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May 4, 2007 – Atlantic League Season Preview Extravaganza May 3, 2007

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2007 Atlantic League Preview
by Mike Ashmore

Ten Years. Wow.

The Atlantic League went from a start-up league that nobody knew about in 1998 to what’s widely considered to be the best independent league in the country in 2007.

With just a handful of players with Major League experience scattered throughout the league back then, the fact that more roughly a quarter of the players on current Atlantic League rosters have big league time should not be overlooked.

No less than 47 players who’ll be stepping between the lines this year have set foot on a big league field.

This season looks to be one of the best in league history, so let’s take a look at each team’s chances to bring home the hardware this year.

South Division

Somerset Patriots

2006 Record: 65-61

Manager: Sparky Lyle
Pitching Coach: Brett Jodie
Hitting Coach: Kevin Dattola

Key Additions: Danny Garcia, Josh Pressley, Michel Hernandez, Noah Hall, Anton French
Key Returns: Jeff Nettles, Mike Lockwood, Dave Elder
Key Subtractions: Ryan Radmanovich, Hector Almonte

(Democrat Article)

When the Somerset Patriots take the field tomorrow night to kick off their tenth season, the focus should be on the 25 players that are in uniform.

Unfortunately, that might not be the case.

Instead, some people will be talking about a team that lost two-fifths of their starting rotation — Josh Stewart and Tony Mounce — before the season even started.

Others yet will be talking about the club whose best outfielder, big league veteran Adrian Brown, didn’t show up either thanks to personal problems.

But the one thing everyone is certain to be talking about is the loss of slugger Ryan Radmanovich, with the Canadian-born outfielder leaving the team after four seasons to play closer to his family in Edmonton.

In his three and a half seasons in a Patriots uniform, “Radman” won two championship rings and hit a franchise record 87 home runs. He hit over .300 in his last two seasons, and his OPS was a whopping 1.040 in his final season.

“You can’t replace a guy like that,” said former Patriots captain Emiliano Escandon. “He was a part of some of the biggest moments the Patriots have had. He’ll live on forever there.”

Unfortunately for Patriots Director of Player Procurement Brett Jodie, he built the team under the impression that Radmanovich would be there, and didn’t find out until “two weeks or so before Spring training started” that he was accepting the offer of the Edmonton Cracker Cats, a team in the independent Northern League.

Perhaps the most irreplaceable player in all of independent baseball, Jodie scrambled to sign two outfielders midway through Spring Training. For a look at the players you will see on the field when Somerset takes on the Newark Bears tomorrow night, here’s a preview of this year’s team by position.

Starting Pitchers: Brian Reith, Andy Van Hekken, Chris Rojas, Brian Adams, Dave Elder

Elder

Reith, Van Hekken and Rojas were always supposed to be a part of the rotation. Elder, who finished last season in the rotation was initially penciled in as the team’s closer, while Adams went from having an uphill battle to make the team to their fifth starter.

Van Hekken was Somerset’s Opening Day starter last season, but Elder will get the nod this year. Going into the season, the starting rotation seemed to be the team’s strongest area, with four Major Leaguers anchoring the fab five. With the unexpected departures of Mounce and Stewart, what was once a strength is now a weakness, and now just two players with big league experience remain.

Keith Ramsey is also a possibility here, but the southpaw had not agreed to return to the team as of press time.

Bullpen: Casey Cahill, Jason Anderson, Saul Solveson, Sam Marsonek, Phil Norton, R.D. Spiehs, Jason Richardson

Norton

Jodie, who also serves as the team’s pitching coach, has a strong bullpen on his hands. Unfortunately, there may be a closer by committee situation with Elder currently in the rotation. Norton may be the leading candidate to pitch the ninth, but is one of just two lefties in the pen, so the team may want to use him as a specialist instead.

Catcher: Michel Hernandez, Travis Anderson

Hernandez

While the starting rotation appeared to be team’s strength going into this year, the catching tandem of Anderson and Fernando Lunar was the flavor of the month last season.

Anderson hit .248, and Lunar was even worse — hitting at just a .193 clip during an injury-plagued 2006 campaign.

All in all, Somerset ran through six different backstops last season, and got very little production to show for it.

Former Yankees catcher Michel Hernandez was brought in to start after Brian Peterson was quickly inked by the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, and Jodie is confident in his ability considering he’s pitched to him during their days as teammates in the New York organization. Anderson will return, but not as the everyday catcher.

Infield: Josh Pressley, Danny Garcia, Teuris Olivares, Jeff Nettles, Todd Leathers

Garcia

If the starting pitching was supposed to be the strong suit of this year’s team, then the infield must be the group that will take over that title.

The corner infielders are comprised of Pressley, a highly recommended first baseman with a 26 home run season under his belt just two seasons ago, and Nettles, who returns for his fifth season at the hot corner.

Garcia is the only former Major Leaguer of the group, and the ex-Met will hold down second base while Atlantic League veteran Teuris Olivares will play short.

Leathers, who hit .263 with 14 home runs and 67 RBI for the now-departed Atlantic City Surf last season, will see time at first base, outfield and at designated hitter.

Outfield: Mike Lockwood, Jose Morban, Anton French, Noah Hall

French in 2004 in the Blue Jays organization (Ashmore photo)

Lockwood

While it’s not a bad problem to have, it’s still a problem none the less. The Patriots have four everyday outfielders and only three positions to put them at.

Lockwood hit .336 with six home runs and 15 RBI for the Patriots in 2006 before leaving for Taiwan shortly before the All-Star break and did not participate in Spring Training with the team. He’s likely slotted for right field.

Both Morban and French were brought in late, and although Morban was a shortstop during his stint with the Baltimore Orioles in 2003, he is expected to be used as an outfielder. French’s best attribute is his speed, and he will play either left or center depending on where Hall is used.

Hall is another speedster with Triple-A time, and team officials are very high on him.

Morban appears to be the odd man out, but if either Hall or Garcia are picked up by an affiliated club as is expected, he would have an opening in both the infield and the outfield.

Utility: Pat Boran, Elliott Ayala

Boran has spent the past two seasons with the Patriots, and can play pretty much anywhere. With the depth the team has with position players, both he and Ayala may have a tough time getting regular at-bats.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

(Democrat article with online exclusive players and extended profiles)

Scott Aldred, RP, 2003-04

Now: Pitching coach in the Yankees organization

Then: Scott Aldred brought nine seasons and 229 games worth of Major League experience to Somerset when he first signed in 2003. While some former big leaguers don’t have what it takes to stick in the Atlantic League, the southpaw clearly wasn’t one of them.

He went 3-1 with a 1.85 ERA in 20 appearances as the Patriots closer, and got picked up at age 35 by the Boston Red Sox organization. Despite posting even better numbers for their Double-A affiliate in Portland, the club chose not to re-sign him and he returned to Somerset for 2004.

“I always tell people that Somerset was one of the finest places I played at during my career,” Aldred said.

After retiring after the 2004 All-Star Game, Aldred took a year off and then became a pitching coach in the Yankees organization for the 2006 season, working with the Single-A Charleston RiverDogs.

After a successful year there, Aldred was promoted to Double-A Trenton, where he’ll spend his 2007 season.

Sparky Says: One of the reasons we brought him in was that he was a smart pitcher, he knew how to pitch. I think he’ll be a good pitching coach, because he knew how to set up guys — he was always thinking out there.

Ken Arnold, INF, 1998-99

Now: Actor in the Maryland/Washington, DC area

Then: Ken Arnold was a popular middle infielder during the team’s first two years of existence, getting his chance with the Patriots after striking up a friendship with Sparky Lyle back when the Somerset skipper owned a batting cage facility in southern New Jersey.

With Arnold being a part of the Patriots team that played exclusively on the road in 1998, he enjoyed having the opportunity to come back in 1999 and be a part of the true Somerset experience.

“Once we got a new stadium, you saw the difference,” Arnold said. “It was great to not be booed every time you stepped up to the plate.”

Following that season, Arnold retired and was looking for a new challenge.

“I was sitting on the couch watching a soap opera, and I thought I could be as bad as those guys,” he joked.

A few headshots and an acting class later, and he was hooked. His credits range from an appearance on HBO’s “The Wire,” to playing a cop during a World Championship Wrestling event in Maryland, “arresting” Diamond Dallas Page and getting “roughed up” by Ric Flair and Scott “Big Poppa Pump” Steiner.

Arnold, who also works behind the camera from time to time, recently filmed “Tomorrow Is Today” at the Jersey Shore, where he played the father of a dying girl — his most dramatic role to date.

Sparky Says: He was an absolutely phenomenal glove man. He couldn’t hit (very well), but he knew it. But he’s one of those guys I’d put in there every night, because he’s going to win more games with his glove than he’s going to lose with that bat. I’d say that he and Emiliano Escandon are two of the finest glove men that have ever played on this team.

Kirk Bullinger, RP, 2001

Now: Pitching coach at The University of New Orleans

Then: One of the first players the Patriots sent back to the big leagues, Bullinger appeared in just two games for Somerset in 2001 before being signed by the Chicago White Sox.

“I only spent about six days there,” Bullinger said. “It was a short-lived stay, but it was an interesting one at that.”

While the Atlantic League experience isn’t what the former Red Sox pitcher was accustomed to, he still managed to find some familiar faces during his brief appearance in Somerset.

“I ran into guys I’d played with in the past,” he said. “DaRond Stovall was there, and Darrin Winston was someone I’d played with in winter ball.”

Born in New Orleans, the 37-year-old now makes his home in nearby Metairie, just 10 minutes away from Lakeview and 20 minutes away from the 9th Ward, areas both devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

“The canals backed up, and if you were in the wrong spot, you were in trouble,” said Bullinger, whose home did receive some moderate damage.

“We had about 18 inches of water, it just sat there,” he said. “By the time we got to it, there was heavy mold and a lot of things were ruined.”

But, like many residents of the area, Bullinger and his family have recovered, and he recently joined The University of New Orleans as their pitching coach.

Online Extra: Bullinger talks about giving up #68 to Mark McGwire

During the magical season of 1998, many pitchers were victimized by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

Bullinger was one of them, with Big Mac’s 68th home run being the first he gave up in his Major League career.

“It continues to come up, but it’s not a big deal. I’m not ashamed of it,” he said.

McGwire had already taken starter Dustin Hermanson deep in the fourth inning, so Bullinger knew what he was getting into when he was brought in to face McGwire in the seventh.

“He was about as hot as you could possibly be,” Bullinger said.

“You should have seen the pitch he hit out of the park, it’s not like I made a bad pitch or anything.”

Bullinger appeared in 45 Major League games during his career, and have up seven more home runs. But none as famous as the one on September 26, 1998.

“Guys on the team will joke about it and ask me how far it went,” he said.

Sparky Says: That guy, he never should have been here. And sure enough, a few days later and he was gone. Either somebody wasn’t doing their job, or was trying to cover their (butt) or something like that, but that’s how guys like that slip through the cracks. It would have been an absolute shame if he had nowhere to go.

Photo Collage: Mike Ashmore

Robinson Cancel, C, 2003-04

Now: Catching in the Mets organization, shuttling between Double-A Binghamton and Triple-A New Orleans

Then: Widely regarded as the best backstop the Patriots have ever had, the former Milwaukee Brewer emerged as one of the leaders on the 2003 championship team.

He was the catcher of choice for the entire pitching staff, and is still remembered among those familiar with the team for calling a great game.

“It’s just knowing the pitchers and knowing the hitters,” said Cancel about his prowess behind the plate. “Just figuring out how to make adjustments as quick as you can against all different teams.”

Since leaving the Patriots in 2003 (he had a brief, forgettable stay with the team at the end of 2004 — setting a new team record for errors with five in the last game of the season), Cancel has played in the Devil Rays and Cardinals organizations, reaching Triple-A with both.

After a stay in the independent United League last season, the 31-year-old now finds himself in the Mets organization, backing up in Double-A Binghamton.

“I signed here as a free agent and went down for Spring Training, but I wasn’t playing a lot so they sent me down here,” he said.

Kevin Dattola, OF, 2000-01

Now: Entering his first season as the Patriots hitting coach

Then: Dattola was one of the best outfielders Somerset’s ever had, hitting .288 with 34 home runs and 162 RBI over his two seasons with the Patriots.

“I started 2000 in Mexico, but I had some people tell me about Somerset, so I ended up signing with them,” Dattola said. “I was looking for that last shot of getting a shot in at least Triple-A or a big league camp.”

Unfortunately, that wasn’t in the cards for Dattola, but he was a key component on the team that brought Somerset their first championship in 2001.

“To be able to bring a community together and play a good brand of baseball at what we felt like was a high level, it was rewarding,” he said. “And to win a championship and go out on your own terms, it’s special.”

Following his retirement after that season, Dattola became a roving hitting instructor in the Texas Rangers organizations for two seasons, and then went on to become the hitting coach for the New Jersey Jackals of the independent Can-Am League.

Once Liam Healy resigned as Somerset’s hitting coach after last season, the 39-year-old became the obvious choice to replace him. Dattola will become the first former Patriot to serve as the team’s hitting coach, working on Sparky Lyle’s staff after two seasons of playing for him.

“Playing for him was playing for any other manager,” Dattola said. “You always knew where you stood with him. I don’t expect anything to be any different now.”

Sparky Says: He was a class guy, he played hard. He was a smart player, he knew what he was doing up there. I’m glad that he’s back, he’s one of the guys that would always be welcome here. I’m anxious to work with him, and I think the players will benefit from him.

Emiliano Escandon, 2B-3B, 2001-05

Now: Instructor at Zoned Baseball Academy

Then: The only captain the Somerset Patriots have ever had, Escandon is the only player to have all three championship rings the franchise has earned.

Primarily a second baseman, Escandon’s career had a storybook ending, winning his final championship in his final game in professional baseball.

“The last one, I knew that was going to be the last game I ever played,” he said. “Going out on top is a great feeling.”

The California native also enjoyed the best year of his personal life, marrying his wife Theresa in November of 2005. The couple now make their home in South Bound Brook, just a line drive away from the stadium he called home for five years.

“Off the field, you couldn’t ask for a nicer guy,” said Kevin Dattola, his teammate in 2001. “It would be hard not to like Emiliano, he played hard and he worked hard.”

Now, Escandon works at Bridgewater’s Zoned Baseball Academy, helping a lot of kids who’ve watched him play throughout his career.

“Baseball’s given me so many opportunities, so to have the opportunity to pass on all the skills I’ve learned is very rewarding,” he said.

Sparky Says: I couldn’t even tell you how big he was to these teams. He was another one of those guys that was always going to be welcome here. If he wanted to play here 10 years, he could have. It’s a nice thing to look back on to know that I had a chance to get to know a player like Emiliano.

Kirk Griffin, RP, 2001-03

Now: Police officer in Morris County, works in the D.A.R.E. program

Then: The former Cardinals farmhand was one of the most effective relievers the Patriots have ever had, going 13-7 with a 3.71 ERA in 138 games with Somerset over his three-year stay with the club.

“My first year in 2001 was the most fun season of baseball I ever had,” Griffin said.

He picked up the win in Game Four of the Championship Series that season, holding the Newark Bears scoreless for 2.2 innings in the famous extra-innings contest.

“When I came to Somerset, it was win at all costs,” he said. “Everybody was there to win, and Sparky managed to win.”

After winning another championship in 2003, Griffin retired and started to look for a job on the police force, putting his degree in criminology to good use.

“I look at it the same way as I did baseball,” Griffin said. “In baseball, you’d show up every day and have a good time with your teammates. It’s the same thing with the police department, there’s a lot of teamwork and camaraderie there as well.”

An officer in the D.A.R.E. program, “Griff” credits his experience as a player for helping his message get across.

“They all know what the Somerset Patriots are, so it makes it a little more important,” he said. “They look up to athletes, so it’s not just coming from a police officer. It’s definitely an ice breaker, it helps.”

Kirk is married to his wife Jessica, and the couple has two children; Madison is two, and Avery is six months old.

Sparky Says: He was very effective, especially when you brought him into tight situations. He was phenomenal when he was here, and the only reason he didn’t get signed was probably because he was way under six feet and his arm strength wasn’t where it could have been. But he knew how to pitch, I couldn’t wait to bring him into games.

Shane Heams, RP, 2004-05

Now: Back in Michigan, helping his father restore classic cars in his spare time

Then: Heams was brought in for the 2004 season to stabilize the bullpen, and he did just that, going 6-2 in 36 relief appearances for that club.

But his 2005 season is what Patriots fans will remember most, with the events of August 30th going down as Heams’ favorite moment in a Somerset uniform.

Having found his way into the rotation due to injuries, the righty spun six no-hit innings against the Long Island Ducks, leaving to a standing ovation after coming out for the seventh inning.

“That was an awesome feeling, you don’t get to experience something like that too often,” Heams said.

Following the 2005 Championship Series, Heams retired from professional baseball, frustrated at not being able to be picked up by an affiliated team after two successful Atlantic League seasons. Even so, he has nothing but fond memories of his team with the Patriots.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said. “We always had a good bunch of guys and really good fans.”

Luis Lopez, 1B/DH, 1999-00, 2003-04

Now: International scout for Japan’s Rakuten Eagles

Then: Lopez played parts of four seasons for the Patriots, mixing in stints in Japan inbetween.

However, he was originally planning to play in Taiwan during the 1999 season.

“Had I known things were this good in Somerset, I wouldn’t have traveled 100 hours to go there,” the Brooklyn native said, instead choosing to make a 45 minute drive to the ballpark on a daily basis.

The versatile former big leaguer hit .304 in his Patriots career, winning a championship with Somerset during their magical 2003 season.

“There were a lot of good guys on that team,” Lopez said. “As the season went on, we just got better. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, winning a championship is winning a championship.”

After an unsuccessful attempt to play one more season with Somerset, he took several years off to spend time with his family before eventually returning to work for a team in Japan, where he was literally surrounded by thousands of fans on the streets when he was there as a player.

“I just wanted to get back into baseball, and I thought scouting would be a good way to do that,” he said.

Luis now makes his home in New Jersey, and travels to Triple-A and Major League games on scouting assignments. He also heads out to Japan every few weeks to work with some of their players, and may consider coaching with a team over there in the future.

Sparky Says: He was a good hitter, and he was very, very strong. He was always thinking up there, he would get the pitcher to throw him his pitch. He had a big impact on all the guys who played here for the few years he was here, because he was the kind of guy that would just sit down and talk with you. When you can sit down and talk about hitting or pitching or whatever the case may be without trying to help somebody, that’s big. He could hold their interest.

Rob Luce, RP, 2000, 2002-03

Now: Realtor and investor in Arizona

Then: It looked like Rob Luce wasn’t going to have a chance to reap the benefits of the Patriots winning a championship every odd year.

That all changed in 2003.

Originally slated to pitch in the Canadian Baseball League that year, Luce was without a job when that league folded. One phone call later, and he was back in a Patriots uniform for the first time in a year, when he went 4-2 in 38 appearances for Somerset.

Suffice it to say, he had no problems coming back.

“The whole organization from top to bottom is very well managed,” Luce said. “I was happy to help out.”

Even though he pitched in just 10 regular season games, he was out there for the most important pitches of the season, closing out the Nashua Pride in the deciding fifth game of the Championship Series.

“I was on the mound for the final out when we won it all,” he said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”

Luce now lives in Arizona with his wife Jessica, and their two-year-old son.

Rob Lukachyk, OF, 1998-99, 2001

Now: Assistant General Manager and Vice President, Somerset Patriots

Then: Just two years removed from a brief stay in the big leagues with the Montreal Expos, and Jersey City native Rob Lukachyk needed a place to play. Enter the Somerset Patriots.

“I really didn’t know that much about independent leagues at that time,” Lukachyk said. “Back in 1998, they were really just getting started, other than the Northern League. It was either that or stay home and get a real job, so I really wasn’t hesitant about coming.”

After a season of playing on the road, Lukachyk was a part of the team that opened Commerce Bank Ballpark on June 7, 1999.

“There was so much energy here for that, it was great,” he said. “We didn’t give them a win, but just the excitement that was building up was amazing. The first night was packed, there were fireworks afterwards and skydivers and everything like that, it was awesome.”

In fact, the 38-year-old lists hitting the first home run at the stadium as his greatest moment in a Patriots uniform.

But after his days in uniform were over, Rob Lukachyk needed a place to work. Again, enter the Somerset Patriots.

“Baseball’s all I know,” Lukachyk said. “The front office was something that I started thinking about later in my minor league career, I wanted to be able to stay around the game. (Former GM) Dave Gassaway and (team owner) Steven Kalafer were looking for someone for a sales position, and were interviewing for it, and I knew my career was going to end. Eight years later, and I’m still here.”

Sparky Says: He was a great player, he really was. He was the backbone of this team when he was here. I’ll never forget the day he ran into that wall, I’ve never seen anybody run into a wall like that in all my years. He ran into that wall face first, full speed, and he knew it was there. That hurt him, it hurt him bad. That was the beginning of the end for him, but that was the way he played the game. He was definitely one of the best players that’s ever been here.

Rick Steed, SP, 1999-2001

Now: District Manager for Snyder’s of Hanover in Tampa, Florida

Then: Following his 1998 season with the Mets, Rick Steed decided to play in Taiwan the following year.

But being that far away from home, he was missing out on being a dad, thousands of miles away from his wife and their infant son. So Steed called his friend Ricardo Jordan, a pitcher for Somerset from 1999 to 2002, and the then 28-year-old righty was in Patriots red, white and blue a few days later.

He compiled a 17-20 record over three seasons with Somerset, but his final season is what he’ll remember the most.

“That was the most fun I’ve ever had in baseball,” said Steed of the Patriots 2001 championship team.

“They knew what they had to do to get ready, and everything just fell into place for everybody. We probably didn’t have the best or biggest name players that year, but I don’t think anyone on that team ever gave up.”

Following his retirement after the 2001 playoffs, Steed became an independent distributor for the Snyder’s of Hanover snack company. After being promoted to a management position, he now finds himself supervising the entire Tampa district.

Steed now lives in Clearwater, Florida with his wife Lisa and their two sons; nine-year-old Casey and five-year-old Justin.

Both of his sons are into baseball, and they don’t have to look very far for a great pitching coach.

Brian Traxler, 1B, 1998-99

Now: Passed away on November 19, 2004

Then: Brian Traxler was one of the first Major Leaguers to come to the Atlantic League, having appeared in 11 games with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1990. He got his only big league hit on May 10th, a double off of Dennis Martinez.

Traxler was a fan favorite wherever he went, and the Somerset Patriots were no exception. The roly-poly first baseman hit .251 with 17 home runs and 87 RBI in two seasons with the Patriots.

“Traxler was one of the most popular players to ever put on a Patriots uniform — an absolute fan favorite,” general manager Patrick McVerry said back in 2004. “Brian was a memorable character to fans and an early identity for the team. He may not have looked like your typical athlete, but he truly was a great ballplayer.”

A notorious drinker, Traxler went into a coma and passed away two weeks later on November 19, 2004 in San Antonio, Texas.

Sparky Says: I think he was the best pure hitter we’ve ever had here. I remember (former Patriots GM Dave) Gassaway calling me and saying, “I’ve got this guy, and he really doesn’t look like a baseball player.’ which was true, but he really could swing the bat. The guys absolutely loved him, and he was a great defensive player too. He was a guy I would have loved to see get back to an organization.

By the time he left here, I think he was too far gone. I don’t think he cared about himself or anything else at that point. And that was a damn shame, it really was. When I heard that he passed, I was really upset about it, because I knew why he died.

Michael Warner, OF, 2000-03

Now: Works at Enterprise Rent-A-Car in West Palm Beach, Florida

Then: After a two-game stint with the Atlantic City Surf, former Braves farmhand Michael Warner was traded to the Somerset Patriots. Little did they know at the time that he’d become the driving force behind their first two championship teams.

His 2001 season ranks among the best in not only Patriots history, but in the history of the league as well. He hit .351 with 17 home runs and 103 RBI, and his on base percentage (.469) and walks (87) that season are still Patriots records.

However, an off-the-field moment is what fans remember most that season, as Warner made an emotional, profanity-laced speech after the team went down two games in the best-of-five championship series that was captured in the award-winning documentary, “Bottom of the Ninth.”

“I’ve been on teams where we were in similar situations, and you could look at everyone’s faces and you knew we were done,” Warner said.

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t have won the next three anyway, but something needed to be said.”

His 2001 season earned him a 2002 contract with the Oakland Athletics organization, where he was sent to Triple-A. But in what was ultimately his last chance in affiliated ball, he struggled and eventually returned to the Patriots to finish out the season.

Warner returned the following season, but suffered a shoulder injury diving for a ball that would eventually end his career after the year.

“I wish I could still play, but my body wasn’t going to let me,” he said. “And I wasn’t going to look like a fool.


Sparky Says: He was so instrumental in winning the championships that we won. He was a great, clutch player. Good in the clubhouse, too. (His clubhouse speech) was totally out of the blue, that was so unlike him. He never said a word, so to have that in “Bottom of the Ninth” was just priceless.

Camden Riversharks

2006 Record: 61-65

Manager: Joe Ferguson
Pitching Coach: Dick Such
Hitting Coach: Brad Strauss

Key Additions: Ramon Nivar, Brad King, Craig Paquette, Angel Pena
Key Returns: Denny Abreu, Chris Fussell, Dwight Maness
Key Subtractions: Lino Connell, Mark DiFelice, John Pachot

Starting Pitchers: Ryan Costello, Mark Ion, Greg Powell

Powell is a very underrated starting pitcher in this league, and could surprise some people this year. Ion will also likely be in the rotation, and I’ll be curious to see how he does as a full-time starter.

Bullpen: Caleb Balbuena, Brendon Davis, Bryan Edwards, Chris Fussell, Aric Leclair, Ramon Linares, Kevin Walker, Kelly Wunsch

Fussell

Fussell will be the closer, but all the other roles appear to be up in the air. Chad Bentz was originally brought in to compete for a spot as the set-up man, and at worst would have been used as a lefty specialist, but he was sent home during camp and could return later in the season.

Wunsch and Walker will likely fill the lefty specialist role.

Catcher: Brad King, Randy McGarvey, Angel Pena

Don’t be surprised if the Riversharks carry three catchers. Don’t be surprised if it isn’t these three, either. Pena will likely see very little time behind the plate, if any. He might get a little time at first, but is probably best suited as a DH.

King is a very solid backstop who has improved by leaps and bounds since his stay with Somerset in 2004. Not a lot gets said about McGarvey, but his teammates love his work ethic.

Infield: Cristian Berroa, Matt DeMarco, Omar Garcia, Ramon Nivar, Craig Paquette, Brad Strauss

Nivar

The late acquisition of Garcia — originally signed by the Revolution, assigned to the Road Warriors and then shipped to Camden — gives the Riversharks the true first baseman they needed.

Paquette will be an interesting story to watch. He hasn’t played professionally in a few years, and it should become pretty clear pretty soon whether he’s a guy with a legitimate chance to get back to the bigs or a guy who should have stayed on his couch.

Outfield: Denny Abreu, L.J. Biernbaum, Dwight Maness, Justin Singleton

The fact that Abreu didn’t get a sniff from affiliated ball after the season he put together last year is a shame. If he can even come close to replicating the numbers he put up in 2006, there’s no reason he should finish the season in Camden.

While the team knows exactly what they’re getting in Maness, Biernbaum and Singleton are somewhat of a mystery…and yes, Biernbaum’s been there a while. Singleton, son of former Yankee Ken Singleton, has struggled at the higher levels of the game and could have a tough time in the Atlantic League against some of the veteran pitchers here.

Camden looks like a vastly improved team from last year, where they got out of the gate with a dismal 28-35 first half.

The Riversharks bullpen seems to be their strong suit, with former big leaguers Kevin Walker and Kelly Wunsch slated to set up returning closer Chris Fussell, himself an ex-Orioles hurler.

Angel Pena suits up for the Riversharks for the first time since 2003, when he terrorized the Atlantic League to the tune of a .338 batting average with 16 home runs and 66 RBI in just 63 games.

Losing staff ace Mark DiFelice will hurt, but they still have enough starting pitching to make them a serious contender for the playoffs in 2007.

Brad Strauss, who also serves as the team’s hitting coach, seems confident that the Riversharks will be a contender this season.

“You never know what you’re going to get until you go out there and play, but I like the team we have right now,” he said.

Camden may not have the biggest names in the league, but that doesn’t seem to worry him.

“The most talented team we ever had was the first year I was here, and we were horrible,” he said. “We had a lot of big league guys, and we just didn’t gel very well as a team.”

“The team that goes out and hustles day in and day out is the best team. You have to have talent and you definitely have to have pitching, but the manager that gets the guys to play the hardest — those are the teams that play well.”

2007 Projection: Playoff team

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Creighton Gubanich, C, 2002

Now: Owner of All-Star Baseball Academy in Downington, PA

Then: Three years removed from the biggest moment of his career, Creighton Gubanich needed a job.

“I knew Wayne Krenchicki from when I played against him in the minors,” Gubanich said.

Camden had a spot for him, and the former Boston Red Sox backstop joined the Riversharks in 2002.

“At times, it was as good as Triple-A, and sometimes it was like A-Ball,” he said. “But for me, baseball is baseball. There were a lot of guys I’d known from playing with and against them in the minors. It was a good experience, I can’t say anything bad about it.”

After being released by the Reds organization the following season, Gubanich again looked to return to Camden, but the team had no spots so he instead went to Atlantic City.

But back in 1999, Gubanich was the toast of Boston when he became just the fourth player in Major League history to hit a grand slam for his first big league hit.

Initially, he was just happy that his second big league start was coming against his former organization, the Oakland Athletics.

“It gave me a chance to catch up with some guys I’d played with, like Jason McDonald and Jason Giambi.”

McDonald even joked that he’d take it easy on a fly ball to get him his first hit.

The Red Sox loaded the bases and the stage was set for Gubanich’s chance to make history.

“It was my fourth at bat of the season, and I was already 0-for-3,” he said. “I was up there thinking ‘alligator arm it, let it go through whatever, just let me get that first hit.'”

Jimmy Haynes was on the mound for Oakland, and got behind to Gubanich, who eventually worked it to a full count.

“As I was rounding first, about a million things were going through my mind. McDonald had a beat on it, and I remember thinking ‘You son of a bitch, you said you’d drop it!'”

But it carried over his glove, and Guby became a cult hero when he came back to Fenway Park.

“I wasn’t Nomar, I wasn’t Pedro, I wasn’t any of those guys,” Gubanich said. “I could just sit at the bar and have a drink and nobody would bother me. But when I came back from Oakland, everybody knew who I was since it was all over ESPN.”

That stay with the Red Sox was the only time he’d reach the big leagues, but he credits his manager for giving him his only chance.

“I learned a lot up there,” he said. “Jimy Williams give me an opportunity when he didn’t have to. He could have went with two other guys that were in camp that had big league time.”

Now, Gubanich operates All-Star Baseball Academy in Downington, PA. He credits his Major League experience in helping him market himself and his baseball lessons, which he’s always done.

They run camps, clinics and also offer private instruction. In addition, Guby coaches a travel team and also helps out at Downington East High School.


Lancaster Barnstormers

2006 Record: 75-51

Manager: Frank Klebe
Pitching Coach: Rick Wise
Hitting Coach: Glenn Murray

Key Additions: Dario Delgado, Bo Hart
Key Returns: Jeremy Todd, Quincy Foster, Lance Burkhart, Josh Stevens
Key Subtractions: Reggie Taylor, Jose Ortiz

2007 Projection: Playoff team

Starting Pitchers: Clayton Andrews, Brett Evert, Rob Henkel, Gustavo Martinez, Scott Sobkowiak, Josh Stevens

While certainly not the biggest name on the list, it’ll be Henkel who gets the nod on Opening Night when the Barnstormers try to become the first team in the Atlantic League history to win back-to-back championships.

Andrews isn’t expected to join the team until a few weeks into the season, but Sobkowiak’s return to the rotation could be the key to the Barnstormers getting a good start.

Bullpen: Eric Ackerman, Derrick DePriest, James Lira, Jason Norderum, Ross Peeples, Todd Pennington, Manny Vazquez-Santiago

Typical of the Barnstormers, there are no big names to be found here. But, to borrow from Lancaster New Era writer Jason Guarente, it could be “Lira Time” at the Barn. Lira will be the team’s closer, and could emerge as a somebody out of a group of unknowns, just like Scott Patterson did in the role last season.

Catcher: Lance Burkhart, Jeremy Deitrick, Manny Santana

Burkhart and Santana may very well be the best catching tandem in the league. Both are solid backstops who call a good game, but not much is known about Deitrick — who many thought wouldn’t even make the team out of camp. While an Atlantic League team carrying three backstops is somewhat of a rarity these days, he wouldn’t be there if they didn’t think he could play.

Infield: Rene Aqueron, Dario Delgado, Danny Gonzalez, Bo Hart, Jeremy Todd, Steve Van Note, Mike Woods

Hart

Todd

This is a pretty filthy group right here. Todd is the leader of the bunch, and could easily smack 30 balls out of the yard this season, if not more. Delgado also brings power to the table, whil Gonzalez and Hart more than stabilize the middle infield.

Outfield: Quincy Foster, Jutt Hileman, Chris Van Rossum, Clyde Williams

Losing Reggie Taylor to Mexico means a huge power outage in the outfield, but Williams could certainly have something to say about that. He opened some eyes with the Surf last season, and the Barnstormers are lucky to have him.

The return of the popular Foster also shouldn’t be overlooked, as his speed can create nightmares for the opposition.

The Lancaster Barnstormers are bringing back 16 players from last year’s team, and it’s really hard to argue with that strategy considering they won their first championship in 2006.

One key component who won’t be returning is Tom Herr, who managed the club for their first two seasons before agreeing to take over a team in the Washington Nationals organization.

Frank Klebe, the team’s bench coach for the past two years, was promoted to manager and appears to be running a tighter ship this season in preparation for what would be the first successful defense of a championship in league history.

Losing slugging outfielder Reggie Taylor to Mexico is a huge hole to fill, but the addition of former Atlantic City Surf star Clyde Williams was certainly a step in the right direction.

York Revolution

2006 Record: Expansion Team

Manager: Chris Hoiles
Pitching Coach: Tippy Martinez
Hitting Coach: Ryan Minor
Baserunning Coach: Al Bumbry

Key Additions: Peter Bergeron, Tike Redman, Matt Dryer, Wayne Franklin
Key Returns: N/A
Key Subtractions: N/A

Starting Pitchers: Ryan Baerlocher, Matt Ford, Dave Gil, Wayne Franklin, Adam Thomas

Franklin is the likely candidate to get the Opening Day nod, and is also a likely candidate to be the first player on the Revolution to get picked up.

Ford is another player people will have their eyes on in that department as well…

Bullpen: Chris Cooper, Charlie Hesseltine, Matt Hirsh, David Maust, Jason Olson, Chris Steinborn

Their bullpen may actually be a strong suit since Hesseltine, Olson and Steinborn all have experience facing Atlantic League hitters.

Olson specifically is a very solid guy out of the bullpen who could occasionally make a spot start if called on. Last year with Somerset, he proved he was healthy after multiple arm surgeries and was one of Sparky Lyle’s most reliable options in relief for the entire season.

Catcher: Fleming Baez, Greg Brown, Russ Cleveland, Luis Taveras

Simply put, catching is a gigantic question mark for the York Revolution. Baez has yet to step on American soil, and the other three have had a tough time hitting for average.

Infield: Rayner Bautista, Luis Cotto, Matt Dryer, Nate Espy, Vic Gutierrez, Travis Hake, Willie Matos

The slogan says that you can’t leave home without a visa, and since Bautista apparently can’t, it looks like the beloved Hake may be a starter after all.

Dryer is a hard-working kid who can play anywhere you put him, and he should endear himself pretty quickly to Revolution fans with his work ethic and hustle.

Espy may be the key to the whole puzzle, a lot of people are curious to see if he can translate his power numbers into Atlantic League success.

Outfield: Peter Bergeron, Travis Ezi, Darin Kinsolving, Tike Redman, Kazunori Tanaka

They have Bergeron, Redman and…well, it gets a little cloudy after that. Bergeron and Redman are pretty much the same player, except Redman’s defense is probably a little bit better.

As long as both are comfortable with the fact that only one can play center field, there shouldn’t be any problems. I’d assume Redman will get the nod there…

Atlantic League expansion teams have a history of performing poorly, and the York Revolution appear to be no exception.

With a roster that appears to be a step below other teams in the division, delays in stadium construction certainly won’t help matters either. Originally slated to be ready for the start of the season, York’s Sovereign Bank Stadium now won’t be ready until June 15th. As a result, many of the team’s first scheduled home games have been moved to Camden.

On the field, there are more questions than answers. The starting infield is solid, and they have two Major League-caliber outfielders in Peter Bergeron and Tike Redman. The problem with those two is, they both pretty much do the same thing — play center field and do it well — so it’ll be curious to see who gets the nod on Opening Day.

If this team can uncover some surprises in their pitching staff and keep up their strong play in Spring Training, they might have a chance to make an impact in the Atlantic League playoff picture.

2007 Projection: Out of Playoffs

SPECIAL FEATURE

Here’s To You, Mr. Robinson
by Mike Ashmore

(Democrat Article)

Before he was first ballot Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson in Baltimore, he was an unknown, 18-year-old kid named Bob Robinson in York.

Well, sort of.

Fresh out of high school, Robinson signed with the York White Roses in 1955 and arrived for his first game late in the contest.

Nobody knew who he was, not his teammates, not his manager and as the story goes, neither did the P.A. announcer.

“The announcer just saw B. Robinson, and in the first game I ever played, I was announced as Bob Robinson,” said Robinson with a laugh.

After being named to 15 All-Star games, winning 16 Gold Gloves, bringing home the 1964 American League MVP, 1966 All-Star Game MVP and 1970 World Series MVP honors, it seems pretty safe to say that he won’t have the same problem the next time he sets foot there.

After previously serving as a Special Assistant to the President in Lancaster, Robinson became a part-owner in Opening Day Partners (ODP), which also own the Camden Riversharks and expansion York Revolution franchise.

“We think it’s the right fit,” said ODP principal owner, Jon Danos. “When you talk about changes to ownership, you never take these things lightly. But Brooks reputation and his knowledge of the game speak for themselves.”

Celebrating their tenth anniversary this season, the level of play in the Atlantic League has continued to improve since its inception in 1998, a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by Robinson.

“After watching a few games, I’m really impressed with the caliber of play I’ve seen out there,” he said.

“There’s several independent leagues out there, but I think the Atlantic League does the best job.”

York’s proximity to Robinson’s old stomping grounds in Baltimore haven’t gone unnoticed either, with the four-man coaching staff comprised entirely of former Orioles.

Chris Hoiles will manage the team, with Ryan Minor serving as hitting coach, Tippy Martinez as pitching coach and Al Bumbry as the baserunning and bench coach. Each have strong ties to Baltimore.

Hoiles was a catcher for 10 big league seasons in Baltimore, Minor famously replaced Cal Ripken, Jr. to end his consecutive games streak, and Martinez and Bumbry were teammates on the 1983 Orioles team that won the World Series.

“We wanted to make it an Orioles theme more than anything else,” Robinson said. “And we succeeded there, all these guys have Baltimore connections.”

With ODP expected to introduce the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs for the 2008 season, Robinson’s ties to the area will come to good use once again.

“Brooks has been very helpful with our Southern Maryland franchise,” Danos said. “He’s been in meetings with various legislators and politicians and can help describe the quality of baseball in the league.”

Until then, Robinson will probably be most visible in York, where their new ballpark is set to open on June 15th. And even when he’s not there, he’ll still be there, so to speak, with a statue of the baseball legend to be erected outside of the stadium.

“York was the place where I first started, I have a lot of friends there,” he reminisced.

It’s safe to say that he’ll have more friends than he knows what to do with once the Revolution begins in York this season.

North Division

Bridgeport Bluefish

2006 Record: 75-49

Manager: Tommy John
Pitching Coach: Brian Warren
Hitting Coach: Terry McGriff

Key Additions: Albie Lopez, Junior Spivey, Nick Ortiz
Key Returns: Brian Boehringer, Sean Fesh, Bobby Darula
Key Subtractions: Steve Hine, Deivi Cruz, Barry Wesson, Gary Burnham

Starting Pitchers: Matt Beech, Brian Boehringer, Albie Lopez, Jordan Pals, Mike Porzio

Nobody’s really been talking about the Bluefish’s starting rotation, but they should be. There’s four Major League guys here, although Lopez is the only one new to the league.

Lopez has had a pretty shaky past couple of seasons, so he’ll certainly have some observers interested in whether he can use the Atlantic League to turn his career around, just like so many others before him have done successfully.

Bullpen: Garrett Berger, Evan Fahrner, Sean Fesh, Steven Kent, Franklin Perez, Eddy Ramos, Justin Sturge

Fesh will likely close here, although Ramos has proven himself as a solid Atlantic League closer in the past as well. However, he also a propensity for taking inopportune trips to Mexico during the season, so they’d might as well just have Fesh as the guy.

If Berger can catch lightning in a bottle and show the form that got him drafted in the second round just six years ago, he could be a dominating force for Bridgeport.

Catchers: John Nathans, Tommy Rojas

This could be a bit of a weak point. Rojas is the likely starter here, and although he showed some versatility with Somerset last season, he’s not an ideal everyday backstop.

Nathans is viewed more as a utility player than anything else, so I’m curious to see how much tme he gets behind the plate.

Infield: Angel Espada, Jay Caligiuri, Luis Figueroa, Jesse Hoorelbeke, Milko Jaramillo, Nick Ortiz, Junior Spivey

Can Nick Ortiz hit out of his mind again this year? Or will his numbers return to Earth? The thing about career years is that you only get one of them, so the team will likely look to Spivey for production in the middle infield.

Spivey was a nice signing for Bridgeport, but you’ve got to wonder why he slipped through the cracks of affiliated baseball. Not everybody that’s in the Atlantic League belongs there, but they all got there for a reason.

Outfield: Shaun Boyd, Bobby Darula, Bobby Malek, Jeremy Ware

Darula’s return is a welcome one for Bluefish fans, and Ware has shown he can hit at the higher levels of the game.

Malek ran out of time in the Mets organization, but he has shown the raw tools to impress some people while he was there.

The Bridgeport Bluefish had the best record in the Atlantic League last season under their new manager, Dave LaPoint.

But fans weren’t coming to the ballpark, and the team couldn’t translate their regular season success into the franchise’s second Atlantic League championship.

So Tommy John, winner of 288 Major League games, was brought in this off-season to lead the Bluefish both on and off the field. The signing received a lot of positive publicity, which is something that Bridgeport could certainly use.

But what remains to be seen is how the team will perform on the field this year, especially in their first year under the direction of Baseball And Sports Associates (BASA), which will be staffing four teams in the league this season.

Albie Lopez has more big league time than nearly anybody in the Atlantic League, and the 2001 World Series Champion looks to anchor the Bluefish rotation.

Spivey is also a nice addition to Bridgeport, as he was a Major League All-Star at second base just a few years ago.

2007 Projection: Out of Playoffs

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Matt Stark, DH, 1999

Now: Director, International Performance Baseball and International Scouting Supervisor for the Seattle Mariners

Then: After reaching the big leagues briefly as a catcher with the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays, Stark bounced around the various levels of baseball and the various countries in which it’s played.

After spending the majority of the season in Mexico, he wanted to play a little closer to home, and hooked on with the Bridgeport Bluefish for the final month of the 1999 season.

“The month I spent there was outstanding,” Stark said. “I have nothing but positive things to say about that experience.”

While he was there, he got to play for Willie Upshaw, who was a former teammate of his from their days with the Blue Jays.

After helping the Bluefish win their first and so far only championship, Stark went back to Mexico as a player/manager for the 2000 season, and then officially retired before the 2001 season.

In 2002, he became the Triple-A hitting coach for the Florida Marlins, and spent three years with their organization before joining the Mariners.

He plays a key role in International Performance Baseball, who recently held a World Free Agent Spring Training camp.

“The objective was to get players signed, and we were able to get 14 players signed to various leagues,” he said.


Long Island Ducks

2006 Record: 73-53

Manager: Dave LaPoint
Bench Coach: Don McCormack
Hitting Coach: Kevin Baez

Key Additions: Carl Everett, Jorge Piedra, Danny Graves, Edgardo Alfonzo, John Halama
Key Returns: Todd Erdos, Pat Ahearne, Donovan Osborne, Pete Rose, Jr.
Key Subtractions: Juan Gonzalez, Richard Hidalgo, Pat Mahomes, Bill Pulsipher

Starting Pitchers: Pat Ahearne, James Garcia, John Halama, Randy Leek, Donovan Osborne

Osborne will be the Opening Day starter, and Ducks fans know exactly what he can do, since he got picked up after a short stay there in 2005. Ahearne returns for another year of Atlantic League service, but a lot of fans are excited about the addition of Brooklyn-born Halama. He was just in the show last season with the Orioles, and split 2005 with the Red Sox and Nationals.

Bullpen: Tim Cain, Todd Erdos, Danny Graves, Ben Grezlovski, Kevin Mannix, John Riedling, Kevin Tolar, Travis Wade, Mark Watson

Graves

If you don’t score on the Ducks in the first seven innings, tell the driver to warm up the bus and tell the clubbie to pack the bags, because the game is absolutely over. Long Island has a ridiculous 1-2 punch of Todd Erdos and former Major League All-Star Danny Graves, but how long those players will last remains to be seen. Unfortunately, Erdos’ chances of getting picked up are likely slim, but he did leave for Taiwan last season. Graves is a much better candidate to get signed by an affiliated team, and if he’s truly been throwing the ball as well as he supposedly has in Spring Training, I wouldn’t get too attached to him.

Catcher: Jamie Pogue, Jared Price

Certainly not the strongest or most prolific pair of backstops the league has to offer. Pogue has a penchant for putting together a big game every now and then, but consistency has been an issue with him at times and he likely doesn’t profile as an everyday guy here. Price is a Triple-A guy with some decent numbers, but with the lineup the Ducks have, nobody’s looking at either of these guys to carry the offense on a day-to-day basis.

Infield: Edgardo Alfonzo, Rob Cafiero, Mark Lewis, Ray Navarrete, Pete Rose, Jr., Derek Wathan

What they get out of Lewis, who hasn’t laced them up in about five years, will likely determine the overall success of the infield. Alfonzo literally didn’t last a week in the Atlantic League last season before getting plucked out of Bridgeport, but a lot of people don’t think he’ll get picked up quite as fast this season. Rose, Jr., could be a breakout player this season, but he needs to start the season hot to do so. He’s put together some impressive hot streaks during his stay in the league, but never at the start of the year.

Outfield: Carl Everett, Kevin Haverbusch, Jorge Piedra, Damian Rolls

Everett

While the retirement of Hidalgo makes their outfield slightly less ridiculous, they still have Carl Everett on-board for Opening Day. Say what you want about some of the things he’s said, the umpires he’s headbutted or the body parts he’s grabbed, but the guy is a Major Leaguer stuck in an Atlantic League uniform. On the field, Long Island has nothing to worry about with this signing — unlike Juan Gonzalez, who never accomplished his goal of proving he was healthy, or John Rocker, whose arm appeared to be held together by some Big League Chew, tin foil, and page 78 of the 1984 Dallas Cowboys yearbook.

The Ducks were once again the stars of the off-season, signing the biggest names you’ll see in the Atlantic League this season.

Fortunately for the rest of the league, one of the biggest has decided to retire before the season even started, and the loss of Richard Hidalgo will certainly put a dent in what was looking like the best outfield in the league.

However, the controversial Carl Everett and one-time “victim” of MLB’s steroid policy Jorge Piedra are still there and will still put up video game numbers before their inevitable signings by Major League organizations.

Considering the signing of Everett, two-time big league All-Star closer Danny Graves’ deal went somewhat under the radar. Believed to be the first player of Vietnamese decent to play in the league, a one-two punch of Graves and returning stopper Todd Erdos could keep the Ducks above water once they start losing their high-profile position players.

2007 Projection: Playoff team

Newark Bears

2006 Record: 42-83

Manager: Wayne Krenchicki
Pitching Coach: Steve Foucault
Hitting Coach: Lipso Nava

“Wayne and Steve’s track record speaks for itself,” said AGM Jim Cerny. “They’ve consistently put together some of the best pitching staffs in the league year in and year out. The one thing that’s escaped them is a championship, and hopefully we add that to their resume this year.”

Key Additions: Bobby Brownlie, Corey Smith, Joe Jiannetti, John Pachot
Key Returns: Victor Rodriguez, Jose Herrera, Jeremy Hill
Key Subtractions: Pat Daneker, Will Pennyfeather, Keith Maxwell

Starting Pitchers: Bobby Brownlie, Carlos Mirabal, Matt Sweeney, Gary Knotts, Delvis Pacheco, Aaron Ledbetter, Evan Thomas (DL)

Brownlie

While losing Travis Phelps hurts, they still have a pretty solid group here. Mirabal is the likely Opening Day starter, and Brownlie will probably be held out until the team’s home opener on Tuesday night.

The success of the rotation may hinge on the former Rutgers standout, who fell out of favor in the Cubs organization when his velocity fell off. If it’s truly the result of him gripping his fastball too tightly, then there’s nothing to worry about. Actually, it may have helped him develop his secondary pitches.

But if Brownlie’s been pitching hurt, it could end up hurting more than just himself in the long run.

INTERVIEW: For a complete five minute chat with Brownlie, click here.

“We’ve got a lot of good arms,” said pitching coach Steve Foucault. “Most of the guys have a lot of experience, and so far I’ve liked what I’ve seen.”

Bullpen: Blake Allen, Edwin Almonte, Jason DiAngelo, Jeremy Hill, Justin Huisman, Jeff Miller, R.J. Swindle, J.J. Trujillo

Swindle

While the Bears are still saying they don’t have a closer at the moment, Hill is probably best suited for the role.

All in all, the Bears have three former big leaguers in the bullpen, but a player with one game above Single-A is who was turning heads in Spring Training.

Swindle, who made one appearance in Triple-A Columbus while with the Yankes organization, has a deceptive pitching motion and lively curveball to go with it.

Catchers: John Pachot, Jonathan Thomas, Jason Torres

Pachot

Pachot appears to have given the Bears their first everyday catcher in a long time. Torres is best suited in a backup role, but can certainly hold his own out there if he needed to play for an extended period of time.

Infield: Josh Arteaga, Matt Brunson, Javier Colina, Ramon Castro, Pat Peavey, Victor Rodriguez, Corey Smith

Jiannetti

The net in left field may have been put up because of Ozzie Canseco, but they may have to build a higher one for Smith.

While questions remain about his defensive skills, any questions about his bat were answered when he smacked a line drive off of the batters eye in center field.

“Honestly, (the fielding) isn’t really what’s held me back,” Smith said. “What’s held me back is the lack of consistency — just being able to put good swings on the ball consistently.

The return of V-Rod is also key for Newark — a player who can hit like he can is very hard to replace, although there is a bit of a trade-off with defense and speed.

Outfield: Joey Gomes, Jack Headley, Jose Herrera, Joe Jiannetti, Marcus Nettles, Keith Reed, Jarod Rine

Nettles

Jiannetti will play some third base as well, but he’ll probably see the majority of his playing time in left field. Reed will patrol center and Herrera will be in right, but that’s if he can get his visa in time to start the season.

If he can’t, Gomes will probably be the team’s third outfielder. Nettles could be one of the fastest players the league has ever seen, and he could change the game in the late innings if he’s used as a pinch-runner.

Statistically speaking, the Newark Bears haven’t finished over .500 since their only championship in 2002.

Simply put, the Bears have been bad ever since.

Five years later, and it seems like they’ve finally got things turned around. Newark finally has a proven coaching staff in Wayne Krenchicki and Steve Foucault, and the duo have built the Bears around pitching just how they did during their successful run in Camden.

“The Newark Bears have had two poor seasons back-to-back,” said manager Wayne Krenchicki. “And watching that from the other side and seeing what’s happened to this ballclub, we had to make a lot of changes this year to make this team successful.”

One change was that the Bears were the only team that stayed north for Spring Training, but they were able to keep 33 players on the roster as a result. Eight of them will be gone by the time the first pitch is thrown in Somerset tomorrow, but it gave them a lot of options and a lot of competitive battles for positions before the season even started.

Newark will have a strong local flavor to it this season, with Rutgers standout Bobby Brownlie and Piscataway High grad Corey Smith playing key roles on the team.

“A lot of people who grew up watching me in high school…they haven’t had the opportunity to watch me over the past few years,” Brownlie said. “I would anticipate that a lot of people will come out that haven’t seen me pitch in the last couple of years.”

Also, keep an eye on Joe Jiannetti, who carries a 25-game hitting streak into Newark from his 2006 season in Atlantic City. The league record of 26 is held by teammate Victor Rodriguez and former Patriots speedster Billy Hall. He’d be on pace to make league history in Saturday’s 7:05 game in Somerset.

If their pitching holds up, look for the Bears to have their first playoff team in five seasons.

2007 Projection: Playoff team

WHERE ARE THEY NOW?

Pete Maestrales, INF, 2003-04

Now: Infielder in the Baltimore Orioles system

Then: Maestrales was the odd man out in the San Francisco Giants organization in 2003, getting released after a few years in their organization.

“I was originally with the Giants, and I was released by them in ’03, and Atlantic City gave me a shot over there, but I only lasted about a week with Atlantic City,” he said. “Newark picked me up, and that was a good situation for me. I ended up spending the rest of ’03 there, and all of ’04.”

Maestrales is particularly fond of his two seasons in Newark, where he got to play with veterans like Jose Lima and future Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson.

“Newark — I loved it, I loved the stadium,” he said. “

I had a lot of fun in Newark. I liked the league, the league was fairly relaxed but the level of competition was extremely high. I got to play with a ton of guys who had a lot more experience than I did, so I got to learn a tremendous amount about the game itself; about how to prepare and about how to play. I have a few friends who’ve been recently released that are looking for somewhere to play and I told them they should go to the Atlantic League, because that’s where you really learn to play the game.”

Since the end of the 2004 season, Maestrales, who says he’d go back to the Atlantic League in a heartbeat if he had to, has been around a little bit…

“I signed with the Orioles in Spring Training in 2005, spent half the year with them and then got traded to Kansas City. I re-signed with Kansas City in ’06, but I ended up getting picked in the Rule 5 draft by San Diego. I got released by San Diego and then re-signed by Baltimore,” Maestrales said.

Victor Torres, Hitting Coach

Now: Hitting coach in the San Francisco Giants organization

Then: Torres spent several seasons as a hitting coach with both the Camden Riversharks and Newark Bears.

“I really enjoyed working in Camden,” he said. “Chick and Fouc and John were all great to work for. Then after BASA let me go, I was very grateful that John hired me again in Newark.”

How he even got started in the Atlantic League is an interesting story to begin with, considering he turned down an offer from an affiliated team to do so.

“It was a hard decision, but looking at it now, it was the right one,” he said.

Torres has been filling in at Double-A Connecticut ever since their hitting coach needed knee surgery. When he recovers, Torres will be sent down to rookie ball in Phoenix to work with some of the Giants youngest and newest prospects.

“It’s been a good experience with the Giants so far,” Torres said. “Everybody is very nice here, and they just let you do your job over here. It’s been fun.”

Road Warriors

2006 Record: 42-83

Manager: Jeff Scott
Hitting Coach: D.J. Boston

Key Additions: Alhaji Turay, Norm Hutchins, Estee Harris
Key Returns: Sandy Aracena, Benito Baez
Key Subtractions: Mike Huggins, Chris Eickhorst

Starting Pitchers: Chris Flinn, Bernie Gonzalez, Julio Guerrero, Trevor Marcotte, Jose Nieto

Flinn is a 26-year-old righty who spent six seasons in the Devil Rays organization. He started early in his career, but primarily came out of the pen over the last few seasons. Nieto was with Edinburg of the United League last season.

Bullpen: Benito Baez, Darwin Soto

If the Road Warriors get the lead, Baez should be the guy brought in to shut the door. On a good team, there’s no telling how many saves Baez could rack up. On the Road Warriors? 8? 10?

Catcher: Sandy Aracena, Manny Mejia

Aracena emerged as one of the better catchers in the league last season, and could end up on another team this season considering the usual lack of depth at the catching position.

Infield: Ron Fenwick, David Housel, Gabe Suarez

Fenwick last played in the Atlantic League in 2005, while Housel returns for his second year of Road Warriors duty.

Outfield: Jason Bryan, David Cardona, Stephen Doetsch, Jose Garcia, Estee Harris, Norm Hutchins, Alhaji Turay

Seven outfielders? I wouldn’t count on that lasting. Anyway, Cardona was an eighth round pick of the Dodgers in 2001 who has also spent time in the D-Rays organization. He’s never made it past A-Ball. Doetsch spent four seasons with Braves and also didn’t advance past Single-A.

The Road Warriors had about as many wins as they do fans, winning just 42 games over another abysmal season.

The Atlantic League’s traveling team may actually end up being worse this year, with no breakout player in sight. Last year, first baseman Mike Huggins was in demand from teams around the league throughout the season, but after an All-Star season that saw him hit .284 with 20 home runs and 69 RBI, he decided to retire from professional baseball after a failed tryout with the Milwaukee Brewers.

While they have several outfielders with a lot of raw tools, this year’s Road Warriors squad doesn’t appear to have a player as complete as Huggins was, and this could be one of the worst seasons the club ever puts together.

Former Marlins fireballer Benito Baez is certainly someone worth watching, as he elected to return to the team after a 2006 season marked by a 3-1 record and 1.27 ERA. Easily the best player on the team, he may be one of the best pitchers in the league.

2007 Projection: Out of Playoffs

YEAR-END PREDICTIONS

North Division Playoff Teams: Long Island, Newark
South Division Playoff Teams: Camden, Lancaster
Championship Series: Long Island over Lancaster in four games
League MVP: Jeremy Todd, Lancaster
Pitcher of the Year: Greg Powell, Camden
Manager of the Year: Joe Ferguson, Camden

OK, so listen…I know I’m going to take a lot of crap for these. Why do I not have Somerset in the playoff picture? You left Bridgeport out? Are you serious?

Calm down.

Somerset has a very good team right now on paper, and several observers down in Florida reported that they looked very good on the field as well. But what happens when Danny Garcia gets picked up two weeks into the season? When Michel Hernandez is gone in a month, what do they do? What if having two bullpen guys in your rotation doesn’t pan out?

I’m not (reference for those under 35: Criss Angel) (reference for those over 35: The Amazing Kreskin). I can’t look into the future, so all I can do is look at the question marks surrounding this team right now and think they’ll have an uphill climb to make the playoffs.

Having Long Island in the playoffs is an obvious choice, but having seen Newark in Spring Training is why I have them alongside the Ducks in the North Division.

This is a deep team with guys you’ve never heard of that can actually play. If their starting rotation doesn’t fall apart, and Corey Smith lasts longer than a month, this team has a real chance of actually being good for the first time in a long time.

I’m not basing my predictions based on what these teams have done in the past, because if that were the case, then they’d look a lot different.

THANK YOU: While this certainly took a lot of work, I can’t take all the credit for it. First and foremost, big thanks to Marc Russinoff. Marc was instrumental in tracking down a lot of the players for the “Where Are They Now” feature, and has put up with my ridiculous requests for five seasons now.

Also, a special thanks goes out to the Newark Bears — specifically Jim Cerny and Joe Montefusco. The Bears get it in areas where other teams don’t.

Jon Danos also deserves special recognition for putting up with my daily pestering for an interview request for Brooks Robinson.

Also, thanks to…Adam Lorber, Natalie Filomeno, Brad Strauss, Wayne Krenchicki, Steve Foucault, Bobby Brownlie, Victor Rodriguez, Lipso Nava, Corey Smith, Mike Solano, Mike Pfaff, Frank Boulton, Joe Klein, Jeff Scott, Patty MacLuckie, Bill Cook, Brett Jodie, Scott Aldred, Ken Arnold, Rob Broussard, Kirk Bullinger, Kevin Dattola, Emiliano Escandon, Kirk Griffin, Shane Heams, Luis Lopez, Rob Luce, Rob Lukachyk, Rick Steed, Michael Warner, Sparky Lyle, Nick Razzette, Jason Guarente, Ryan Dunleavy, Jim Seip, Adam Aurand, Andy Frankel, Adam Gladstone, Brooks Robinson

And of course, thanks to Scott Stanchak for giving me the opportunity to do this.

ALSO: Make sure you check out Ryan Dunleavy’s season preview coverage here.

Jason Guarente’s stuff is here as well, make sure you check that out. Good, good stuff here.

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Comments»

1. mnlem - May 4, 2007

Excellent job.

It would be nice if Newark had a good team and drew a decent gate. Their ballpark is one of the best.

2. BoosterBabe - May 4, 2007

Well, I met the Bluefish team last night and I have this to say: it’s one of the best LOOKING teams we’ve ever had. We’re down to 22 players as of today, according to the CT Post. Jeremy Ware changed his mind and decided to retire. Albie Lopez seems to be AWOL and most likely will not join the team.

Franklin Perez and MIlko Jarramillo are having trouble with their Visas. (no, not their credit cards….)

What I don’t understand is…the CT Post stated the roster was reduced to 22. However, I count 4 guys missing, so I don’t know how they are doing the math.

Anyway, Happy Opening Day, everyone!

I’ve been baking since 8am! Am now in the process of cutting up banana breads and brownies and packing them up into various packages (visitor’s clubhouse, press box, front office and Bluefish clubhouse). Yes, the Revolution is getting a tray of goodies from the Booster Club. It’s their first game ever, it would be inhospitable of us NOT to welcome them. I know the boys are gonna cream them on the field, so…what the heck, it doesn’t hurt to be nice!!! (and just this once!)

Enjoyed talking with Tommy John and meeting the new guys. It was GREAT to see Beech, Espada, Darula, Warren, McGriff, and Boehringer again, and nice to catch up with what they did over the winter. And boy did I get hugged last night….. 🙂

SIGH–Now, I’m just counting the hours until that first pitch!!!

It’s a beautiful day, baseball season is here…how does that song go?
“Beat the drum and hold the phone, the Sun came out today. We’re born again, there’s new grass on the field….”

Is there anything more promising (Ok, other than a newborn baby, I guess) than Opening Day? We have no place to go but first place.

Put me in coach, I’m ready to Play!!!

3. BoosterBabe - May 4, 2007

Amy emailed me that she couldn’t post any longer on any blog and it occurred to me that I hadn’t noticed any posts from the regulars lately, either.

“They” changed the blog website so that now you have to register before posting. Once you register, it will keep you logged in if you request that, and then you can post to your heart’s delight.

There’s a spot to click on in the upper right hand corner of the screen.

Hope to see some of the regulars from last season.

4. BoosterBabe - May 5, 2007

Bluefish had a 12 run 6th inning and won the opener 15-8. I believe Justin Sturge got the win. Beech got pounded for 10 hits, I believe, and left after 5 full innings. I felt awful for him. I saw him cursing at himself more than once as he ducked into the dugout off the mound.

Hope his next start is better….
But! Baseball is a team sport, and the team rallied BIG TIME in the 6th, biggest single inning in team history!, and pulled it out! It was an awesome game and as long as they fix my ticket issue, I’ll be happy!

We asked for the same seats we’ve had for 5 seasons. They gave us the wrong section….we were completely disoriented and hated where we were forced to sit tonight. It was just weird…we were too far from 1st base, we weren’t by the dugout, the brats in front of us kept standing up and blocking my view of either home plate or the pitchers mound, we were in the wrong place and it was VERY discomforting.

I need to sit right behind the dugout, right on the corner of the dugout behind first base. I need to see the guys as they go into the dugout off the field. It adds to the involvement and it’s part of the joy for me. I need to be connected to my team. I need MY seat!!! So it better get fixed!!!!!

Hahahahah Anyway, great openign night win. But it got chilly towards the end and though I had a jacket on, I was wishing I had not worn capri pants and sandals. My toes were almost as blue as my Bluefish-Blue painted toenails!!!!! I came home and shut all my windows. Suddenly I’m regretting having packed away my down comforter last night and taken down my summer quilt!!!
Ahhh I have my BLuefish afghan! I can put that on the bed to make it extra cozy! I usually bring it to keep warm at these early and late season games, but I’m thinking it might do well on the bed tonight!

GO FISH!


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