(Long Island, NY) Back on opening day in 2000, the Long Island Ducks were an unknown entity playing in an independent league in only its second season. Nine years later, the team has become a part of the community and a perennial playoff participant. The Ducks are Long Island and Long Island is the Ducks.
The 2008 season begins on Friday evening at Citibank Park versus the defending Atlantic League champions, the Newark Bears, who knocked the Ducks out of the postseason last fall in the first round.
“The league is at an all-time high in terms of talent,” Ducks Principal Owner/CEO Frank Boulton said at Media Day on Thursday afternoon. “Just short of 10 percent of the players in the Atlantic League played in the major leagues last year, and 40 percent overall have major league time (in their career).”
“This is it for me,” said outfielder/DH Carl Everett, who saw his first action in the big leagues in 1993 with the Florida Marlins. “If I don’t get back to the league, I’m done.” The 36 year-old hit .312 with 25 home runs and 97 RBI a year ago on Long Island.
Joe Valentine, a local product from Deer Park and a former Athletic and Red, commented on taking over for the departed Danny Graves as closer. “For me, there is no change,” the Ducks former set-up man said. “I’ve closed pretty much my whole minor league career and a little bit in the big leagues.”
Manager Dave LaPoint sees the team’s relief pitching as one of the areas of concern heading into the new season. “We have to shore up our defense and bullpen this year,” he said. “That’s what kept us from the championship last year.”
The Ducks’ field boss feels confident that things will improve this year for one simple reason. “When we throw the nine guys out there, we have nine smart guys. And that’s what wins baseball games.”
Winning games is something that Bud Harrelson knows a thing or two about. The former Met shortstop and face of the Duck franchise since Day One likes what he saw as the team recently completed spring training in Florida. “I say it every year and I’ll say it again – this is the best team that we have ever come north with.”
The team co-owner and part-time coach realizes that the Atlantic League is one of opportunity, and teams lose their best players as the season moves along to major league organizations. The team that you break camp with looks very different from the one that you have even as early as the All-Star break in July. It is imperative to get off to a strong start and winning the first half division title before your key players move on at least guarantee you a playoff berth.
“There’s a lot of teams in the major leagues that can use Carl Everett and Joe Valentine,” LaPoint said.
This season, the Ducks will begin with nine players who have major league experience. Four (Everett, Valentine, Pete Rose, Jr. and Damian Rolls) were with the team in 2007. One player who has come close is opening day starter Randy Leek.
“I’m 31, played in Triple-A, never been to the big leagues, but I still feel that I can get big league hitters out,” the southpaw said. “That’s why I’m still playing.”
A few quality starts, and a pitcher like Leek may be on his way back to an affiliated organization. Such is life in the Atlantic League.