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Unique Team Chemistry Has Long Island on Cusp of Title

By Mike Silva ~ September 28th, 2011. Filed under: Independent Baseball.

We cover all sorts of New York baseball stories here. The Mets and the Yankees are at the core of what I discuss, but baseball in this town is so much deeper than just the two big league clubs. You have great stories throughout the minors, college, and even amateur ranks. The Long Island Ducks have had a long connection with the fans of Long Island, consistently leading the Atlantic League in attendance. Earlier this year they drew their five millionth fan, which was faster than any professional sports team of their ballpark size.

With all that success at the gate, the one thing that has been elusive to them is the Atlantic League title. The have brought home the trophy only once, in 2004.That group had former top prospects Bill Pulsipher and Mike Caruso on the roster, as well as former big leaguers such as Matt Beech, Pedro Borbon, Doug Jennings, and current Ducks manager Kevin Baez. Since then, the Ducks have invested in some of the top talent in the league. Former big league stars like Carl Everett, Edgardo Alfonzo, Danny Graves, Juan Gonzalez, and John Rocker have been brought in to duplicate the feat. Even former Mets catcher Gary Carter was hired as their manager in 2009 to get the Ducks to the next level. Despite the effort, the Ducks would come up short.

This year owner Frank Boulton and General Manager Mike Pfaff went in a different direction. They made a point to focus on putting together the best team, versus bringing in the best talent. They named Baez, a long time coach for former manager Dave LaPoint, as their skipper. His energy and solid communication skills have earned the respect of his ballclub. In a league that is used by ballplayers to rejuvenate their career and get back to affiliate ball, Baez has been able to make winning a major focus. He said in April there would be four celebrations this year: First Half Division Championship, Second Half Division Championship, Liberty Division Championship, and finally the Atlantic League Title. They are 75% of the way there.

Take Lew Ford as an example. Ford was named the best 5-tool prospect in the Red Sox organization in 2000. He worked his way through the minors until he earned a starting job as the Twins outfielder in 2004. That year he hit .299 with 15 HRs and 74 RBI for the AL Central Division winners. He even received two American League MVP votes. Despite his big league resume, Ford has been asked to come off the bench for Baez this year. Not only has he not complained about it, but he hit .318 with 10 homers in just 258 at-bats. Mike Loree won the Atlantic League Triple-Crown for pitchers. That resulted in the Pirates signing him to pitch for their Double-A Altoona club. As part of his Pittsburgh contract, he asked to be allowed to return to Long Island to help his former team finish their goal of an Atlantic League title. Closer Jon Hunton was acquired on September 11th from the American Association’s Grand Prairie AirHogs. The Hogs won a championship with Hunton as their closer, so the Ducks reached out to him in order to solidify their bullpen. When I spoke to Hunton during a workout earlier this week, all he discussed was helping this team win a championship. Getting back to affiliated ball was a focus, but not the topic that was first on his mind. As a matter of fact, all three players were more comfortable talking about how they were going to contribute to winning the Atlantic League championship versus their path back to the big leagues.

Chemistry is often unquantifiable. Talent does win out, even in the Atlantic League. Baez credits the front office for finding players that were talented, but had good character and would be positive in the clubhouse. “Obviously winning will bring everyone together,” Baez said. ” The guys played well. They played for each other. That’s the key. You see guys this year are more supportive of one another. Picking someone up when they are down.”

Spend time at the ballpark this year and you will see in action what Baez is talking about. Last week, in Game 2 of the Liberty Division Championship Series, Long Island was down 7-0 in the second inning. By the seventh inning they were one big hit away from taking the lead. They would lose that game, but that ability to always fight back came into play later in the series, as they fought back to win Game 4, and the series, despite trailing by four runs early in the ballgame. No one on this club is ready for the offseason until they are standing after the final out.

The last step will not be easy. Their opponent is the defending champion York Revolution, managed by former Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren. Games 1 and 2 will be tonight and tomorrow at Bethpage Bank Park. You may view this as low leverage independent league baseball, but there is a great baseball story brewing on Long Island that has teamwork at the center.

Mike Silva is a freelance writer and radio host since March of 2007. This website is his own personal "digest" of New York Baseball He's also hosts NYBD Radio on Blog Talk Radio and 1240 AM WGBB. Check out his sports media commentary at www.sportsmediawatchdog.com. Check out his official website, www.mikesilvamedia.com
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