PBL 2016 Season in Review: Jacksonville Dragons

At the end of the PBL’s inaugural season in 2015, the Jacksonville Dragons were in a bad place.  Widely expected to be a championship contender, the Dragons belly-flopped to a sub-.500 record.  Then-manager Harlan Davidson’s habit of attacking his players in comments to the media divided and demoralized the locker room.  The team’s pitching staff was abysmal; their offense, expected to be the team’s strength, was mediocre.  Arguably, the team’s best-known player was John Longroofan, the troubled lefty reliever who was banished after only 5 appearances and multiple on-field meltdowns, only to resurface with a string of wild and unfounded accusations that Jacksonville’s bullpen was in league with gamblers to throw games.

Firing Davidson and releasing Longroofan at season’s end provided some catharsis for the players, but it seemed unlikely that the Dragons could improve much this season, let alone contend for a playoff spot.  But Jacksonville stunned the baseball world in 2016, improving by 13 games and making the Eastern Division Series, which they pushed to the limit before falling to Knoxville.

“Our team is back on the right track,” said a jubilant Eric Stetson, owner/GM of the Dragons.  “We’ll be looking to build on this year’s success with renewed confidence.”

Any discussion of Jacksonville’s success this season has to begin with the 180-degree change in the clubhouse culture.  New manager Steve Califano stressed his belief in “the power of affirmation,” a marked difference from Davidson’s acerbic barbs.  He never missed an opportunity to praise his players, both publicly and privately, and the team responded.

“Having Steve in charge, the difference was night and day,” said Dragons RF Roderick Hopps.  “Last year, the clubhouse was no place to be.  The minute the game ended and we got dressed, everybody took off.  There was no team spirit, no unity.  This year, everyone felt good, we were happy to come to the ballpark.  We all had a positive attitude.  And that started with Steve.”

On the field, Jacksonville improved largely thanks to a more potent and balanced offense, bolstered by several new faces.  Last season, the Dragons’ attack was powered through three players: Hopps, 3B Jake Kapoor, and LF Rob Hartley.  This season, they got a boost from a pair of rookies: 1B Miguel Soria (.301, 44 HR, 127 RBI, .945 OPS) and DH/CF Sandy Soltero (.276, 27 HR, .851 OPS).  Toss in a strong rebound from 2B Emerson Taliaferro (.306, 51 doubles, 124 runs), and continued productivity from the Judson Teachout/Jan Esquivel catching platoon, and you had a dangerous and multi-dimensional lineup.  Although Stetson has a well-known fondness for the longball, the Dragons were only fourth in the league in homers (with 249), but third in average (.284) and second in OPS (.849).

Stetson credited hitting coach Ernie Zambrucka for the team’s resurgence at the dish.  The colorful coach instituted a serious weight training and fitness regimen, which kept the team in peak shape throughout the season.  “Players love [Zambrucka], and he inspires them to reach their full potential,” said the owner.  “Ernie has quickly proven himself to be a great coach – he knows how to balance discipline with a fun atmosphere in the locker room.”

Meanwhile, the Dragons’ pitching improved somewhat, but didn’t rise above adequate.  Ace Biggs McGee finally began pitching up to his self-proclaimed potential, running up a 12-2 record in the second half to finish 18-11 with a 3.86 ERA and a .716 OPS against.  Right-hander Kyle Palmer continued to struggle with inconsistency, but managed to rack up 204 strikeouts and 17 wins.  Perhaps the biggest surprise was rookie righty Bryce Hobbs, who came out of nowhere to post a 16-3 mark despite a pedestrian 4.16 ERA.  Stetson described Hobbs’ performance as “a pleasant and much-needed surprise.”

In the bullpen, which was a horror show last season, Jacksonville discovered a triad of reliable firemen.  Southpaw Blueberry Jackson, one of the Dragons’ few good arms in 2015, was even better this season (4-4, 2.85 ERA, .674 OPS against).  A bounce-back year from righty Razor Corridon (6-6, 3.36, .631 OPS allowed) and a strong freshman season from lefty Lance Newman (5-7, 2.77, .676) meant that the late innings at Tesla Field were far less trauma-inducing than in previous years.  Califano juggled the closer’s role between the three, and each notched 10 saves.  Califano declared himself “totally stoked” about the team’s back-end situation.

So what’s on the agenda for Jacksonville in 2017?  Stetson put it simply: “Improve our starting pitching, and take the next step by winning the Eastern Division.”  The rotation does seem like the Dragons’ best shot for improvement.  If McGee can duplicate his second-half performance over a full season, the team would have an ace who could go toe-to-toe with the league’s best.  If Palmer can possibly trade a bit of velocity for better command and consistency, he can be a quality #2 starter.  Hobbs figures to regress to the mean a bit next season, but he should at least be a reliable mid-rotation innings-eater.

The back end of the rotation needs help, though; Juan Sarmiento (5-8, 5.41) remains an enigma, his potential marred by injury and wildness, and Randy Tomblin (1-3, 6.54) flopped after coming over from Knoxville in a deadline deal.

Given that Califano is a former pitcher, and pitching coach Nick Altrock also had a sterling record in the UBL, there’s cause for hope in this area.  The manager admitted that a “major change in coaching philosophy” from the previous regime made it hard for some players to adjust; perhaps they’ll do better with another year under their belts.

But Jacksonville doesn’t need miracles from their starters; they just need them to be more than mediocre.  If they can take that step, Stetson’s division-title dreams might just come true in 2017.

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.”

Smokies Strike Three Deals at Deadline

Did the Knoxville Smokies need to make a deadline trade?  They’ve been well out front in the East for almost the entire season, having built a lead as large as 15 games.  They’re the overwhelming favorites to win the division and a virtual lock to make the playoffs.  However, the Smokies have slipped a bit in recent weeks and the Jacksonville Dragons have been surging, cutting Knoxville’s lead to 8 1/2 games.  So perhaps the Smokies needed to make a trade to shore up their position.

Jeremy Mills, Duke of the Deadline

On the other hand, Smokies owner/GM Jeremy Mills never needs an excuse to make a trade.  He is a well-known trading obsessive.  It’s rumored that Mills is largely interested in his team because it gives him an excuse to make trades.  He makes trades when his team is doing well, and he makes trades when they’re doing poorly.  He deals players on hot streak, and he deals players in slumps.  He makes trades to improve his team, and he makes trades just for the heck of it.  Give the man even the slightest hint of a trade offer, and he’ll pounce on it like a tiger on fresh meat.

Given Mills’ insatiable lust for dealmaking, it’s no surprise that even during a fairly quiet deadline, the Smokies made not one, not two, but three deals.  “You know how it is with trades: one’s too many and a thousand is never enough,” said the Knoxville owner.

Somewhat surprisingly, the first deal the Smokies made was with the team chasing them in the standings, the Dragons.  It was a swap of starters in need of a change of scenery, as Knoxville acquired left-hander Randy Cannon from the Dragons in exchange for southpaw Rick Tomblin.  The 25-yer-old Cannon was a solid innings-eater in Jacksonville’s rotation last season, but after getting off to a rough start with sporadic work this season, he was quickly exiled to the bullpen.  At the time of the trade, he sported an 0-3 record with a 6.69 ERA.

“We wish Randy Cannon well,” said Dragons owner Eric Stetson.  “He’s a good man and a solid pitcher.  We felt that a fresh start was the best way for Randy to get his career back on track.”

Tomblin, meanwhile, was dealt at the deadline for the second straight season; last season, the Smokies picked him up from Orlando at the end of July.  The 23-year-old started the season in Knoxville’s rotation before getting exiled after a slow start.  After spending time in the bullpen and in the minors, Smokies manager Snuff Wallace promoted Tomblin back to a starting role after rookie Jody Garrity got hurt.  He did a credible job, although he left multiple starts early due to injury.  He did pass the Dragons’ medical exam, however, and seems likely to bring his live arm into Jacksonville’s rotation.  He compiled a 1-1 record and a 4.66 ERA with Knoxville.

“Rick’s a tremendous talent, and it wasn’t easy to trade him,” said Mills.  “But Randy’s a special one, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to acquire him.  And clearly, I can’t pass up the opportunity to acquire anyone.”

Knoxville’s second deal of the day involved the Carolina Comets.  The Smokies acquired 2B Quincy Gaytan and lefty starter Adrian Pierce from the Comets in exchange for a pair of right-handers, starter Nico Library and reliever Jose Mariata.  The trade was a bit of a head-scratcher for both sides.  The Smokies already have a second sacker in Jeremiah Campo.  Gaytan has a reputation as a quality fielder, and he got off to a hot start with the bat this season.  But he’s gone cold over the last couple months, with his average sinking to .281, with no power.  Pierce, meanwhile, is a 22-year-old rookie who has yet to play a PBL game.

In exchange, the Comets pick up a pair of intriguing but extremely raw prospects.  Mariata, whom the Smokies acquired from Salt Lake last season, has a triple-digit fastball, but he has major control issues.  On the season, the 21-year-old Mariata sports a 10.00 ERA, has allowed more than twice as many hits as innings pitched, and has walked three times as many hitters as he has struck out.  Library, meanwhile, is a marginal 24-year-old prospect who showed mysterious flashes of adequacy during a limited starting stint with the Smokies this year, going 2-2 with a 3.99 ERA.

“Who wins this trade?  Who knows?” said Mills.  “But hey, a deal’s a deal!  Trading is where it’s at!”

Finally, in the closing minutes before the deadline, Knoxville re-acquired an old friend, picking up 3B Ronnie Aceuedo from the Orlando Calrissians in exchange for left-handed reliever Spencer Einhorn.  The trade was an implicit admission of failure by the Smokies GM.  During spring training this year, the Smokies dealt Aceuedo, along with 1B Malcolm Bryant, to Orlando in exchange for 3B Curt Figueroa.  Knoxville was counting on a bounce-back year from Figueroa; instead, he has been a disappointment, hitting only .234 with 14 homers.  Meanwhile, Bryant has been a strong contributor on a much improved Orlando team.

By picking up Aceuedo, the Smokies are hoping for a return to the form he showed last year, when he surprised with a strong season at the hot corner.  This year, Aceuedo hit only .223 with 6 home runs for Orlando.  In exchange, the Calrissians picked up Einhorn, a lefty reliever who made only 6 appearance with Knoxvile, going 1-0 with a 5.40 ERA.

“Ronnie’s a guy we’ve always liked,” said Mills.  “We hated letting him go in the first place, and we’re excited to have him back.  More importantly, I got to make another trade!  A trade!  A sweet, life-affirming trade!  Whee!”

Mills is confident that the Smokies’ deadline wheeling and dealing has left his team in a better place coming down the stretch.  Perhaps more importantly, he has defended his crown as the PBL’s trading king.  “I don’t see the Sultan out here talking about his big trades, because he didn’t make any,” said Mills in a playful jab at his rival, Jackson Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler, the self-proclaimed “Sultan of Swap.”  The Hammerheads were reportedly trying to strike a trade at the deadline, but were unable to work it out.  Said the Smokies boss: “The Hammerheads are standing still, and we’re charging ahead.”

Hammerheads Strike A Pair of Deals

There’s a new sheriff in Trade Town.

Last year, the Knoxville Smokies and owner Jeremy Mills claimed the PBL’s unofficial King of Trading title after amassing a long and impressive list of deals.  Most observers expected his high-frequency trading to continue this season.  But although the Smokies consummated the year’s first deal, since then the Jackson Hammerheads and owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler have stolen the show.

Steven “Sultan of Swap” Butler

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.

Tony Harris

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.”

Dustin Gonzalez

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.”

Max Ortiz

In Butler’s other deal, the Hammerheads sent 3B Max Ortiz back to his former team, the California Sharks.  Jackson acquired Ortiz from the Sharks for starter Todd Warrant earlier this month, filling a need at the hot corner.  But a couple weeks later, the Hammerheads reacquired last season’s third sacker, Kim Fleitas, from New Orleans and rendered Ortiz expendable.  So they shipped him back to his former team and acquired CF Santiago Suarez.

“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.”

Santiago Suarez

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.”

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.

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 Season in Review: Jacksonville Dragons

Jacksonville Dragons 2For the Jacksonville Dragons, the season began with high hopes, only to fade into sub-.500 disappointment.  It was a stormy year, marked by turmoil between the manager and his players and an ongoing furor around an ex-player.  But despite all the discord and disappointment, the Dragons front office and players alike both remain optimistic for next season.  “We’re confident that our team can be a contender next season,” said Dragons owner/GM Eric Stetson.

From a statistical perspective, it’s hard to see the reasons behind the optimism.  Jacksonville’s pitching was mediocre, but that was expected.  The Dragons’ 4.92 team ERA and .781 OPS against were both good for only sixth in the league, ahead of only the last-place clubs in Salt Lake and Orlando.  The rotation consisted of one true ace (Biggs McGee), three mediocre innings-eaters (Kyle Palmer, Randy Cannon, and Samir Khan) and one raw project with major control issues (Juan Sarmiento).  And the bullpen was a revolving door of castoffs, fringe prospects, and fading veterans.  The Dragons used more pitchers (19 in all) than any other team in the league.  Underwhelming, yes, but not unexpected.

The team’s failure to hit, on the other hand, was quite unexpected.  Stetson had assembled a club focused around power hitting.  The results this season, though, could only be described as profoundly underwhelming.  “Several of our core players had disappointing seasons,” admitted the owner.  Jacksonville was only fifth in the league in batting average (.260), home runs (177), and OPS (.757).  The team struggled to find consistent performers in the infield, apart from the catching tandem of Judson Teachout and Jan Esquivel.  Despite being built around a love of the longball, the Dragons had no one in serious contention for the home run title.  They had three solid power hitters – LF Rob Hartley (39 homers), RF Roderick Hopps (36 homers), and 1B/DH Jake Kapoor (28 homers) – but little pop elsewhere in the order.  Had Jacksonville been the big-hitting club that Stetson envisioned, they might have been able to overcome their so-so pitching.  Instead, they were mediocre on both sides of the ball.

Perhaps as a result of their flat performance, the Dragons had one of the most volatile clubhouses in the league.  Much of the tumult centered around manager Harlan Davidson.  The veteran skipper displayed a penchant for ridiculing and knocking his players to the press, a habit that created considerable clubhouse friction. “There was frequent tension in the clubhouse as a result of a clash between the manager and players who were put off by his coaching style,” said Stetson, noting that the unhappy players included “both veteran hitters as well as young pitchers.”

That tension boiled over in mid-July, when the manager ripped into many of his players by name after a particularly frustrating loss.  That meltdown sparked a closed-door meeting with the players, a move that seemed to bring the club together as they reeled off a 10-game winning streak.

The team slumped again down the stretch, however, and Davidson resumed his acidic postgame remarks.  That tendency to undermine players, combined with the team’s disappointing season, led Stetson to fire Davidson at the end of the season.  “The Dragons’ front office regards this conflict as the main reason for the underperformance of some of our player personnel and the team as a whole,” said Stetson.  The search for a replacement is ongoing.

More than Davidson and his barbs, though, the lingering memory in Jacksonville of this year will probably be colorful, ill-fated reliever John Longroofan.  Though he appeared in only five game and played poorly in all of them, Longroofan left an indelible mark on the season.

The Dragons signed the 20-year-old lefty in spring training, and he rode into town on a tweetstorm urging the citizens of north Florida to “hide your daughters, cause Roofie’s coming to play!”  Called up in mid-April, Longroofan posted an 0-1 record and a 22.00 ERA, along with three team fines, before earning a swift demotion.  In addition to his poor performance, the lefty distinguished himself through his outlandish behavior: regularly saluting fans with upraised middle fingers, offering obscenity-filled postgame remarks, and on one occasion dropping his pants on the mound.

After his demotion, Longroofan seemed to vanish.  But he resurfaced late in the season with a wild accusation that the Jacksonville bullpen was involved in a conspiracy to throw games for money.  The organization vigorously denied the charges, and a league investigation found Longroofan’s accusations to be baseless.  Needless to say, the young reliever’s name remains a dirty word around the Dragons.

“I have no idea what’s wrong with that guy,” said Jacksonville reliever Razor Corridon.  “He’s sick in the head, that’s for sure.  I don’t know what his next stop is.  Probably prison.”

Given all the sturm und drang along with the team’s subpar performance, where does the optimism for next season come from?  That 10-game midseason winning streak has a lot to do with it.  With the team’s chances of contention all but gone, the team still found a way to band together and reel off an impressive run.  Later in the year, the team made a serious run at finishing above the .500 mark.  That pursuit fell short in the end, but it gave the Dragons something to shoot for in the dog days of August.

“I was really proud of the guys in here,” said Kapoor, who emerged as a clubhouse leader during the season.  “We could have given in to the bickering and let ourselves go down the drain, but we kept pushing and fighting to the end.  We didn’t win, but It made us closer as a team.”

The first priority for next season, of course, is finding a new manager. “We’re optimistic that with the right manager, our veterans can feel more comfortable rallying the team and will maximize their performance,” said Stetson, “and that our young pitching staff will develop into the solid group we believe they can be.”

Stetson declined to identify specific areas that the team is targeting for improvement.  “The Dragons will look to add pieces to our roster to bolster some areas, but our number one priority is the search for a new manager and coaching staff,” said the owner.

Obviously, Jacksonville would welcome some offense to back up their Big Three; it’s likely that the team will pursue an on-base threat to slot in ahead of their middle-of-the-order bats.  Stetson made clear that the Dragons are counting on rebounds from some of this year’s underperformers, noting that “we believe they’ll improve to their expected levels next year.”  On the pitching side of the equation, the team would welcome some maturation from Sarmiento, and for one of their middle three starters (most likely Palmer) to take things up a level.  The Dragons could also desperately use a couple more reliable firemen.  Midseason pickup Blueberry Jackson proved to be a godsend, and youngsters Carrol Avallone and Emilio Abbas showed promise down the stretch, but a reliable veteran would be a welcome addition.

Jacksonville may need all of these things to go right and more in order to have a real shot at challenging Jackson and Knoxville next year.  But in a year when so many things went wrong, the chance at a fresh start may be what the Dragons treasure most of all.


League Clears Dragons of Game-Fixing

Jacksonville Dragons 2Good news for the Jacksonville Dragons: the league office has cleared the team of the wild allegations of game-fixing out by former reliever John Longroofan.  “The league has thoroughly investigated Mr. Longroofan’s charges, and found them to be completely without merit,” read a statement issued by Patriot League Commissioner Jeremiah Mills.

Longroofan, a 20-year-old left-handed prospect whom the Dragons signed during spring training, posting an 0-1 record and a 22.00 ERA in 5 appearances with Jacksonville before being demoted in mid-May.  He quickly became far better known for his outlandish behavior and obscenity-filled quotes than for anything he did on the field.

John Longroofan
John Longroofan

In mid-August, Longroofan went public with allegations that the Dragons bullpen conspired to throw games in league with gamblers.  The young lefty claimed that his poor performance was related to his participation in the conspiracy, and that his bizarre behavior was meant as a mask.  “I played it off like I was drunk or crazy, so they wouldn’t catch on that I was tanking,” Longroofan claimed.

The Jacksonville relievers vehemently denied any illegal activity, and the Dragons quickly released Longroofan after his charges came to light.  But the league office conducted a detailed investigation of the accusations.  They interviewed Dragons players and staff, discussed the situation with the Jacksonville police department, and attempted to locate people who might have knowledge of the conspiracy, if it existed.

“Even though I doubted Mr. Longroofan’s story from the beginning,” said the statement from Commissioner Mills, “I felt it necessary for the sake of the Dragons and the league to examine the charges in detail.  The league’s integrity is my first concern, and I wanted to be certain that if there was any merit to the allegations, that we take swift action to address it.”

Longroofan did little to bolster confidence in his story during his initial interview with league investigators.  Sources described his answers as vague and evasive, and he was unwilling or unable to provide details on the names of any gamblers or organizations involved, claiming that “they’d rub me out” if he named them.  Investigators suspected that he was either drunk or on drugs during the interview.

Later, pressed to provide evidence to substantiate his claims, he produced a crumpled note written on the back of a fast-food wrapper that said in a wobbly script, “John: Good job fixing last night. We’ll leave the money under the clubhouse door.”  Handwriting analysis suggested that Longroofan wrote the note himself using his non-dominant hand.

The further the league looked into Longroofan’s story, the more holes appeared.  The reliever provided telephone numbers from which he claimed he’d talked to the gamblers.  One number was that of a local Chinese restaurant; another belonged to a 90-year-old retired postal worker.  After initially declining to provide names, Longroofan offered several, such as “Mike Hawk,” “Dick Long,” “Randy Schwang,” and “Hugh Jorgen.”  Investigators discovered no evidence that such people existed.  Nor were the Jacksonville police familiar with any organized gambling rings operating in the city.

The league also reviewed tapes of Longroofan’s pitching performances for signs of any intentional tanking.  The league’s report pointed out that he rarely appeared in games whose outcomes were still in doubt, making it almost impossible that he would have been able to throw a game.  “Typically, players involved in game-fixing will mix in some good outings to avoid suspicion,” the report stated.  “Mr. Longroofan’s unimpressive record appears to be entirely due to his complete lack of pitching ability.”

The league also reviewed tapes of other Dragons relievers, but found no pattern to suggest game-fixing.  Given that and the fact that investigators could find no hard evidence or other voices to substantiate Longroofan’s charges, the league exonerated the Dragons organization of all charges.

“Needless to say, I’m very happy with the findings,” said Dragons owner Eric Stetson.  “On behalf of the organization, I want to thank the league for conducting a prompt, thorough, and fair investigation.  I never believed the accusations for a minute, but it is a tremendous relief to have an outside investigation clear our organization.

“We can now head into the offseason without the cloud of these baseless charges hanging over us, and I can return my focus to building a championship team for our fans.”

The top priority for the Dragons this offseason will be finding a new manager, as they terminated Harlan Davidson the day after the regular season.

Dragons Fire Manager Davidson

Jacksonville Dragons 2In the day after the season finale, the Jacksonville Dragons responded to a disappointing season by firing manager Harlan Davidson.  The decision was widely expected around the league, both because of the Dragons’ subpar record and the high level of tension between Davidson and his players.

“This had to happen,” said an anonymous Dragons player.  “Either he had to go, or one of us was going to beat him to death in the parking lot.”

The Dragons were expected to contend this season, but finished 72-78 and disappointed on both sides of the ball.  According to team sources, Davidson’s firing was motivated partially by the team’s record, but also by his penchant for criticizing and ridiculing his players during interviews.  The skipper’s caustic comments made him popular with reporters seeking material for their stories, but it earned the ire of the players.

“There was a definite perception in the clubhouse that [Davidson] was throwing us under the bus to take the heat off himself,” said Dragons 1B Jake Kapoor.  “You never heard him say, ‘I screwed up’ or ‘I made a mistake.’  It was always ‘This guy sucks’ or ‘If that guy screws up again, I’m going to kill myself.’  Remarks like that from time to time are one thing, but when it happens again and again, it gets old.”

Harlan Davidson
Harlan Davidson

Frustrations between Davidson and the team boiled over in midseason, when the manager reamed out many of his players by name after a tough loss to Orlando.  The furious players held a closed-door meeting, then went to the manager to discuss the situation.  The conversation produced a détente, with Davidson agreeing to keep his complaints in-house, and the Dragons ran off a winning streak.  But things fell apart over the last month, as the team’s attempts to get over .500 fell short and Davidson began firing off barbed comments to the press again.  Several players reportedly went to the front office to demand the manager’s firing.

Upon hearing news of Davidson’s dismissal, many of the Dragons gathered in a local bar to celebrate and express their relief.

“You could ask every one of the players and, to a man, you’d hear the same thing,” said Dragons C Judson Teachout.  “All of us were ready to be done with him.  You can’t lead an army into war and keeping fragging them at the same time.”

Dragons owner Eric Stetson had reportedly become disenchanted with Davidson over the course of the season.  According to sources with knowledge of the situation, Stetson considered terminating the manager in midseason, but decided to give him a chance to turn things around in the second half.  When the Dragons fell short in their late-season pursuit of the .500 mark and Davidson returned to sniping in his postgame remarks, it apparently sealed his fate.

In a press release announcing the termination, Stetson said, “The Dragons thank Harlan Davidson for managing the team this season, but in light of the disappointing results, we have decided to go in a new direction. We will be conducting a thorough search for a new manager who can inspire our young players to reach their full potential.”

For his part, Davidson did not go quietly, according to sources.  When Stetson called him in to inform him of the termination, Davidson reportedly lit into the owner.  He claimed that Stetson needed to “take off [his] rose-colored glasses” and understand that the Dragons weren’t good.  “You can get rid of me,” Davidson reportedly said, “but it’s not gonna fix what’s wrong with this bunch.  Have fun failing again next year!”

Davidson remained defiant when speaking with reporters afterward.  “I figured they were setting me up to be the fall guy,” he said.  “Whenever a team goes bad, they always look for a fall guy.  You can’t fire the whole team, and the owner can’t fire himself.  It’s easier to say I was the problem.”

Davidson also alleged that the team deliberately underperformed in order to get him fired.  “Oh yeah, there were definitely guys sandbagging me, especially toward the end,” Davidson said.  “It’s not real professional, but it happens all the time.”

The ex-manager’s remarks weren’t all negative.  “There were definitely a few guys on that team that I respect,” said Davidson.  “Kapoor, [SP Randy] Cannon, Razor Corridon.  But mostly, we were all sick of each other, and we’re better off.  Sometimes when a marriage goes bad, divorce is the best thing.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go to the bar and try to drink myself to death.”

Along with Davidson, the Dragons dismissed the entire coaching staff, including first base coach Rod Roche, third base coach Milt Jamison, bench coach Randy Wilkins, hitting coach Steve Hartwell, pitching coach Jerry Kinser, and bullpen coach Bump Carruthers.  According to Stetson’s press release, the coaches may be rehired at the discretion of the new manager.

The team did not identify any potential candidates to replace Davidson.

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.”