Smokies, Calrissians Strike Season’s First Deal

Knoxville SmokiesOrlando CalrissiansIf there was one constant for the Knoxville Smokies in their debut season, apart from manager Snuff Wallace’s colorful comments, it was change.  Owner/GM Jeremy Mills was seemingly unable to resist constantly tinkering with his roster, even as his team maintained a steady division lead throughout most of the second half.  Mills couldn’t pass up the opportunity to make a trade, or try a new face from the minors.  The constant roster churn seemed not to hurt his team, as they made it all the way to the Patriot Series before falling.

As the PBL’s second season approaches, Mills has shown no signs of slowing down his high-frequency trading.  This week, the Smokies made another blockbuster deal, shipping 1B Malcolm Bryant and 3B Ronnie Aceuedo to the Orlando Calrissians for 3B Curt Figueroa and a 3rd-round draft pick.

“I love trades,” said Mills.  “Trades are a wonderful thing.  I can’t get enough of them!  I love trades more than I love life itself.”

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Malcolm Bryant

Bryant leaves Knoxville on somewhat contentious terms.  The 31-year-old had a fine season with the Smokies, hitting .287 with 34 homers and 104 RBI, along with an excellent batting eye and a solid glove.  But Bryant was bumped from his first-base job in midseason after Knoxville acquired Eddie Battin from Jackson.  Bryant accepted the change without any public grumbling and continued putting up quality numbers.

But after Bryant heard rumors that he’d been left unprotected in the expansion draft, it was the last straw.  He went to the Knoxville front office and demanded a trade.

“I got jerked around by the Knoxville organization,” said Bryant.  “All I did was do my job, hit well, and be a professional.  But they go and bring in another guy who plays my position for no good reason.  I didn’t say anything, just did my job.  And then they don’t even protect me?  That’s garbage.  When I heard that, I called Snuff and asked him what the hell was going on.  He said it wasn’t his decision.  I said, ‘It seems like someone up there in the organization hates me.’  He said, ‘It sure seems like it.’”

Bryant’s bat will be a most welcome addition in Orlando.  The Calrissians had a dismal year offensively in 2016; they finished next to last in the league in batting average, OPS, and runs scored.  Bryant figures to be Orlando’s cleanup hitter next season.

“When I heard we were getting Malcolm Bryant, I could hardly believe my good luck,” said Calrissians manager Logan Bothan.  “I got to see him up close last season, and I kept saying to myself, ‘Man, we sure could use a guy like that in our lineup.’  He gives our offense an instant boost.”

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Ronnie Aceuedo

Aceuedo came to Knoxville in the Patriot League’s first trade, as the Smokies acquired him from Jackson for reliever Butch Turnbull.  Widely expected to be a marginal player at best, Aceuedo surprised most observers with a decent season, batting .266 with 14 homers and 58 RBI.  He found himself on Wallace’s bad side, though, when he left the final game of the regular season in the 4th inning for personal reasons.  Wallace fined Aceuedo for the truancy, and reportedly never trusted him fully afterward.  He projects to start at the hot corner for Orlando.

“Ronnie is a good professional hitter,” said Bothan.  “Which might sound like a backhanded compliment, but if you saw our lineup last year, you know it’s not.”

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Curt Figueroa

For Knoxville, the key to the deal is Figueroa.  The 27-year-old had a mildly disappointing season for the Calrissians in ’16, batting .258 with 23 dingers and 72 RBI.  Knoxville is betting on a bounce-back season from the third sacker.  From the Smokies’ perspective, they’re dealing from a surplus of first basemen in hopes of getting an upgrade at third.

The draft pick involved originally belonged to Knoxville.  They shipped it to Orlando as part of a deadline deal to upgrade their rotation.  With this deal, the Smokies get their pick back.

The Calrissians seemingly have the most short-term upside in the deal, as they get some badly-needed thump in the heart of their order while maintaining stability at third.  But if Figueroa has a monster season, or if the draft pick turns out to be a future star, the balance could tilt toward the Smokies.

Either way, one thing you can count on is more deals from the Smokies.  “Oh, there are definitely more deals to come,” said Mills.  “It’s not enough.  It’s never enough.”

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Hammerheads Hire Henley As Manager

Jackson HammerheadsThe Jackson Hammerheads had a tumultuous debut season, to say the least.  After a so-so start, the Heads surged to the top of the East, only to fall back out of the penthouse at midseason.  Manager Lou Hayes was sidelined by a heart attack in the final month of the season, only to pass away at season’s end.  Interim manager Eddie Harris guided the team to a 13-11 record and was dismissed.

Jackson owner Steven Butler wanted a strong hand to guide the team in 2017, and he announced today that he had found his man: Nationals third-base coach Bob Henley.

bob-henley
Bob Henley

“We needed someone who could step in right away with a winning team and help us reach the next level,” Butler told reporters.  “After extensive conversations with our whiz-kid GM [himself], we came to a unanimous conclusion: Bob is our guy.”

The 43-year-old Henley is a baseball lifer.  After a playing career spent mostly in the minors, Henley went into coaching immediately after his retirement.  He spent a decade as a minor-league manager and roving instructor before joining the Nats’ big-league staff in 2013.

“I’m all about baseball,” said Henley.  “I live, eat, sleep, and breathe baseball.  Having this job is like being a kid in a candy store every day.”

A native of Mobile, Alabama, Henley said the chance to manage close to home was appealing.  “I never thought I’d be able to have a big-league job so close to my old stomping grounds,” said Henley.  “I’m proud as hell to be representing for the Deep South here.  I’m as Southern as Moon Pies and magnolias.”

Henley’s aggressive reputation as a coach – with the Nats, he earned the nickname “Sendley” for his wave-‘em-in tendencies – made him appealing to Butler.  “I like a gunslinger,” said Butler.  “I like a manager who throws caution to the wind and isn’t afraid to make the tough calls.  That’s the kind of manager that’s going to help us win a title.”

“My mama always said I was a pepper-pot,” said Henley.  “I guess that never left me.  That’s how I’ve managed to make it as far as I have.”

Henley plans to bring that same spirit to Jackson.  “I want to see us playing hard, balls to the well,” the new manager said.  “I’m not gonna ride the guys, at least not at first.  But they’ll get the message soon enough.  If they’re playing hard and winning, I’ll be their best friend.  If they’re slacking off and losing, I’ll be their worst enemy.  But I don’t expect I’ll have to do that.  I think we know what we have to do.  Let’s win some games and have a good time doing it.”

Henley has not announced the rest of his staff, or whether he plans to retain any of last year’s coaches.  “I’m still picking out curtains,” said Henley.  “Y’all will have to get back to me on coaches and the rest of that.”

Dragons Announce Coaching Hires

Jacksonville Dragons 2The Jacksonville Dragons are looking for a new direction after a disappointing 72-78 inaugural campaign.  That new direction will start with a new coaching staff, as Dragons owner Eric Stetson today announced several key hires for the 2017 season.

Taking over as manager will be Steve Califano.  The 43-year-old Califano, a native of Southern California, takes over from Harlan Davidson, who was fired at the end of last season.  This is Califano’s first managing job, but he brings significant playing experience to his new role.  Califano was the ace starter for the Portland Pioneers of the United Baseball League for several seasons.  After the UBL dissolved in the early 2000s, Califano went on to pitch in Japan and in American independent leagues.  Since then, he has worked as a pitching coach in the minors and in college.

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Steve Califano

“This season is crucial to our growth as a franchise, and finding the right manager is essential,” said Stetson at Califano’s introductory press conference.  “We talked to a lot of guys, but Steve really stood out as the right fit for our players and our team.”

Califano has a reputation as a laid-back and player-friendly coach, which will be a marked change from the acerbic Davidson.  Jacksonville’s former manager frequently made waves due to his frequent public disparagement of players, creating a sour clubhouse atmosphere that was a key factor in his firing.  Califano, on the other hand, stresses the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with players.

“I know that as a player, I did my best when I felt that my team and my manager were confident in me,” said Califano.  “I believe in the power of affirmation, and I want my guys to know I have their back.”

In addition to introducing his new manager, Stetson also unveiled his pitching and hitting coaches, both of whom also have UBL ties.  Pitching coach Nick Altrock pitched for several UBL teams during his career.  He had a reputation as a pitcher who succeeded more through guile and studying hitters than through raw power, and the Dragons hope he can tutor their promising but raw young staff.

“All the time throughout my pitching career, guys told me I should be a coach,” said Altrock.  “I finally decided to listen.”

Hitting coach Ernie Zambrucka is another UBL alumnus.  Although he spent most of his playing days in the Mexican League, Zambrucka spent a couple seasons at the tail end of his career as a bench player for the UBL’s Monterrey Toros and Chicago Wolves.  After his retirement, Zambrucka ballooned to over 350 pounds, before dedicating himself to a fitness and weightlifting regimen that he credits with saving his life.

“I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t gotten myself together and gotten control of my health and my life,” said Zambrucka.

The former slugger is expected to implement a strict weight training regimen with Jacksonville’s hitters, with the goal of unleashing their power potential, which was largely absent last season.

“You know how they say that chicks dig the longball?” said Stetson.  “I say everyone digs it.  We expect to be one of the top power-hitting teams in the league, and Ernie should help us get there.”

The Dragons still have several coaching vacancies to fill, including their first and third base coach, bench coach, and bullpen coach.  Stetson said that he plans to defer to Califano on those hires.  “I want Steve to build the staff that he thinks will help him win,” said the Jacksonville owner.

PBL Expands By 4 For Season 2

After a rousingly successful debut season, the Patriot League is growing aggressively for its second season.  Commissioner Jeremiah Mills has officially announced that the PBL will be expanding from 8 teams to 12 for the 2017 season.  “Our first season was a tremendous success,” said Commissioner Mills, “and we’ve clearly demonstrated that there’s an appetite and an audience for this.  I know going from 8 to 12 may seem like a big jump, but I see it as a sign of how well we’re doing that we’ve got four new owners who want to join us.”

These are the new teams that will be joining the fold next season:

carolina-cometsCAROLINA COMETS

The Comets, who will be joining the PBL’s Eastern Division, are the brainchild of owner Steven Roseman.  Roseman believes that there is a significant untapped market of baseball fans in the Carolinas, and he expects the Comets to demonstrate it.  Roseman has committed to his vision with money, constructing a retractable-roof stadium in Catawba, NC to house his team.  Catawba is located roughly equidistant from the Charlotte and Winston-Salem/Greensboro metropolitan areas, and he expects to draw fans from both cities.

Despite being housed in an up-to-date modern facility, Roseman expects his team to play with old-fashioned flair.  The Comets certainly won’t lack for color under the direction of manager Taylor “Two-Buck” Ashy, a protege of Knoxville Smokies skipper Snuff Wallace.  “Ol’ Taylor reminds me a lot of myself,” said Wallace, “only meaner, drunker, and crazier.”  The Comets will also get a healthy dose of flair from their hometown stars. Left fielder Stargell Jackson‘s father is a diehard Pittsburgh Pirates fan who named his son after his hero, Hall of Famer Willie Stargell.  Southpaw starter Randy “Satchel” Flats earned his nickname due to his multi-pitch arsenal and quippy nature, both reminiscent of Negro League great Satchel Paige.

kalamazoo-kazoosKALAMAZOO KAZOOS

The Kazoos will be competing in the league’s Western Division.  Owner Will Norman selected his team name to honor “America’s greatest musical instrument.”  He doubled down on the kazoo motif by naming his stadium Kazoobie Kazoo Field, securing the sponsorship of America’s oldest and most venerable kazoo manufacturer.

Norman’s unorthodox choices extend to his choice of managers.  Jacques “Zippie” DeFlute has no background in baseball.  The Montreal native played several years of minor-league hockey.  More recently, he has been a traveling musician.  Despite his lack of baseball experience, DeFlute’s upbeat, effervescent personality is sure to make him a hit with the fans of western Michigan.

The fans are also sure to love the Kazoos’ pair of hometown stars.  CF Damian Mash was a star at Kalamazoo College, and SS Johnny Shorts is a native of neighboring Portage.

The Kazoos hope to establish a regional rivalry with the PBL champion Milwaukee Bear Claws.  It seems likely that rivalry will be fairly one-sided at the outset, but as DeFlute said, “It gives us a goal to shoot for.”

 

 

las-vegas-narwhalsLAS VEGAS NARWHALS

The Narwhals are prepared to make a big splash in the Western Division.  Win or lose, the squad from Vegas is certain to attract attention.  From their striking violet-and-gold uniforms to their stadium, MGM Jackpot Field, which will be the second Patriot League stadium (along with Orlando) to have a built-in casino, the Narwhals are sure to be noticed.  The team is going to have the glitz and glamour of Sin City, which is the way owner Tricia Butler wants it.  Bright lights, big flies, and high scores… that’s what Narwhals baseball is going to be about.

The Narwhals’ style and flair starts at the top with manager Benjamin Banks Mahoney, who prefers to go by “B. Money.”  Mahoney’s goals for the season are to “win a lot of games and raise a lot of hell, and not in that order.”  Mahoney’s quest will be aided by the Narwhals’ local stars.  LF Andrew Zocken figures to bring a lot of pop to the heart of the Vegas order.  And ace pitcher Jose Oro has the golden fastball to blow it by visiting hitters.

Traditionalists are likely to hate the Narwhals, finding the uniforms gaudy and the stadium more like an amusement park than a ballpark.  But the team will fit well with its city.  The fans of Las Vegas can look forward to a summer of high scores and high stakes both on and off the field.

new-orleans-sazeracsNEW ORLEANS SAZERACS

While it’s far from clear how well the Sazeracs will fare in the PBL’s Eastern Division this season, the team is going to have a lot of fun along the way.  According to owner Jeff Wiggins, that’s by design.  Wiggins said he loves the Big Easy because it’s “a fun location [where you’re] able to bring your drinks wherever you want.”  He’s made it his goal to assemble a team that reflect the fun-loving spirit of the city.  He said that the team’s motto will be “Work Hard, Play Hard.”

The team’s outlook is also reflected in its name.  Wiggins named the team after the Sazerac, “a strong all-alcohol drink invented in New Orleans.”  Te Sazerac (made with 1/4 oz Absinthe, one sugar cube, 1 1/2 oz Rye whiskey or Cognac, and three dashes Peychaud’s Bitters) is one of the most famous products of New Orleans, and the name gives the team a true local flavor.  Continuing the alcohol theme, the Sazeracs will play at Abita Field, named after a local brewery.

The team will take the field under the veteran leadership of former Angels manager George Knox, who is known for having a “magic touch” with his players.  New Orleans will also be led by a pair of hometown heroes, outfielder Ben Williams and shortstop Al Angel. Wiggins believes that Williams and Angels will be wildly popular, because the fans “are just as likely to see them hitting a home run or making a game-saving play, as they are to see them out on Bourbon Street with everyone else.”

 

Along with the PBL’s expansion, Commissioner Mills announced that the playoffs will be expanding next season as well.  Going forward, the top two teams in each division will make the playoffs.  The winners of the two division series will face each other in the Patriot Series.

“We are confident that the expanded playoffs will only increase fan interest in our league,” said Commissioner Mills.  “This year, the action is going to be hotter than Snuff’s temper!”