Hitting Coach Zambrucka Sparks Dragons’ Offense

Last year, the Jacksonville Dragons were one of the Patriot League’s most surprising failures, finishing with a sub-.500 record that led to the firing of manager Harlan Davidson and the entire coaching staff.  This season is a completely different story; the Dragons are in second place in the East and favorites to claim a playoff berth.

What has changed?  Last season, Jacksonville disappointed both on offense (their 769 runs scored was a distant fifth in an eight-team league) and on the mound (they allowed 805 runs, the third-highest mark).  They’ve improved in both departments this year, but while their pitching has gone from poor to mediocre, their offense has taken a leap from humdrum to excellent.  So far this season, the Dragons have scored 778 runs, second only to California.  They’re third in the league in batting average (.287), second in OPS (.874), and tied for second in home runs (222).

Manager Steve Califano, a former pitcher, says that he can’t take credit for the team’s improvement at the plate.  “I know nothing about hitting,” joked the manager.  “I barely knew which end of the bat to hold.  The offense, what we’ve accomplished there, that’s all Ernie.”

“Ernie” is the Dragons’ hitting coach, Ernie Zambrucka.  Both Califano and the Dragons hitters swear that Zambrucka has revolutionized the team’s approach on offense.  “Last season, we kept falling short and we couldn’t figure out why,” said RF Roderick Hopps.  “Since Ernie’s come along, we’ve been working twice as hard but having tons more fun along the way, and we’re definitely seeing the results.”

Zambrucka’s philosophy boils down to a few simple principles: Work hard, lift weights, and have a good time.  “I’m no genius, and most ballplayers aren’t either,” said Zambrucka.  “I like to keep it simple.  Nobody ever thought his way to a batting title.”

Weightlifting and fitness are a key pillar of successful hitting, according to Zambrucka.  He speaks on the subject with an almost religious fervor, and with good reason: he believes that weightlifting saved his life.  When Zambrucka retired from baseball in the early 2000s, he became bored and depressed and fell into a cycle of drinking heavily and eating fatty foods, which caused his weight to balloon over 350 pounds.  “I was eating and drinking my way to an early grave,” he now admits.

It took several years, but Zambrucka was able to get himself under control.  He swore off alcohol, fried foods, and sweets.  And he committed to a strict regimen of weightlifting and fitness.  He’s dropped over 100 pounds from his peak, and he says that “I’m in better shape now than I was in my playing days.”

After getting his life back in order, Zambrucka decided to pursue coaching jobs in order to pass on his considerable hitting knowledge to the next generation.  He’s done that in Jacksonville, dispensing tips left and right and tinkering with the swings of almost all the team’s hitters to maximize contact and power.  In addition to that, he’s had them spend a lot more time in the weight room.

Last season, the Dragons’ weightlifting room was virtually deserted.  Other than LF Rob Hartley, an introverted fitness enthusiast who liked to spend time pumping iron while avoiding the media, hardly any of the players used the equipment.  The toxic environment under Davidson meant that players tended to leave the locker room as fast as possible, and those who stayed were generally more interested in drinking and partying than working out.

Under Zambrucka, that’s changed entirely.  The first thing Zambrucka did when he took the Jacksonville job was to put up a pair of signs in the room: one said “TIME TO FEED THE PYTHONS” and the other said “NO AGONY, NO BRAGONY.”  He then developed an individualized workout regimen for each Dragons hitter, which he posted to the wall along with a sign-in sheet.  He likes the players that “the cream always rises to the top,” and emphasizes that working out is a key part of that.  If a players is not hitting the gym as hard or as often as Zambrucka dictates, the coach makes sure that they do.  “Ernie has no trouble coming out on the field during BP and grabbing a guy and dragging him to the weight room if he’s not putting in the reps,” said Hopps.  “He’s serious about it.”

But the players insist that Zambrucka is not a taskmaster.  “Ernie’s a fun guy, and he makes sure we have fun,” said 3B Jake Kapoor.  “He doesn’t accept excuses, but he’s not afraid to have a good time with it.”  The coach likes to blast AC/DC, Metallica, and other hard-rock tunes in the weight room.  And he encourages the players to challenge each other to work harder and do better.  He regularly organizes batting practice and workout competitions, where the winning team receives a cheap trophy and a free dinner courtesy of the losing team.

“If they’re only doing the work because I’m yelling at them or making them do it, it’s not going to work,” said Zambrucka.  “But if they’re challenging each other, trying to one-up each other and outcompete each other, then they police themselves.  That’s how you build the right culture for a championship team.”

Zambrucka’s approach seems to be working.  Where there had been a disenchanted, diffident collection of underachievers, now there’s a tight-knit group of quality hitters pushing each other to higher and higher levels of performance and having a blast along the way.  “There are a lot of good talented teams in this league,” said Kapoor.  “We might not win it all this year.  But you’d have a hard time finding a group of guys who are tighter or more determined.  We’re all pulling on the oars together in the same direction, and we’re not going to stop until we reach our goal.”

Sharks Claim Highly Prestigious Chum Bucket

California SharksSome have called it the most important trophy in all of sports.  Some have called it a throwback to the days when sports weren’t a big business, and athletes played for the thrill of competition and victory, rather than big bucks and endorsements.  Some have called it a bait bucket plated in an undisclosed but extremely shiny metal.  But whatever you call it, the highly prestigious Chum Bucket is one of the Patriot League’s most distinctive and talked-about features.

chum bucket
The Highly Prestigious Chum Bucket

The highly prestigious Chum Bucket is awarded to the winner of the season series between the Jackson Hammerheads and the California Sharks, the two Patriot League teams with cartilaginous fish for mascots.  With the two teams now having finished their head-to-head matchup (at least for the regular season), it’s official: the trophy now belongs to the boys from Long Beach.  The Sharks won 9 of the 15 games between the teams to claim the title.

“Gosh, it’s almost like winning an Oscar,” said Sharks ace Pierre LaRue.  “It’s just so prestigious and so, so shiny.  I can see my face in it!”

The Sharks celebrated their victory by taking laps around their locker room while holding up the highly prestigious Chum Bucket, while “Paradise City” by Guns ‘n’ Roses played in the background.  “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, no question,” said Sharks C Thaddeus Lockley.  “I think I even saw some guys tearing up.  It might have been because the hot wings were really spicy, but I think it was emotion.”

Meanwhile, in the Jackson locker room, the emotions were markedly different.  “I’d say ‘devastated’ isn’t too strong a word,” said Hammerheads 2B Homer Righter of the mood among his teammates.  “Devastated.  Crushed.  Borderline suicidal.  Take your pick.”

The highly prestigious Chum Bucket was originally conceived by Jackson Hammerheads owner Steven Butler, an avid fisherman.  “Basically, I got drunk one night and came up with the idea of a bait-bucket trophy,” said Butler.

Both the Hammerheads and Sharks contested fiercely for it.  Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes called the highly prestigious Chum Bucket a “must-win trophy” as recently as this week, while California manager Eduardo Aponte said he was unsure whether he’d rather win the highly prestigious Chum Bucket or the championship trophy.

“Frankly, it was a little creepy how fixated guys got on it sometimes,” said Jackson C Clarence Doyle.  “Every time we were playing California, it was all Chum Bucket this, Chum Bucket that, highly prestigious, more important than life itself, blah blah blah.”

Early on in the season, it looked as though the competition was going to be thoroughly one-sided.  California won 6 of the first 7 times the teams played, and the Sharks all but declared victory right there.  “You know those guys in the other dugout there?” said Sharks pitcher Stu Palmeiro after he stifled the Hammerheads 4-1 to complete a mid-June three-game sweep in Long Beach.  “Well, none of ‘em are gonna get out of the harbor alive.”

But the Hammerheads bounced back to sweep a two-game set at Cash Carter Downs in late June, then took two of three in California in early August to put themselves back in striking distance.  In the rubber match of the series, a 10-1 Jackson rout, DH Alex Jaramillo went 4-for-5 and clubbed a pair of homers, and crowed, “Bring on the highly prestigious Chum Bucket!  The tide has turned in our favor.”

It all came down to this week’s three-game showdown in Jackson.  If the Hammerheads could sweep the series, the highly prestigious Chum Bucket would belong to them.  Otherwise, California would claim it.  “Everyone here is on a singular mission,” said Jackson CF Damian Deason before the series began.  “This is out damn trophy.  It belongs to us, and we’re going to fight like hell to keep it.”

Deason’s “fight” metaphor became literal in the opening game of the series, as the intense emotion on both sides boiled over in a wild contest.  The teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl after Hammerheads starter Luke Danton plunked Sharks CF Santiago Suarez, and Suarez charged the mound in response.  The donnybrook seemed to fire up the Californians, as they stormed back from a 5-1 9th-inning deficit to tie the game.  But the Hammerheads walked off the visitors with a game-winning single in the 10th, keeping their hopes alive.  “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey echoed off the clubhouse walls as the boys in baby blue whooped it up.  “I don’t think they’d celebrate this vigorously if they actually won the championship,” commented an outside observer of the scene.

The next night, it was the Sharks who got in front early, taking a 7-3 lead to bring themselves to the brink of clinching.  But the Hammerheads refused to yield, storming back furiously with a late rally.  Trailing 8-6 in the 9th, Jackson loaded the bases against star California reliever Jan Arzola.  Hammerheads 1B Lacy Wilczynski then smacked a single that seemed likely to tie the game.  But Suarez – the same man who’s touched off the fracas of the previous night – snagged the ball and fired a perfect missile to the plate, gunning down pinch runner Henry Jones to win the game and the highly prestigious Chum Bucket.

“I feel so much right now,” said Suarez, who is notoriously shy around the press.  “This is everything.  The Chum Bucket is ours.”

Over on the losing side, Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes contemplated the closeness of the series, the anguished disappointment of defeat, the pride of his team’s stirring comeback, and summed it up as follows: “This sucks.”

Meanwhile, the victorious Aponte, who’s always ready for a quip or a quote, seemed at a rare loss for words.  “I got no spit,” he said when he first arrived at the podium for his postgame press conference.

Perhaps it was LaRue who summed things up best.  “You don’t suppose it would be disrespectful to drink beer out of the highly prestigious Chum Bucket, do you?” the California ace pondered.  “Hell, I don’t care, I’m gonna do it anyway.  I’ll drink to your leg!”



Longroofan Accuses Dragons Pen of Tanking

John Longroofan
John Longroofan

Former Jacksonville Dragons reliever John Longroofan, who had a brief but colorful tenure with the team earlier in the season, is back with a startling accusation.  Longroofan alleged that he, along with several Dragons relievers, conspired to throw games.

“Oh, yeah, we were definitely fixing,” said Longroofan.  “Practically everybody in the bullpen was in on it.  It kind of became a joke.  We’d ask each other, ‘Who’s bringing home the bacon today?’  And by ‘bacon,’ we meant money.  From gamblers.  We’d make thousands in a single game.”

According to Longroofan, the game-fixing agreement was already in place before he was called up to the Dragons.  “I didn’t find out about it until I got up there,” said Longroofan.  He said that shortly after he joined the team, closer Razor Corridon took him aside to tell him about the deal.  “He asked me if I wanted in,” said Longroofan.  “Obviously, I wanted to do well and impress people.  But I could see that if I went along, there would be a good chunk of change in it for me.  So I said okay.”

According to Longroofan, his erratic on-field behavior, which included numerous middle fingers flipped at the stands and even dropping his pants on one occasion, was designed to conceal his participation in the fix.  “Obviously, if I just went out there and started sucking, everyone would notice,” said the young fireballer.  “So I played it off like I was drunk or crazy, so they wouldn’t catch on that I was tanking.”

Longroofan’s stint in a Dragons uniform lasted only 5 appearances, in which he compiled an 0-1 record and a 22.00 ERA.  He was unceremoniously demoted in mid-May.  He says that when it became clear that the Jacksonville organization had no intention of giving him a second chance, he decided to go public with his story.  “I mean, all those guys still got jobs, and they were fixing like me,” said Longroofan.  “Why should I be the only one to suffer?”

Longroofan’s accusations rocked both the Dragons organization and the Patriot League as a whole.  This is the first time that accusations of impropriety have been leveled within the league.  The reliever’s former teammates were quick to disavow the existence of a fix.  “That’s just insane,” said right-hander Whitney Winslow.  “I know a lot of us relievers have had a tough year, myself included, but that doesn’t mean we’re on the take.  I don’t even know where he would come up with something like that.”

Corridon, the man whom Longroofan accused of bringing him into the fix, reacted with mystification.  “That’s a really strange thing,” said Corridon.  “I liked the kid and I kind of tried to take him under my wing, and this is the thanks I get.  Roofie was a strange and troubled guy, but I never imagined he’d come up with some crazy story like this.”

Dragons manager Harlan Davidson snorted when informed of the accusations and quipped, “It sure as hell would explain a lot.”  But when asked if he considered the accusations credible, the skipper was firm:  “Absolutely not.  N-O.  Not a chance in hell.  Who the hell listens to a screwed-up washout kid who’s probably on drugs?”

Dragons owner Eric Stetson was also quick to defend his players.  “While this season has fallen short of my expectations, I am appalled that Mr. Longroofan would try to besmirch our organization with these baseless charges.  I do not for one second believe that any of my players would participate in such a scheme.  I hope that Mr. Longroofan gets the professional help he clearly needs, and stops trying to spin wild conspiracy theories to conceal his own failures.”

PBL Commissioner Jeremiah Mills issued a statement that read in part: “Mr. Longroofan has raised grave and serious charges against one of our member teams.  While I personally find the accusations difficult to believe, I owe it to the integrity of the league to conduct a full and thorough investigation of the charges.  Once I have determined the merit, if any, behind the accusations, I will take appropriate action.”

Stetson indicated that the Dragons organization will comply fully with the investigation, saying, “We look forward to a quick and complete vindication.”

Did Skipper’s Rip Bring Dragons Together?

Harlan Davidson
Harlan Davidson

Jacksonville Dragons manager Harlan Davidson’s frustration with his team has been a running theme in his postgame press conferences and interviews.  His jibes and complaints about his players had been growing more frequent and more pointed as the season wore on, and it seemed inevitable that matters would come to a head.  They did a week and a half ago, when Davidson blasted his team in a memorably vicious press conference.  As expected, Davidson’s words had a huge effect in the Dragons clubhouse.  The surprise: Rather than obliterate team morale, the verbal assault seems to have brought the Dragons together.  They’ve been virtually unbeatable since.

“Christ, if I’d have known, I’d have reamed them out months ago,” Davidson said.

The manager’s rant came after a particularly ugly loss in a season that has seen a lot of them.  Facing the last-place Orlando Calrissians, the Dragons blew an early 3-0 lead and staggered to a 5-4 loss.  Starting pitcher Tony Harris lost the game when he allowed a two-run homer to Orlando DH Arnoldo Nabors, who is hitting under .200 for the season.  Something about that particular loss struck in Davidson’s craw.

“We’d been treading water for weeks,” said Davidson.  “Our season was circling the bowl.  And then we couldn’t even hold a lead against a team that’s already given up.  I wanted to slash my damn wrists.  I just couldn’t take it any more.”

Davidson faced the press after that loss and began a 25-minute rant against virtually every player on his roster.  He began by venting his frustration at that day’s game.  “I’m tired of making excuses,” the manager snapped.  “We should be wiping the walls with these guys, but instead we’re treading water, just like we have been all year.  Have you seen [Orlando’s] lineup?  It’s a joke, pathetic.  I could probably throw a no-hitter against them.  Anyone in this room could beat that lineup.  But not us!  I’m so disgusted I could puke.”

He laid into Harris, claiming that the starter was finished.  “Tony’s a nice guy and he can hold his liquor,” said the Jacksonville skipper.  “But he’s done.  Let’s face it.  He can pack his little hobo bindle and hit the road.”

Davidson then tore into his team’s offense, expected to be the team’s strong point but producing middle-of-the-pack numbers.  Davidson fumed, “Before the season, everybody was telling me what a big, powerful lineup we had and how we were gonna score all these runs.  Well, where the hell did those guys go?  Because what I’ve got is the most mediocre offense in the league.  And when your pitching sucks like ours does, that won’t get it done.”

The manager proceeded to call several of his players out by name, including LF Rob Hartley (“needs to spend less time in the weight room and more in the batting cage”), 1B Jake Kapoor (“publicity hound”), RF Roderick Hopps (“he’s gone missing for the last month”), SP Biggs McGee (“okay pitcher, world-class mouth”), and the entire bullpen, which he dubbed the “Surrender Squad.”

As you would imagine, Davidson’s angry oration went off like a bomb in the Dragons clubhouse.  Several players were already annoyed at the manager’s penchant for slinging barbs in the press, feeling that Davidson was throwing his players under the bus to distract attention from his own performance.  Informed of the manager’s remarks, one player replied, “Well, it’s official.  He’s as sick of us as we are of him.”  Kapoor was more diplomatic, saying, “I completely understand his frustration.  I think we all feel that; things haven’t gone the way any of us expected.  But I don’t think comments like those are going to help.”

It came as no surprise when the Dragons stumbled to a 2-0 loss against Orlando the next night.  It was widely expected that Davidson’s comments would further divide an already shaky Jacksonville clubhouse, and that the team was likely to implode completely over the rest of the season.

No one expected what came next: a winning streak that stands at nine games and counting as of this writing.  Were Davidson’s words a bracing shock of cold water, the slap in the face the team needed?  Did the team band together in dislike of their manager?  What happened?

It seems to have been a combination of factors.  The players held a closed-door meeting after the shutout in Orlando to discuss the situation.  “At first, we were all pissed at [Davidson],” said Hopps.  “A lot of guys wanted to punch him in the face.  But eventually, we realized that some of the things he said, we were all kind of thinking too.  It was making us mad, but he was saying thing that none of us wanted to admit.”

Jake Kapoor
Jake Kapoor

The Dragons locker room has been shy of vocal leaders, but during the meeting, Kapoor and Hartley stepped up to fill that role.  “There was a lot of low-level grumbling all season in the clubhouse, but nobody was willing to step up and call anybody out,” said Kapoor.  “So I said we needed to start holding each other accountable if we’re going to get where we want to go.  Nobody’s happy with where we are now, but if we’re going to get better, we’re going to have to get together and step up to the next level ourselves.”

The next day, before batting practice, the players met with Davidson for what Kapoor described as “an open, honest conversation.”  Davidson apologized for his press conference eruption, saying that he should have shared his grievances internally rather than going to the media.  Several players, in turn, admitted that they were frustrated with their performance and wanted to improve.

“We cleared the air, man-to-man,” said Davidson. “We were overdue for a talk like that.”

Since then, the Dragons have been unbeatable.  Even the manager has been impressed.  “They’ve showed me something that, frankly, I wasn’t sure we had,” said Davidson.  “They’ve been tough and resilient, and they’ve stepped it up.  It’s been nice to watch.”

Many questions remain, of course.  The Dragons are hot right now, but can they keep it up long enough to catch Knoxville and Jackson?  Will the current detente between players and manager last the next time Jacksonville hits a slump?  Will the team finish the season well enough to save Davidson’s job, or that of key players?

Only time will tell the answers.  “Right now, we’re just focused on keeping things going,” said Kapoor.  “We’ve got lots of season left.”

First PBL All-Star Game Goes to Milwaukee

Today, Commissioner Jeremiah Mills announced that the Patriot League’s inaugural All-Star Game will take place at High Life Field, home of the Milwaukee Bear Claws.

High Life FieldThe park offers an attractive venue for the game, one deeply steeped in the city’s history.  High Life Field was built as part of the redevelopment of the abandoned Pabst Brewery complex in downtown Milwaukee.  The park, which was designed as a tribute to Milwaukee’s beer heritage, fits in perfectly with its surroundings.  The exterior of the park was designed to resemble the faux-castle style of the old Pabst corporate office building.  The left-field wall backs up to the façade of the main factory building, which is decorated with a clock and a Pabst Blue Ribbon logo.  Fireworks shoot out of the top of the old smokestack every time the Bear Claws win.

Upon entering through the main gate, fans pass through the King’s Courtyard, in the middle of which is a statue of King Gambrinus, the unofficial patron saint of beer.  Surrounding the courtyard are multiple beer gardens, which are positioned to allow fans to watch the game while enjoying a cold one.

Although the Bear Claws have the league’s best record, Mills said the decision was not made on that basis.  Rather, he said that he intends to rotate hosting honors among the league’s charter cities.

“The Bear Claws are honored to host the inaugural Patriot League All-Star Game and look forward to welcoming you all to Milwaukee,” said Bear Claws owner Jennifer Petitt. “Join us in raising a cold Miller High Life in celebration of this great event. The Champagne of Beers is never better than when served ice cold on a prematurely hot day like today.”

The selection of High Life Field met with widespread acclaim around the league.  “Down in Jackson, we are all about the High Life,” said Jackson Hammerheads owner Steven Butler.

Snuff Wallace
Snuff Wallace

One dissident, though, was Knoxville Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.  Unsurprisingly, he believes that Commissioner Mills, who also owns the Smokies, should have selected Knoxville’s Rocky Top Park for the honor.

“I mean, what the hell good is it to be the man in charge if you don’t pull strings for your own guys?” said Wallace.

In the end, though, Wallace isn’t too upset about the decision.  “Everyone will get a real good look at our park when we’re claiming the championship trophy,” said the Knoxville skipper.  Besides, he adds, “I like beer.”

Dragons Demote Longroofan

John Longroofan
John Longroofan

The Jacksonville Dragons this week sent left-handed relief pitcher John Longroofan to the minor leagues, bringing an end to a brief but colorful tenure for a wild, flamboyant, and troubled young man.  Even if Longroofan never pitches in the Patriot League again, his name will not soon be forgotten in league circles.

“I’m gonna miss Roofie, man,” said fellow Dragons reliever Razor Corridon.  “That dude was… well, he was crazy.  Like seriously clinically nuts.  But he was fun to watch.”

From an on-field perspective, Longroofan’s time with Jacksonville was an utter failure.  Called up in mid-April as part of a shakeup of a disappointing bullpen, the southpaw posted catastrophic numbers.  In five appearances, Longroofan posted an 0-1 record and an ERA of 22.00, allowing 23 hits in only 9 innings, walking 13 batters and striking out no one.  His pitches were as likely to end up halfway up the backstop as over the plate.

“I really can’t think of any aspect of the game he did well,” said Dragons pitching coach Jerry Kinser.

But Longroofan’s pitching isn’t what everyone will remember about him; rather, it is his outsize, attention-seeking, mercurial personality.

“You’ve got to remember you’re dealing with a kid who’s only 20,” noted Corridon.  “He’s under the bright lights and in front of the cameras, when really he ought to be back at the frat house.  And that’s how he acted.”

It was clear from the start that Longroofan wasn’t your typical ballplayer.  He announced his arrival in Jacksonville by warning the citizens to “hide your daughters” and tweeting a picture of a woman’s legs sticking out the window of a sports car.  Upon joining the Dragons, he introduced himself to his teammates by leaving gift certificates to a local strip club in their lockers.

“Just trying to be a good teammate, show my appreciation,” said Longroofan of the gesture.

On the field, Longroofan distinguished himself both through dismal outings and immature behavior.  On multiple occasions, he responded to boos from his own home crowd by flipping them the bird.  In one particularly memorable incident, Longroofan responded to a hail of sarcastic applause by dropping his pants and grabbing his groin.  He often had to be removed from the field by teammates or his manager.

Longroofan’s postgame comments were generally unprintable, filled with elaborate sexual metaphors and punctuated with vigorous cursing.  The team fined him three separate times for his inappropriate remarks and on-field outbursts, to no apparent effect.

In his last appearance, against Orlando on May 23rd, Longroofan allowed 6 runs in the bottom of the 12th to throw away a virtually certain Dragons win.  He responded by drop-kicking his glove and giving the fans a middle-finger salute.

After that game, Davidson made clear that he wanted Longroofan off the roster.  “Nothing I’ve seen from that kid makes me think he’ll ever be a ballplayer,” said Davidson.  “There’s immature and then there’s him.  I don’t want to use him again.  I don’t want to see him again.  Next time I run out of pitchers, I’ll run one of our infielders out there before I use him.”

Longroofan responded to this harsh criticism by claiming that “as long as I got an arm, I got a job” and musing that he might pursue a career as “a porn star or a pimp” instead.

“He was a very strange guy,” said Dragons C Judson Teachout.  “He meant well, I think, but he was sort of like a wild animal.  It was like he had no idea how to behave in society.  He’s got a lot of talent; I hope that he’s able to get it together someday.”

Several sources have likened Longroofan to Johnny Manziel, the star-crossed, party-hardy Cleveland Browns quarterback.  Like Manziel, Longroofan has had struggles with alcohol, having been cited for multiple DUIs.  Longroofan himself cited the QB as an inspiration.  “That guy knows how to live right,” the pitcher once mused.  “Maybe I can be Johnny Baseball.”

Dragons owner/GM Eric Stetson, who personally signed Longroofan, expressed regret about how things have gone.  “Too bad he didn’t pan out,” said Stetson, “he was certainly a colorful character.”  He did make clear, though, that he does not expect the left-hander to get future chances with the team.  He also noted that he had advised the pitcher to seek counseling for his alcoholism.

For his part, Longroofan does not regard his time with the Dragons as an opportunity squandered.  “[Expletive] them,” he said.  “I’m too talented for it to end like this.  I know I’ll catch on somewhere.  The fans love me, the real fans.  Who doesn’t want a guy who can throw triple digits and lives life to the fullest?  It’s like being a stripper with a perfect body.”

His expectations of future greatness remain undimmed, despite his failure here.  “When I make the Hall of Fame and write my autobiography,” Longroofan said, “this will be the chapter about how you overcome adversity and come out stronger.  And I’m gonna.  It’s not like you can be washed up at 20, right?”

Orlando Selects New Team Song

Orlando CalrissiansOrlando Calrissians owner Brian Aufmuth felt like his team needed something, other than more wins.  “I felt like our team needed a theme song,” Aufmuth said.  Therefore, during Orlando’s last homestand, the owner put the choice up to the fans. He offered them the choice of three different Star Wars-themed songs.  The fans cast their votes via text.  Over 75,000 votes were cast during the six-game homestand.

And the runaway winner, receiving over 60% of the votes, was the song “Oh, Lando” by Recess Monkey.

“I’m happy, because that was my favorite too,” said Aufmuth.  “Frankly, I wasn’t expecting it to win.  But we will give the people what they want!”

Recess Monkey is a Seattle-based trio of current and former elementary school teachers who have made music for kids and families since their debut album Welcome to Monkey Town in 2005.  They have released 12 family-oriented albums over their career.  “Oh, Lando” is a track from their most recent album, 2015’s Hot Air.

The runner-up choice, Meco’s 1977 hit “Star Wars Theme/Cantina Band”, received just under 28% of the votes.  The third-place finisher, LittleHorse’s “Lando Explains,” received less than 10%.

According to Aufmuth, the team will now play “Oh, Lando” during the seventh-inning stretch at every home game.  The owner is reportedly trying to get Recess Monkey to perform a live postgame concert at Bespin later in the season.

Owner Backs Dugan As Rumors Swirl

Johnny Dugan
Johnny Dugan

The Salt Lake Samurai have gotten off to a disastrous start to the season, posting a 5-26 record.  According to team sources, the Samurai front office is considering making major changes, including the firing of manager Johnny Dugan and the coaching staff.  According to the rumors, if Dugan were to be fired, the team would like to replace him with 1B Neal Thomas, who would take on a player-coach role with the team.

The same team sources say that the front office feels that the 35-year-old Dugan, who is in his first managerial job, is not up to the task of leading the team.  “We’re losing game after game, and he’s running around the locker room spouting happy talk like a damn cheerleader,” the source said.  “He doesn’t know what else to do.  He’s out of ideas.  Instead of running extra practices or trying a more aggressive strategy, he’s singing ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’.  No wonder the players don’t respect him.”

Neal Thomas
Neal Thomas

The source adds that the 37-year-old Thomas, who leads the team in home runs, has impressed both the front office and his teammates with his veteran poise and his willingness to mentor struggling players.  “He gives a damn, and he’s actually trying to make the team better,” said the source.  “The rest of the season would be an audition for him to get the job full time.  It’s not like anyone else would want the helm of this sinking ship.”  The source suggests that Thomas would work with the front office to identify which players should be kept for the future and which ones should be traded or released.  “No one is safe,” the source said.

Asked about the allegations, Samurai owner Sarah Buehler denied that she was planning to make a change, and stood behind Dugan.  “We are in no way looking to let Johnny Dugan go,” said Buehler.  “I have full faith in his abilities and we just need to work out the kinks.”

Buehler also denied that the team was planning wholesale roster changes.  “This season is a learning curve and I think we have all the right pieces,” she said, “but it’s taking us some time to put the picture together.”

Dugan said that no managerial switch had been discussed with him.  “I’ve never heard anything but support from Mrs. Buehler and the front office,” he said.  He also expressed gratitude for the owner’s faith in him.  “I know that it’s hard to feel secure when you’re having a season like this,” Dugan said.  “I know we’ve got to do better, and that I’ve got a lot to learn.  But I’m glad that there’s patience here, and we have a chance to work it out.”

Thomas denied being approached about taking over the team.  “No one’s talked to me about that, and if they did, I’d say no,” said the veteran first baseman.  “I’m a player, and I’m not looking to manage yet.  Someday, sure, but only after I hang it up.  Johnny’s our manager, and I hope it stays that way.”

Several Salt Lake players volunteered that they thought Thomas would make a fine manager.  “Neal is a great teacher, and he was born to lead,” said CF Lee Cosgrove.  “Everyone in the locker room looks up to him.  But we’ve got a manager, and we like him.”

Bullpen Chaos in Jackson

Lou Brown
Lou Hayes

All in all, things are going well for the Jackson Hammerheads right now.  The team has rebounded from a 1-5 start, winning 8 of their last 10 to surge into second in the Eastern Division, hot on the heels of the Knoxville Smokies.  But while the Hammerheads are thriving on the field, behind the scenes a rift is developing that threatens to tear the team apart.  According to clubhouse sources, manager Lou Hayes is on the verge of losing his bullpen.

Perhaps at the heart of the matter is Hayes’ relationship with closer Sheen.  The hard-partying Sheen, whose most notable Patriot League accomplishment to date has been his preseason bar brawl, reportedly lost the confidence of his manager after a lackluster spring training and a tough start to the season.  In recent games, Hayes has been using Sheen as a long reliever rather than a closer, bringing him in for multi-inning stints, usually with the Hammerheads trailing.  Hayes has repeatedly insisted that he has not removed Sheen as the team’s closer.

Rick Sheen
Rick Sheen

Sheen exploded last week after Hayes sent him out for a 3-inning, 37-pitch long relief appearance in a 6-4 loss to Orlando.   “Either I’m the closer or not,” Sheen said after that game.  “If I’m not, [Hayes] should man up and tell me.  If I am, stop running me out there like I’m the mop-up guy.”  Hayes reportedly responded to Sheen’s outburst by demanding that he attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Although Sheen’s spat with Hayes is the most public sign of the discord, his teammates are said to be largely neutral in the matter.  Sheen has struggled to a 5.40 ERA on the season, and continues to spend far more time in nightclubs than in the film room, so he has not garnered much sympathy in the locker room.  The manager’s management of the rest of the bullpen, while far less public, has proven far more controversial internally.

Hayes says that he tend to avoid set roles for his relievers, preferring to manage by instinct.  “I trust my gut,” said Hayes.  “Sometimes guys are up and sometimes they’re down, and you’ve got to go with the flow.  If one of my relievers is in a major slump, am I going to keep running him out in big situations just because he’s my ‘8th- inning guy’?  Hell no.  Each situation is different, and I want to use the guy I think is right for a particular spot.”

For relievers, who rely on roles to establish a routine, Hayes’ go-by-the-gut philosophy is chaotic.  But worse yet, say players, is the fact that in practice, Hayes seems to lean heavily on a couple players – especially Sheen and lefty Brett Pollan – while other relievers are virtually ignored.  The result is that Pollan and Sheen are exhausted, while others grow rusty from disuse.

Butch Turnbull
Butch Turnbull

Right-hander Butch Turnbull falls in the latter camp.  Expected to be a key piece of the Hammerheads’ relief corps when he was acquired from the Smokies in spring training, Turnbull has yet to appear in a regular-season game.  Reportedly, Hayes has provided Turnbull with no explanation for the sidelining.  After yesterday’s game, according to sources, Turnbull confronted Hayes in the locker room.  “Why the hell did you get me if you’re not going to play me?” Turnbull shouted.  “I’m a player, not a spectator.  If you’re not going to use me, then trade me.”  Hayes ordered Turnbull into his office, where the two remained for 20 minutes.

“It makes no sense,” said one reliever of Hayes’ decisions.  “If we weren’t getting work because all our starters were throwing complete game, that would be one thing.  But that’s obviously not the case.  Why are we sitting?”

Luke Danton
Luke Danton

Perhaps most controversial of all is Hayes’ treatment of veteran starter Luke Danton.  The left-hander was a fixture in Jackson’s rotation, yet on two separate occasions, Hayes brought him in to relieve in between starts.  Hayes claimed that on both days, Danton was scheduled to throw on the side anyway.  But with a crowded 8-men bullpen and several relievers already begging for work, the decision seemed strange to many.

“Talk about a vote of no confidence in your pen,” said the same reliever.  “You bring a starter in on his throw day?  Twice?  And it’s not an emergency?  That’s insane.”

Some on the team feel that Hayes’ overuse of Danton led directly to the strained rotator cuff that has landed the starter on the disabled list.  Both Danton and Hayes disagree with the assessment, but some in the Jackson clubhouse hope that the injury will lead the manager to reconsider his bullpen usage.  “This could be a scared-straight kind of moment,” said one reliever.  “It’s awful for Luke that he went down, but this could be good for us in the long run.”

The manager’s postgame comments suggest that he may be taking steps in that direction.  “We’ve been scoring a ton of runs,” Hayes said.  “But we’ve been giving up a ton too, and that’s what we’ve got to fix.  I think we’ve got the personnel here.  It might just be a matter of how we’re using them.  I’m not afraid to change it up if it’ll help. It’s early and we’re still feeling it out a bit.”

That seems to be the right sentiment.  But it leaves a lot of unanswered questions.  Is Sheen still the closer?  Will Pollan get a break?  Will Danton’s injury put an end to the starters-in-relief experiment?  Will Turnbull and the others finally get work?  The fate of the pen, and perhaps the Hammerheads’ season, hangs in the balance.

Erasmo Crofoot: From “Scrap Heap” to Stardom

Erasmo Crofoot
Erasmo Crofoot

If you saw Erasmo Crofoot on the street, you probably wouldn’t guess he was a professional baseball player.  And if you asked him, he might not tell you that he was.  “I don’t think of myself that way,” Crofoot says.  So who does he think he is?  “A professional survivor.” The title certainly fits; he made it through an upbringing and professional struggles that would have crushed most people.  But against all odds, he’s also the designated hitter for the Jackson Hammerheads.  And now that he’s got the job, he’s not letting it go without a fight.

Ask Crofoot’s teammates what stands out about him, and they all cite the same thing: his swing.  Crofoot has a surprising amount of power for a little man – he stands only 5’9″ – and part of the reason is due to his violent swing.  “It’s all or nothing with him, man,” said Hammerheads 2B Homer Righter.  “Either he hits it ten miles or he swings himself into the ground.  He doesn’t get cheated.”  So far this season, that swing is responsible for 6 homers, tied for the league lead.

Asked why he swings so hard, Crofoot says simply: “I’m fighting to stay off the scrap heap.”  Some might think he’s referring to the fact that the Hammerheads plucked him from the waiver wire in spring training and installed him in the heart of their order.  But he means it in a broader sense.  To Crofoot, his whole life has been a fight to stay off the scrap heap.

Erasmo Crofoot was born in Texas; his mother was a Mexican singer, his father a Native American musician.  His parents had a tempestuous relationship, and his mother left at age 3, never to see Erasmo again.  Rather than trying to raise his son on the road, Jonathan Crofoot sent Erasmo to live with his grandparents on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota.  “You grow up in a hurry on the rez,” Crofoot says.  “You have to.  You’ve got to start scrapping to find a way out, or you wind up drinking yourself to death.”  He speaks from experience, as his grandfather died of cirrhosis when Crofoot was 10.

Crofoot decided early on that his way out was through baseball.  He grew up listening to Minnesota Twins games on the radio, idolizing Kirby Puckett.  “He was my hero, because he was a little guy and he was a star,” says Crofoot.  “I always knew I was going to be a little guy, and I wanted to be a star like Kirby.”

Unfortunately for Crofoot, his path to stardom was far from clear.  “Baseball wasn’t big on the rez,” he says.  “Basketball, definitely.  Lacrosse, sure.  But not baseball.”  So rather than starring in high school or on a travel team, he played intramural ball.  Instead of getting a full ride at Texas or UVA, he was a walk-on at a community college in Montana, and had to play his way into a scholarship at Division III Montana Baptist.  And instead of getting drafted by an MLB team after graduating college, he wound up playing in the newly-founded Israel Baseball League.  “I’d never been out of the country,” says Crofoot.  “And suddenly, I was playing on the other side of the world.”  Crofoot averaged over .300 during his 3 seasons in Israel, but still couldn’t attract an offer from MLB.  He moved on to Australia for two seasons, and then two more in Venezuela.  He says that he didn’t mind the globetrotting.  “I never felt like I fit in anywhere,” he says, “so what difference did it make, Israel or Australia or Venezuela?  At least I was playing baseball.”

But while Crofoot was traveling around, his dream of reaching the majors kept receding.  “Eventually, I realized the scouts weren’t watching,” he says.  “I wasn’t going to get anywhere unless I came back to America.”  Last season, he played in the independent Pecos League, “Talk about low-level,” says Crofoot.  “We drove between games in a converted school bus.  We got paid $50 a week.  I was living in my car.”

By the end of the season, at age 30 and still receiving no attention from MLB, Crofoot was ready to hang it up.  “You can’t spend your whole life chasing a dream and never catching it,” he says.  “That’ll make you crazy.  I figured it was time for me to let it go, quit wandering, put down roots and get a real job.”

But when Crofoot heard about the Patriot League, he decided to give it one more shot.  “When the draft came and went and no one took me, I figured that was a sign,” he says.  “One last kick in the teeth to remind me that no one wants me.”  But while Crofoot was preparing for life after baseball, someone was finally taking a look at his numbers: specifically, Hammerheads owner/GM Steven Butler.  “I realized this guy could flat rake,” Butler says.  “I couldn’t believe no one had snapped him up.”

So Butler signed him, and manager Lou Hayes put him in the lineup, and now Crofoot is determined to seize his chance.  “I know if I don’t produce, this could all be over tomorrow,” he says.  “I could be right back on the scrap heap.  So I’ve got to keep scrapping and fighting.”

But for now, at least, Hayes, Butler, and the Hamerheads couldn’t be happier with their bargain-basement DH.  And Crofoot, violent swings and all, couldn’t be happier to finally find a place where someone wants him.