The Long Island Ducks on Media Day unveiled an impressive array of MLB veterans—and one major no-show—as the team gathered for spring training at Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip on Saturday.
Ace pitcher Dontrelle Willis, former New York Mets catcher Ramon Castro and infielder Josh Barfield joined popular Ducks veteran outfielder Ray Navarrete at the clubhouse to hear opening remarks by team co-owner owner and Atlantic League founder and CEO Frank Boulton.
The Ducks won the league championship and survived the off-season onslaught of Superstorm Sandy, which blew off the stadium roof and filled the upstairs indoor restaurant with three inches of rainwater.
“It’s pretty remarkable we can talk our 14th season on Long Island,” said Boulton, crediting Suffolk County for its help in the restoration.
The team will fly to Sugar Land, Texas, next week, where the weather promises to hit the 80s as the 140-game season begins on April 18, before returning to Long Island for its home opener on April 26.
Turning to his co-owner Buddy Harrelson, who’s also the Ducks bench coach, Boulton mentioned that it marked their 21st year together and “he throws pretty good BP (batting practice)!” Harrelson, sporting a gray beard, smiled.
Manager Kevin Baez also noted that Harrelson is “hitting fungoes” too and “I pick his brain daily.”
Baez said he’s excited about the team’s lineup “from top to bottom.” He noted that he’d played winter ball with Ramon Castro.
“I think its a great opportunity for us to go out there and defend our title,” said Baez, adding that he doesn’t feel any pressure to repeat.
Conspicuously absent was veteran major Leaguer Vladimir Guerrero, who signed with the Ducks earlier in April with the hope that he could make it back to the big leagues. Baez said “family issues” in the Dominican Republic kept Guerrero from making his appearance with the Ducks and he is still on the club—although his name wasn’t listed in the spring training roster the team handed out.
Referring to the recent publicity shot of Guerrero and Ducks President/General Manager Michael Pfaff at his contract signing, Boulton said, “It wasn’t photo-shoppped!” The 38-year-old Guerrero, a nine-time All Star, is expected to join the team soon, but he wouldn’t speculate when.
“Buddy’s not getting on a plane and carrying him back,” Boulton said, with a laugh.
“I might!” Harrelson said.
Meanwhile, the team, which leads its league in overall attendance and number of sold-out games, is making other moves as, Boulton said, it continues to “provide affordable baseball” to Long Island and the New York market. In particular, Pfaff said, the league has changed the rules to speed up the game, limiting the number of visits a manager can make to the mound to twice per pitcher and even shortening the music played as each batter comes to the plate.
Willis looked relaxed and confident as he took questions at the podium, teasing Ramon Castro, who he’s known.
“He’s shy right now, but he’s a lot of fun,” Willis said.
As for joining the Ducks, he said, “It’s a no-brainer.” The park is “beautiful,” he said, and the Ducks put out “a good product” and they’re “ready to play.”