Today was Media day for the Long Island Ducks at Bethpage Ballpark as they kicked off spring training 2019. The Ducks will be celebrating their 20th season in the Independent Atlantic League. There are expectations to pass the 8 million mark in home attendance sometime in late August or early September, and they will be the first team in the Atlantic League to have 8 million customers pass through the turnstiles at Bethpage Park in Central Islip Long Island. The Ducks have led the league in attendance 14 out of 20 years and they also led in total sell-out games with 683.
New manager, former Mets infielder and 1986 World Series champion Wally Backman made it clear that not only does he want to win but that he wants to help his players in moving forward in their careers. He is looking forward to working with pitching coach and former teammate Ed Lynch as well as hitting coach and former major league player Lew Ford. Backman likes the fact that he has 19 former major league players on his squad. With six switch hitters, six lefty hitters and six lefty pitchers, he feels he can really mix it up on opposing teams. Lynch, with tongue in cheek said that, “Working with so many lefties will be interesting in that lefties are always a bit odd.”
There are 11 players returning from last year’s team and only four from last year’s opening day roster. So there was a lot of work that needed to be done by team President and GM Michael Pfaff this winter. Pfaff said that he worked along side Backman and Lynch this off season to put this team together and he is excited about what they were able to accomplish.
Former Mets Left-handed pitcher Jon Niese, who will be playing his first season in the league, when asked how he would pitch to players at this level said: “I was just home pitching to my old High School team and I pitched to them as if they were at the major league level. I look at every hitter I face the same. I have a plan and try to execute no matter what level.”
One of the more animated discussions during the press conference was when I asked Ducks owner Frank Boulton and those who were on the dais, what their thoughts on “Robo-Ump” were. Mr Boulton first scolded me on the fact that it is not “Robo-Ump” and that it is called “Trackman.” Well excuuuuse me. Then he asked me twice if I watched last night’s game and what I thought about the strike zone. “You know, the one they show as a box over the plate. He went on to give a good explanation about how it would work with the umpire getting an audio feed from “Trackman” telling him ball or strike. How the umpire would change a strike to a ball if it bounced over the plate, etc, etc. He was happy to be working with MLB in doing the research for them with this new technology. “We just want the players to be treated fair.”
Backman was in favor of it and pointed out how a blown call in the 1985 World Series between St Louis and Kansas City in the 9th inning of game 6 cost the Cardinals a championship. Backman felt if they had replay back then, it wouldn’t have happened. He thought that it’s not fair to the players or the fans when an umpire can’t get it right. Wally also cracked with a smirk that he will miss not being able to argue a call. Boulton added that the league reduced the fine on players and managers that are ejected from a game to which Backman said he was happy to hear that.
Niese, said he had mixed feelings about “Trackman.” He was old school and liked the human error of the game. He would take a called strike he thought was a ball all the time but also sees the need to get the call correct so he knows that what he is trying to do is right.
Another former Met in his first season in the league, outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, is in favor of Trackman and stated, “I think it’s tough enough adjusting to a pitcher and that having to also adjust to different umpires makes it that much more difficult to hit at these levels. They used it in the Pacific Coast League when I played there last year and it worked fine.”
The press conference was followed by a spring training exhibition game between the Ducks and the semi-pro Long Island Black Sox that featured a number of former Ducks’ players. Both teams will play again tomorrow at 1pm. Gates opening at 12:30.