On September 20th, 2018, the Long Island Ducks hosted the Sugarland Skeeters in the fifth and deciding game of the Atlantic League Championship Series. Things didn’t go according to plan and Sugarland captured the title beating the Ducks 4-1 denying Long Island of the fourth championship in franchise history.
The following season, the script was flipped on October 6th, 2019 when the Ducks won the 2019 Atlantic League Championship beating the Skeeters 8-4 in game five at Sugarland.
“It was a great feeling because I know the year before in 2018, we lost to Sugarland and we lost to them here at home,” said Ducks outfielder Daniel Fields during the team’s media day on Wednesday. “That was tough seeing them celebrate on our field. Being able to win down there felt good for all of us, especially the guys who were here the year before.”
“I’ve been here for a long time,” said Ducks President and General Manager Michael Pfaff. “There have been seasons that didn’t end the way we wanted them to and there were four that ended exactly the way we wanted them to and 2019 was one of those.”
The Ducks brought the championship trophy home to Long Island, but the championship flag has never flown at Fairfield Properties ballpark because the 2020 Atlantic League season was cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This Friday night, 600 days after winning the 2019 championship, the Ducks will be back on a baseball field when they open the 2021 season at home against the Lexington Legends.
And before the game, the Ducks will finally unveil their 2019 championship banner.
“It’s going to feel tremendous to get underway and to actually have fans back in the ballpark and enjoying baseball which is what the ballpark is for,” said Pfaff. “It’s been dark and without fans for too long and it’s time to get back to fun.”
“Back To Fun In ‘21” is the Ducks’ slogan for the return of professional baseball to Central Islip in Suffolk County out on Long Island. This goes without saying, but there wasn’t much fun in 2020, for a number of reasons, because of the pandemic.
Ducks Manager Wally Backman played the first 9 of his 14 Major League Seasons with the Mets including a World Championship in 1986. In 21 seasons as a manager, Backman added four championships including one in his first year on Long Island in 2019. But in 2020, he found himself in unchartered waters so he had to turn to a sport and hobby that takes place in the water.
“I did a lot of fishing,” said Backman, the 2019 Atlantic League Manager of the Year. “Missing all of that time in (2020) kind of sucked. I’ve been in baseball my whole life basically and to take a whole year off, it was different.”
Before the first pitch on the 2021 is even thrown, the Ducks have already lost a handful of players who have signed with Major League teams. That’s one of the primary objectives of the Atlantic League which is now a Major League Baseball Partner League and no longer considered an “independent league”.
Last season, the pandemic forced the cancellation of not only partner leagues like the Atlantic League but also affiliated minor league teams.
After a massive reorganization of the minor league system, Major League Baseball now operates affiliated minor league baseball and the teams are now considered “licensees”. The number of affiliated minor league teams dropped from 160 to 120, with two of the teams taking the field this season being a pair of former Atlantic League teams. The Somerset Patriots are now the Double A affiliate of the Yankees while the Sugarland Skeeters are the Triple A team for the Houston Astros.
That says a lot about the Atlantic League and the way they have operated over the years.
“The Atlantic League is built to the highest standard,” said Pfaff. “The ballparks and the product that we deliver is to the highest standard. Major League Baseball knows that and that’s why they partnered with us.”
Getting players a shot in the majors or getting some players back to the majors is a big deal for the Ducks and the other Atlantic League teams, but it’s also important to win.
And the Ducks’ skipper knows a thing or two about winning.
“I remember in 2019 my first year when I came here, I looked at (Owner) Frank (Boulton) and I said we’re going to win the championship,” said Backman.
And this year?
“We’re going to be good,” said Backman. “We’re going to try to repeat. “It’s going to be an exciting brand of baseball. We got a lot of returning players that helped us win the championship in (2019) and we got some new ones like (former MLB pitcher) Mike (Bolsinger) who is going to be our number one starter.”
On the mound, along with the addition of Bolsinger, the Ducks bring back the likes of Vin Mazzaro, Anderson DeLeon, and Joe Iorio. The Ducks lost slugger David Washington, but they do bring back other key offensive players like Fields, infielder Steve Lombardozzi and outfielder L.J. Mazzilli. They also have former St. John’s infielder and Commack, Long Island native Jesse Berardi on the spring training roster. Berardi was formerly part of the Cleveland Indians organization playing A ball for Lake County.
Returning for his 11th year with the Ducks is outfielder/hitting coach Lew Ford. The former Baltimore Oriole and Minnesota Twin has made a home on Long Island and is excited for Friday night’s celebration of 2019 along with getting back to the game that he loves.
“I enjoy playing baseball,” said Ford. “They’ve given me an opportunity to play here so I appreciate that. It’s rare to get to live and work in the same place when you’re in this profession. It’s going to be great to get out here as the champions in front of our own fans this weekend. I’m sure they missed baseball themselves so everybody is just anxious to get this started again.”
First pitch on Friday night is set for 6:35pm, but the Ducks are asking their fans to be in the ballpark early for the banner raising and ring ceremony that will take place around 6:10pm. The first 1,500 fans through the gates will receive a replica 2019 championship ring and then all fans in attendance will get to see the Ducks dot the I’s and cross the T’s on their championship season.
It’s a moment that the Ducks organization including the management, coaches, players, fans and staff have been waiting on for a long time.
“Being able to see the banner finally go up and being able to see fans here and being able to enjoy a night with them with the ring ceremony is going to be nice,” said Fields. “Friday night should be special and I know I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
“We’re all looking forward to it,” said Backman.
So is the flock of Ducks fans who have been waiting patiently to get back to Fairfield Properties Ballpark, a tradition born in 2000 and still going strong despite the one-year hiatus. There have some very special nights in that ballpark. Friday night will no doubt be one that will be added to that list.