The Force Was With Them

Saturday in Buffalo, a pair of American League all-stars — one continuing to defy time, the other overcoming injury — helped the Norfolk Tides to victory on Star Wars Night.

By Bob Socci

The doors of the visitor’s clubhouse open up to the wide hallway winding beneath the grandstand of Buffalo’s Coca-Cola Field.  Around the bend, before one reaches the batting cage usually occupied by hitters taking pre-game strokes at soft-tossed baseballs, a cast of players waits to take the field again.

They hold not bats, but lightsabers.  They wear not the double-knits of either the Norfolk Tides or Buffalo Bisons, but the garb of Jedi Knights.

A Luke Skywalker impersonator and the rest of this not-so-merry looking band of Star Wars re-enactors have been here since mid-afternoon rehearsals, arriving at the ballpark about the same time as the evening’s other attractions.

On Saturday, June 9 the Buffalo Bisons staged their 5th Annual Star Wars Night, assembling a cast of characters much like those pictured here at Coca-Cola Field in 2008.

Shortly after 6 p.m., and for the next two and a half hours, they intermittently traded places before a crowd of 15,513 — the fictional characters filling the lull between innings of a Triple-A baseball game.  All trying to prove themselves ready for prime time on a Saturday night, live from Buffalo.

Roughly 30 minutes earlier a ground ball off the bat of the Bisons’ Matt Tuiasosopo resulted in the final out of Norfolk’s 5-0 victory.  With all the scoring relegated to a single half inning, while the other 8 1/2 innings encompassed just five hits overall, Tuiasosopo’s final at-bat ended far too early for the final act of Star Wars Night.

It is still much too light out for a post-game fireworks show, scheduled to coincide with the climactic showdown between the Last of the Jedi and Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader.  Luke must bide his time before taking his final cuts.

Meanwhile, a few steps away, two figures dressed in black and orange tug at large elastic bands stretching from the stadium’s inner wall.  Each has plenty of experience confronting the Evil — if not ImperialEmpire, starring in a major league galaxy known as the American League East.  Not so long ago.  Not so far away.

For one, second baseman Brian Roberts, these strength exercises are a matter of fine-tuning.  He is here with the Tides, though officially as an Oriole.  Roberts remains on Baltimore’s disabled list, where he’s been since suffering a concussion in mid-May of 2011.  But after a series in Rochester, darting around the bases and diving on the infield, and a two-hit performance tonight, Roberts appears ready for a return to the O’s.

Jamie Moyer pitched 5.0 one-hit innings in a 5-0 win.

The same isn’t quite the case for his once-and-again double-play partner and the American League’s 2002 Most Valuable Player, Miguel Tejada.  Like Roberts, Tejada labors under the watchful eyes of Norfolk’s strength and conditioning coach Ryo Naito.  He joined the Tides a few weeks ago, emerging from apparent retirement after working out for the Orioles in Florida.  Tejada has mostly played third base since, though tonight he was at shortstop, where he was a six-time all-star in the big leagues.  His reactions with the glove have been sharp, his throws strong as ever.  Tejada even plays with the same energy of the 23-year-old rookie he was in Oakland, some 15 years ago.  But his swing lacks life, unable thus far to strike back at the advances of time.  Only two of his first 22 hits as a Tide have resulted in extra bases.

Tejada, though, is hardly the lone veteran here in Buffalo, playing the game he loves as prologue to Sci-Fi theatrics and post-game pyrotechnics.  He is, in fact, far from the oldest.  That would be his new 49-year-old teammate, and tonight’s winning pitcher, Jamie Moyer.

Twenty-eight years after debuting in professional baseball with the now-defunct Geneva Cubs in nearby Geneva, N.Y., Moyer completed the first five innings of this evening’s win.  Earlier this season his two victories for the Colorado Rockies made Moyer the oldest pitcher to win a major league game.  Released within the last week, he signed with Baltimore and joined an Oriole minor league affiliate for the first time since 1993.

Against the Bisons, the well-aged Moyer seemed his vintage self.  Spotting pitches ranging mostly from 70-to-80 miles per hour, he was matched up with a 22-year-old, Jenrry Mejia, throwing fastballs in the low-to-mid 90s.   Despite their different styles and disparate ages, the Coca-Cola Field mound isn’t their only common denominator.

Moyer and Mejia each pitches in June 2012, little more than a year after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive surgery.  But tonight the soft-tossing lefty refusing to yield to the end of the road got the better of the hard-throwing righthander still just starting out on his career path.

Eighty-five pitches by Moyer to 18 batters — three more than the minimum — included 52 strikes.  Five Bisons succumbed to strike three.  Of the three who reached base, including two by way of errors, only Raul Reyes produced a hit, a sharp single up the middle.  And only Reyes reached scoring position, advancing as far as second base.

When the same Reyes flied out to center fielder Nate McLouth, another ex-big league all-star, to end the fifth inning, Moyer left the mound one last time.  Already loosening in the bullpen was Brad Bergesen, who would surrender a meager infield single the last four innings en route to his first professional save.

As tempted as one (I) might be to invoke yet another bad pun, Bergesen following Moyer has nothing to with a central storyline of the original Star Wars trilogy.  Actually, tonight in Buffalo they are merely the warm-up acts before young Luke himself — or someone bearing a slight resemblance — completes the mission conferred on him by Obi-Wan.

Yet what rings as true, and as loudly, as the trumpets of a John Williams movie score, is the reality that on this night, in this place, the force is with them.

Following are pre- and post-game comments from J.C. Romero, the winning pitcher in Moyer’s Game 3 start for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2008 World Series; and manager Ron Johnson, discussing both Moyer and infielder Brian Roberts.

Norfolk Tide J.C. Romero on once-and-again teammate Jamie Moyer.

Tides manager Ron Johnson on Jamie Moyer and Brian Roberts

The Tides and Bisons continue and conclude their series with a pair of 7:05 p.m. encounters Monday and Tuesday.  Bob’s call of the play-by-play can be heard on www.espnradio941.com.

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