This season, the Long Island Ducks are on a roll.
At 59-47, they have one of the best records in the Atlantic League and winners of the first half, guaranteeing themselves a place at the big dance in September.
It’s a testament to the players of the organization, as well as the front office, led by President Mike Pfaff.
But keeping the Ducks on an even keel is all on their manager, Kevin Baez.
“The first half is over and we are professionals,” Baez said on how he keeps the team motivated. “We respect a game and the bottom line is you take pride in what you do. You don’t want to go out there and (expletive) the bed. You want to do well. There’s pride.”
Fortunately for Baez, he has the resume to back it up. In his sixth season as skipper, he has won two Atlantic League Championships, four half-season Liberty Division titles, and three Liberty Division championships.
You may remember his name too, since he was a highly touted Mets’ prospect back in the early 1990s, but didn’t cut it in the big leagues. But because of his experience with the Amazin’s, Baez has become a pretty good manager. He learned for Buddy Harrelson, who had him with the Mets and coached under Gary Carter, but when he was coming up in the minors, he also learned from Clint Hurdle and John Gibbons, both of whom carved out good managerial resumes themselves.
Yet, the 49 year-old is very humble and saying he is “just a kid from Bensonhurst trying to go a good job here.”
And his profession is not easy. Atlantic League teams get strip-mined of their best players over the course of a season and the Ducks are no exception, losing their four best starting pitchers in the month of July.
“It’s tough and it’s part of the game,” he said. “It’s part of the Atlantic League. We all go through it. It gives other guys opportunities that won’t get an opportunity. And yes, we have the luxury that we won the first half, so we can see guys that we may not have seen pitch in these situations.”
Besides that, he needs to keep the team motivated through the grind of the long season. Since the Atlantic League is independent ball, it’s not that easy with the bus trips and having one team down in Texas with the Sugar Land Skeeters.
“The travel is difficult but we only have to do it three times a year,” he said. “It’s a beautiful stadium. It’s a beautiful hotel. I enjoy it. It’s not a typical travel, because the bus gets here like 2 am and then we have to get to the ballpark by like 4:30 am. Then we have to play that night. And sometimes there’s a layover. That’s the thing. You are getting up so early and you are taking naps on the plane. I like it, but I don’t have to play.”
The players do and they have to abide by Major League rules, such as the ban on amphetamines, which Baez said is offset by coffee and Red Bull.
But the Texas trip is something Baez uses as a team building experience, but he generally looks for guys who are good teammates.
“You have to be a good teammate,” he said. “That’s what I preach. Be supportive. When it’s not going well, pat him on the butt. It’s all about being a good teammate.”
They are actually taking it this weekend, which is one of the ebbs and flows of the season. Baez tries to keep the malaise at a minimum.
“It’s part of playing where you go through a lull,” he said. “You have to recharge yourself and recharge that battery. We are going to have to go through that. I don’t kill guys with BP everyday through the summer.”
And that’s part of the reason why, this kid from Bensonhurst has the Ducks on a roll.