01 May Right to Work at Training Camp
The Miners take the field for preseason training camp today and it’s right to work under the team’s new manager, Chris Widger, with live batting practice and intersquad games right off the bat, first thing this morning.
“There’s nothing like seeing them in person,” Widger said over the weekend, preparing for his first impression of players he’s only known on paper and on video until now.
“I want to see pitchers pitch and I want to see hitters hit. There are a lot of jobs up for grabs. In fact, every job is up for grabs.”
Last year, Widger was managing the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double-A farm team of the Kansas City Royals, but the South Jersey native was happy to come home and take over in Augusta. When he was hired in October, he said he’d enjoyed an earlier position as manager with the Camden RiverSharks, an independent league team like the Miners. He pointed out that a manager with an affiliated team takes his orders daily from the organization’s headquarters, while a manager of an independent team calls his own shots and makes his own decisions on which player is playing which position on any given day.
Widger, who turns 52 on May 21, inherits a Sussex team that finished 54-41 last year, winding up in fourth place in the Frontier League’s East Division, knocked out of playoff contention in the final weekend of the season. It was a team with one of the league’s best pitching staff, but with one of the league’s worst team batting average.
“We’re hoping to have a more balanced team this year,” Widger said. “I’m happy with the core group we’ll have.
“After all the offseason moves, I see a potential to be a good offensive team. Pitching wise, we’ve got some young guys who’ve got to step up now and improve on where they were last year.”
One of those pitchers was 24-year-old Eston Stull, who joined the team late in the season and appeared as a righty reliever in 15 games, notching 23 strikeouts in 16 innings. Another was Tyler Thornton, another righty who also relieved in 15 games and posted a 1.61 ERA. The Miners skipper was happy, as well, with the April 6 signing of righthander Robbie Hitt, who’d played the past two seasons at the Double-A level with the Milwaukee Brewers organization. And, Widger was glad to have catcher-first baseman Gavin Stupienski in camp, having managed him in the Royals’ farm system after Stupienski had played the 2019 season for the Miners.
Some of the key returning players from last year’s team include outfielders Jawuan Harris, who was third in the league with 34 stolen bases, Justin Washington and Oraj Anu; and infielders Juan Silverio and Willie Escala.
“I guarantee you that we’re not going to waste any time in training camp this week,” said Widger, who must trim his roster down to 28 players by Sunday, May 7, then down to 24 to open the season on Friday, May 12, on the road outside of Chicago against the Joliet Slammers.
“We’re going to be on the field playing intersquad games with hitters facing live pitching. I want to see guys in competitive situations. I want to see how they play the game.”
Widger began his own pro baseball career in 1992 as a third-round draft choice of the Seattle Mariners out of George Mason University. He spent three years in Seattle’s farm system before making his MLB debut in 1995, catching a combined shutout by Tim Belcher and Bobby Ayala in his first big league start.
After the ’96 season, he was traded to the Montreal Expos, where he enjoyed some of his best years under manager Felipe Alou, playing in 125 games in 1998 and 124 games in 1999, when he batted .264 with 14 home runs and 56 RBI.
He returned to Lou Piniella and the Mariners in 2000, had shoulder surgery in 2001 and signed a free agent contract with Joe Torre’s Yankees in 2002, where he caught Mariano Rivera, among others. In 2003, he signed on with Tony La Russa’s Cards and, in 2005, with Ozzie Guillen’s Series-bound Chicago White Sox. He finished his 10th big league season in 2006 with the Baltimore Orioles.
THE WHATS? When Miners general manager Justin Ferrarella left the team after last season, he became president and GM of the Lexington Legends in the independent Atlantic League, like the Jackals in the Frontier League a partner league of Major League Baseball. But, with a recent change in ownership, the Legends are history.
They’re now the Lexington Counter Clockers. The Whats? The new owners wanted to reach out to the community for a new name, new logo, now identity and what they heard was a pride in the great state of Kentucky which was accented by horse racing and bourbon. They chose to go with the horse racing.
The British raced on grass and the horses ran a clockwise course, turning to the right at each curve. But, in Kentucky, it was decided to race on dirt… and to run counterclockwise. So, there it is, the Lexington Counter Clockers.
Ferrarella was replaced as Sussex County GM by Vincent Sangemino in early March.
By Carl Barbati, former sports editor of the New Jersey Herald, Daily Record and The Daily Trentonian.
Photo by: Phil Hoops