The Wild Things are in first place at the all-star break.
And they don’t have a manager.
How many professional baseball teams can say that?
Not many – if any – in the long history of the sport.
That, however, is the situation the East Division-leading Wild Things find themselves in today, on the eve of the Frontier League’s All-Star game and three days before playing the West Division-leading River City Rascals Friday night at Consol Energy Park.
Who will manage the Wild Things against River City? Team owner Stu Williams said he’s considering three candidates -- hitting coach Bob Didier, longtime coach Bob Bozzuto and pitching coach Kevin Gryboski – to replace Bart Zeller, who surprisingly resigned as manager Sunday morning for what was described as “health reasons and concerns.”
The resignation capped a wild weekend of events during a three-game sweep of the Florence Freedom.
It started in the ninth inning Friday night when Florence pinch-runner Gaby Juarbe went head-first into Washington catcher Jim Vahalik during a play at the plate. The Frontier League uses the new major league rule that bans home-plate collisions and requires players to slide. Juarbe was not ejected. Vahalik made his displeasure known when he gave a “you’re out” signal to Juarbe.
The next night, the Freedom retaliated. The first pitch of Vahalik’s initial at-bat sailed behind his head. Washington took its turn to retaliate when pitcher Tyler Elrod threw the second pitch of the next inning behind Florence batter Joe Staley.
Home-plate umpire Matt Neader did the right thing and issued warnings to each team. What he really needed to do was issue warnings to Zeller and Gryboski, who were about to square off in the dugout. Sources say the two got into an argument over whose decision it was to throw, or not throw, at Staley. Other things were said and it erupted into what has been described as, depending who you talk to, as a “disturbance,” “fight,” or “incident.” Whatever it was, it was broken up by Bozzuto and one of the few players remaining in the dugout.
Later that night, a player said the dugout incident wasn’t just about who’s authority it is to call for a pitcher to plunk a batter with a purpose pitch.
“It runs a whole lot deeper than that,” he said.
After the game, there was a players-only meeting in the outfield. The coaches met with Williams. Then, on Sunday morning, the 72-year-old Zeller met again with Williams and submitted his letter of resignation. The team played the series finale without a manager.
Zeller’s resignation overshadows what has been an excellent first half of the season that ironically began with three losses to Florence. The Wild Things are 32-19 and in first place in the East Division at the all-star break for the first time since 2007. And only one Washington team (2004) in the franchise’s 13-year history had a better record at this point in the season.
Turmoil in the coaching staff is the last thing the Wild Things need.
People around the league are quick to say the Wild Things aren’t the most-talented team in the league. They are batting only .249 – 10th in the 14-team league – but what they do best is pitch and find ways to win. They also don’t give away wins by beating themselves with errors or walks. That’s a credit to Zeller and his coaching staff.
That must continue in the second half because the schedule gets much tougher. Of Washington’s 45 remaining games, 33 are against teams currently with winning records, with 21 of those on the road.
This is no time for problems in the coaching ranks that could easily derail the Wild Things’ best shot at making the playoffs since 2007.
“We need to stick together because the wins and losses will ultimately be decided by us, the players,” Vahalik said. “It’s all about sticking together. You can fight through anything that way.
“We must continue to do the same things we’ve been doing every day and play Wild Things baseball. We’ll do the same things that contributed to our success.”
Vahalik has seen a little of everything during his three years in the Frontier League. He played for the London Rippers in 2012, when David Martin, the team’s manager and minority owner, suddenly left the squad in July amid rumors that the franchise was in financial dire straits. The Rippers folded after 60 games and their final contest was played against the Wild Things at Consol Energy Park.
Vahalik was traded to Washington – to be more exact, he accepted an offer to join the Wild Things instead of becoming a free agent – minutes before the Rippers officially ceased operations. He says the situation with London was more troubling than last weekend’s purpose pitches, skirmish between coaches and unexpected resignation of Zeller.
“The team folding in London was 100 times tougher than this situation. The disturbing part of that experience for the Rippers’ players was there were no more games to be played,” Vahalik said. “We were told the team was ceasing operations and that was the last game. The players couldn’t rally around a cause with each other because the team didn’t exist anymore.”
The Wild Things will play another game Friday night. Just who will be making the lineup, roster decisions and in-game calls remains a mystery.
Sports editor Chris Dugan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.