By Kevin T. Czerwinski / MLB.comThat Lakewood plays in the Class A South Atlantic League has always been cause for some head scratching.
After all, the township is located near the Jersey Shore. So while the Atlantic part rings true, the only "South" that applies to Lakewood is that it's relatively close to the southern tip of New Jersey.
Fans of the BlueClaws had a more interesting topic on which to focus in 2002, however. That was the year when a 22-year-old slugger named Ryan Howard took up residence off Exit 89 of the Garden State Parkway, a spot where several key members of the 2008 World Series champion Phillies made their early marks as professionals.For the record, Howard didn't lead the SAL in homers or RBIs that season. What he did provide were some memorable moments for a fledgling franchise in its second year of existence. Howard slugged 19 homers and drove home 87 runs for a team that finished a game under .500 and in fifth place in the North Division standings.
When he returned to Lakewood for a Minor League rehab assignment in 2007, Howard made it clear he knew what the place meant to his career."It felt good to be back here for me," Howard said. "It's a little weird; it all started here."
Starter Cole Hamels also sewed the seeds of his burgeoning All-Star ability by the Jersey Shore. The 2002 first-round pick earned his first professional victory in Lakewood on May 24, 2003, ringing up 12 strikeouts over six innings to beat Lake County.
Perhaps Hamels' finest game in a BlueClaws uniform came on June 8, in the opening game of a doubleheader against Hagerstown. He pitched all seven innings, finishing with four hits allowed, no walks and a season-high 13 strikeouts.
Hamels made 13 starts for the BlueClaws that season, going 6-1 with a 0.84 ERA and 115 strikeouts over 74 2/3 innings before getting promoted to High A Clearwater.
After signing with the Phillies as a third-round pick and spending his rookie season in the New York-Penn League, J.A. Happ began the 2005 season in Lakewood. The left-hander didn't quite overwhelm the competition like Hamels did two years earlier, but he nonetheless made team fans take notice. Happ went 4-4 with a 2.36 ERA over 12 starts and two relief appearances, notching 70 strikeouts in 72 1/3 innings before a late-season promotion to Double-A Reading.
Catcher Carlos Ruiz also has ties to Lakewood. Signed as an undrafted free agent in 1998, Ruiz spent his first full professional season in Lakewood in 2001, posting a .261 average with four homers and 32 RBIs in 73 games.
So, while Lakewood may not truly be in the South, it is an established member of the South Atlantic League, thanks to the World Series participants who helped put the Phillies affiliate on the map.
Kevin T. Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.