When Major League Baseball unveiled the All-Star Futures Game at Fenway Park in 1999, it was more a curiosity than anything else. Now, with the 15th edition of the Sirius XM just days away, it's clear the prospect exhibition is a mainstay of the All-Star festivities.
For those who have participated over the past decade and a half, it's been more than that. It's been a stepping stone, with 113 former Futures Gamers going on to appear in at least one Major League All-Star Game. In talking to the alumni who have played across the years, it's fairly clear that whatever they've gone on to accomplish at the highest level, that Futures Game experience is still etched in their memories.
The first edition of the event was way back in 1999 in Boston. That Midsummer Classic might be best remembered for the All-Century Team and the impromptu gathering around Ted Williams. But prior to that, a young shortstop from the Yankees put the Futures Game on the map. The game likely would have been a success even if Alfonso Soriano hadn't hit two balls out, but there's no question his effort helped quicken the acceptance of the contest.
"I was a little nervous because we were playing on a big league field," said Soriano, who has gone on to seven big league All-Star Games and was excited about Cubs prospect Arismendy Alcantara participating in this year's edition of the Futures Game. "I said, 'One day, I'm going to play in those ballparks.'"
The current Cub outfielder isn't the only one who remembers Fenway fondly. Lance Berkman didn't have much to show for his time at the Futures Game, but the chance to play on that stage is something that has stayed with him since.
"I think I was 0-for-3, but I remember Alfonso Soriano hitting two home runs," Berkman said. "I just remember it being a big deal right before the Major League All-Star Game. They were making preparations for that, and it was my first real exposure to the Major Leagues. It was the first time I played on a Major League field, and it was pretty neat."
That sentiment -- playing on a Major League field for the first time -- was echoed numerous times by former Futures Gamers. The big league stadium, a larger crowd than any of them had seen, playing on national TV, these were all things the Futures Game provided these young players for the first time.
|"Oh, man, it was fun. Just being in a big league ballpark for the first time. Coming from Stockton, California, and kind of what you picture Minor League baseball being, and then getting to go to Houston and going in a big league stadium with all of the big prospects. It was fun."|
|-- John Danks, 2004 Futures Gamer|
"It was unbelievable. That was the first time I played in a big league stadium, so just that alone -- with the fans packed in and the atmosphere -- was an unbelievable experience," said Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer, who played in the 2010 game in Anaheim. "It's the first taste you can really get for a Minor League guy to get that big league atmosphere."
"Oh, man, it was fun," said White Sox lefty John Danks, a 2004 Futures Gamer. "Just being in a big league ballpark for the first time. Coming from Stockton, California, and kind of what you picture Minor League baseball being, and then getting to go to Houston and going in a big league stadium with all of the big prospects. It was fun."
"For me it was the first time I was on ESPN, and my family watched from Venezuela," said Tigers right-hander Anibal Sanchez, who went to the Futures Game in 2005, ironically, in Detroit. "It was a really good experience, it was pretty amazing for the guys to be able to represent their country and the Latin world. It motivated all of the guys to make that game."
That's another recurring theme: motivation. That's no accident, either, with the Futures Game created, in part, to give prospects a little taste, dangle a carrot, of what could lie ahead for them should they stay on the right path. The message has resonated for the past 14 years and should continue to do so.
"That was your first glimpse of how it is to play in the big leagues," Padres right-hander Casey Kelly (2009) said. "It's kind of your first taste [of the Majors], and it makes you want to work hard to get to that point."
"It was an awesome experience, especially my first one in San Francisco," two-time Futures Gamer Elvis Andrus (2007, 2008) said. "Especially at that young age it helped motivate me more on my goal of getting to the big leagues."
Some cherish an outstanding performance. Soriano won the MVP in 1999. Shin-Soo Choo, who played in three Futures Game, has very vivid recollections of what he did in Detroit in 2005.
"It was awesome. I'm not really a home run hitter but my confidence really jumped," Choo said. "I had confidence that I could play in the big leagues soon."
It wasn't all heroics for Choo in that Futures Game. He remembers almost as fondly what the United States starting pitcher did to him in his first at-bat.
"[Justin] Verlander was pitching. He broke my bat on a pop-up," Choo said.
Choo isn't the only one who was bettered at some point in the Futures Game, though it didn't seem to sour anyone's overall take from their time on the big stage.
"My only memory from playing in it is first pitch I threw Joey Votto he hit a home run off me," Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz (2007) said. "I don't know if that's a good memory or just a memory, overall it was a great experience."
"I could have done without Alcides Escobar hitting a swinging bunt first at-bat of the game and I threw it in the stands," White Sox catcher Tyler Flowers (2009) said. "But other than that, it was a lot of fun."
Perhaps more than anything, it's the players they got to play with and against that Futures Game alumni like to reminisce about. Choo talked about being teammates with Felix Hernandez in 2004. Flowers was in a batting practice group with Pedro Alvarez and Giancarlo Stanton. Wil Myers raved about two Mets fireballers in his two years: Matt Harvey in 2011 and Zack Wheeler last year. Wilin Rosario of the Rockies also went twice and recalls playing against two young outfielders who've ended up being pretty good.
"I played in 2011 against Bryce Harper and in 2010, I played against Mike Trout. I knew they were going to be good," Rosario said. "Right now, you can see those guys are All-Star players."
Sometimes -- and this speaks to what the Futures Game has really been about -- it was just too difficult to pick out one or two standouts.
"Pretty much everybody," Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole said about the 2012 rosters. "Everybody threw 100. Everybody just raked too. So it was just a good collection of talent for sure."
"They all were special players, that's why they were playing there," Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas (2010) said. "Everyone looked like they were capable."