Reunion at the Duck Pond

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The Birmingham Barons have been one of the most historic and successful franchises in minor league baseball. Their history dates all the way back to 1885, according to their official website, and they are still thriving today, 130 years later, as the Double-A affiliate of the Chicago White Sox. They’ve seen baseball greats put on the uniform such as Reggie Jackson, Terry Francona, Frank Thomas and Tony La Russa. Their most notable player though is widely considered the greatest player ever in a different sport. That man would be Michael Jordan.

In their 130 years, the franchise has also won 17 league championships, including six since joining the Southern League in 1972. Their most recent title came in 2013 when the Barons went 77-63 during the regular season and battled through a competitive postseason to come out on top. Two of the key contributors that season were infielder Cody Puckett and pitcher Kevin Vance. Now, those same two will look to repeat their success as teammates, only this time on Long Island.

“We got to celebrate together and see what it was like to win together,” Puckett reminisced. “For me, it was the first time I had ever won a ring. As a team, we dominated the first half and got to the playoffs. Once we got there, we just came together as a team. He’s a cool dude and a good teammate, and it will be exciting to have him on the team this year.”

Vance added, “I’ve kept in touch with him ever since Birmingham. We’re fired up to play again on the same team, and hopefully we can win another championship together.”

On Monday, the Ducks announced the signings of Puckett and Vance, reuniting the two after a year apart. During their run to the 2013 Southern League title, both put together strong campaigns. Puckett appeared in 102 games for the Barons and totaled 15 home runs, 50 RBI, 43 runs and 16 doubles at the plate. As for Vance, he posted a 3.91 ERA in 40 games out of the bullpen, compiling seven saves and 84 strikeouts in 69 innings of work. However, despite their success, the White Sox released Puckett after the season and Vance following the 2014 campaign. Thankfully for both, the Ducks came calling.

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Puckett spent all of this past season with the Ducks and put together arguably the best season of his career. The second baseman put up career high numbers in batting average (.298), hits (169), games played (138) and at-bats (568). Each of those ranked in the Atlantic League’s Top 10. To go along with this outstanding numbers, he added 10 home runs, 77 RBI, 64 runs and 17 doubles. For Puckett, the biggest reason for his success was simply being given a chance to perform.

“It was just getting the opportunity to be able to get out there, play every day and show what I got,” he noted. “I wanted to prove I should be in there every day and was finding some success.”

He continued to say, “Long Island is a very good baseball community. The fan support is always strong, and we always get a good showing. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else in the Atlantic League.”

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Vance’s past two seasons spent in Birmingham were the latter half of four seasons overall in the White Sox organization. He was originally drafted by the team in 19th round of the 2011 amateur draft and worked his way up from rookie ball to Double-A. In that span, he compiled a 16-13 record, 3.62 ERA and 315 strikeouts in 281 innings of work. Those numbers are certainly something to be proud of, but Vance’s two championship rings will always stand out most in his memory.

“It was a blast,” he recalled. “I was able to win two championships, one in rookie ball and one in the Southern League, so that was a lot of fun. I was fortunate to play with a lot of really good players, and we won a lot of games. I really enjoyed it, and they really helped develop me.”

Before he stepped onto a professional baseball field though, Vance’s journey as an amateur was a bit contrary to most. Originally from the warm, baseball-friendly climate of San Diego, he grew up playing the game and ultimately achieving incredible success with Torrey Pines High School. While there, his team won two Palomar League championships, and he took home award after award. Among them were Palomar League Player of the Year in 2008, First Team All-Palomar League honors in 2007 and 2008, a Second Team All-State selection and a spot on the Southern California All-Star Team in ’08. However, when it came time to choose a place to continue his career, he opted for a much different environment.

“I wanted to get away from home and experience something new at the time,” Vance noted. “I didn’t really get recruited by many California schools, which was kind of like a blessing in disguise for me. UCONN [The University of Connecticut] called me, and I think the main thing was that I really loved New England culture. I just wanted to get away from home and experience something new, and I ended up falling in love with New England.”

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While with the Huskies, Vance posted a 2-1 record with a 2.29 ERA and 21 saves in 49 games. His success on the field and enjoyment of New England led to a decision that would surprise most. Rather than head back to the warmth and year-round sunshine of Southern California during offseasons, he elected to make his new home in New England, specifically in Boston. Thanks to that choice, he now has to battle through one of the region’s most brutal winters.

“It was a really easy winter until like two weeks ago,” Vance said. “Then it turned into the worst one of all-time. I’ve had to shovel out my car completely five times in two weeks, but that’s all part of it. It’s a grind, but I love it.”

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Entering 2015, both Puckett and Vance are excited to put on the Ducks uniform. After teaming up for a title with one successful organization, they will try to do it again in Central Islip with another. Despite the great numbers he posted this past season, Puckett will be looking to make some improvements heading into his second campaign with the Ducks.

“My power numbers dropped last year, so I’m just trying to work on driving the ball more,” he mentioned. “I’m always trying to stay healthy and maintain, and I’m working out to add a little muscle and get some extra power.”

As for Vance, the opportunity to play with the Ducks was one that appealed to him immediately for several reasons. Having a former teammate there with him certainly helped, but the team and league’s reputation were what stood out most.

“I was talking to a few other teams, and I just heard a lot of good things about the Ducks, the organization and the fans,” he remembered. “I just heard that it’s the best place to play for independent ball, so it was a pretty easy decision for me. I’ve played with a bunch of guys that played in the Atlantic League, and everyone says that it’s very competitive and comparable to the highest minor league levels. I know that there are a lot of guys with big league time in the league, so that’s something I am looking forward to being in competition with.”

He went on to add, “I’m just hoping to go out there, make good pitches, get outs and hopefully help us win some games.”

If the Ducks win enough games, Puckett, Vance and the rest of their teammates will be able to party like it’s 2013.

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Posted on February 19, 2015, in Player Signings and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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