19 seasons of Long Island Ducks baseball have come and gone. Players from all around the world and of all varieties of baseball experience have worn the Ducks uniform since the first pitch on April 28, 2000. In that time, they have played in front of nearly 8 million fans in Central Islip, and millions more around the rest of the country. Those players and coaches have also earned three Atlantic League Championships, seven Division Championships, 13 half-season Division Championships and over 1,300 victories. As the Ducks 20th Anniversary Season, presented by Good Samaritan Hospital Medical Center, approaches, it is time to determine which members of the Flock have stood above the rest.
Our final week of voting is upon us! We have gone through the entire lineup of position players and pitchers over the past several months, and fans have done a terrific job of voting to help decide which players will be represented on the 20th Anniversary Team. While this exclusive group looks fantastic thus far, it still needs one important thing: a manager. During the team’s first 19 seasons of play, a total of five different men held the position of field manager for the Ducks. Each one of them had previous Major League experience and quickly became fan favorites on Long Island. While all five found success with the Ducks, only three were selected as nominees. Here are the candidates:
The first manager in Ducks history was also one of the people who helped bring professional baseball to Long Island. Co-owner Bud Harrelson served as the skipper during the team’s inaugural season of 2000. Already a fan favorite in the area after playing shortstop on the New York Mets 1969 World Series championship team and coaching for the team’s World Series triumph in 1986, Buddy became even more beloved in this new role. During the Ducks first season of play, Harrelson led Long Island to a fabulous 82-58 record during the regular season. That mark was tied for the most wins and best winning percentage in the Atlantic League in 2000, dead even with the Nashua Pride, and the 82 victories are still the most in a single-season in franchise history. Six of Harrelson’s players also earned ALPB All-Star Game selections. Unfortunately for Bud and the Ducks, Long Island finished second in the North Division during both the first and second halves of the season, shockingly leaving them outside of the playoff picture. Despite that fact, the 2000 team remains one of the most special in club history, thanks in large part to Buddy’s “loosie goosie” style.
After Harrelson moved into the role of first base coach in 2001, the second manager in team history was Don McCormack. Our second nominee for the manager position brought two seasons of MLB experience playing with the Philadelphia Phillies to Long Island, and he proceeded to serve as Ducks manager for six seasons from 2001-06. The highlight of his tenure came in 2004 when he exorcised the Ducks postseason demons, leading the Flock to the first half North Division title and their first playoff appearance. After finishing the regular season at 65-61, the Ducks overcame a loss in their postseason opener and reeled off five straight wins, all by one run, to earn the first Atlantic League championship in team history. McCormack accrued a regular season record of 399-371 during his time with the Ducks and a 6-5 postseason mark, guiding the team to three consecutive playoff berths from 2004-06. His 344 victories stood as the club’s managerial record until the third nominee on our list overtook him.
Kevin Baez is the only manager in team history to have played with the club before eventually serving as its manager. He spent four seasons as a player for the Flock from 2002-05 and was a key contributor to Long Island’s 2004 Atlantic League championship team, winning All-Star Game MVP honors that season. After serving on the Ducks coaching staff for six seasons, he was named the team’s manager in 2011. The Brooklyn native proceeded to lead the Ducks to two Atlantic League championships, six Liberty Division titles and seven half-season Liberty Division titles in his eight seasons at the helm. Baez guided the Flock to their back-to-back league titles in 2012 and 2013, becoming the first person in league history to win a championship as both a player and manager. The former New York Mets infielder managed in three Atlantic League All-Star Games as well (2012, 2013, 2018), leading the Liberty Division to a 4-3 walk-off win in the 2018 event at Long Island’s Bethpage Ballpark. His 502 wins are most in franchise history by a manager, and he compiled a 502-459 regular season record along with a 24-22 postseason mark.
The final chance to vote for the 20th Anniversary Team has arrived. Who will round out this exclusive group of talented Ducks? It’s up to you to help choose. Cast your vote for Harrelson, McCormack or Baez over the next week by clicking the button below. The winner, along with the remainder of the 20th Anniversary Team, will be unveiled at the beginning of the 2019 season!
Thank you to all who helped select the members of the Long Island Ducks 20th Anniversary Team. The winners will all be unveiled in the 20th Anniversary Commemorative Yearbook, which is slated to be available starting on Opening Night at Bethpage Ballpark (Friday, May 3rd).
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.”
Our countdown of the Top Moments of 2016 is officially underway! Yesterday, we highlighted one of our five walk-off wins during the season as the #7 moment on our list. Tyler Colvin’s first-pitch grand slam in the ninth inning on July 21, giving the Ducks an 8-4 win over the Bridgeport Bluefish, was one of the many jubilant memories of the year. Moments like that are what made 2016 so special for Ducks fans across Long Island and for the players, coaches and front office.
Aside from great wins and tremendous hits, this past season also featured a large helping of milestones achieved both on and off the field. From players surpassing franchise records to record crowds passing through the turnstiles, the historic nature of the Ducks’ 17th season on Long Island will always be remembered. For the #6 moment on our list, we highlight one of our 72 victories during the regular season, though this one meant a little bit more.
Baez Stands Alone – July 8, 2016
Kevin Baez had seemingly done it all in a Ducks uniform. He joined the team in 2002 and earned an All-Star Game selection and the game’s Most Valuable Player honor in 2004. He also won an Atlantic League championship later that season. The Brooklyn native went on to serve as a coach for the team after retiring in 2005 and served in that role through the 2010 campaign. 2011 presented him with a new challenge though, as Baez was named the team’s manager.
Five years later, he has added so many more accolades to his Atlantic League career. Back-to-back Atlantic League championships in 2012 and 2013, three consecutive Liberty Division titles from 2011 to 2013 and a pair of All-Star Game managerial selections are just a few of them. 2016 saw Baez add another Liberty Division championship to his resume, but he also became the winningest skipper in franchise history.
Don McCormack amassed 399 wins as manager of the Ducks between 2001 and 2006, including the famous victory over Bridgeport in 2004 that clinched Long Island’s first-ever playoff berth. Though not counted in that number, he also led the Flock to three consecutive wins in the 2004 Atlantic League Championship Series. However, Baez had quickly equaled the man he had both played for and coached under thanks to several tremendously successful regular seasons (78 wins in 2011, 73 victories in 2014 and 80 wins in 2015).
Baez would tie McCormack’s wins total in the opener of a three-game road series against the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs. He used seven pitchers to piece together a 5-3 victory and also got four hits and three RBI from Delta Cleary Jr. The next night, Baez’s ace made things a little bit easier for him. John Brownell fired seven innings of one-run ball in a vintage performance against Southern Maryland. The lineup was superb again, combining for five runs in the fifth and sixth innings to turn a 1-0 lead into a six-run advantage. The Blue Crabs would get to within four, but that was all they could muster. Nick Struck induced a groundout from Jon Dziomba to seal the win, making Baez the winningest manager in franchise history and also giving him his milestone 400th win.
It was also appropriate that Baez tied the milestone and then surpassed it against a team he had accrued so many important victories against. Though not included in those 400, the manager led the Ducks to series victories over the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in each of his three consecutive Liberty Division titles. Two of those series, 2011 and 2013, were clinched at Regency Furniture Stadium in Waldorf, Md. Following win #400, his team proudly posed for a photo on the field with the lineup card, happily sharing the moment with a manager that has received nothing but praise from those who have had the pleasure of playing for him.
Baez later recalled the milestone win to Newsday: “It was an awesome feeling. The guys were pumped when they heard I was at 398 or 399 wins and getting close. It was a good time. Afterward, the guys sprayed me with champagne, water and stuff like that.”
He went on to say, “I love this organization. I love being a part of it. I do know that, in my business, it’s day-to-day. But I will be here as long as they’ll have me.”
Be sure to check back in with “Quack of the Bat” on Monday, as we continue our countdown of the Top Moments of 2016!
Back in November, we posted on the blog about some of the Ducks alumni who are now coaching in affiliated baseball. Among those on the list were J.R. House, who just took over as manager of the Single-A Hillsboro Hops. Today, one more former Duck was added to the list of alumni that are now managing in affiliated baseball: Shawn Williams. The one-time Duck will begin his managerial career in 2014 with the Single-A Williamsport Crosscutters of the New York-Penn League.
“The organization offered the position to me a couple of days ago,” Williams said via telephone on Tuesday. “It was a surprise, but a good surprise. They asked me if I would be willing to do it, and I said ‘Yeah, I’m looking forward to it, can’t wait!’”
To get to this point, let’s start back in 2012. Prior to that season, Williams was brought to Long Island to serve as the team’s utility man. He could play every position on the field, including catcher, where he would share the duties with Josh Johnson and Ryan Garko. Out of 137 games that year, Williams ended up playing in 102 of them and became a vital piece to Long Island’s championship puzzle.
He played every position on the field except center field and pitcher and played exemplary defense as well, committing just six errors. Offensively, he contributed in every way possible. Williams batted .272 and compiled a .353 on-base percentage. He showed some power with six home runs and added 46 RBI, 96 hits, 14 doubles and two triples. Another aspect of his game that proved to be important was his speed, and Williams ended the year with 18 stolen bases while being caught just five times. His solid season helped the Ducks to the First Half Liberty Division title and a spot in the playoffs and ultimately, the franchise’s first championship since 2004. The final memory of that season will always stand out in Williams’ mind.
“The best memory, I still talk about it and I know a lot of the other guys on that team still talk about it, was that walk-off bunt by Danny Lyons,” he reminisced. “That was unbelievable. It was just such an instinctual play, and it was just such a great year. Between having that awesome first half and finishing strong, the guys I got to play with, it was really neat.”
Williams was set to return to Long Island for the 2013 season as well. He had re-signed with the Ducks on February 15, but his plans were altered when he was working on a Florida golf course in the early morning. His phone unexpectedly started to ring, and it would change the course of his career in professional baseball.
“It was about three days before the Phillies spring training started, and I always worked the morning shift,” he recalled. “I started working at 5:30 in the morning I think, and I got a call at about 7:30 or 8:00 and was wondering ‘who’s calling me this early?’ It was [Phillies Assistant Director of Player Development] Steve Noworyta, and he said ‘Yeah, I just wanted to call and invite you to spring training as a catcher. We start in three days. Are you ready to go?’ I was absolutely ready, so it was pretty cool.”
Williams reported to Phillies spring training in nearby Clearwater, Florida with the hopes of continuing his career behind the plate. However, after a couple of weeks, the team informed him that they did not have a spot for him to play but wanted him to serve as a coach with the team. The former Tampa Bay rays farmhand had played seven seasons of pro ball, reaching as high as Single-A as recently as 2010. While he still felt he could play, the switch hitter retired as a player and began his coaching career.
After staying down in Florida coaching at extended spring training with the Phillies, Williams was assigned to Single-A Williamsport to serve as a coach on the staff of manager Nelson Prada. It’s not common that those new to coaching will skip rookie-level leagues, but this was certainly an exception. While his role was not as clearly defined, Williams was able to assist in a variety of areas as a “fourth coach.”
“I kind of just helped with everything,” he said. “Whatever they needed, between helping with the hitting coach or doing our individual work with the players defensively and at catcher, I was just there to help them out, coach first base and do stuff like that.”
Williamsport finished the year fourth in the New York-Penn League’s Pinckney Division at 37-38, but the former Duck had received some valuable coaching experience. Fast-forward five months later to this February where Williams was once again reporting to Phillies spring training in Clearwater. This time, he knew from the get-go that he would be serving as a coach in the organization and began working with players to get them ready for the season. However a few days ago, he received the news that a promotion was in store, one that was certainly not expected.
Prada was getting promoted to the team’s high-A affiliate in the Florida State League, opening the door for Williams to take the open managerial spot at Williamsport. After just one year of coaching in affiliated baseball, the 30-year-old will be among the youngest managers in the game. Regardless, he is taking over a franchise that has won a pair of league championships and will be looking for their first title since 2003. While he may be young, he’s got championship experience from his days with the Ducks and a great deal of baseball knowledge in the family.
Shawn’s father, Jimy Williams, spent time over two seasons (1966-67) in the Major Leagues as a player with the St. Louis Cardinals and followed that up with a career in coaching. Most notably, he served as a manager of the Toronto Blue Jays (1986-89), Boston Red Sox (1997-2001) and Houston Astros (2002-04). Jimy has ties to the Phillies organization as well, serving as a bench coach with the team in 2007 and their championship year of 2008. Shawn’s brother Brady also had a seven-year career in the minor leagues including a couple of seasons in the Atlantic League (Road Warriors, 2004 and Bluefish, 2005). Since then, he has served as a manager for five seasons and led three teams to the postseason. Most recently, he took the Single-A Charlotte Stone Crabs to the championship series. This year, he too received a promotion just like his brother and will now be the skipper for the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits.
“My dad lives in Palm Harbor which is about 10 minutes from the Phillies spring training facility,” noted Shawn. “Between going to Montgomery to watch Brady and coming here to see me and my two sisters, he’s always traveling around to visit all of us.”
The Williams family has a plethora of baseball pedigree, and Ducks fans should be excited for a guy like Shawn. He was a professional since day one on Long Island, working as hard as possible both on and off the field to produce for manager Kevin Baez. His playing career ended with a championship ring on Long Island and an opportunity in spring training with a Major League team. Since that point, he’s gone nowhere but up, and that acceleration has gone incredibly fast. We’ll be keeping an eye on how Williams’ Crosscutters do this season. And if you’re looking to see Shawn in person as a manager, Williamsport will be in Staten Island to face the Yankees July 16-18 and in Brooklyn to face the Cyclones July 19-21.