For the fifth time in six years, the Wild Things have changed managers during the offseason.
The Frontier League team announced Wednesday that Chris Bando has resigned, only five weeks before the start of spring training. Bart Zeller, who was hired as a coach during the offseason, has been promoted to manager.
Bando, who played nine seasons in the major leagues as a catcher, cited health reasons – he recently had hip replacement surgery – for his resignation. Complications from the surgery have prevented Bando from working with the baseball team at San Diego Christian College, where he is head coach and athletic director.
“Because of hip surgery this January, complications happened that I did not anticipate. I will not been cleared for the full-time physical activity demanded of a manager for another eight to 12 months,” Bando said.
“There was no way I could be ready for the season. I was left with no option (but to resign). I made the decision Friday after consulting with my doctor. It’s disappointing because we’ve signed some good players, and I think we’ve put together a good team.”
Bando spent one forgettable season in Washington, guiding the Wild Things to a 44-52 record and sixth-place finish in the East Division. The season was marked by a record number of roster changes and an eight-player trade with the London Rippers that was completed less than an hour before the latter ceased operations.
Unlike Bando, who had no previous Frontier League experience, the 71-year-old Zeller has spent six years in the league, including the last two as manager of the Joliet Slammers. Zeller guided Joliet to the league championship in 2011 – the Slammers’ inaugural season – and was named Frontier League Manager of the Year. Last season, Joliet was 37-58 and finished in sixth place in the West Division.
The Slammers changed ownership at the end of the 2012 season, and Zeller was not retained.
Prior to the stint in Joliet, Zeller was hitting and third-base coach for the Frontier League’s Southern Illinois Miners for four years.
Zeller said he is familiar with Washington’s returning players and has been working with Bando since January on building the roster.
“I’ve talked with Chris almost daily. On paper, I think this team looks very solid,” Zeller said. “One thing that we are looking for is a really solid starting pitcher with experience in affiliated ball. We would have to clear a spot on the roster to sign that kind of guy.”
Zeller said the Wild Things have re-signed outfielder Darian Sandford, who recently had his contract purchased by the Chicago White Sox but was released during minor-league spring training. Sandford set the Frontier League record last year with 71 stolen bases. Al Yevoli, a hard-throwing left-hander from last year’s team, was released Wednesday by the Atlanta Braves.
“One thing you can count on is our players are going to hustle,” Zeller said. “If you can’t hustle four times for 90 feet, then we’ll find someone else who can play. We’re going to let everyone in the stands know we’re hustling.”
Zeller also will have to act swiftly as he doesn’t have much time to fill out his coaching staff. Player/pitching coach Gary Lee is the only coach under contract.
“I’m looking for someone with infield experience, with pro or maybe Division I college experience,” Zeller said.
A native of Chicago Heights, Ill., Zeller resides in Scottsdale, Ariz. He signed with St. Louis Cardinals as a catcher following his days at Eastern Illinois University and played at all levels of professional baseball, making it to the major leagues in 1970. He played in his only major-league game May 21, 1970, and was released as an active player 18 days later but remained with the Cardinals for the remainder of the season as a coach.
Zeller resumed his playing career the following year before retiring after the 1972 season. He has been coaching in the independent leagues since 2005.
“I love baseball. I still love working with kids and going to the ballpark,” Zeller said.