HOPE SPRINGS IN NEW BRITAIN
It’s spring. For baseball players life begins anew. New life brings new hope for the New Britain Rock Cats, the Eastern League affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, as former Rock Cats catcher Jeff Smith embarks on his fifth season as their manager, opening tonight at New Britain Stadium against the Richmond Flying Squirrels.
New life and new hope come in the form of pitchers like Pat Dean, the kid from Naugatuck who spent last season improving his prospect status with the parent club, starting the season in New Britain and finishing it as part of the International League AAA playoff team in Rochester.
“I don’t think it’s a step backward”, Dean said yesterday of his return to New Britain, where he admits it’s going to be nice to be able to eat some home cooking from time to time, “It’s just an opportunity to go out there and face some good competition. I learned a lot last year and got lucky, with an opportunity to go to Rochester and get some playoff experience.”
Dean says he learned a lot in Rochester, talking with other pitching prospects about their approach to pitching, and batting prospects about the way they approach pitchers, but he thinks his greatest growth, and his greatest preparation, for this season comes from within. “Mentally I think I’ve grown a lot in the last year”, he said at the Rock Cats annual media day, “I really figured out my pitching style and how to be successful. I’ve had a pretty good spring so far and just hope I can keep it going into the season.”
Smith harbors no doubts about Dean’s potential, “Just ask that AAA staff. He was one of the reasons, if not the main reason, they made it to the playoffs. He was their most consistent pitcher at the end. I like his poise and what he brings to the table when he’s on the mound.”
It’s the youth in his offense that makes Smith so optimistic about this season. He may have the best offensive potential he’s seen in his years in New Britain and it’s 23 year old David Ortiz clone Kennys (the “S” is silent) Vargas, a 40 man roster first baseman, who appears destined to lead the attack. Last year in Fort Myers, a shorter season, he unloaded for 19 home runs and 93 runs batted in. When he was 18 years old Twins minor league hitting coach Rudy Hernandez introduced him to hitting from the left side and it’s been forward progess as a switch hitter ever since. Improvement, says Vargas, was the product of work and dedication.
“I trust a lot in work”, says Vargas, “When you work hard you’re going to see a lot of beautiful things. I just try to trust myself and my coaching staff and I try to be a good teammate.”
That’s where Smith says the comparisons to Ortiz, that are becoming more and more frequent, stretch beyond the physical resemblance and the power at the plate. “I think you all saw today”, said Smith, of yesterday’s media day get together, “That Kenny has a pretty good personality. But he’s also a good athlete. For a big man he moves around pretty good. He’s one of those guys that other players come out early for batting practice to watch. They stop stretching to watch him hit. He’ll hit it over the light tower, but he’s not just going to hit home runs. He’ll get his hits. It’s going to be fun to watch him develop over the course of the season.”
It’s baseball, and like everything else in spring, hope springs eternal. It’s baseball, where youth also springs eternal, and we can’t wait to watch it blossom.
With a comment from the sports world, I’m Scott Gray.