In covering the minor leagues, one has to keep their eyes open to get a glimpse at a player who may turn out to be the next superstar. Sometimes it can be obvious, while others surprise. But, for the most part, you keep looking in the usual places.
However, there is a whole other baseball world out there, kind of sub-orbiting the majors and their affiliates. This is the universe of independent baseball, minor league teams and leagues that provide players a forum to showcase their skills, and hopefully keep alive the idea getting a shot at playing in the majors. The CCO approached the Schaumburg Boomers, an independent team starting its first season, and their Director of Media Relations Ed McCaskey about a chance to meet some of the players and management of the team, in order to tell their story.
I had a chance to talk with Andy Viano, President and General Manager of the Boomers as they were preparing for their season opener. He explained that the cupboard had essentially left bare, and that there were no desks, phones, or even pens and pencils, let alone baseball equipment to start the franchise. Viano came from the very successful Gary SouthShore RailCats, who had made the playoffs every year from 2004 until they joined the American Association in 2011. He assembled a staff that included Vice President Jeff Ney, formerly the Assistant GM of the Kane County Cougars, the Single-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. He also brought in former Gary staffer Dave Salvi as Vice President of Marketing.
The first order of business was to improve the conditions at Alexian Field, which had fallen into disrepair during the layoff. White Sox Head Groundskeeper Roger Bossard was brought in to supervise, as Boomers Groundskeeper Mike Tlusty explains: “we had to take everything off the whole field, four inches from one foul pole to the other. We put in new sod and regraded the whole infield.” Other stadium improvements include a High Definition scoreboard in centerfield.
The product on the field became the responsibility of Manager Jamie Bennett. Bennett was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2000 after being an All-SEC pitcher at the University of Tennessee. The left-hander pitched two seasons in the Phillies organization before moving into independent ball, pitching a total of six seasons with a 38-19 record and a 3.87 career ERA. After finishing his playing days with the RailCats, he took over as their pitching coach. He was a natural selection for Viano, as Bennett helped produce two Pitcher of the Year winners and five all-star pitchers. Bennett is not only responsible for managing the team, but for acquiring the players too. He says that he relies on scouting reports and people he has come to know from being a part of the game to help locate players. “We have ten or twelve guys who have played affiliated ball” says Bennett, “along with nine first-year rookies”.
The Flyers had tried to win fans by using gimmicks. Their first manager was former Chicago White Sox player Ron Kittle, whose pitching coach was former-Cub Greg Hibbard. The Flyers even went so far as to hire a player that had once been part of a national beer advertising campaign. Andy Viano said that what he would like to bring to Schaumburg is more of the traditional minor league experience. “The Boomers want to provide a clean, safe, affordable family experience, with an emphasis on customer service”. To that end, Viano and Director of Media Relations Ed McCaskey invited me to something that is a long-standing tradition in the minors, their kick-off party in which the players meet their host families.
Host families a major source of connection that a minor league team has with their community. Families volunteer to have a player room in their home, and help provide a support system for some young men who may not be used to the freedom that being a professional ballplayer provides. On my way up to the stadium club, I was able to talk to one such family, Bill and Dawn Spiniolas. They told me that they had been a host family in the past, and had a positive experience. “We still keep in contact with a player who is now with Sioux City”, Mrs. Spiniolas said with pride. Her sentiments were echoed by host families Sally and Del Lettenberger, and Mary and Roger Simonis. “Our children were in sports in high school” explained Mr. Simonis. “They graduated, and as they moved on, other people have helped in looking after them. We see this as a way of giving back” Mrs. Simonis added that they were godparents to the children of two former players, and that she received a Mother’s Day text from another.
As some of the players began to meet their host families, I got a chance to meet a few of the others. The first to introduce himself was Tom Nelson, a left-handed reliever. Nelson had previous experience with Roswell of the Pecos League, as well as with Gary last season. He feels that his side-arm delivery is best suited for a specialist role. He introduced me to Nick Kuroczko, a utility infielder from the San Francisco area. The 23-year old had the experience of hitting a triple off of Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg while he was a player at the University of Utah.
As I was talking to another infielder, Andrew Cohn, a rookie out of Emory University who made the team the hard way, through a try-out camp; he had me meet a college teammate, Frank Pfister. Pfister was the player with probably the most extensive experience in the room, a 2008 draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds who played as high as their Triple-A team in Louisville. The gregarious Pfister told me that Cohn was his “main man” and that he was looking for him to “go for it with this opportunity”. However, as Pfister left to meet up with some other players, Cohn confided “don’t let him fool you, he’s the one that everyone looks towards”.
After they left, right handed pitcher Dave Whigham stopped by. The quieter Whigham is a five year veteran of pro baseball, including a stint with the Melbourne Aces of the Australian Baseball League. However, when he was playing for El Paso in 2009, he was struck in the head with a line drive and needed two brain surgeries. While recovering, Whigham used his time to complete his Masters Degree in Post-Secondary Education.
The players were slowly starting to move away, either toward their host families of addressing other issues, such as bus times and room assignments for their opening road trip. All seemed to be relaxed and comfortable in the moment. As Andy Viano had told me earlier, he wanted to create an experience “that will keep you smiling”. As I left the event, it seemed that he has the Boomers moving in that direction.
Next: The Home Opener
The CCO would like to thank Schaumburg Boomer Director of Media Relations Ed McCaskey for making this article possible.
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