AKRON -- The RubberDucks hosted their first Hot Stove Banquet last Friday where they formally introduced Mark Budzinski as their new manager succeeding Dave Wallace on the heels of their Eastern League championship last season.
Budzinski, 43, is entering his fourth season with the Indians organization as a minor league manager and is coming off a very successful season of his own taking the Lynchburg Hillcats to the Carolina League championship series, although their efforts fell short of a title.
"It was a very special year," Budzinski said of the Hillcats' 2016 campaign, "There were some great young men to be a part of and be around every day. They came to the ballpark every day ready to work hard, ready to improve and do all they could to give us an opportunity to win the championship. Myrtle Beach played a better series than us and they deserved the championship that they won, but we're proud of our guys for the effort that they put in everyday."
Now Budzinski is ready for the next chapter of his coaching career as he takes the helm in Akron for his first crack at managing at the Double-A level.
"Yeah, I'm excited, obviously, for a new challenge to be in Double-A in Akron," said Budzinski, "I'm very impressed with what [Dave Wallace] and his staff did last year in winning a championship, so I'm looking forward to doing all we can to give the fans something to cheer about this season."
Dave Wallace, who has since been promoted to a special advisory role within the organization for 2017, led the RubberDucks on an impressive comeback from barely treading water in the playoff picture to securing the division title on the last day of the season and, obviously, onward through the postseason to Akron's second Eastern League in five years. Wallace managed in Akron for three seasons and became a recognizable figure in town, a fact Budzinski is well aware of, but that won't stop him from tackling the task at hand.
"I won't be able to fill those shoes for sure, strength-wise, looks, everything down the line," the new 'Ducks skipper quipped, "Wally's a great manager and a great person and we'll try to do what, obviously, we try to do at all our affiliate levels is help our players develop into big leaguers and that's our goal every single day, to help each player focus on the things they need to work on and their plan to get the opportunity to get to play in the big leagues and help our big-league club win a championship."
Winning, although it is a nice bonus, is not the primary goal in minor league baseball. The objective, of course, is developing the prospect talent that comes through the system and equipping them to someday, hopefully, join the big league squad in Cleveland. Lynchburg had no shortage of that last year, either, as they played host to top Indians prospects such as Greg Allen, Francisco Mejia and Bobby Bradley, many of whom could be moving up to Double-A right along with their leader.
"Knowing most of the guys that will most likely be on the Double-A team is definitely a benefit," the Baltimore native admitted, "Knowing what they do, what they need to work on everyday and how they go about their business, so I'm looking forward to that as well as, I'm sure, some guys that will have their first shot at Double-A to show them the ropes along with their teammates. It'll be exciting to see guys that maybe I haven't seen in the last year or so, how they've progressed, how their game is coming along and continuing to help them in any way we can."
Of course, this isn't Budzinski's first stint with the Indians, nor his first time being at Canal Park in Akron as he was originally drafted by the Tribe in 1995 as an outfielder and then came up through their farm system, which included parts of three seasons in the Rubber City as a player during the infant years of the then-Aeros franchise. Now he returns nearly two decades later to a revamped organization, including new ownership, a rebranded team and a renovated ballpark.
"It's different," said Budzinski in regards to managing a team he once played for, "That's the first experience I had with that because I came up with Watertown in Columbus, who back in the day was the short-season-A team, then the [South Atlantic League] team and then we were in Kinston after that. None of those three teams exist right now, so to be back in a stadium where I played, it'll be something different. It'll be fun to be back and to be a part of again. The fans here were outstanding when I played here for parts of three years and I just look forward to seeing some old faces again and reestablish some relationships here."
Well, the equipment trucks are already on their way to Goodyear, Arizona ahead of spring training and Budzinski, along with all the players and coaches within the Indians organization, will soon join them in preparation for the 2017 season. But it won't be long before the new Akron skipper brings his team back up north for opening night at Canal Park where the RubberDucks will take on the Bowie Baysox on Thursday, April 6th with the first pitch slated for 6:35 pm ET.