Sussex Skyhawks at Skylands Park
by Mary Jasch
The Skyhawks closed up shop after the 2010 season. Tricky business... Anyway, for what it's worth, here's an account of the team's stay at Skylands Park.
A drive up Route 15 in Sussex County winds its way past antique shops, Olde Lafayette Village, quaint stores, cozy eateries, open farmland and many other entrapments that typify a tranquil summer ride through the Skylands. As the road enters Augusta and intersects with Route 206, just before the Sussex County Fairgrounds, a glance to the right reveals a structure painted barnyard red that fits nicely within the rural scenery, yet still has a quality that sets it apart. It is hardly grandiose, but not easy to ignore. As you turn right at the intersection, the sign welcomes you to Skylands Park Sports and Recreation Center, which opened in 1994 and served as home for the New Jersey Cardinals, a Class A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals, through the 2005 sesason when the team was sold, renamed, and relocated. In 2006, the Sussex Skyhawks became the home team at Skylands Park and quickly found success, winning the 2008 championship of the Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball.
Skyhawks pitcher Jusef Frias deals to catcher Ryan Boelsen as the team battles their Jersey rivals, the Jackals in an early spring, 2010 game.
Sitting ground level at first base at Skylands Park, it's the bottom of the first inning. Kris Sanchez, outfielder for the Sussex Skyhawks, comes to bat, slams the ball to the wall and runs to third. A wild pitch and he's Home! The score: 3-1.
Bats are booming tonight. The second inning explodes with a lead-off double for the New Jersey Jackals. Jusef Frias in pinstripes winds up on the russet mound above bright green turf. Infielder Abraham Nunez cracks the ball, a grounder past first. Kevin Clark, No. 6, fouls one over the stands into the parking lot. He walks.
When the Skyhawks come to bat, Kraig Binick hits hard to center for a base hit. The trumpet sounds "Charge!" The crowd is rowdy and the hitter dunks it in the gap for a double. Bases loaded; two outs. A line drive to left field brings two men home to tie the score. Hit after hit, runs, doubles, fouls ripping above the standÑthe pitchers fool no one. The Skyhawks lose this game, but come back to take the series against the Jackals 3 to 1. The game is close, clean and friendlyÑa family night out, under lights.
Right now (late May), the Skyhawks hold second place in the Can-Am League. They are working hard to negate the memory of last year's tie for last place and return to their winning ways. Management has revamped the club with twenty new playersÑall with new attitudes. Only two remain from last year's roster. Most of the current players were released from organized ball during spring training this year and are hungry to get back into organized ball, and to play at the major league level.
"They have the ability, but they have even greater desire" says Skyhawks manager Ed Ott, new this year also. "I don't predict championships but what I can predict is that my teams will give 100% at all times. That's what I'm looking for from this ball club—giving 100% at all times and we will be successful."
Both the Skyhawks and the Jackals, based at Yogi Berra Stadium at Montclair State University, are professional, independent teams owned by Floyd Hall, the well-respected former CEO of Target Stores and, later, Kmart; major league management, indeed. The teams are not affiliated with major league baseball, but the players are free agents looking to be signed by any major league club. In addition to the New Jersey teams, the Can-Am League consists of Quebec Les Capitales and three Massachusetts teams: Brockton Rox, Pittsfield Colonials and Worcester Tornadoes.
Pitcher/coach Duaner Sanchez.
Lights-out pitcher Duaner Sanchez was released from the New York Mets and San Diego Padres after surgeries on a torn rotator cuff. He came to the Skyhawks as closer and pitching coach and to get his arm backÑor, if he doesn't make it back to the big leagues, to give back to the other players. Meanwhile, he's throwing every day to maintain pitching skills. "So if an organization has an injury (and needs a pitcher), he's ready to go. Every major league team knows Duaner is here right now. These guys are making a tremendous amount of sacrifice to come to this level, but this level is what that's all about. They can step right in (a major league game) tomorrow," Ott says.
The team had only eleven days of spring training. Cost is one reason, but since most players were released after spring training with other ball clubs, they came to the Skyhawks already in shape. Ott still had time to learn their capabilities, and gave players time to learn Ott's management philosophy and what he expects from them. Ott maintains the tough, no-nonsense reputation he earned in the majors. His philosophy? To play hard at all given times. "Other than that I don't over-evaluate. I've been in baseball 38 years now. I don't expect perfection. We are human beings and we're going to make physical errors. I have a problem with mental errors. Fundamentals are unheard of at the major league level. Defense is something not even spoken of at the major league level," he laments. Defense has become a lost art because players are paid so much money for offensive production they forget about the most important part of the game, defensive production: turning double plays, catching fly balls, hitting relay, missing the cutoff man, throwing to the right bases, throwing with the amount of accuracy players of the old era used to throw. "It's a shame," he adds. "The game has changed so much it hurts me to watch it, especially with the amount of money these guys are making.
"I teach defense to the young kids here because I'm from the old school. We're going to win more baseball games with our defense than we will with our offense. We can always manufacture runs. We can bunt the guy over, hit and run, steal bases. If you let in seven runs from the other team and you produce five runs, you're not going to have a very good season. But if you can produce five runs during a game and your defense only lets in one or two, you're going to have a great season. So defense is definitely my number one thing. I manage the old style. We play really good defense, we will win. We play bad defense, we will lose. My players will be defensive oriented players when they leave here."
Manager Ed Ott (closest to you with glasses), closer and pitching coach Duaner Sanchez, bat boys, and the rest of the Skyhawks study the game from the dugout.
After six years in the minor leagues as a catcher and outfielder, Ott signed with Pittsburgh Pirates as catcher from 1976 to '84 and played the 1979 World Series when Pittsburgh beat Baltimore. He went to the California Angels, then retired after two rotator cuff injuries. He coached Pirates' Triple A and won a championship, then coached the Houston Astros and Detroit Tigers for four years. Since then he's managed and coached independent teams, including the Jackals, earning "Manager of the Year" twice before coming to the Hawks this year.
But independent baseball? What's it all about? The purpose of an major league affiliated team is different from that of an independent team. The role of an affiliated team is to train players for its associated major league club. The owner of an affiliated team works to make money just like the owner of an independent club, but the independent team really tries to win for the community.
"An affiliated team's field manager will say, "I'm here to develop players,' not "I'm here to win games.' But if you're an independent club, you better be there to win games because that's the only end result," says Miles Wolf, Commissioner of both the Can-Am League and American Association of Independent Professional Baseball and owner of Capitales de Quebec team in Quebec City, Canada. "Occasionally we do sell players to major league organizations, but that's not our role. Our role is to provide a good product for the community we're in."
Independent league ball players come from all over including the Dominican Republic, where Duaner Sanchez grew up. Their desire to make it to be the big leagues fuels their commitment to the game. "We're here to give the players a chance who were overlooked by the minor leaguer draft, or for released players from organizations Ð to give them an opportunity to reach their goals and put numbers on the board—to fulfill their dreams," Ott says.
Each year major league baseball drafts about 1,500 amateur players, which means each year they push out 1,500 players that they've trained and had in their system. These players go to independent baseball league. "They're pushing them out not because they're not good players, but that they don't think they're going to make the major leagues," says Wolf. "These are good players but it's just that major league baseball is looking for that star. It's sort of the cream will rise theory. Most of our players have been trained for three or four years by major league baseball and given big bonuses. But at the end of the day major league baseball just didn't think they would get to the big leagues. There are only two or three openings each year at the major league level with each team." Players join independent leagues "because they do have the dream they'll get to the big leagues" and each year the Can-Am League sells 30-40 players to major league clubs.
Community relations is a two way street for the local ball club. Residents open their homes, hearts and families to players during baseball season. Once a player putter-upper, always one, especially families with kids. When necessary, the Skyhawks post a "Host Family Wanted" ad in the local paper and on its website in February. In return, the hosts receive incentives such as season tickets and invitations to all Skyhawk functions.
Of 47 home games, the first 22 in June and July draw about 2,000 spectators per game or 75% of total attendance for the season. The stadium seats 4,358. "August is a real struggle for us," says Ben Wittkowski, general manager. "The majority of ticket sales are groups, like the Boy Scouts. By the end of July, the groups are all done." At $9 to $12 a ticket, the cost of spending a fun family day outdoors at America's favorite pastime, or for an exciting evening with fireworks and other crowd pleasers, is right in line with going to the movies. Great hot dogs and burgers, cold beer, contests and freebie tosses into the crowd between innings, and Skyhawks' merchandise shop round out the fun for spectators.
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