It’s A Family Affair

The 1971 #1 single It’s A Family Affair by Sly and the Family Stone’s was about the highs and lows of family life. Playing on a professional baseball team is very much the same kind of experience. The 25 plus players, coaches, and staff on a team become a family over the course of the challenging and taxing 140 game minor league season.

Not only is the team a family, but the atmosphere that minor baseball franchises encourage is one of family fun. Team mascots, wacky or silly on-the-field promotions such as sumo wrestling or the dizzy bat race, and touring acts like the Cowboy Monkey Rodeo or Zooperstars are there to attract and create a family friendly environment.

It is not uncommon for professional baseball players to have bloodlines that come with baseball connections. The 2015 High-A Lynchburg Hillcats feature a handful of team members that have family connections to the game including two with the Indians organization, past and present.

The most prominent baseball family for the Hillcats is that of the Zimmer brothers, Bradley and Kyle. Kyle was drafted in the first round in 2012 by Kansas City and Bradley followed suit as a first rounder in 2014. With both being part of American League central organizations, their sibling rivalry may eventually be played out on the field one day when Bradley comes to bat against Kyle.

That matchup might still be a few years off, as Kyle just completed a rehab stint with the Low-A Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League.

When asked if there might be a chance of Kyle rehabbing with Wilmington and getting to face him he said, “He’s doing well now [at Lexington]. I’ve gotten to talk to him quite a bit. I think he’s going straight to Double-A or Triple-A.”

Kyle was indeed assigned, on July 2, to Double-A Northwest Arkansas of the Texas League where he pitched two perfect innings with five strikeouts. Since the Kansas City and Cleveland organizations don’t have farm systems that overlap, except in the Carolina League, the first batter – pitcher matchup between the brothers will have to wait till they are both in the major leagues, or at the very least next spring when they could face off in the Cactus League for spring training.

The second family connection on the Hillcats is found in the bullpen with reliever Justin Brantley. His uncle Mickey Brantley was a 2nd round pick of the Seattle Mariners in 1983, while cousin Michael Brantley (Mickey’s son), was a 7th round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers and is the regular centerfielder for the Cleveland Indians.

Some of Justin’s strongest memories about baseball come from when his uncle Mickey was the hitting coach of the Toronto Blue Jays from 2005 to 2007.

“He [Mickey] was hitting coach for the Blue Jays and getting to go there for a week, going on the field, to batting practice. This was partly the reason why baseball was always my dream growing up. It was motivation to get out on the field at that level.”

Signed as an undrafted free agent by the Indians after graduating from Sienna College in 2013, Justin has made the transition to working out of the bullpen and has posted a 1.83 ERA with 44 strikeouts to only 28 hits and 14 walks in 44 and 1/3 innings this season. He has been a reliable arm out of the Hillcats bullpen and his family connections have only helped him improve his game.

“I had a conversation with Michael a couple of weeks ago about a certain pitch I was throwing,” said Justin, “a two seamer. He told me his opinion, and it helped me improve my game.”

It is not just the communication but the work ethic and experience that has benefited Justin’s game.

“I actually go down there [Florida]. I live with Michael’s father (his Uncle Mickey) from January to Spring Training and I work out, throw with Michael every day. I’m picking his brain as much as I can; it’s strictly 100% baseball.”

It shows in Justin’s performance this season as he has already surpassed his innings total for a single season, is just three strikeouts shy of his career high, and is a perfect two for two in save opportunities.

“If it wasn’t for them [Mickey and Michael],” says Justin, “then I probably wouldn’t be in the situation I’m in today.”

The third member of the Hillcats with a familial tie to baseball is slugging first baseman Nellie Rodriguez. His father Nelson, for whom he is named, signed as a free agent with the Pirates organization. His single season, was 1985, where he played 61 games for Watertown of the rookie level New York Penn League, and three games for the Pirates team in the Gulf Coast League all as a third baseman.

This family history has motivated the young power hitting prospect as he exhibits the discipline needed to reach the major leagues.

“He has a chance to be an impact bat in the big leagues,” says hitting coach Bobby Magallanes. “For being so young his routines in batting practice and the cage are really mature.”

Much like his teammates Nellie has been around the game for as long as he can remember.

“I’ve been playing baseball since I was three.” he says. “My father had signed with the Pirates before I was born and I grew up around the game.”

That paternal influence is what also encouraged the Hillcats hitting coach, Bobby Magallanes to pursue his lifelong interest and participation in the game.

“It’s in our blood. We were born with that in us.” says Magallanes about his love of baseball. “Our dad was a big influence on our careers, hitting us ground balls, throwing to us when he got home from work, and then we just kept playing, little leagues locally, then college and then professionally.

Bobby’s brother Everardo (Ever) was selected by the Cleveland Indians out of Texas A&M University in the 10th round of the 1987 draft and eventually played three games at the big league level for the 1991 Cleveland club.

Bobby, the younger of the two brothers, was taken by the Seattle Mariners in the 50th round out of Cerritos College. He played professionally for twelve seasons, in the Mariners organization up to the High Class A level finishing with the 1992 Peninsula Pilots of the Carolina League (now the Wilmington Blue Rocks franchise). This was followed by nine years across the then fledgling independent baseball leagues, and the Mexican League.

“The speed of the game, it’s a little slower over there.” said Magallanes about his time playing in Mexico. “In Mexico it’s all about winning, no development. You’re going to see more trips to the mound, more delays, in the third inning you’ll see a lefty and a righty warming up in the bullpen.”

As his playing days were ending he was given the opportunity to go into the coaching side of the game and apply his knowledge and experience in a different capacity.

“It’s the players, being able to really impact their lives and their careers as baseball players and as men. To me that is the most gratifying thing.”

This is Magallanes first year in the Indians organization after having worked in first the Angels, and then the White Sox organizations since beginning his coaching career in 2002.

“When I came over to the Indians he [Ever] talked so highly of them from when he was a player. It’s been everything as advertised, such a great organization. Great people. That’s what makes this organization and I’m really blessed to be here.”

He still gets to see his brother on occasion, this year when the Hillcats made a trip to Winston Salem, as Ever Magallanes works as a roving instructor in the Chicago White Sox organization.

The final family connection on the Hillcats is held by Joe Sever who was recently promoted to AA Akron. The second baseman is the nephew of one time Yankees minor league outfielder and long-time Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway.

Sever is one of those players every team wants to have, a grinder who comes out to play hard each day and gets the most out of his skills.

“Joe is an RBI type of guy.” says Magallanes. “He’s one of the leaders, with Nellie, when guys are in scoring position. He has a short swing, stays up the middle and drives them in.”

All of the Hillcats with a family history in professional baseball exhibit it on the field in one way or another. Their excitement and love for the game is clear to the fans, and can be summed up in the words of Bobby Magallanes as he reflected on growing up playing ball together with his brother and father, “We’ve had that passion since we can remember.”

For all of these men it is their passion for the game that stands out and makes them a vital part of the Cleveland Indians organization.

David Freier was born in Brooklyn New York in 1966 less than a decade after the Dodgers had departed the very same borough. His first professional baseball game was at Yankee stadium and to this day he and his father still argue over who started for the Orioles that day (his father says Mike Cuellar, while he insists it was Jim Palmer). Being a lover of underdogs he naturally became a Mets fan. He grew up in Montclair New Jersey which had the advantage of being home to two baseball legends, Yogi Berra and Larry Doby, as well as having a local college which regularly held baseball card conventions that fed his baseball card hobby. While attending college at the University of Richmond he and some of his friends attended a Richmond Braves game in the then (1985) brand new Diamond stadium, and now home to the Richmond Flying Squirrels. This began what has become a passion for the minor leagues of baseball. During his 10 years as a Richmond resident he and his future wife developed an affinity for the Braves, especially when Richmond fan favorite Francisco Cabrera scored the winning run to knock the Pirates from contention and vault the Braves into the World Series of 1991. During extensive travels he has rooted for the Minnesota Twins, Minneapolis Loons, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs, Philadelphia Phillies, Erie Sea Wolves, Berkshire Bears and of course the Lynchburg Hillcats. To date he has visited over 110 different baseball parks in which he has seen a game. He joined the Society for American Baseball Research in 2000 and has been a member ever since, where he participates on the Biographical and Minor Leagues committees when time permits. In his day job he is an Associate Professor of Biomedical Science at Lynchburg College in Virginia.

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