens to be the one step towards that goal. So it happens to be at home. That’s good. But my main goal is not to pitch in Myrtle Beach.”
What he does worry about is the pitch count. On the mound, Buckel exhales visibly whenever he misses a pitch. He is focused entirely on winning. But coaches and managers in the minor leagues must often balance a desire to win games against the need to develop players and help them get a step closer to the show.
“Ideally, in a perfect world you try to do both,” says Pelicans Manager Jason “Woody” Woods. “First and foremost, it’s about development. It’s about getting these guys to understand and to learn the game professionally. Every one of these kids has talent, but the next step is to get to that double-A level.”
Double-A players are considered major league-ready, but to get them there means limiting pitch counts, tinkering with batting stances, worrying about injury and making sure they get enough time with the roving instructors that the Rangers send to all of their minor-league affiliates. Hopefully, if those things work, then the winning will take care of itself.
“I feel like when you do things that help the team, and you’re an unselfish player, you end up having success,” says Josh Richmond, the Pelicans’ right fielder.
But by the start of the Mudcats doubleheader, success for Richmond was slow in coming. The 23-year-old was in the middle of a hitting slump, getting only 16 hits in 102 at-bats.
In sharp contrast to Buckel’s meteoric rise, Richmond’s path to professional baseball has been rocky. After an injury-plagued college career at the University of Louisville, he was drafted in the 12th round, labored a season in Spokane with the Rangers’ Class-A Northwest League team, and put in a full season in Hickory before arriving in Myrtle Beach this year.
With a fiancée and a 13-month-old son helping him keep perspective, Richmond is staying positive—the most difficult thing to do in a slump.
“It’s definitely tough because you’ve worked so hard to be successful,” he says. “It’s a grind. But that’s what separates the guys who do make it from the guys who don’t. You have to be able to deal with failure. It’s almost more important to see what you can do with failure as much as it is to see if you can succeed. Because no matter what, you’re going to fail in this game.”
Bumps in the road
At every Myrtle Beach Pelicans home game there’s another athlete on the field who’s giving it his all, playing to the crowd and hoping to make it to the big leagues—Tyler Alewine, aka, Splash the Pelican. Between innings, Alewine is in constant motion, rallying fans, leading the on-field fan contests and firing T-shirts into the crowd from an ATV mounted CO2 cannon. Being a mascot is a physically demanding job with few opportunities for breaks. Every 45–50 minutes, “I’ll sit down and start mingling with the fans and catch my breath,” he says. “Then I’m running around again.”
Like the players, Alewine ultimately wants to take his side show to the majors—perhaps as the Philly Phanatic or the San Diego Chicken.
“My goal is to get there,” he says of the big leagues. “I love this organization, but if an opportunity came, obviously I would go.”
Richmond’s words prove prophetic when, just hours later, Buckel walks three batters to load the bases. His pitches are barely missing the strike zone, and he stares at the umpire for a half-second in disbelief after each called ball, inspiring a quartet of old hecklers in the stands to hurl insults at the official.
Brad Holman, the Pelicans pitching coach, calls time, and the infield gathers for a glove-muted huddle on the mound. It helps. Buckel gets the next batter to ground-out to the second baseman for the final out of the inning, narrowly escaping a bases-loaded situation.
Buckel—like his childhood friend, former UCLA standout, and first-round draft pick, Trevor Bauer—uses the “effective velocity” throwing technique developed by California pitching consultant Perry Husband. The idea is to make every pitch look like a fastball as it comes out of the pitcher’s hand.
“It just makes it difficult to pick up the pitches, difficult to put good wood on it, and that’s just what I aim for—weak contact,” Buckel says.
But in the second inning, there is nothing weak about the contact from Mudcats shortstop Ronnie Rodriguez. He blasts a homer over left field, clearing the “Thirst Inning Deck.” It is the first homer that Buckel has given up all year, and for a moment he hangs his head in frustration.
Twist of fate
Fortunately for the Pelicans, baseball is a game where twists of fate and ironies abound. When Josh Richmond steps up to the plate in the bottom of the second, he breaks his slump and ties the ballgame with his third homerun of the season—a solo shot over left field.
Later in the game—after Buckel has given up a season-high four walks and has left with a no-decision after five innings—Richmond walks to get on base, eventually scoring the winning run in the first game of the double-header. He is grinning as he crosses home plate, mobbed by his teammates before they walk back to the clubhouse for a half-hour break between games.
The rest of the ballpark, meanwhile, still thrums with energy. Fans mill around, arguing with vendors about the end of dollar beer sales at 8 p.m. College coeds debate on whether to stay or to cross the street and go clubbing at Broadway at the Beach. Splash the Mascot and the entire promotional team hurry to gather and organize their cache of microphones and props. The grounds crew spreads out across the infield, watering the base paths.
Everyone knows, after all, that another baseball game has to be played. Everyone knows that to get to the show, the show must go on.