America’s Finest Climbers to Split Time on the Baseball Diamond? The Rise of the El Portal Craggers

Illustration and graphics by Lynn Suyeko Mandziuk.

With the recent runaway success of Sender Films “Valley Uprising” feature film and the iconic Tommy Caldwell/Kevin Jorgeson send of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall, rock climbing has never enjoyed the media spotlight like it has over the last couple years. Still, climbing remains a niche sport with a rebellious streak. No jerseys to sell, no multi-million dollar signing bonuses and no athletes to trade (with the possible exception of Chris Sharma to Spain).

Although, perhaps not. Thundercling recently received information of a secretive baseball club that has been playing in the shadows for the last couple decades. The El Portal Craggers, according to a recent secret transmission, have been challenging professional baseball clubs worldwide. The Craggers, built by Manager and former Stonemaster John Long and funded by a covert conglomerate, are rumored to be in talks with Major League Baseball. Insiders whisper that the team could join the Majors as early as next season, after completing their multi-thousand dollar stadium in El Portal, CA. Thundercling is proud to blow the lid on America’s newest all-star team, comprised of some of the best rock climbers the country has ever produced.

baseballdiamondlineup

Catcher

Tommy Caldwell

Catchers are the field generals of the diamond. Unequivocally, Tommy Caldwell has proven that he is the ultimate man to helm the ship of America’s premier team. To say that Caldwell does everything well seems to cheapen his excellence. At the plate he swings with consistent power, with scores of world-class boulder problems (V14, anyone?), sport climbs (ever heard of Kryptonite, 5.14d or Flex Luthor, an unrepeated possible 5.15a?) and trad lines to his credit (need we mention – again – the Dawn Wall, 5.14d?). More stunning than his deep ball threat, however, is the robust batting average he’s maintained throughout his Hall of Fame career. Caldwell personifies the rare transition from runaway phenom to seasoned veteran while maintaining a consistency at the plate. That he has spent his entire career in the workingman’s position of catcher testifies to his resilience and grittiness. Perhaps no other position on the field places more value in a knowledge of both the game and one’s teammates. Caldwell positively seeps trust and reliance. He toured the youth competition circuit with first baseman Chris Sharma, has traded bouldering burns with shortstop Daniel Woods, and ticked his most impressive ascents with fellow battery mates Kevin Jorgeson (Dawn Wall) and Alex Honnold (Fitz Traverse, 5.11d C1 65 degrees). His pitchers rave about the way he calls games, receives pitches and builds reliable plans for the toughest of opposing lineups. Backup: Josh Wharton

First Base

Chris Sharma

Chris Sharma burst onto the scene as a runaway Rookie of the Year in 1995, at age 14, when he won Bouldering Nationals and then, a year later, nabbed the first ascent of Necessary Evil (5.14c), then the hardest sport climb in America. Manager John Long, sensing a once-in-a-generation player, settled the slugger in at first base. He’s belted for power with iconic first ascents of The Mandala (V12), Realization (5.15) and the still unrepeated Es Pontas (5.15a?) and Jumbo Love (5.15b?). Sharma compliments his potent bat with a robust batting average. He’s equipped and authored hundreds of elite routes and boulder problems on nearly every continent. No slouch on defense, Sharma helps out his fellow infielders with a tremendous glove, scooping up errant throws and erasing errors. He shared burns on La Dura Dura (5.15c) with Adam Ondra, started a scholarship called the Sharma Fund with Yo! Base Camp Climbing Camps and has kept the majority of his futuristic projects open over the years. Backup: Jimmy Webb

Second Base and Shortstop

Alex Puccio and Daniel Woods, respectively

Athleticism reigns in the middle infield. Who better to bookend second base than Alex Puccio playing the bag and Daniel Woods at shortstop. Puccio and Woods bring acrobatic skills and a thrilling double play combination to the squad. This pair also has some pop in their bats. If National Bouldering Championships equated to batting titles, this duo would account for 18 in their young careers. Few are better suited for small ball than Puccio and Woods. They can bunt for runs, tag zingers to the alleys and dot the stadium seats with souvenir balls. Woods has travelled the world perfecting his game, authoring at least 11 V15s, not including the gem he FA’d during winter ball this season, The Process, a rumored V16. Puccio has crushed at least two V14s and seven V13s, most first female ascents. Multiply legendary work ethics to their already natural abilities and you’ve got a dynamic tandem that any team would be proud to have at the top of their lineup. Backups: Carlo Traversi and Matt Segal

Third Base

Ethan Pringle

Like many ballplayers on the El Portal club, Pringle has been rounding the bases since childhood. He emerged from the Minor Leagues as undefeated junior national and international champion from 1998 to 2001. He received a quick call-up to the Craggers. An adequate defender, Pringle truly shines in the batter’s box, scattering hits to all portions of the ball park. He’s hit his fair share of dingers, with sends of Wheel of Life (5.14d/V15) and fellow teammate Chris Sharma’s Realization (5.15a). Most surprising, however, was Pringle’s growth into one of the most versatile sluggers on the planet. He developed from a singular home run threat into a complete hitter, delving into the trad climbing game with quick dispatches of gear routes like Cobra Crack (5.14R) and China Doll (5.14a). Manager John Long notes nothing but positivity concerning his third baseman’s future. Pringle, 28, should be entering the finest years of his mega-contract with the Craggers. Backup: Rob Pizem

Left Field

Hayden Kennedy

Did Ken Griffey Jr. ever wonder how he could escape the shadow of his All-Star, World Series winning father? With 13 All-Star inductions and some of the greatest stats the game has ever seen, probably not. Hayden Kennedy is also the son of a fabulous talent, Michael Kennedy, a noted alpinist and editor-in-chief of Climbing magazine for three decades. Kennedy the younger, like Griffey, had no trouble finding his own identity. He roams left field like a spindly savant, running down balls with calculated angles. Kennedy is one of the best all-around hitters in baseball. He can bunt runners over, slap line-drives to the gaps and knock errant pitches into the stands. His versatility at the plate has seen him FA splitters in Indian Creek (Carbondale Short Bus, 5.14-), clip the chains on Rifle’s burliest 5.14s and claim the first “fair means” ascent of Cerro Torre’s infamous Southeast Ridge. Kennedy is the finest of a new breed of all-arounders who find solace in doing everything well. Backup: Emily Harrington

Center Field

Sasha DiGiulian

Centerfield is a hefty chunk of real estate to patrol. It’s a position that rewards speed when running down balls, fearlessness when charging the warning track and cunning to know each batter’s tendencies. Speed poses no problems for DiGiulian. She crashed onto the scene at age 13 when she climbed her first 5.13, a hint at big things to come. She would go on to become the first American woman to climb at a 5.14d level. Fear doesn’t seem a part of DiGiulian’s vocabulary, as she has effortlessly stepped out of the competition and sport cragging scene to more intimidating lines. She described her 2013 first female ascent of Bellavista (10 pitches of sparsely bolted overhanging terrain in the Italian Dolomites, 5.14b) as a “two-year dream.” She’s plenty cerebral out there in centerfield, as well, with a BA from Columbia University just around the corner. Backup: Jonathan Siegrist

Right Field

Dave Graham

Every team needs a high-energy prankster, the guy who fills a pie pan with shaving cream and smashes it into the hero’s face during a post-game interview. When Graham isn’t the hero himself he’s most likely to be the guy emptying Barbasol can into the pie pan. Don’t let his manic personality fool you, however. Graham comes to the park every day ready to swat the ball and steal opposing homers with awkward but effective leaps over the outfield fence. He’s nearly peerless in his quest for batting perfection. Graham has stalked the ball parks of our planet and left monster statistics in his wake. He has opened countless V14/V15 bouldering lines and bolted and established enough world-class sport climbs to ogle the eyes of the most hardened historian. Graham may not look like the prototypical hulking right fielder, with his odd batting style and lanky appendages, but he’s one of the finest ball players the United States has ever produced. And really, he’s always kind of been out in right fieldBackup: Joe Kinder

Designated Hitter

Pamela Shanti-Pack

Designated hitter is one of the most specialized positions in baseball. These sluggers are asked to bat for the pitchers, who couldn’t swing their way out of a wet paper sack. They are told to saunter up to the plate, waggle the wood and hack the hell out of the ball. Shanti-Pack is one of the most feared crushers in the game today. She has authored some of the most memorable and monstrous home runs in recent memory, with first ascents of offwidth torture-fests The Forever War (5.13R), Spatial Relations (5.13a) and The Event Horizon (5.13 C1). Notably, she’s led all of baseball in hit-by-pitches since joining the Craggers. She’s charged the pitcher every time. Backup: Kyle Dempster

Starting Lineup

Starting Pitcher

Kevin Jorgeson

Every ball club dreams of an ace like Jorgeson, a pitcher with the cunning and finesse of Greg Maddux and the toughness and power of a blood-soaked Curt Schilling. Jorgeson is a no-quit fighter that can see his way out of a bases loaded jam with ice cold nerves, a smooth delivery and utter command of three devastating pitches. He broke into the league with an overpowering fastball and cutter, rockets that allowed him hair-raising first ascents of Ambrosia (V11) and The Beautiful and the Damned (V14) and the second ropeless ascent of The Fly (5.14d/V14). Batters are a crafty bunch, however, and Jorgeson was forced into refining a compliment of pitches to overcome opposing sluggers. To the surprise of his own coaches, Jorgeson has perfected a knee-buckling curveball over the last decade. Mastery of the curve culminated in his epic send, with battery mate Caldwell, of the Dawn Wall. Rotation: Mason Earle, Paige Claassen, Jason Kehl, Angie Payne

Relief Pitcher

Alex Honnold

Game seven of the World Series. Bottom of the ninth inning, bases loaded, no outs. It’s the most pressure-filled situation in the world of sports. Someone has to come out of the bullpen to stop the bleeding, shut down the batters and yank the team back from the abyss. There’s only one person to call. Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold has proven himself as the most pressure-insensitive, clutch pitcher in the history of our great game. As his catcher Caldwell testified in New York Times Magazine, “He’s wired a little differently from everybody else. The risk excites him… That’s what makes him so good.” Honnold possesses deep talent coupled with an otherworldly belief in his pitches. He launches his fastball at over 100 mph (first ascent of super-highball Too Big to Flail, V10, and a second ascent of Jorgeson’s heart-palpitating Ambrosia), drops a 12-to-6 curveball (has sport climbed up to 5.14c), digs deep for a 90 mph slider (repeats of the world’s most intimidating big walls with speed and style, including Yosemite’s Triple Crown – Mt. Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome – in 18 hours and 50 minutes) and the best changeup the world has ever known (free solos of Moonlight Buttress, 5.12d, El Sendero Luminoso, 5.12d, Astroman and the Rostrum in a single day and Half Dome in 1 hour, 22 minutes). Honnold is the man you call on when the going gets rough. Set-Up Pitcher: Matt Wilder

Manager

John Long

John Long entered the Hall of Fame as a player after his impressive career came to an end. He’s poised to enter the Hall of Fame as a manager, to boot. His players adore his gruff attitude, the fans love his joviality in post-game interviews and the historians can’t get enough of the classic essays he pens during the offseason. As his skills ebbed in later life he became one of the game’s great thinkers, a Philosopher King playing a high stakes game with exuberance and joy. Bench Coach: Robyn Erbesfield-Raboutou

Bat Girl

Ashima Shiraishi

Remember Mo’ne Davis, the young phenom who grabbed headlines during last summer’s Little League World Series? Her fastball froze hitters in their spikes and elevated her to international headlines. Ashima Shiraishi, another youngster with towering potential, has proven herself in the Minor Leagues with statistics that usurp many of her Major League contemporaries. She has bouldered V14 and is the first woman and youngest person to climb a split grade 5.14d/5.15a. Still, you wouldn’t throw the diminutive Davis into the Pittsburgh Pirates pitching rotation at such a tender age. Similarly, Shiraishi needs to wait a few more years for the call up to El Portal. Batboy: Mirko Caballero

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