For most of us, Thursday was just another day leading up to a much-needed weekend.
However, for energetic 71-year-old Bart Zeller, Thursday made him feel like a boy on Christmas morning. It was his New Year’s Day, Super Bowl Sunday and Fourth of July rolled into one. It was the first day of spring training for the Wild Things, and for Zeller, Washington’s new manager, it was his first chance to meet many of his players. Before Thursday, those players were just names on paper and statistics from past seasons.
“This is the day you wait all year for,” Zeller said as his hitters took a round of batting practice at Consol Energy Park.
“All the work we do in the offseason is geared toward today. When we send out emails to the players during the offseason, we put ‘76 days and counting’ or ‘50 days and counting until May 2’ on each.”
Zeller spent the last two years as manager of the Joliet Slammers and guided them to the Frontier League championship in 2011, the franchise’s first season. Last year, Joliet had a 37-58 record and Zeller was let go when the franchise changed ownership during the offseason.
He was hired by Washington in December as a coach, and promoted to manager in late March when Chris Bando resigned, citing complications from hip replacement surgery. This will be Zeller’s seventh year in the Frontier League. He spent four years as a coach with Southern Illinois before moving to Joliet.
One thing Zeller has learned over the years is how to handle the Frontier League’s short spring training. Washington’s season opener is May 17 at Schaumburg, so that doesn’t allow much time for player evaluation. Four days of camp will be spent playing five exhibition games against the Lake Erie Crushers – May 9 and 10 at home, and May 11 and 12 in Avon, Ohio – and Zeller has to trim the roster from 36 players down to no more than 24 in two weeks.
Can every player get an extensive look in such a short span?
“It’s impossible,” Zeller admitted. “Some guys might be slow starters. You have to evaluate with a combination of what your eyes tell you and what you have on paper. If somebody has four years of experience, they’ve created a trend. But you also have to trust what you’re seeing from each player. What we know is we have some tough decisions.”
Washington returns 15 players from last year’s team that finished with a 44-52 record. The Wild Things got off to a dreadful start that left them mired in sixth place in the East Division, but after extensive roster changes, they went 26-23 over the second half.
One returning player is left fielder Andrew Heck, who hit a team-high .310. Heck is in an interesting situation in that he’s the head baseball coach at Sewickley Academy, which is off to an 8-3 start and has clinched a WPIAL Class A playoff berth for the first time since 2006.
Heck said he will likely miss a few of Sewickley Academy’s remaining games because of his Wild Things commitment, but added that his team will be in good hands because one of his assistant coaches is former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Grant Jackson.
Now that he’s on the coaching side, Heck could make an experienced evaluation of the Wild Things’ first day of practice.
“Much more organized,” he said.
Added Zeller, “I’m very happy with the first day of practice. The effort was very encouraging, and the overall attitude of the players was positive. We had a very good clubhouse meeting before practice about the role of the team in the community and the players’ responsibility as role models.”
Three players missed the first workout. Outfielder Rogelio Noris, acquired in a trade with Gateway during the offseason, is still awaiting a work visa. Pitcher Quintavious Drains, a rookie out of Jackson State, had his flight to Pittsburgh delayed and was expected to arrive in Washington last night. First baseman Mark Samuelsson will miss the first few days of camp because of a family matter. … Center fielder Darian Sandford, who set the Frontier League record with 71 stolen bases last year, played some second base during practice. He had tried the position this spring while in minor-league camp with the Chicago White Sox. … The Wild Things are in need of host families. Those interested in hosting a player should contact the Wild Things at 724-250-9555.