Jim Fuller could see the summit. After seven seasons in the minor leagues with three different organizations, the Major Leagues were in sight. The left-handed pitcher joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason and was flat out dominant after receiving an invitation to Major League spring training. In 10 games, he allowed just one run over nine and two-thirds innings, walking none while striking out eight. It appeared as though his big league dream was finally going to be achieved. But then, in the blink of an eye, everything changed.
“Last year was, by far, one of the tougher years I had to go through,” Fuller recalled via telephone this week. “I got hurt right at the end of spring training. Numbers were great in spring, and everything was feeling real good. All of a sudden, injuries happened and kind of set me back. It was real frustrating just sitting there watching the games and not being able to play.”
Fuller suffered a forearm muscle strain that would keep him out of action until the end of May. After recovering from the injury, he appeared in three games for the Triple-A Indianapolis Indians and allowed two runs in three and one-third innings. Despite overcoming the initial injury, it had residual effects on his left shoulder which had been surgically repaired in 2011 after tearing his labrum. Fuller’s season was over in a flash, and that reality was difficult for him to bear.
“It’s one of the toughest things you have to do in sports,” he stated in reference to sitting out the remainder of the year. “You know you can go out there and compete at a high level, but you physically can’t because you’re injured. It’s really tough mentally. I have good family that love me, support me and give me good words of encouragement. It’s just going out there and knowing that everything is going to eventually be okay, and you just have to fight through this.”
The 29-year-old made the decision this winter to ensure that all would indeed be just fine. The positive support he received during the year, coupled with his strong performance last spring, gave him the confidence to get back up on the proverbial horse and begin his quest back towards the big leagues. Most importantly, Fuller dedicated his time to figuring out what might have been the reason for these injuries and how he could correct the problem.
“I took some time this offseason and really thought about what could possibly be causing me to have the same arm issue year after year,” he noted. “I looked at some video of myself and kind of narrowed it down to these little things that I was doing which were putting a lot of pressure on my shoulder. I really took some time and did a lot of things to help out my mechanics and take a lot of that pressure off.”
The results thus far seem to be exactly what he was hoping for. Although he has yet to pitch in a game, the Massachusetts native is feeling strong, both physically and mentally, and believes he has found his groove once again.
“I’m in a good spot right now,” Fuller said, his voice teeming with excitement. “The ball’s coming out great, and my velocity is really good. It’s probably among the best it has been in my career.”
2017 will present a new experience for the former New York Mets draft pick. After spending eight seasons in Major League organizations, Fuller will get his first taste of the Atlantic League. Even though he does not have a vast knowledge about the league as a whole, the reviews he has been presented with have made him eager to run head-on at this new opportunity.
“My agent had a couple of guys who played on the team last year,” Fuller noted. “He said it’s a really good place to play and that I’ll have a fun time. I know it’s good competition, and I’ve heard everyone who has played [in the league] has said it’s a blast to play there. Honestly, I love playing the game and competing and that’s probably the thing I’m looking forward to the most.”
Fuller has done a little bit of everything in his career. He spent most the first three seasons of his career in the starting rotation and did incredibly well, compiling a 16-11 record and a 2.29 ERA in that span. After missing the entire 2011 season and most of 2012 with his shoulder injury, the Mets organization moved him to the bullpen. Despite the switch, Fuller found success in a relief role too. He posted a 0.84 ERA in 2013 at Advanced-A St. Lucie, went 3-1 with a 2.84 ERA in 2014 with Double-A New Britain in the Twins organization and was 2-1 with a 2.78 ERA while at Nashville (AAA, Athletics) in 2015. The lefty has enjoyed both roles, and though the Ducks view him as a reliever, his versatility could be an asset.
“As a starter, I really liked going out there every five days and getting the ball to throw five or more innings,” Fuller stated. “I like to compete, and I like to have the ball as much as I can. I’ve really enjoyed relieving as well. It’s a little different than as a starter, but I like getting the ball and having a chance to pitch every day. I enjoy that mindset of going out there and just letting it go for an inning.”
With spring training underway among Major League organizations and the Atlantic League season approaching on the horizon, it is nearly time for Fuller to take the mound again. With the frustration of 2016 well in his rearview mirror, it will be important for him to make sure that those negative thoughts and memories remain in the past. One of the key factors in helping him do that will be the relationship he forges with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn. After focusing all offseason on altering his mechanics to avoid injury, Fuller will look to Horn to make sure that he is doing all the right things.
“I think it’s important to have a good relationship with your pitching coach,” he opined. “They see things that you can’t see yourself. Any kind of advice you can take from the pitching coach you have, every little thing helps. If he sees something I can’t pinpoint that I’m doing, we’ll work together to try and figure things out.”
In addition to developing that bond, Fuller knows that the onus will be on him to keep his good vibes in place. He took it upon himself to overcome the injuries, figure out the problem and correct it this winter. Now, his mental toughness and focus during the year will be the key in maintaining both health and success. When asked about what it will take to avoid thinking about his past, Fuller was confident in his reply.
“I’m just going to think about what I did this offseason. I put in a lot of hard work, looked at a lot of video and did a lot of work off the mound. I’ve done just about everything. I’ve figured things out, and I think I’m in a good place right now. I’m going to take that into this season and not think about the past couple of seasons.”
With a mindset like that, Fuller just might be able to soar back up the mountain and land at the top.
A pair of champions has been reunited on Long Island.
The Ducks have signed their first pitcher to the 2017 roster, bringing aboard reliever Tyler Wilson. His rights had been acquired about one week earlier from the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League for future considerations. Now, he has officially put pen to paper on a contract to solidify his place in the bullpen. In doing so, he also assured himself of a reunion with new Ducks pitching coach Billy Horn after the pair spent the past two seasons together in Ottawa.
“Billy’s been awesome to me and has given me all the opportunities in the world to show what I have,” said Wilson by telephone on Friday. “When no one would give me a chance, he believed in me. Even when things weren’t going so hot, he didn’t stray from believing in me.”
Wilson and Horn’s relationship has blossomed in their two seasons together with the Champions. Both joined the club for its inaugural season in 2015. Wilson was looking to get his career back on track after mixed results over four seasons in the Red Sox organization and struggling as a starter with two other Can-Am League clubs. Horn, meanwhile, was beginning his first coaching opportunity in professional baseball and looking to help his ballplayers reach the next level.
The two immediately clicked, and it proved to be a mutually beneficial tandem. Wilson was given several different roles in his first season with Ottawa, handling everything from mop-up duty in blowout games to a set-up role and even closing on occasion. After compiling a 5.50 earned run average in 30 starts over his first two seasons in the league, the right-hander was able to turn in a 3.15 ERA in 32 relief appearances during the 2015 campaign. He also struck out 53 batters and walked just 17, a 3.1/1 ratio, compared to 118 strikeouts and 65 walks in 2013 and 2014 combined a 1.8/1 ratio.
“Tyler is the ultimate competitor and has a perfect mentality for a reliever,” commented Horn. “He is extremely focused and always wants the ball. For a power arm, he throws a lot of strikes, with good run on the fastball and a hard slider.”
His 2016 season was even more impressive. Wilson lowered his ERA even further to a miniscule 2.08 and made 42 appearances during the year. He nailed down 14 saves as Ottawa’s closer and struck out 60 batters while walking 24 and helped the Champions clinch a spot in the playoffs. Wilson then made five appearances in the postseason without allowing a run and struck out seven in six and two-thirds innings. The end result: A Can-Am League championship.
What could Wilson attribute to yielding, in his words, the best two years of his career?
“I’ve just really busted my butt and watched a lot of film of myself,” he noted. “I think I just went out there and was an even greater competitor than I had been. I wanted to have a lot of fun, leave it all out on the field and know that if I gave 100% that day and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted, there was nothing more I could have done to change that.”
Thanks to his success and a strong working relationship with Horn, Wilson put himself in a position to seek further opportunities to enhance his career. While he was proud to be part of a championship roster in Ottawa, the Georgia native’s dream to one day reach the big leagues was still very much alive. As the offseason began, he reached out to his manager with the Champions, Hal Lanier, about options to take the next step.
“I asked Hal if there was any way I could get in the Atlantic League and move up in my career to better my chances,” recalled Wilson. “He was all for it. He wants the best for my career, and I just felt like the Atlantic League was the best place for me to further my career.”
Horn was able to use his relationship with Ducks President/GM Michael Pfaff to eventually become Long Island’s next pitching coach. Wilson’s bond with Horn helped get the barrel rolling to bring the pitcher to Bethpage Ballpark as well. Now, their relationship will be able to continue growing.
“Here I am two years later, he gets a promotion and I’m getting a promotion myself,” exclaimed Wilson. “I’ve been able to build a special relationship with him. Some people would say like he’s been a father figure to me.”
He went on to add, “It’s just awesome that I get to experience this with him. We’re both getting a big opportunity here, and I know we are both willing to give everything we’ve got to show everyone that we belong here.”
The move to the Ducks, and the Atlantic League, will provide a great challenge for Wilson. The 27-year-old has never faced a competition level like he will in the ALPB. His career in the Red Sox organization reached as high as Single-A in 2012, and he has spent the past four seasons in the Can-Am League. While some of his teammates are sure to be younger than him, Wilson will be joining a league and a roster filled with Major League veterans and guys who have reached the highest levels of minor league baseball. Rather than being intimidated, he plans to use that fact to his advantage.
“This will be my fifth year in independent baseball, and all that I’ve heard about the Atlantic League is how much better the players are,” noted Wilson. “I feel like this is the big leagues of the independent world. I’m sure I will be playing with guys that are older than me and have a lot more experience than I do, and I’m going to walk in eager and willing to work. I haven’t established myself yet, so I’ll be here learning from these guys that have been with the Ducks, in the big leagues and at Double-A or Triple-A. I’ll just be eating up all the information I possibly can to help me get to where I want to be.”
Horn believes that Wilson will be able to make the change in stride, stating “He will definitely fit in any clubhouse no matter what level he makes it to. He just wants to go out there, compete, pitch and just like anyone else, make it to the big leagues.”
Much like in 2015, Wilson will begin the year without a definitive role in the bullpen. He knows that Horn and Ducks manager Kevin Baez might utilize him as a late-inning reliever or as a long man option behind the starter if necessary. Considering he served as a starter throughout the first three seasons of his career and two more years with the Trois-Rivieres Aigles, the options are endless. Wilson tends to use that versatility to his advantage.
“Whatever opportunity they want to give me, I’m willing to be that guy,” he affirmed. “It doesn’t really matter to me. I’m not coming in here focused on one job. I’m just here to prove myself in whatever job that they may give me.”
In the end, Wilson is hoping to enjoy the sweet taste of victory in the season’s final game, just like he did last year with Ottawa. Every player wants to win a championship in their career, and that is his primary focus coming into 2017. Now that he had the chance to experience what life was like on top, with Horn by his side, Wilson’s desire to have that moment again has become even stronger.
“That would icing on the cake for me,” he stated, “especially with getting an opportunity to pitch in the Atlantic League. Going to the playoffs and the Championship Series again would honestly be a dream come true. There aren’t too many years in a row that you get to go to the playoffs, much less the championship. As a guy coming into his first year in the league, I would love to be a part of that.”
Wilson’s journey begins in April, and the man who got him here will be right by his side.
His goals are straightforward.
“Promote as many players as possible to MLB organizations, make everyone else’s job easier and win a championship.”
That, in a nutshell, is the plan of Billy Horn, who became the new pitching coach for the Ducks this week. He will join manager Kevin Baez and coach Bud Harrelson on a staff that has brought Long Island’s only professional baseball team incredible success, namely five playoff berths, four Liberty Division titles and two Atlantic League championships in the past six seasons. Horn is eager to join a franchise that continues to be competitive, but being part of a team so close to home for the first time in his career is a dream come true.
“I am very appreciative and thankful for being selected as the candidate,” he said. “I just thought it was the perfect fit for me, being a New York City guy. I’m really excited! I love New York City and everything that it brings with it.”
Horn spent the past two seasons as the first-ever pitching coach for the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League. Working under former Yankee Hal Lanier, he helped put baseball on the map in Ottawa. Most notably, he led the team to a postseason berth this past season and a pair of improbable series victories en route to the Can-Am League championship. In fact, to reach the pinnacle, Horn’s squad would have to pull off some heroics that the Ducks are surely familiar with.
“I’ve always been a big Rocky Balboa fan; I love the underdog mentality,” Horn noted. “Everyone thought we were going to lose in the first round of the playoffs against New Jersey. They had won 60 games last year whereas we had finished just over .500, but we came out and beat them. Then we lost Games One and Two in the championship to Rockland and our mentality was ‘Don’t let us win Game Three.’ We were 3-14 against them in the regular season, now 3-16 overall, so it was all about ‘let’s just have fun.’ We came out, won Game Three and the rest was history.”
Despite dropping the first two games of the series at home, Ottawa found a way to win three straight road games to clinch the title. It was a feeling and a moment that Horn will cherish forever.
“It was unbelievable winning a championship, especially in Ottawa where they had not won a professional championship in 21 years,” he reminisced. “It was very, very special, and that’s something that I want to bring over and have again this year with Long Island.”
Horn’s journey to the Ducks in fact began during that championship season. Throughout the year, he was frequently in contact with Ducks President/General Manager Michael Pfaff regarding players on both teams. Although the two sides never struck a deal, it created a connection in the baseball world. This offseason, Horn began thinking about coaching opportunities outside of Ottawa. Ultimately, an innocent text ended up paving the way to a new position.
“I just decided to text Mike out of the blue and asked him to keep me in mind if he knows of any openings in the Atlantic League as a pitching coach,” Horn recalled. “He ended up telling me to send him my resume because they were looking for a coach.”
As the interview process trekked onward, Horn remained hopeful of a promotion from the Can-Am League to the Atlantic League. In his journeys throughout baseball, he has continued to build a rolodex of contacts to network with and help him advance in his career. One of those was all-time Ducks great Doug Jennings, who he first faced when playing baseball in Italy. The two would go on to coach high school baseball together at North Broward Preparatory School in Florida and have continued to remain in touch. Sure enough, Jennings would go on to become vital in Horn’s hiring by the Ducks.
“I was working in Vero Beach looking at players, and Doug knew I was there,” Horn noted. “He contacted me to let me know his stepson was looking for an opportunity. When he came up, I had asked him if he still knew anyone with the Ducks because I was interviewing for the pitching coach job. He told me that he did and that he was going to make a call on my behalf if I didn’t mind. I said, ‘Of course not! I highly appreciate it.’”
Thanks in part to the recommendation of Jennings, along with several others who reached out to the Ducks on Horn’s behalf, Long Island had found its new pitching coach. Although his time in Ottawa and the relationships built there were unforgettable, Horn was excited for the opportunity to move up to the Atlantic League and take on new challenges. He was also positive that Long Island was the ideal landing spot for him.
“Long Island is just first class all the way,” Horn affirmed. “Everyone that I have spoken to, whether it be managers, coaches, or friends of mine that have played at every level, has said that if you’re going to go anywhere from Ottawa, it’s got to be Long Island. They treat their players, their staff, their coaches and their fans right.”
He went on to say, “I’m also really looking forward to working with Buddy. I’ve heard that Buddy is a fantastic guy and is an old-timer just like Hal. He’s been around the game for a long time, and working with guys like him and Kevin and Mike, who know the game and know players, is something I love.”
While Horn can’t wait to join the coaching staff on Long Island, his coaches are sure to grow fond of the work ethic and style that Horn brings to the table. His enthusiastic and welcoming personality are both clearly evident when communicating with him, but it’s his eagerness to help others and take on many responsibilities that will go a long way.
“I’m just a hard working guy,” Horn stated. “I’ll probably get there every day at 10:00 a.m., go to the gym, work out, work on looking for players and work with the pitching staff. My job is to just take care of whatever the players need, whatever the coaching staff needs, whatever the front office needs or whatever my clubhouse manager needs. That’s just the kind of person I am.”
The relationship between a manager and a pitching coach is extremely important. It is imperative for both to be on the same page, share open dialogue on a consistent basis and be able to trust one another when important decisions need to be made. For the pair of New Yorkers, it seems that Baez and Horn will have no problem gelling and creating a formula that will yield positive results from the pitching staff and the team as a whole.
“Kevin and I have spoken, and everything that I have done previously with Ottawa is exactly what he is looking for in regards to me coming to Long Island,” said Horn. “Things like staying in constant communication with him in regards to health and who needs a day off on the staff are important. I think it’s going to be a very smooth transition. We’re both very laid back but want to win every single game, work hard all day and are looking to win a championship.”
In addition to bonding with the coaching staff, it will be paramount for Horn to develop a harmony with his pitchers. The 37-year-old will be faced with the task of developing a bond with many players that have reached the Major Leagues or have spent extended time with Major League organizations. Horn’s professional career saw him play a few seasons in the Italian Baseball League and one year with the Long Beach Armada of the independent Golden Baseball League. Although he may not have the same credentials as some of his predecessors, Horn has forged a technique that he believes will work well.
“I tend to be fairly quiet in the first couple of weeks that I’m there,” Horn noted. “I have a very laid back and relaxed approach with my players. A lot of them have worked with guys who have been to All-Star Games and won Cy Young Awards. I really have to take the hands-off approach and make a really good first impression for guys to trust my philosophies.”
Horn will also be a new face in a clubhouse that could potentially feature several players with previous experience on Long Island and in the Atlantic League. With this in mind, Horn knows it will helpful to rely on those veterans while sprinkling in his philosophy.
“When it comes to the pitchers and their workouts, it’s their own program. They do their own thing, and these guys are all professionals. I’m not going in there blank. I’ve been doing my homework on the league and know a few managers around the league. At the end of the day, my thing is that you’re dealing with people. There are going to be times where we might have guys who have more of an ego, but I try to handle everything with class, dignity and pride.”
Horn went on to add, “I’m all about togetherness and family because when you’re on the road for six or seven months, this is your family. Everyone has to be on the same page, and I’m not looking to come in there and reinvent the wheel. I’m here to help these guys, and whatever they need, it’s my job to get it done. Anything I can do to help these guys get better as ballplayers and as human beings, I’m going to do it.”
Welcome to the family, Billy!