(Long Island, N.Y.) Never rest on your laurels. That is something the Long Island Ducks learned back in 2004 when they won their first Atlantic League championship. Especially in the independent circuit, you never know how your roster will look from one day to the next.
It took the team eight years to taste champagne again and they are not nearly satisfied with that, judging by the aggressive way the front office has been filling the roster as spring training approaches.
In a span of three days, the Ducks have signed a trio of former major leagues that will no doubt make them once again the team to beat. The first to come on board was Vladimir Guerrero, who at 38 is looking to prove that he has something left in the tank, or more appropriately, his bat. A 16-year veteran of the major leagues, the former Montreal Expos and Los Angeles Angels standout has a career batting average of .318 with 449 home runs, 1,496 RBI and 2,590 hits.
“I’m very excited about this opportunity the Long Island Ducks have given me as I try to make it back to the big leagues,” the 2004 American League MVP said. “I have a home on Long Island and look forward to helping the Ducks this season.”
A mere two days later, what may well be the Ducks’ opening day battery joined the nine-time All-Star. Lefthanded starter Dontrelle Willis and catcher Ramon Castro both signed to hopefully use Central Islip as a springboard back to ‘The Show.’
“Dontrelle has had a great deal of success at the major League level,” Ducks president and general manager Michael Pfaff said. “We are eager to add him to our pitching staff and excited to have him join the Atlantic League.”
In 2003 while playing for the then-Florida (now Miami) Marlins, Willis went 14-3 with a 3.30 ERA en route to winning the National League Rookie of the Year Award and being a member of a World Series champion. It appeared that great things were in store for him but his career became derailed a few years later with control problems and injuries.
Pitching for a total of four teams over a nine-year period, Willis, 31, has a combined career mark of 72-69, 4.17 ERA and 896 strikeouts. He also is a two-time National League All-Star.
Castro, 37, played for the New York Mets during a 13-year stretch and was a fan favorite at Shea Stadium during his tenure in the Big Apple. “Ramon is well known for his success in the big leagues among New York baseball fans,” Pfaff commented. “He brings a power bat (67 home runs, 217 RBI) and excellent defense (.990 fielding percentage, 30 percent base stealers thrown out) to our team this season.”
The backstop was a teammate of Willis’s on the 2003 Marlins and was behind the plate in 2009 to call and catch Mark Buehrle’s perfect game when they were members of the Chicago White Sox.
How long the three players stay in the Atlantic League remains to be seen. The better they do, the better the chance that either or all will be plucked by a MLB organization. Such is life in the independent baseball world.
But if the Ducks can even win the first half divisional crown before losing key players, then they will be able to defend their championship in the postseason.