The 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.
“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.