A Texas native, Bill Knight has been at the sports desk for the El Paso Times since 1979. Bill has seen it and covered it all in El Paso mainly focusing on baseball (both with the Diablos, El Paso’s previous minor league team, and the Chihuahuas) in addition to the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) college sports.
Bill is currently the beat reporter for the Chihuahuas and also covers most UTEP sports. On the occasional off day, Bill still covers boxing, golf, tennis, and pretty much anything he can drive to see. Bill was nice enough to spend a few minutes catching up with us.
MadFriars: As someone who has covered the El Paso sports scene for decades, how has the addition of the Chihuahuas and the Southwest University Ballpark changed the sports climate of El Paso?
Bill Knight: Obviously, it brought baseball back to El Paso, but it also brought entertainment back. When we lost the Diablos in the early 2000’s it was a tragedy. We got an Indy League club afterward, but that maybe drew 100’s of people a game and wasn’t nearly the same atmosphere.
The Chihuahuas have brought about a quality of life change that has given the people of El Paso something exciting to do during the summer. The ballpark, the video board, and all the entertainment between innings have really given people a reason to come to the park, and it has been a lot of fun.
Nationally, Southwest University Park has been in the running multiple years for best minor league park, what is it that makes it so endearing to fans and reporters alike?
Bill Knight: It is almost like a miniature major league park. It has its own design and feel that make it totally different from everything else in the minors and everything in El Paso that really makes it stand out. During the playoffs last year it got so loud that multiple players likened it to a major league park. It is just a great experience for fans from before first pitch until after the game ends.
I am sure the fact that the Chihuahuas keep winning also helps. A lot of the credit has gone to major Rod Barajas (now the Padres’ bench coach). As someone who got to be around him every day, what made him so effective?
Bill Knight: Like most managers, he is a baseball lifer. He eats, sleeps, and breaths baseball. I think between the fact that he is bilingual and can relate to many of the young Latino players, his long major league career, and him being a catcher, he commands himself in such a way that within a minute of meeting him you want to listen and learn from him.
One of the big things is that he doesn’t just want his players to succeed, but wants them to play hard. This El Paso team might not always beat the other team, but they will always out hustle them. He doesn’t have an issue with talking to a player or taking them out if he doesn’t think they are going all out all the time.
He also does a great job with managing all the addition and subtraction from San Diego. It is difficult losing your best player and then getting another player sent down who might not always be excited to be back in El Paso. Rob [Barajas] does a great job at taking them aside and talking to them to get them back into form and playing really well.
One of the players who played extremely hard every day was Luis Urias. I know fans in San Diego got to see him for a few weeks, but what about him stood out to you?
Bill Knight: Luis is such a solid hitter and he is solid in the field too. Urias and [Javy] Guerra were either first or second in the PCL in turning double plays. The thing that really stood out to me was his ability to barrel up the ball. So many hitters, especially against a good pitcher, will get fooled or hit the ball off the end of the bat. Not Luis. No matter who it was pitching you would hear that perfect sound of him barreling up the ball.
It did take him maybe a month to get adjusted to Triple-A and come into his own. Once he did, especially that last month of the season, he was arguably the best player in Triple-A.
Another player that joined El Paso almost at the same time as Luis Urias started to get hot was catcher Francisco Mejia. What can you tell us about him?
Bill Knight: I think Mejia was one of the reasons that Urias took off. The team was already great and adding someone of Mejia’s caliber, made El Paso almost unstoppable. It was really hard on the team when both of them got called up at the end of the season. He has such a strong arm behind the plate that the opposition run game almost screeched to a halt. I don’t want to throw the other catchers under the bus (Raffy Lopez and Brett Nicholas) but Mejia’s arm was one of the best I’ve ever seen. Offensively, he and Urias made such a dynamic duo that pitchers couldn’t pitch around either batter.
Do you think Mejia can stick behind the plate?
Bill Knight: I really like him. He has such a strong arm behind the plate, and he likes to show it off and throw behind runners at first. There were aspects of his game that he still needed to work on, but you can see the want to improve, and having someone like Barajas really helps. A good team is built up the middle and between him and Urias, they had the middle taken care of.
Javy Guerra being that other player up the middle?
Bill Knight: Well yeah. He and Urias were just great together. Guerra can really pick it and has such a smooth presence in the field. He will make amazing plays and shake it off like it was no big deal. His bat is another issue, so I’ll just say his glove is great.
Brett Kennedy in San Diego wasn’t what we expected, but when Kennedy was in El Paso he was the best starter in El Paso and one of the best in the PCL. What about him made him so dominant in a hitters league?
Bill Knight: Kennedy’s consistency was huge. He could throw strikes with any of his pitches and really kept hitters guessing what he was going to throw. He was just unpredictable when it came to his pitches, and that led to plenty of outs. None of his pitches were eye-popping but he pitched so well, that I can see him having a nice career as a back-end rotation guy in the majors.
I know you only got to see Logan Allen for a handful of starts, but did you see anything that makes him stand out?
Bill Knight: Yeah, for one of the youngest players in the league, Allen has a lot to like. Like a lot of players, he struggled with his location at times (13 walks in 27.2 innings), but his stuff was so good he was able to constantly pitch out of it.
I wrote a piece at the end of the season talking about how this year’s playoff team was so different from the others. In years past it seemed like they went into the playoffs with hitters and just enough pitching to get by. This year with the likes of Kennedy, Allen, [Cal] Quantrill, and [Luis] Perdomo.
Is there any player that really stood out to you this year?
Bill Knight: It might surprise a lot of people, but Javy Guerra was a bright spot with the progress he made. Lets not sugar coat it, he still had an awful season and struggled to hit .200 for most of the year, but after seeing him in El Paso for over a year, you could finally see improvements being made.
He was really trying to shorten up his swing and make better contact. By the end, he raised his batting average a good 30 or 40 points, and still hit for the same power. It might have been a bad season for him at the plate, but it was great for the people of El Paso, as they got to see a really great shortstop. If he was hitting close to .300 he probably would be a top prospect in baseball given his age and in San Diego. Instead, we got to see his smooth play in the field. We really were spoiled with it. Even if he is in another organization next year, that is someone who can stick in the majors on defense alone. He was fun to watch.
Do you have a favorite minor league team name?
Bill Knight: They sell minor league baseball as fun, and I think that’s why they have all these weird names. I remember when they first announced the new team in El Paso would be called the Chihuahuas, we knew they were a finalist, but I didn’t think there was a chance it would win. After it did we started interviewing people and everyone 15 and under were obsessed with the name. Clearly, these names strike a chord with the younger generation, and that is who baseball is trying to appeal more to.