According to sources close to the team, Spicer’s decision was driven in part by the money-making opportunities presented by his new gig, and no one expected his role as Jackson’s PA announcer to be permanent. However, those sources say that there was also friction between Spicer and Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler.
The friction existed from the very beginning of Spicer’s tenure, when Butler reportedly pressured him to announce the attendance at Hammerheads games as higher than it really was. But matters reportedly came to a head after the trading deadline.
Although the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Swap” worked feverishly to strike a deal to improve the Hammerheads’ position, he was unable to do so. However, before that evening’s game, Butler reportedly called Spicer in a drunken rage and ordered him to introduce the team as the “first-place Jackson Hammerheads” and state that Eddie Battin would be hitting cleanup for Jackson that night. When Spicer pointed out that the Hammerheads were in third pland and Battin was still the property of the rival Knoxville Smokies, Butler told him to make the announcements anyway.
The final straw for Spicer, apparently, came when word broke that the Hammerheads were considering hiring Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci as marketing director. This was more than Spicer could bear, and he announced his resignation the next day.
Spicer declined to comment on his resignation. Butler denied any reports of friction between the two, and issued a statement wishing his former public-address man well in his new job. “I am grateful for Sean’s work on behalf of my team and the people of Jackson,” said the owner/whiz-kid GM. “I wish him continued success as he moves on to pursue new opportunities – just look at our great attendance numbers!”
“The Sultan strikes again!” exulted Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler. “They might as well FedEx us the championship trophy, because it’s going to be ours!”
Dennis has been the Sazeracs’ most reliable fireman by far this season. In 59 innings, the 26-year-old southpaw has gone 0-2 with a 3.20 ERA and a .661 OPS against. New Orleans selected Dennis in the expansion draft from Knoxville, where he went 7-2 with a 4.35 ERA in 2015.
“We really appreciate everything Tobias Dennis has done for us,” said Sazeracs owner Jeff Wiggins. “We’re glad to give him an opportunity to go after another ring.”
Dennis seems likely to work the late innings for Jackson. He joins a pen that’s crowded from the left side, however; Walker, Hilton Sircy, Rick Sheen, Josh Nichols, Brett Pollan, and Woody Flowers are all left-handed; closer Bobby Boniface is the only righty currently in the Heads’ relief corps.
“I can get both lefties and righties out,” said Dennis. “I’m up for whatever role they want to use me in.”
In trading Thomasson, Jackson sends out a fan favorite, albeit one who received little playing time behind Clarence Doyle. The 27-year-old Thomasson appeared in only 15 games for the Hammerheads this season, batting .276 with a .902 OPS. He has a reputation as a strong hitter but a weak fielder. For New Orleans, which has struggled to generate offense behind the dish, Thomasson could be just what the doctor ordered. Starter Prince Carlo has hit .244 with a .583 OPS, while backups Dave Chavez and Dustin Gould have combined to post only a .143 average.
“Hong will always hold a special place in Jackson hearts,” said Butler. “We wish him well in the Big Easy.”
Butler then turned to the camera and raised his voice. “But back to business… look out Knoxville, you slack-jawed [SOBs]!” the owner/whiz-kid GM hollered. “What you gonna do when the Heads run wild on you. brother????!!!” Butler then ripped off his shirt and flexed his muscles, showing off a tattoo on his right bicep of a bald eagle attacking Smokies manager Snuff Wallace.
The Jackson Hammerheads added another famous face to their organization this week. On Saturday, the team announced that it was hiring former White House press secretary Sean Spicer to serve as their public address announcer. Spicer replaces Ricky Widmer, who left the team last month to focus on running his family’s catfish farm.
“Anyone who’s been watching the news knows that Sean was looking for a job,” said Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler. “And we had an opening over here. So I reached out to him, more or less as a joke. But to my surprise, he wrote back and expressed interest, so he came down to talk about it. A couple hours and several beers later, we had a deal.”
“Honestly, this is kind of a dream job for me,” said Spicer. “I love baseball; I grew up rooting for the Red Sox. And right now, I’m happy for a job that’s a little less stressful and lower-profile. Melissa McCarthy doesn’t go on SNL to make fun of Jackson’s PA guy. This gives me some time to get relax and think about where I want to go next.”
Butler said that he’d toyed with the idea of not announcing the hiring. “I thought about just having Sean show up and start doing it. Our fans would say to themselves, ‘Hmm, that guy sure sounds familiar.’ And then just wait to see how long it took for people to figure it out.”
Asked about the Hammerheads’ double-digit deficit in the Eastern division, Spicer grew irate. “Any statements to that effect are simply false,” he snapped at reporters. “The Jackson Hammerheads have the largest division lead any team has ever had, period, both in America and around the globe. These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of Hammerheads fans for the season are shameful and wrong. I fully intend to hold the press accountable for their campaign of misinformation.”
Spicer’s new job didn’t escape the attention of the president, who reacted to the news in a Sunday-morning tweetstorm. “Big step down for Sean Spicer to join the failing Jackson Hammerheads. Sad!” the president tweeted. “If he wants to make baseball great again, should have joined the Knoxville Smokies with my good friend Snuff Wallace. A great American!”
The Jackson Hammerheads are hoping for a second-half surge that will carry them to the playoffs in a competitive Eastern division. They’ve certainly got the bats to contend; their hard-hitting lineup is one of the league’s best run-producing units. But their struggling pitching staff threatens to undermine Jackson’s championship aspirations.
Looking for a spark to get their pitching staff turned around, the Hammerheads today announced the firing of pitching coach Steve Parkinson and the hiring of Hall of Famer Randy Johnson to replace him.
“I’ve made it clear from the beginning that I expect titles from this team, nothing less,” said Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler. “Our pitching staff isn’t holding up their end of the bargain, so it’s time to make a change. And if you’re going to bring in someone to teach your staff, why not have them learn from the best?”
Jackson’s pitching definitely needs some help. The Hammerheads are 8th in the league in ERA, 9th in OPS against, and 10th in WHIP. They’ve struggled both in their rotation, where lefty Kiko Walton has been the only consistently reliable arm, and the bullpen, where the team lacks depth and has struggled to identify a closer.
“Before I took this job, I asked them to send me film on all their pitchers, so I could see what I was up against,” said Johnson. “After about five minutes I had to switch it off, because it was making me sick to my stomach. These guys suck like a vacuum cleaner.”
Johnson’s credentials are beyond reproach. He won 303 games in his 22-season career, and is second on the all-time strikeouts list with 4,875. He was a ten-time All-Star and won his league’s ERA title four times.
“I could suit up right now and do a better job than any of these clowns,” said Johnson of the Hammerheads staff. “And I’m in my fifties. It’s gonna take a lot of work to whip these losers into shape. Fortunately, I could take any of them, easy.”
The Hammerheads aren’t the only Patriot League team to turn to an all-time great for pitching help. Last year, the Orlando Calrissians brought in John Smoltz (who was inducted into the Hall in 2015, the same year as Johnson) in midseason to fix their floundering staff. Smoltz didn’t work any miracles in season, but Orlando’s pitching has gotten markedly better in this campaign.
“I looked at what Orlando did under Smoltz, and I said to myself, ‘I wonder if I could make that happen here,’” said Butler. “I started thinking about who I could get, and I started reaching out to some of the retired greats. Most of them didn’t return my calls, but Randy did. He was skeptical at first, but once my check cleared, he was willing to work with us.”
“Nothing personal against Steve,” said Butler. “We wish him the best.”
Now Johnson takes on the formidable challenge of molding the Hammerheads’ ragtag group of hurlers into a winner. “I’m ready to do what it takes to take this staff to the next level,” said Johnson. “They’re obviously desperate for help, and I think I can make an impression on them. With my fists, if I have to.”
At this stage of the Patriot League season, most teams have a good sense of their shortcomings and the areas where they need help. The Jackson Hammerheads, for instance, have struggled to identify consistent lockdown arms in the bullpen. Meanwhile, the New Orleans Sazeracs are desperately seeking stability in their rotation. The teams have struck a deal to try to address their respective weaknesses, with New Orleans shipping veteran left-handed reliever Boss Walker to Jackson in exchange for starter Yu Chen.
The 35-year-old Walker has been used primarily as a lefty specialist by New Orleans this season, with a 1-0 record and a pair of save to go along with a 4.41 ERA. He split last season between Salt Lake and California, providing some much-needed stability for the left side of the Sharks’ relief corps. For Jackson, a team that’s already well-stocked with lefty relievers, they’re hoping to use Walker as a late-inning weapon against lefties and righties alike.
“We’re very excited to bring The Boss here to Jackson,” said Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler. “He’s got the kind of experience and attitude we’re looking for in the late innings. He’s the key piece to solving our bullpen puzzle. The rest of the teams in the East should just save us all some time and give up now. I’ll send them all tickets to our championship parade.”
Walker is a native of Mississippi, but he will miss the Big Easy. “New Orleans is my favorite city in the world,” said Walker. “But Jackson’s a better team, and I’m all in to get me a ring. Besides, we’ll be through town pretty often, so I’ll have plenty of chances to get my jazz and jambalaya fix.”
Chen represents an intriguing buy-low opportunity for the Sazeracs. The 28-year-old Korean lefty came to Jackson last season in the disastrous Eddie Battin deal, and failed to establish himself as a fixture in the Hammerheads’ rotation. After going 4-3 with a 5.23 ERA in 2016, Chen was exiled to the bullpen down the stretch. He got another chance to start this season, but flamed out quickly and returned to relief exile.
Chen’s numbers this season testify both to his poor performance and his limited use: 0-1, one save, and a 9.39 ERA in only 16 1/3 innings of work. Butler had been shopping Chen aggressively around the league, but found few takers.
The Sazeracs, though, are in desperate need of rotation help. They’ve had a solid top two in Darius Tice and Matthew Erickson, but otherwise they’ve been plagued by injuries, ineffectiveness, and an addiction to the local nightlife. One season-opening start, Norm “Rattler” LaForce, landed in alcohol rehab.
“It’s no secret that we need some help in the rotation,” said Sazeracs owner/GM Jeff Wiggins. “We’re hoping that given a low-pressure environment and the chance to straighten out his mechanics, Yu will be able to rediscover the form that made him successful in Korea. Let the good starts roll!”
As part of the trade, the Hammerheads and Sazeracs agreed to exchange players to be named later. Both parties were tight-lipped on that aspect of the deal, but Butler reportedly submitted a lengthy list of conditions regarding the PTBNL exchange prior to the league office approving the deal. According to sources with knowledge of the deal, the list was notarized and ran up to 10 pages. Asked for specifics, Butler declined, saying, “Revealing those details might compromise other trades that the Sultan of Swap has in the works. But we made sure to cover all appropriate contingencies. The details will be revealed at the appropriate time.”
Knoxville Smokies left-hander Woody Flowers finally got his wish. After a season-plus of suffering torrents of insults and abuse from his manager, and two weeks after demanding a trade, Flowers finally got out of Knoxville as the Smokies shipped him to the rival Jackson Hammerheads in exchange for reliever Sam Drawdy.
“It’s a tremendous relief to me,” said Flowers. “I feel like I’m escaping a war zone.”
The trade closes the book on a long and contentious relationship between Flowers and manager Snuff Wallace. The southpaw began last season as an expected top starter for the Smokies, but scuffled somewhat in the early going while suffering anxiety attacks. Flowers’ struggles – and his openness in discussing his anxiety issues with the media – made him a target for Wallace, a defiantly old-school manager who believes in ridicule as a tool to inspire better performance.
Wallace repeatedly derided Flowers in public and private, questioning his masculinity and frequently describing him using homophobic slurs. The left-hander privately appealed to the front office to be traded at last year’s deadline, but the team opted to keep him.
This year, Flowers reported to camp and was shocked to find that Wallace had banished him to the bullpen. The pitcher performed well in limited action, but lost patience when Wallace repeatedly denied him spot-start opportunities. Earlier this month, Flowers went public with his unhappiness and his trade demand, saying that he had been “bullied” by Wallace. In response, the skipper acknowledged his lack of respect for Flowers and said “I’m not gonna shed any tears if he’s gone.”
Early this week – reportedly at the insistence of Knoxville owner/GM Jeremy Mills – Wallace finally gave Flowers his first start of the season. The left-hander struggled, giving up five runs in 6 innings and taking the loss. Wallace responded by calling Flowers a “whiny little baby” and adding, “He’ll be lucky if I let him on the mound again this year.”
At this point, Mills finally acknowledge that Flowers and Wallace could not co-exist on the same team and began shopping the southpaw actively. He found a willing taker in Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler, a frequent trading partner whose team has struggled to find reliable arms all season.
The fact that Drawdy was the only return in the deal suggested both how far Flowers’ stock had fallen in the Knoxville organization and how desperate Mills was to make a deal. The 25-year-old lefty reliever has turned in undistinguished results in his rookie campaign with Jackson, going 0-1 with 1 save and a 4.97 ERA over 12 2/3 innings. He is expected to figure in the late-inning picture for Knoxville, which has gotten underwhelming results from southpaw relievers Spencer Einhorn and Jason Landau.
“Flowers was a fan favorite in Knoxville and great teammate,” said Mills. “If the opportunity arises, Flowers would be welcome back to the Smokies at any time.”
Wallace did not share his owner’s sentiments. “I’m glad Mr. Mills finally stepped up and shipped that pansy out of town,” said the manager. “I was tired of changing his diapers and listening to him whine. [Hammerheads manager Bob] Henley might be happy now, but once he finds out what a weak whiny little pansy he’s got on his hands, he’ll change his tune. Welcome to your new nightmare, Bobby!”
For his part, Butler isn’t shy about declaring the deal a win for his team. “Chalk up another dynamite deal for the Sultan!” crowed the Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM. “See you in the playoffs, Mills.”
Sources close to the Hammerheads organization reported that Butler bonded with his new acquisition by throwing darts at pictures of Mills and Wallace. The owner/whiz-kid GM would not confirm or deny the rumor.
The Jackson Hammerheads‘ patience closer with troubled closer Rick Sheen has finally reached its limit. After a season-plus of shaky on-field results and off-field problems with alcohol, Sheen has been bumped from the closer role. According to team sources, manager Bob Henley has been contemplating the move for a while, but finally pulled the trigger after an embarrassing incident in yesterday’s game.
Sheen worked the 9th inning of yesterday’s 4-1 win over Orlando, but observers noticed that for some reason, he was wearing teammate Hilton Sircy’s jersey while he did so. Henley refused to comment on it after the game, but team sources described a chaotic and bizarre scene.
The night before, Henley had called on Sircy, not Sheen, in a key situation in the 9th. As a result, Sheen went out and drowned his frustrations at a local bar for hours afterward. When Sheen arrived at the ballpark yesterday, he was reportedly extremely hung over. In the early innings of the games, he napped in the bullpen, trying to sleep off his hangover.
During the top of the 9th, Henley called down to the bullpen and ordered Sheen to warm up. Bullpen coach Tommy Clemons went over to rouse Sheen, who had dozed off. When Sheen came to, he immediately threw up all over his jersey. A flustered Clemons called Henley and told him that Sheen was unavailable. When Henley asked why and Clemons said that Sheen was hungover, the manager became furious. “He damn well better get his [expletive] in the game. I don’t care if you have to carry him in.”
To spare Sheen the embarrassment of appearing in a stained jersey, Sircy offered his shirt to the closer. So out came Sheen, wearing Sircy’s jersey. To his credit, he managed to pitch a scoreless inning – lowering his ERA to 9.26, and collect his fourth save of the season. After the game, Henley held a closed-door meeting with Sheen that lasted over a half-hour.
Trouble with alcohol has been a constant of Sheen’s brief career, dating back to spring training of his rookie season, when he was arrested after being in a bar fight. He clashed on several occasions with the late Lou Hayes, Jackson’s manager last season, over his penchant for drinking and partying. At the team’s insistence, Sheen went to the Betty Ford Clinic in the offseason. But as his season got off to a rocky start, he took to the bottle again.
“Look, I like Rick,” said Henley. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this. But I’ve got a ballclub to run, and we’ve got to win games. And right now, Rick’s not helping us do that.”
Henley said that Bobby Boniface will take over as the Hammerheads’ closer. Sheen will be relegated to mopup duty until he can straighten out his pitching and get his drinking under control.
To soften the blow, Henley and Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler reportedly took Sheen out for an evening on the town, enjoying a fine meal and a night of gambling at the casino attached to Orlando’s stadium. “Rick may not be our closer any more, but he’s still part of the family,” said Butler. Rumors that the evening came to a premature end when the owner/whiz-kid GM took a swing at another patron are unconfirmed.
The Jackson Hammerheads never expected to find themselves here. After finishing a strong second in the East last season, Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler made a series of aggressive trades designed to propel them to the top. Instead, after a dreadful first couple of weeks, the Hammerheads are stuck in the cellar with a 5-10 record.
Worse yet, the biggest problem plaguing Jackson is the same issue that derailed them last year: the pitching staff. The Hammerheads’ 6.14 team ERA is the worst in the league by a healthy margin. The rotation has posted a dismal 6.83 mark; only first-year man Willie Lebron has inspired confidence. And the bullpen has been responsible for a surge in ulcers around central Mississippi after a string of late-inning meltdowns.
Manager Bob Henley has seen enough. Today, the skipper announced a shakeup of his pitching staff.
“When you got the kind of talent we’ve got, this kind of start just ain’t acceptable,” said Henley. “We’re not performing, so I’m making some changes. And I’ll keep making changes until we get this right.”
In order to fix the rotation, Henley demoted Korean lefty Yu Chen to the bullpen and made righty Tony Harris a starter. Chen was acquired from Knoxville in the middle of last season and turned in underwhelming numbers. This season, he’s been even worse, going 0-1 with a 10.95 ERA and barely averaging 4 innings per start. The 37-year-old Harris, acquired from Jacksonville shortly before the start of this season, has excelled in long-relief work, posting a 1.35 ERA in 7 appearances.
“What I’ve seen out of Tony is a guy who get the job done and inspires confidence,” said Henley. “I’m not seeing that same confidence in Yu. In my clubhouse, you do the job and you get rewarded. Tony’s earned a chance to show us what he can do.”
To address the relief problems, Henley sent Butch Turnbull to the minors. The hard-throwing right-hander has appeared frequently in late-game situations, making 9 appearances already in the young season. Unfortunately, he’s struggled badly, going 0-2 with an 8.53 ERA.
“I’ve given Butch plenty of rope, and he’s made a noose out of it,” said Henley. “I’ve seen enough.”
Turnbull’s roster spot will be given to DH Dexter Jester. His late-inning duties will be turned over to righty Bobby Boniface and lefties Hilton Sircy and Sam Drawdy.
A furious Turnbull responded to the move by demanding a trade. “I don’t know what they want me to do here,” the righty fumed. “Last year, I practically had to beg to get into games. This year, they run me out there every night. I don’t know if they’re trying to ruin me or what, but I’m sick of it. I want to go to a team that will just let me pitch and quit jerking me around.”
Henley hopes the moves will put other struggling pitchers on notice. Henley did not demote closer Rick Sheen, who’s blown 2 of 4 save opportunities and is allowing a 1.381 OPS against, or #1 starter Henry Jones, who’s gone 0-3 with an 8.10 ERA on the season. But he stressed that no one, regardless of salary or reputation, is safe.
“Now they know I’m serious,” said Henley. “If you don’t do your job, you’re gonna spend some time on the bench or in the minors. No excuses.”
Leaked information from inside the clubhouse suggested that Henley is contemplating replacing Sheen as closer with Boniface; the manager said only, “Everything’s on the table if we don’t get better.”
In his role as owner/whiz-kid GM of the Jackson Hammerheads, Steven Butler has made two things clear: he loves putting on a show, and he hates the rival Knoxville Smokies. Those two threads came together in spectacular fashion this weekend. The Heads had their home opener against the Smokies on Saturday, and Butler marked the occasion by overseeing a wild, over-the-top opening ceremony that left some of the Smokies seeing red.
The controversy began in fittingly strange fashion. Shortly before the season began, Jackson acquired CF Santiago Suarez from the California Sharks. The trade seemed to surprise Smokies owner Jeremy Mills, who had called Suarez a “hometown hero” and predicted that he would never be dealt. Mills also appeared irked that Butler dubbed himself the “Sultan of Swap” in the wake of the Suarez trade; the Smokies owner is also known as a frequent trader. Mills’ comments were innocuous enough, but Butler spied an opportunity to stoke the rivalry with his foes from Tennessee.
Butler announced that he would hold a “Hero’s Welcome” ceremony to greet Suarez during Jackson’s home opener, which just happened to be against Knoxville. Asked what the ceremony would entail, the whiz-kid GM was tight-lipped on the details, but said that it was a ceremony that the Smokies and the fans “would never forget.”
On Saturday, everyone got to see what Butler had planned. Just before the teams were due to be introduced, the lights at Cash Carter Downs went out. The fans initially believed it was a blackout, but that suspicion was soon dispelled as colored searchlights began sweeping the field. As the lights came back up, the strains of James Brown’s “Living in America” began to throb over the PA system.
As the fans began to clap along with the song, the center-field gate opened and a group of male dancers clad in sparkly bodysuits and hats paraded onto the field. While the fans laughed and cheered, the visiting Smokies looked around in bewilderment. The male dancers were then joined by a group of women dressed like old-fashioned Vegas showgirls, and the crowd erupted with delight.
The spectacle became even more spectacular as the Hammerheads’ ground crew ran onto the field waving giant American flags and a pair of WWI-era biplanes flew over the stadium.
Just when it seemed like the ceremony couldn’t get any crazier, the fans suddenly spotted Butler and Suarez descending from the roof of the stadium on a platform containing a golden shark head with glowing red eyes, with flames shooting upward from the corners. As the pair came into view, the crowd saw that the owner/whiz-kid GM was clad in an Uncle Sam hat, an American-flag tailcoat, and star-spangled shorts. Butler danced frantically along with the music while Suarez, wearing his uniform with an American flag draped over his shoulders, smiled and waved to the crowd.
The platform came to rest on the field, and Suarez jogged to his position in center field and acknowledged the roars of the fans. Butler lit a pair of sparklers and sprinted along the warning track, high-fiving fans as he passed. Meanwhile, a brass band wearing Hammerheads-blue tuxedos marched onto the field, adding to the general mayhem.
The Hammerheads’ in-game entertainment crew fired Jackson T-shirts with Suarez’s autograph out of a cannon and into the crowd. Butler, meanwhile, ran to the mound and thrust up his arms, whereupon two bald eagles came screaming out of the sky and landed on his shoulders.
Finally, as the song came to an end, Butler collapsed to his knees, and a team employee ran out and threw a flag cape over his shoulders before escorting him off through the home dugout. In the ensuing pandemonium, several fans rushed on the field; others threw beer cups, coins, and hot-dog wrappers at the Smokies. Irate Knoxville manager Snuff Wallace raced after head umpire Trent Capps to demand a forfeit, a demand the umpire refused to grant. It was almost 45 minutes before order could be restored and the game could begin.
After the game, a 6-3 Knoxville win, Wallace began his post-game press conference with a stream of obscenities directed at Butler, Suarez, and the Hammerheads. “Damn fools can’t beat us, so they’re out here trying to start a [expletive] riot,” fumed the Smokies skipper. “Is this a [expletive] ballgame or the [expletive] circus? Well, you can [expletive] well believe that they sure as [expletive] fired us up to win this game and kick the [expletive] out of them. And you [expletive] well believe this [expletive] ain’t [expletive] over. Me and Mr. Mills both got a [expletive] memory like a [expletive] elephant, and we’re good and hell well going to get our [expletive] revenge for this [expletive] show.”
The league has not announced plans to discipline Butler or the Hammerheads for their actions.
When the whiz-kid GM was asked about the incident, he only smiled. “I know I had a good time,” said Butler. “Didn’t you?”
On Thursday, Butler called a press conference to announce that his team had struck a pair of trades. Thus far, the Heads have completed four swaps before the season has even season. Butler chose to commemorate the occasion in his trademark style, adding another to his self-designated list of titles.
“From now on, you can call me the Sultan of Swap,” said the Jackson majordomo. “Nobody out-deals this whiz kid!”
Both of the most recent deals are meant to fix chinks in the Hammerheads’ armor that were exposed last year. One such area was starting pitching depth. Jackson’s rotation was suspect throughout last season, and wound up being exposed due to injuries. With that in mind, the Heads acquired veteran starter Tony Harris from the Jacksonville Dragons in exchange for the rights to RF Dustin Gonzalez.
Harris, a 37-year-old righty, put up less-than-impressive numbers for the Dragons last season, going 2-6 with a 6.26 ERA in 13 games. He was the target of a particularly vicious rant from since-fired manager Harlan Davidson, who called him “washed up” and told him to “pack his little hobo bindle and hit the road.” But Harris was later diagnosed with a partially torn elbow ligament, which has reportedly healed over the offseason.
“Last year was kind of a lost season for me,” said Harris. “But I’m feeling a lot better and I’m ready to show what I can do. I feel like I’ve still got gas left in the tank.”
Harris is considered a long shot to make Jackson’s rotation, but the Heads hope that he can step in as a veteran innings-eater if injury issues crop up again. “Tony’s exactly the kind of guy we need to have around,” said Jackson manager Bob Henley. “He’s a real pack mule, a guy who can come in and put up steady numbers. Guys like that may seem like a dime a dozen, but when you don’t got one, you sure wish you did.”
Gonzalez, who was picked by Jackson in the seventh round of this year’s draft, is a 23-year-old power-hitting prospect out of Southern California. In his senior season at Cal State-San Gorgonzola, he established himself as an all-or-nothing type of player: he hit .243 with 35 homers and 98 RBI, but also racked up an eye-popping 205 strikeouts.
Gonzalez was unlikely to stick with the Hammerheads, who play in the cavernous Cash Carter Downs and feature a contact-based offense. However, Dragons owner Eric Stetson’s affinity for raw power is well known, and the rookie has a good shot to break camp as a fourth or fifth outfielder.
“Dustin seems like the kind of kid who can put on a show,” said new Dragons skipper Steve Califano. “He hits the kind of bombs that make your neck snap trying to follow them.”
“The Dragons organization has two goals: to win a championship, and to become the premier power organization in the Patriot League,” said Stetson. “Dustin Gonzalez helps us in both of those areas. We wish Tony well.”
“That’s how I operate,” said Butler. “I get a guy in, and if there’s no room for him, I’ll turn right around and ship him back out. That’s why I’m the Sultan of Swap.”
The 36-year-old Ortiz was delighted to be heading back to California. “Back to my adopted home!” said the veteran infielder. “I am very happy to be going back to this team and this city. I was sad when I learned I had been traded away, so to come back is a dream come true for me. I wasn’t even gone long enough to sell my house.”
Ortiz, who hit .383 in a limited run with California last season, is expected to platoon at first base with Jamal Gerke. “I am beyond thrilled to have Max back,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte. “He is a strong and capable player, and I expect that he will do great things with us this season.”
While Ortiz’s reunion with California is a happy occasion, Suarez’s departure from the Sharks brings an end to an unhappy tenure marked with unfulfilled potential. The 23-year-old Mexican native was expected to be a star for California, combining a great glove with blazing speed and a strong batting stroke. However, Suarez’s numbers didn’t match the hype.
While his fielding was as excellent as expected, he proved to be only average as a base stealer (swiping 27 bags in 40 attempted) and a weak hitter, he hit only .236 with a .630 OPS. He was dropped from second to eighth in the order during the season, and became a frequent target of boos.
Suarez lost his starting spot when the Sharks picked CF Justin Canales in this year’s draft, and he was considered a 50-50 shot to make the major-league roster this season. Despite the fact that the writing was clearly on the wall, Suarez was reportedly shocked and devastated by the trade. He packed up his locker at Blue Note Stadium and left without speaking to reporters or saying goodbye to his teammates.
“This can be a difficult business sometimes,” said Aponte. “I was very sorry that things did not work out for him here. He is a sensitive young man, and I believe there was too much pressure for him to succeed here. Perhaps this fresh start will be what he needs.”
For the Hammerheads, Suarez’s glove is a tremendous asset. Jackson had serious problems with outfield defense last season, given the enormous dimensions of their park and the fact that many of their outfielders were below-average fielders. CF Damian “Black Hammer” Deason put up an appallingly bad .944 fielding percentage last year.
“Boy, do we need a guy like Santiago,” said Henley. “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, and he can cover the other third. Whatever he can give us with the bat is just gravy. But I think a park this big, he’ll be able to hit it into the gaps and just run all day. His speed and this park were made for each other.”
Butler promised to do his best to make Suarez feel appreciated in his new home. He indicated that he planned a “hero’s welcome” for Suarez, to be held before the Hammerheads’ first home game against Knoxville. While the whiz-kid GM was tight-lipped on the details, he promised that it was a ceremony the Smokies “would never forget.”
Asked for a response, Smokies owner Jeremy Mills said, “The 2015 PBL Eastern Division Champions have no comment. Mr. Butler can give himself all the titles he wants, but we have the one that counts.”