Averaging 9,249 fans per game in 2011, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs have never had a problem attracting fans. Baseball-hungry residents of Allentown have filled the beautiful Coca Cola Park for four years and 2012 should be no different. What will be different for both the Iron Pigs and their fans is coming into a season as a winner.
2011 marked the first time the IronPigs closed a season with a winning record. Their 80-64 mark was good enough to earn them a spot in the postseason where they dispatched of the Pawtucket Red Sox in 3 straight games before losing in the Governors’ Cup Finals in four games to the Columbus Clippers. There is much reason for renewed optimism in 2012, though, as the IronPigs are fortunate enough to return may of the key players from the 2011 squad.
Yesterday was Media Day at Coca Cola Park and I had the chance to discuss this and more with manager Ryne Sandberg and a number of players. Sandberg was excited that many players are returning: “(The large number of returning players) is a big advantage because I enjoy the guys, liked all the guys, and I enjoyed what we did last year. So to have some of those guys come back with that experience of what we did here and what it means to be here and to play in front of these fans, I think that can rub off on the new players in a hurry. That’s my job and my goal: to get the guys together as soon as possible.”
One of those returning players Sandberg may turn to rally the troops is Mike Schwimer, who made his Major League debut last August with the Phillies and was selected as an International League All-Star in 2011. Schwimer spoke at length about the change Sandberg has brought to the Phillies organization and why he thinks the IronPigs’ fortunes have improved: “I think the biggest change was the addition of Sandberg as manager. The style of baseball he brings in was a lot different than the style of the past. He believes in a real hard-nosed, running, hit and run, National League-baseball, which really worked with our team. He got our bullpen a lot of action and played to our strengths all around. He was able to put everybody in the right position to succeed. Your team takes the shape of your manager; I’d say he’s the biggest reason for the change.”
Rich Thompson is another returning player who sees the change of culture in the Lehigh Valley. Thompson, an inaugural IronPig and Reading, PA native, has been with the teams in the best and worst of times. The speedy veteran outfielder, 48 of 52 in stolen base attempts last year while hitting .276/.354/.408 in 2011, spoke to the difference that a playoff appearance made: “We were disappointed and I’m sure the fans coming to the games were disappointed that our season always ended on Labor Day so it was nice to stretch it into the middle of September and make it to the finals. We’re looking for the same type of year this year.” Southeastern PA native, Conestoga Valley High grad, and 2011 IronPig teammate Dave Bush echoed the sentiments of Thompson and wants to do anything to contribute to a successful 2012.
David Purcey is one of the newest IronPigs and was the unfortunate victim of my first professional interview. Purcey is a 6’4 lefty who spent time with Toronto, Oakland, and Detroit in 2011 who may figure into the bullpen equation for the Phillies. His goal for 2012? “Execute on the mound.” His expectations for 2012? “The guys we have in this room? It’s good team and I have a feeling this will be a good year.”
Righty Scott Elarton was not able to complete his March Cinderella-like run to the Phils’ roster, but he was optimistic about 2012: “I was off for so long, it helped me to lose a lot of bad habits that I had accumulated over the years from injuries and surgeries so I had actually forgotten a lot of those. It made it a little bit easier to get into a regular throwing program and workout schedule and not having to battle through injury is the main thing.” I asked Elarton if he could see himself being a veteran presence on the IronPigs and he stated, “I’ll try to lead by example, working hard. We’ve got a good group of kids; they’re all hard workers and they all know what it takes. Everybody in here is not far at all from being in the Big Leagues. I don’t know what I really have to offer (laughs), they all have better arms than I do.” Elarton’s attitude toward preparation was admirable stating, “Just doing the daily work, can’t start taking the days off. Not anything specific, just doing what I have to do everyday.”
While Elarton was a little more focused in his talks, Dom Brown was loose with the media. “We’re going to have a lot of fun,” Brown said. “We’re a first class organization. When you’re in Triple-A here it almost feels like the Big Leagues; as you can see, we’ve got a lot of reporters here, a lot of teams don’t have that. You get that exposure and experience early here; when you get to the Big Leagues, it’s on a different level of course but you know, you’re ready to go,” Brown continued. When asked about his health, Brown stated “I’ve been banged up a little bit but I’ve been feeling pretty comfortable. I’m just excited about the season, I’m ready to see what is going to happen.”
One of the running themes of Media Day was players talking about how great it is to be in the Phillies organization, something in start contrast to what was said in the 80’s and 90’s. “It’s a great game and when you’re in a first class organization, it’s easy for you. They make it easy for you here,” Brown said, while Schwimer added separately about the coaching and development aspect, “I have had conversations with Rich (Dubee) and the entire organization had some conversations on what they think I need to do become a better pitcher and I happen to agree with them 100%. We’re on the same page and I just have to keep working on it.”
The other major themes were the competitive young bullpen and the team aspect that bonds them. Thompson was particularly excited for the bullpen, stating “Our bullpen is going to be really strong. Especially in April and May, when it’s really cold here, there’s going to be a lot of low scoring games and teams that take care of the baseball and do the little things right win. I think we’re pretty well suited for that.” Schwimer was motivated and inspired to succeed by his similarly-aged and talented bullpen teammates: “One thing I’ve learned in baseball is pitch well and you’re good. Everything takes care of itself. There’s no real competition; I hope all of us do well and succeed in the Majors. (The bullpen and I) help each other out all the time and we’re all trying to get each other better.” Schwimer’s sentiments were echoed in a statement made by Sandberg: “I inform the guys to play team baseball and to think about their teammates; I’ve found that goes a long way in themselves and what they do individually. It’s fun to play as a team and have them enjoy their time when they come to the ballpark. Once the game starts, we get our work in, we work hard in the pregame, and we play the game and have fun. I basically turn the guys loose with their talents.”
Sandberg is looking forward to a great 2012 and is excited by the team the Phillies have put around him, stating, “Just watching them in the Spring, I’m excited about the Phillies brought in this year. I think they’re in for a real treat with fan support and everything that goes on here with IronPig baseball, but also to get their work in here and to play team baseball and have good things going on here so that they can have good seasons and get on to the Major Leagues. The situation here helps, with the returning players here, they’ll rub off on the new guys and it won’t take the new guys long to fit in.”
Sandberg is excited to return to Lehigh Valley, stating “This place is great. The players are great, the accommodations are plentiful and always available.” After 35 years in professional baseball, Sandberg said Opening Day still “gives (him) butterflies in (his) stomach.”