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OGDEN — What do Prince Fielder, Russell Martin, Chad Billingsley, J.J. Hardy and Corey Hart all have in common?
If you said they have all played for the National League team in Major League Baseball's annual All-Star Game, you'd certainly be right.
But those MLB performers all have something else in common as well: Their professional baseball careers began in Utah with a stint (or two) with the Ogden Raptors' franchise of the Pioneer League.
And they're not the only minor league franchise in the Beehive State that keeps producing Major League talent.
After all, there's that other "O-town" team down in Utah County where such current major leaguers as Howie Kendrick, Ervin Santana, Mark Trumbo, Casey Kotchman and Peter Bourjos all got their start playing for Orem Owlz, or with the Provo Angels before that. Kendrick and Santana each have an American League All-Star selection to their credit, too.
And many of those Owlz/Angels players have found themselves spending time playing Triple-A ball with the Salt Lake Bees (or Stingers) on their way up — or on their way back down — pro baseball's ladder.
There's no denying that many of the young ballplayers who have begun their pro careers with the Owlz or Raptors have displayed the ability necessary to climb that ladder all the way to the top.
After all, more than 60 former Raptors have already reached the major leagues, and nearly 50 former Owlz/Angels have done the same.
Of course, the Triple-A level is just one step below the major leagues, and when ballplayers reach the Pacific Coast League where the Bees reside, they've obviously shown the potential to someday play in the "Show."
But let's face it — that's not always the case with the Pioneer League, a short-season rookie league which, in the grand scheme of things, ranks near rock-bottom when it comes to professional baseball's food chain.
They've gotta start somewhere, and that's pretty much where it all begins for these young major league hopefuls. But, as you can see by the All-Star credentials compiled by those players listed here, it's definitely not where it all ends.
What's more, both of the state's Pioneer League entries play their home games in picturesque ballparks which both display Utah's scenic mountains just beyond their outfield fences — Ogden's Lindquist Field, regarded by many as the best view in all of baseball; and Brent Brown Ballpark in Orem, on the campus of Utah Valley University.
Kotchman is the son of venerable Owlz/Angels manager Tom Kotchman, who begins his 12th season at the team's helm on Monday when the 2012 Pioneer League campaign gets under way. He guided the Utah County franchise to four Pioneer League titles in his first 10 years on the job.
This season, they've got some fun promotions planned, including five fireworks nights; "No Soup For You Night" featuring Larry Thomas, who played the "Soup Nazi" on the legendary "Seinfield" episode; Dmitri Young Night, and a "bobblelimb" giveaway featuring the legs of Bourjos, the bat of Trumbo and the arm of former Owlz pitcher Jordan Walden.
Up in Ogden, where former major league catcher Damon Berryhill begins his fourth season as the Raptors' skipper, team president Dave Baggott is the undisputed master of promotions and gimmicks — among them this year is their "Invisible Skybox" — to get people out to the ballpark.
It's no wonder, then, that the Raptors have led the Pioneer League in attendance every year since 1997 and surpassed 2 million fans all-time last year.
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