Monday night and Wednesday afternoon this week I was privileged to get to meet some of this year's Quad Cities River Bandits. I asked several of them to answer a few quick questions so that I could get a feel of what kind of team we have in town this year. Since the home season hasn't started, I can't write about abilities yet so I asked the team what they think of each other. This isn't just a group of young men who happen to have the same job—this is already a team. The players I was able to interview were all very respectful of each other and of the game itself. I was reminded several times that, for the most part, these are good guys.
When I asked them about personal goals for this season I got a range of answers. Deryk Hooker just said, "W's." Chris Notti wants to throw strikes and meet a lot of people. Jesse Simpson said that he wants to get promoted, like everyone else, and he's working on his transition to relief pitcher. He wants to throw a lot and improve his sinker. Kyle Conley impressed me with a very well-thought out answer. He said that he simply takes a solid approach to every season. He doesn't waver from his daily routine. He keeps a good pre-game mentality and works every day to perfect his game. Since this is his first full season, he's working to stay strong and in good shape. Ryan Jackson plans to make fewer errors, even though he was pretty good last year. He knows that baseball is a mental game and he's staying tough. He's concentrating this year on taking a team approach to his offensive game—doing whatever it takes to get the W for the team.
I asked what has improved in each player's game since last year. Joe Kelly (making the change from closer to starter this year as part of a tandem with Dan Calhoun) said that he has better command of his fastball. Shelby Miller has added about 10-15 pounds of muscle since September and he said that he's just a different pitcher; his mentality is better, he's keeping his pitches down in the zone, and he worked all winter on his change-up and curve ball. Scott Schneider is sharing the starting tandem with Hooker this year and said, "I'm not scared to use my fastball like I was a little last year. Physically, I'm in the best shape I've ever been." Matt Adams said that he is faster and has better agility than last year. That should help him out at first base.
With all due respect to Miller, I had to eliminate his name from answers to my next question! I wanted to know which pitcher has impressed each player the most in Spring Training. Nobody wanted to narrow it down to one, so I took multiple answers. I was told that Scott Schneider has great control, his slider is dangerous, and he keeps a good pace to the game, keeping the energy level high for the whole team. Joe Kelly has a fastball that touches 98 mph and has good secondary pitches. Hooker throws well—his K's are up and his BB's are down this year. Mike Blazek is sure to impress as a reliever. Shelby rattled the names of the entire pitching staff off the top of his head and complimented each one of them for different abilities.
What about the position players? Who should we watch for? Adams has a big bat and Conley hits for power. Devin Shepherd is also going to be a powerhouse at the plate. Luis Mateo is an exciting player to spark the team. Jason Stidham and Robert Stock show good leadership and control of the field. Jackson was called the best shortstop at the Class A level anywhere. D'Marcus Ingram is fast in the outfield. Niko Vasquez was called "most improved" many times.
Finally, I asked players to give me their first impressions of their new home field, Modern Woodmen Park. At the risk of sounding too much like a "homer" and bragging about the stadium that I will be calling home for the next seven months, it's just plain and simple. It's beautiful! Each of those who have been here before talked about how much better the field conditions are. The fact that we are perched on the banks of the Mississippi River makes it one of the most picturesque places that many have ever played. A few guys said that it was easy now to see why USA Today had selected Modern Woodmen as one of the best minor league parks in America. Conley said that when he was here for a short stay last year, he barely had time to notice how polished and professional it all is, but this year he really appreciates that fact. One guy said that it's a lot better than Palm Beach; it sits almost under a beautiful bridge, and he was told that the fans here are the best anywhere. (Who could argue with that?)
That's what I learned from listening. If you've read my writing before you should know that, as much as I value baseball skills, I believe that good men make great players. This year's team is going to produce a lot of great players; I'll introduce them individually as we make our way through the season. There are jokers, there are dancers, there are quiet leaders and there are outspoken leaders. There are some who will become my "sons" and some that will move through here without granting me the privilege of getting to know them well. I considered listing the names of all the players that haven't been named previously in this report, but suffice it to say that all 25+ of them are all already stars.
So once again I enter into my summer of being a baseball dad. I'm not going to apologize to the men who raised these guys from childhood as I step into their role for a few months. I welcome any contact that you'd like to make with me through this site as I "adopt" your sons for the season and beyond. If you'd like to send me a private message, you can find my posts in our public forum as "sport61201." I'd welcome your insight.
Are we going to finally get past the first round of the playoffs and bring home a championship? That remains to be seen. Some things are certain, though. The Quad Cities River Bandits of 2010 are going to be among the league's best this year. We're going to have more than one representative in the All-Star game in Fort Wayne in June. We're going to have a lot of guys promoted and replaced with more great young men. We're going to support this team—sometimes to the point of losing our voices. We're going to make memories that we'll carry with us forever. Man, I love this game!
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