Category Archives: Ducks News
The Long Island Ducks certainly made headlines this week throughout the Atlantic League, professional baseball and sports communities. Their first bit of news came on Tuesday when the Rockland Boulders announced the hiring of Kevin Baez as their manager for the 2019 season. The hire brings an end to an eight-year run as skipper of the Ducks for Baez, one that was highlighted by six Atlantic League Championship Series appearances, back-to-back league championships in 2012 and 2013 and the most wins by any manager in franchise history (600 total, including 571 in the regular season).
That announcement was followed up on Wednesday with the introduction of the sixth manager in Ducks history: Wally Backman. The 59-year-old will guide the Flock after spending one season managing in the Atlantic League with the New Britain Bees. Backman’s Bees were 33-30 in the first half of the season a year ago, finishing just two games behind Somerset in the Liberty Division. His club ended the season at 61-65 overall after he saw six players have their contracts purchased during the season, including five by Major League organizations, four of whom reported to Triple-A clubs.
Overall, Backman brings 20 seasons of managerial experience to the Ducks, including 11 with MLB organizations. He has amassed over 1,100 regular season victories and a .511 winning percentage as a manager, and he has won three league championships as well. Prior to his coaching career, the Oregon native enjoyed a 14-year career in the Major Leagues. Nine of those were spent with the New York Mets, where he helped the team win the 1986 World Series and drew the admiration of many local baseball fans in this area.
Members of the media had the chance to speak with Backman on Wednesday following the announcement of his hire. Here is a transcript from the conference call:
What made you want to join the Long Island Ducks?
“I think what made me want to join the franchise is the people that I have to work with. I think they’re good baseball people. They care about the same things I care about, and that’s winning and trying to put a good product on the field every day.”
How excited are you about coming here, and how quickly did all of this happen?
“It happened pretty quickly. I’m excited about it! I’m back in my old stomping grounds, and I always showed my interest in being in the New York area. With this opportunity becoming available, I thought it was a great opportunity to go back to where I really wanted to be, and that was in New York.”
What did you learn about the Atlantic League last year from being in New Britain?
“Well, I think one of the positives was just how good the baseball was. It was very good caliber baseball. I think I had 14 or 15 guys that had played in the big leagues. I liked the level of play and the way the league was run. I had done independent baseball before I ever went and did affiliated ball, and to come into the Atlantic League last year and see the way it was run and the people that were involved in the Atlantic League, I was excited about it.”
Why did you want to be back in New York?
“The knowledge of baseball from the people of New York. The playing days that I had in New York and the respect that I had for the people because the knowledge of the game was so much different in New York than it was in any of the other cities that I played in or even managed in. They keep you on your toes. They expect good things to happen, and they’re knowledgeable people about the game. That part of it excited me and just coming back to be around the New York media. I’ve always had a good rapport with those people. I know a lot of them are a lot older, like I am…but I’ve always enjoyed the media and had a good relationship with the media. I look forward to the upcoming season.”
Is getting to the big leagues still a goal for you, and how many obstacles have you faced to get there?
“I’ve faced some obstacles, there’s no question, but it’s definitely my goal still. I’ll say this, and I’ll say it to anybody else, that my focus this year is 100% on the Ducks. Yeah, I would like to get back to the big leagues at some point in time, but again, I just signed a contract with the Long Island Ducks, and they’re going to get 100% of Wally Backman.”
How much of a challenge do you think it will be to get to the big leagues?
“You know what, I’m not even really thinking about that at this point. I’m excited about where I’m going. Everything’s a challenge, but I’ve never been a quitter and I’m not going to quit at anything I do. I would like to reiterate though that my focus is the Long Island Ducks and trying to win a championship there now.”
How much of a factor was it coming to a team that has the foundation and culture of success?
“Well, it’s huge. Knowing that you’re coming to an organization that really wants to win, is about winning and will do just about everything to try to help you accomplish that, I hope that I’m one of the ingredients that puts us over the top and helps us win a championship.”
What’s the biggest difference between managing at Triple-A and in the Atlantic League?
“Probably the biggest difference would be development. You’re trying to develop players in affiliated baseball. You’re still trying to develop, somewhat, in the Atlantic League, but it’s really more based on winning and trying to get guys back to where they can get an opportunity to go back to affiliated baseball or even to the big leagues.”
How nice will it be to reconnect with Bud Harrelson?
“Well, it would be huge. We did reconnect last year when I would come to town when I was with New Britain. Buddy and I have a long history together. I wish Buddy the best, and I hope he’s out there every day with us.”
How does it make you feel that your reception from New York fans always seems to be universally positive now more than three decades removed from that special 1986 championship team?
“Well it’s too long ago, that’s for sure. I’m getting too old now. Like I said, I enjoyed my time in New York. I always did, and I always wanted to come back to New York. To get this opportunity, I’m very grateful for it and hopefully good things come out of it.”
In the analytics-driven world that baseball has become, how much can analytics play a part in managing at this level?
“I’ve been using analytics since they’ve been available. I use the things that I believe help me, things like ground ball percentages, fly ball percentages and the way guys pitch in certain situations. All the information that I’m able to get, I try to go through all of that and use it to the best of my ability to help the team win.”
Do your instincts play a part in making managerial decisions as well? Do you balance the two?
“I think you’ve got to use both. You’ve got to use your eyes and use the things that are on paper too. These are human beings that are playing against you, and the analytics make a big part of that. It helps you tremendously on your defense, and it also helps your players. If you can give them certain parts of that to where they can analyze it themselves, it also helps make them a better player.”
How would you describe yourself in terms of managerial style?
“I’m an aggressive manager but under control. I use the information that’s given to me. I like to be aggressive on the bases. I like to see our guys go first to third. Those are things that I really demand of the players, just not to go through the motions. But I’m a player’s manager as well. I played for some of the best managers in the game, starting with Joe Torre as my first manager in New York to Jim Leyland, Davey Johnson and Lou Piniella. I could go on with other guys that I played for in the big leagues, but you try to take a piece from each one of them. The way that Jim Leyland communicated with his players, I thought, was one of the best that I had ever seen. Davey was a smart manager, and we had a great team in ’86. You try to take pieces from a little bit of all those guys and try to use it as an asset for yourself and go from there. I’m still Wally Backman, but I’ve taken a piece of a lot of those guys and tried to use it to the best of my ability in the way that I manage a game.”
Is it in some ways more fun at the minor league level now because it seems to be more of an old-style, fundamental type of baseball?
“I think it’s a big part in winning. Fundamentally, you have to be able to bunt and move runners over. Everybody loves the home runs, but you can win baseball games a lot of other ways than just the home runs. The strikeouts are a concern with me. A lot of people say, ‘an out is an out,’ but a strikeout, to me, can never be a productive out.”
How much time have you spent on Long Island previously, especially here in Suffolk County?
“Well, I lived in Dix Hills. I built a house in Dix Hills in the 80’s when I was playing in New York, so I’m pretty familiar with the Island.”
What have you learned in 20 years as a manager? How are you different from when you were managing with the White Sox organization to now?
“You know, I’m not a whole lot different. I respect the game, and I expect the players to respect the game. The thing that I probably have changed in those 20 years is the analytics. I’ve tried to use the analytics as far back as I can remember, whatever it might have been. Everything’s available to you today, and I think if you go through certain parts of the analytics, it can really help you win games.”
Is the rotation of players the most difficult part of independent baseball, with guys often going back to affiliated ball?
“Well, I think that’s a part of the Atlantic League. I think that’s why the Atlantic League is, without a doubt, the number one independent league there is in baseball. I don’t know exactly how well we’re affiliated with Major League Baseball. I know we follow all the guidelines and all the rules, but I think it’s important to show those players that we care about the players and are trying to get them back to affiliated ball. Whether it’s the minor leagues or overseas or back to the Major Leagues, we’re there for them. They can show what they can do on the field, and we get scouted very heavily. There are opportunities for those players, and we’re just a piece of it. We’re giving those players an opportunity to show what they can do on the field and possibly give them another opportunity to get back to the big leagues or just get to the big leagues.”
What did your year managing in Brooklyn teach you about managing in New York that you can bring to Long Island?
“I don’t know that it really taught me anything. I know I played the game a long time, but I think the first and utmost important thing that you do with a player is you earn the player’s respect. Once you can earn the player’s respect and the trust of the player, then it’s like a good marriage. Things go better, and you can get more out of a player. For me, I think respecting the players is one of the most important things for a manager because once you earn a player’s respect, you’re going to get everything they’ve got.”
Although baseball season has come to a close here in the United States, there is still plenty of news and action on the diamond around the world. Several Ducks alumni have been featured and spotlighted in various other leagues throughout the Far East and the Caribbean. Regular seasons have recently wrapped up over in Korea and Taiwan, while winter leagues are getting underway in countries such as Mexico, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Let’s catch up on what some former Ducks players have been up to in recent weeks:
KERN WINS THE CROWN
Long Island native Bruce Kern spent the 2018 season in the Chinese Professional Baseball League, marking his second full season and third year overall in Taiwan. The right-handed pitcher turned in outstanding numbers with the Flock in 2015 and 2016, combining to go 13-7 with a 3.02 ERA in 58 appearances (24 starts). In 170 innings of work, he struck out 163 batters and walked just 49. That performance earned him the opportunity to pitch in Taiwan with Brothers Baseball Club. He struggled initially in two starts at the end of 2016 and then battled injury in 2017 to go 8-5 with a 5.16 ERA. He returned to Long Island late last year but was limited to just one and two-thirds innings due to arm troubles.
Looking to bounce back in a big way during the 2018 season, Kern was signed by the Lamigo Monkeys, a club that has been home to several Ducks alumni in recent years. The Yaphank native did not disappoint, making 25 starts during the regular season and putting together a dazzling 13-3 record, ranking second in the league in wins, with a 3.28 ERA, good for third in the league. In 156.1 innings of work, a career-high, he struck out 110 batters. Kern’s efforts helped lead Lamigo all the way to the CPBL title, earning a 4-2 series victory over the Uni-President Lions. The championship marked Lamigo’s second title in a row and fourth in the past five years.
He also played some stellar defense:
Kern pitched Game One of the Taiwan Series against the Uni-President Lions, with his team leading 1-0 from the get-go after they won both halves of the regular season. Lamigo earned a 15-6 victory in a high-scoring series opener, with Kern tossing the first four innings of the game, yielding three earned runs on seven hits and two walks with three strikeouts. The Lions were able to even up the series, thanks in part to two scoreless innings in Game Two by former New Britain Bees pitcher Andy Van Hekken. One of Kern’s teammates was former Sugar Land Skeeters pitcher Michael Nix, who threw six scoreless innings in Game Two but could not get the win. Lamigo would go on to win the series with victories in Games Four and Five, with Nix giving up just two runs (one earned) in five and two-thirds innings, picking up the win. Van Hekken contributed to the Lions’ loss, surrendering four runs in one-third of an inning out of the bullpen.
Here was Bruce addressing the fans after Lamigo’s win:
Congratulations to Bruce and the rest of the Lamigo Monkeys! Included in the group was former Duck Darin Downs, who made 10 starts with the club earlier in the season but struggled, going 4-3 with a 7.08 ERA. However…
DOWNS AND STRUCK CLAIM MEXICAN TITLE
Downs would come away with a title of his own after he signed south of the border with Sultanes de Monterrey in the Mexican League. The southpaw joined the team during the second half of their season and turned in a 3.42 ERA along with one save in 12 appearances (five starts). He pitched 26.1 innings, striking out 28 batters while walking seven. He was reunited on the team with another former Ducks pitcher in right-hander Nick Struck. The two hurlers were teammates together with the Flock in 2015 and 2016 and now had the opportunity to pitch together once again in Mexico. Struck posted a phenomenal season in 2018, making 41 appearances out of the bullpen for Monterrey. The righty compiled a miniscule 1.50 ERA, striking out 45 batters in 42 innings, walking just 14 and conceding only seven earned runs.
Despite a strong first half of the season, Monterrey would lose the first half championship to Leones de Yucatan in a thrilling seven-game series. However, Monterrey came back with a 4-2 series victory in the second half championship over Guerreros de Oaxaca. After dropping the series opener, the pair of Downs and Struck helped even the series in Game Two. Downs pitched two and one-third innings of one-run ball in relief, while Struck tossed back-to-back scoreless frames in the seventh and eighth innings. Struck threw another scoreless inning in the eighth of Game Three along with an inning and two-thirds of scoreless baseball in Game Four to put Monterrey up 3-1 in the series. The pair dazzled again in Game Five, with Downs pitching two and two-thirds hitless and scoreless innings before Struck threw two more innings of shutout ball, but Monterrey would drop the game in 10 innings. The series ended one game later with a walk-off victory at Estadio de Beisbol Monterrey.
VALDESPIN TAKES MOUND IN DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
After an MVP season and a Liberty Division Championship in his first year with the Flock, Jordany Valdespin is not taking any time to sit back and catch his breath. The infielder is right back on the baseball diamond in his native country of the Dominican Republic, playing with Toros del Este in the Caribbean Winter Leagues. His bat remains hot, as Valdespin has posted a .333 batting average through 19 games. After leading the Atlantic League in hits (154) and runs scored (94) during the 2018 regular season, he is doing the same in winter ball, collecting 25 hits and 15 runs thus far to go along with a homer, eight RBIs, eight stolen bases and a .405 on-base percentage.
However, one of his more bizarre moments came early on in the winter season. In the team’s fourth game, they played an epic 19-inning contest against Tigres del Licey that saw Licey come away with a 7-5 victory. The game, which lasted eight hours and seven minutes, saw neither team score from the eighth inning through the 18th inning. Valdespin started the game in right field and went 2-for-5 at the plate with a double, an RBI and two walks. However, after his club had used 12 pitchers without being able to secure the win, Valdespin took the mound for the start of the 15th inning. Having pitched just one before in his professional career, allowing a run in two-thirds of an inning with Triple-A Toledo in 2016, no one knew what to expect.
All the right-hander would do was toss four scoreless innings out of the bullpen to keep the ballgame tied. He surrendered four hits and two walks while hitting a batter in that span but struck out three and failed to concede the go-ahead run. Unfortunately, his offense was unable to get him a victory, and Ruben Sosa allowed two runs in the 19th inning to give Licey the win. 2018 Ducks teammate Fernando Abad also pitched in the game for Toros del Este, throwing one and two-thirds perfect innings with a pair of strikeouts. Former Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia started the game for Toros and pitched three innings of two-run ball. Current Met Dominic Smith is also on the team and was 0-for-8 with a walk in the game.
MIKE LOREE RE-UPS IN TAIWAN
Heading back over to the far east, we also wanted to give a quick shout-out to former Duck starting pitcher Mike Loree. The righty, who was selected by fans to the 15th Anniversary Ducks team in 2014, has become a staple while pitching in the Chinese Professional Baseball League. He just signed another contract with the Fubon Guardians for the 2019 season, which will be his seventh in the CPBL.
After his Triple Crown year of 2011 with the Ducks, in which he led the Atlantic League in wins (14), ERA (1.98) and strikeouts (131), Loree departed Long Island for Taiwan during the 2012 season. He has since pitched two seasons with the Lamigo Monkeys, two with the EDA Rhinos and two with Fubon. In his six seasons combined, he has accrued a 72-41 record, a 3.26 ERA, 797 strikeouts and just 189 walks over 970.2 innings of work. He has made 154 appearances (150 starts) in that span, winning a championship in 2016 with the Rhinos and 2012 with Lamigo. His only break from the CPBL was in 2014 when he spent the season with KT Wiz of the Korean Baseball Organization.
This past season, Loree helped Fubon to the semifinals of the postseason before they were defeated. During the regular season, he led the Chinese Professional Baseball League in strikeouts with 157. His 3.47 ERA was good for fourth in the league, while his 10 wins ranked fifth. Loree was 10-8 overall in 26 starts and walked only 16 batters in 161 innings of work according to the league site. That stat might be the most impressive of all.
Congratulations to all of those who claimed championships during the 2018 season, and best of luck to those currently playing winter baseball around the world!
The Ducks have continued their spring training workouts throughout the course of the week at Bethpage Ballpark. Position players and pitchers each took part in various drills from Tuesday through Thursday, with all position players taking part in batting practice and several pitchers throwing live to hitters as well. Then on Friday, the Ducks hit the road for their first spring training game of the year, taking on the New Britain Bees in Connecticut.
Below are several updated from spring training on Long Island thus far:
VIDEO: Jair Jurrjens and Tyler Holt
VIDEO: Jake Fisher and Daniel Fields
RECAP: Ducks Edged by Bees in Spring Training Opener
The Long Island Ducks were defeated by the New Britain Bees 5-4 on Friday afternoon in the opening game of their 2018 spring training schedule at New Britain Stadium.
Long Island opened up an early 3-0 lead in the bottom of the third inning against Bees starter Andy Van Hekken. Jordany Valdespin scored the game’s opening run on a wild pitch, and Travis Snider followed with a two-run home run. The Ducks tacked on their fourth run of the day in the fourth on an RBI single by Dan Lyons that plated Daniel Fields.
New Britain closed the gap to 4-3 in the bottom of the fifth. James Skelton’s two-run single and Vinny Siena’s run-scoring single did the damage. It stayed that way until the bottom of the ninth when the Bees scored twice to win the game. Joe Poletsky’s two-out RBI single tied the game, and Siena’s RBI double ended the ballgame.
Neither starter factored into the decision. Ducks starter Andrew Barbosa tossed three perfect innings on the mound, striking out four batters. Ashur Tolliver, Rob Rogers, Wander Perez and Vinnie Pestano each pitched a scoreless inning of relief for the Ducks. Van Hekken lasted two and two-thirds innings, yielding three runs on four hits and a walk with three strikeouts. Elvin Ramirez collected the win with a scoreless ninth inning, and Tyler Levine suffered the loss, allowing two runs on three hits in two-thirds of an inning.
The Ducks continue their spring training schedule on Saturday afternoon when they welcome the Bees to Bethpage Ballpark as part of the Sixth Annual Fan Fest taking place that day. First pitch is scheduled for 1:00 p.m., and the 2018 Ducks roster will be introduced along the first base line prior to the game. Admission to the event, including the spring training game against the Bees, will be free of charge. CLICK HERE for information regarding Fan Fest.
The Long Island Ducks officially began their spring training workouts on Monday in advance of the 2018 All-Star Summer, presented by Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center. Despite inclement weather preventing the team from doing much in the way of outdoor activities, position players did take the first swings in the team’s batting cage while pitchers did some throwing exercises and light toss.
We caught up after the workouts with Ducks manager Kevin Baez, returning shortstop Dan Lyons and infielder/MLB veteran Jordany Valdespin:
A total of 30 players are on the Ducks spring training roster, with 24 having been signed. The roster includes 11 former Major Leaguers, 19 players who have reached the Triple-A or MLB level and seven who are originally from Long Island or reside locally.
CLICK HERE for the full roster
The team has invited the following six players to spring training:
Cody Puckett (INF) – Puckett played 33 games with the Ducks in 2017, totaling three home runs and 12 RBI, before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He has spent four seasons with Long Island, compiling a .278 batting average, 31 homers, 215 RBI, 203 runs, 462 hits and 61 doubles in 426 games. The 31-year-old was selected to play in the 2015 Atlantic League All-Star Game at Bridgeport and garnered Post-Season All-Star honors that year as well. The California native earned also earned Second Team Post-Season All-Star honors during his first year with the Flock in 2014. Puckett was originally drafted by the Puckett was originally drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the eighth round of the 2008 amateur draft.
Tyler Levine (RHP) – Levine spent time in 2017 as a starter and a reliever with the Ducks. He appeared in 23 games (eight starts) and posted a 3-3 record along with 36 strikeouts in 60 innings of work. In his first start with Long Island, the East Meadow NY native stymied the York Revolution with seven innings of two-run ball, striking out five and earning the win. Prior to joining the Ducks, the 25-year-old played with both Joliet and Evansville in the Frontier League, as well as Old Orchard Beach in the Empire League and Brownsville in the United League.
Max Almonte (RHP) – Almonte has three seasons of professional experience, all in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. He pitched in 32 games for Single-A Peoria in 2017, accruing a 3.40 ERA, two saves and 44 strikeouts over 45 innings. The Far Rockaway native was superb over his first two years of pro ball with Single-A State College, combining to go 3-2 with a 2.82 ERA and 33 strikeouts over 51 innings of work, spanned across 29 games. The 26-year-old Villanova University alum was originally drafted by the Cardinals in the 16th round of the 2015 amateur draft.
Jason Creasy (RHP) – Creasy earned a spring training invite after participating in the Ducks open player tryout on April 14. He spent the first six seasons of his career in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization, reaching as high as Triple-A in 2016. The North Carolina native collected Eastern League Mid-Season All-Star honors with Double-A Altoona in 2015 and was 12-8 with a 4.41 ERA, one complete game, one save and 147 innings pitched over 27 games (25 starts). The 25-year-old pitched with the St. Paul Saints of the American Association in 2017, making 11 starts and striking out 49 batters in 57 innings. Creasy was originally drafted by the Pirates in the eighth round of the 2011 amateur draft.
Robert Garcia (OF) – Garcia earned a spring training invite after participating in the Ducks open player tryout on April 14. He has five seasons of professional experience, all in the Chicago Cubs organization. The Elwood Park, New Jersey resident played a career-high 108 games for Single-A Myrtle Beach in 2017, collecting two homers, 31 RBI, 42 runs, six doubles, three triples and 16 stolen bases. The 24-year-old was named an MiLB.com Organization All-Star in 2015 after hitting .341 and posting a .409 on-base percentage with the Cubs’ rookie-level affiliate in the Arizona League. He was also chosen as a Northwest League Mid-Season All-Star in 2016 with Single-A Eugene. Garcia was originally signed by the Cubs as an international free agent in 2013.
Wagner Gomez (C) – Gomez earned a spring training invite after participating in the Ducks open player tryout on April 14. He has five seasons of professional baseball experience, all with the Cincinnati Reds organization. The Richmond Hill, NY resident began his career as a catcher and infielder, totaling nine home runs, 54 RBI, 47 runs, 18 doubles and three triples over 130 games. The 26-year-old then converted to a pitcher in 2013 and appeared in 36 games over two seasons, striking out 43 batters in 38 and two-thirds innings. Gomez was originally signed by the Reds as an international free agent in 2010.
The complete spring training schedule is as follows:
Friday, April 20 – 1:00 p.m. – Ducks at New Britain
Saturday, April 21 – 1:00 p.m. – New Britain at Ducks
Monday, April 23 – 1:00 p.m. – Black Sox at Ducks
Tuesday, April 24 – 1:00 p.m. – Black Sox at Ducks
Stay tuned for updates throughout the course of the week regarding team workouts and other news. As a reminder, the 2018 season gets underway on Friday, April 27th when the Ducks visit the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs at 6:35 p.m. The Home Opener will follow on Friday, May 4th as the Blue Crabs make the return trip to Long Island for a 6:35 p.m. start.