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Pioneer League: Watch tomorrow's baseball stars today

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 1 2015 4:59 a.m. MDT

Prince Fielder #28 of the Detroit Tigers smiles in the dugout after hitting a solo home run, his first as a Detroit Tiger in the fourth inning during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park on April 7, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Leon Halip, Getty Images) Prince Fielder #28 of the Detroit Tigers smiles in the dugout after hitting a solo home run, his first as a Detroit Tiger in the fourth inning during the game against the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park on April 7, 2012 in Detroit, Michigan. (Leon Halip, Getty Images)

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.

Russell Martin #55 of the New York Yankees tags out Vladimir Guerrero #27 of the Baltimore Orioles at the plate in the fifth inning during a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 26, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Mitchell Layton, Getty Images) Russell Martin #55 of the New York Yankees tags out Vladimir Guerrero #27 of the Baltimore Orioles at the plate in the fifth inning during a baseball game at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on August 26, 2011 in Baltimore, Maryland. (Mitchell Layton, Getty Images)

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.

Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Corey Hart can't come up with a double hit by St. Louis Cardinals' David Freese during the first inning of Game 3 of baseball's National League championship series Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, in St. Louis.  (Charles Rex Arbogast, AP) Milwaukee Brewers right fielder Corey Hart can't come up with a double hit by St. Louis Cardinals' David Freese during the first inning of Game 3 of baseball's National League championship series Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, in St. Louis. (Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)

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.

Boston Red Sox's Marlon Byrd, bottom, slides into second after being forced as Baltimore Orioles' J.J. Hardy looks to throw to first during the seventh inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, in Boston, Sunday, May 6, 2012. Ryan Sweeney was safe at first.  (Steven Senne, AP) Boston Red Sox's Marlon Byrd, bottom, slides into second after being forced as Baltimore Orioles' J.J. Hardy looks to throw to first during the seventh inning of a baseball game at Fenway Park, in Boston, Sunday, May 6, 2012. Ryan Sweeney was safe at first. (Steven Senne, AP)

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.

Baggott says the Raptors' attendance supremacy could be challenged this year by the Grand Junction (Colo.) Rockies, formerly the Casper (Wyo.) Ghosts. During the offseason, they were purchased by the Colorado Rockies, who moved the franchise to Grand Junction, where they'll play in an 11,000-seat stadium.

Los Angeles Dodgers  pitcher Chad Billingsley throws against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009.  (Eric Risberg, AP) Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chad Billingsley throws against the San Francisco Giants in the first inning of a baseball game in San Francisco, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2009. (Eric Risberg, AP)

Ogden hosts Grand Junction in its season-opener on Monday night.

This year, the Raptors' theme is "It's Magical" — a play on the fact that former NBA superstar Earvin "Magic" Johnson is now part-owner of the Raptors' parent Los Angeles Dodgers' franchise. Baggott is hoping that "Magic" might make a special guest appearance at Lindquist Field this season.

And who could blame him?

After all, one of minor league baseball's favorite slogans is, "Watch the Stars of Tomorrow Today."

And when it comes to the Pioneer League's Raptors and Owlz, that slogan has certainly proven to be true, time after time.

email: rhollis@desnews.com

Ogden Raptors

Established: 1994

Home park: Lindquist Field (capacity 7,000)

Manager: Damon Berryhill (4th season)

Pioneer League championships: None

Last year: Won the first-half title in Southern Division, defeated Orem in first round of playoffs before losing to Great Falls in the league championship series. It was the second straight season the Raptors lost in the league championship series.

2012 season-opener: Monday vs. Grand Junction, Colo.

Orem Owlz

Established: 2001 (as Provo Angels)

Home park: Brent Brown Ballpark (capacity 5,000) on the campus of Utah Valley University

Manager: Tom Kotchman (12th season)

Pioneer League championships: 4 (2004, 2005, 2007, 2009)

Last year: Won second-half title in the Southern Division, lost to Ogden in first round of the playoffs

2012 season-opener: Monday at Idaho Falls

2012 home-opener: Thursday vs. Ogden

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