Several locations come to mind when considering the most fiery hotbeds of baseball: The Bronx, Brooklyn, Williamsport, St. Louis, Fenway Park, Los Angeles, Japan, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and San Pedro de Macoriss (D. R.).
But one center of both passion and excellence is usually overlooked: Trenton, New Jersey.
Since 2003, the Trenton Thunder have been the Yankees Double-A farm team, and on the passion side of the ledger, the 2006 Thunder became the first team in Minor League Baseball history to draw over 400,000 fans for 12 consecutive seasons at the Double-A level or below. Over the past 13 seasons, the Thunder has attracted more than 5.4 million paying customers.
As for excellence, past Thunder rosters read like a who’s who of current Yankee success. The list of Thunder veterans who appeared in Yankee uniforms during the 2010 season is impressive: Phil Hughes, David Robertson, Brett Gardner, Joba Chamberlain, Robinson Cano, Francisco Cervelli, Ivan Nova, and Alfredo Aceves.
Trenton is also where Yankee stars go, via the GWB and I-95, to get in a rehab game: Andy Pettitte this year, and in past years, Jeter, Matsui, Bernie Williams, Clemens and Kevin Brown.
Before the Yankees took over the operation, Trenton was a farm team of the Tigers and then the Red Sox. Accordingly, some other notable alumni include Kevin Youkilis, David Eckstein, Nomar Garciaparra, Carl Pavano, Tony Clark and Trot Nixon.
Looking to the future, Trenton is stocked with future Bronx players. Late in 2010, Baseball America magazine announced its prospect rankings, and for the AL East, 8 of the top 10 prospects played in Trenton in the last two years: catchers Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, third baseman Brandon Laird, infielder Eduardo Nunez, and several pitchers: Andrew Brackman, Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelos, and Hector Noesi.
In the past, this pool of talent would be considered primarily trade material to get big-league ready players from other teams, but it looks, for now, like the Yankees are looking to build from within, although some of these guys will still certainly be traded at some point, especially as their positions higher up the ladder are held down by the likes of Cano and Teixeira. But the rest is or will be open, especially in starting and relief pitching slots.