Opening Day: After five months of frigid weather and nearly 180 inches of snow, no two words ever sounded sweeter. It means baseball is back, and warm weather is just around the corner.
Opening Day for the Syracuse Chiefs baseball team is Wednesday, April 13, at 2 p.m., against the Pawtucket Red Sox at Alliance Bank Stadium. The Chiefs, the Triple-A affiliate of the Washington Nationals, will play five home games this week: three against Pawtucket and a weekend series against the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
To give you some food for thought while you’re enjoying your hot dogs, peanuts and Cracker Jack, here are 10 things you should know about the Chiefs and the 2011 baseball season in Syracuse:
1. Strasburg II: The Heat Is Back On.
It’s possible that phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg will eventually return to Syracuse, where last spring he created a baseball-related buzz that hadn’t been felt in this town in a long time.
While with the Nationals last August, Strasburg tore an elbow ligament in his precious right arm and had to undergo “Tommy John” surgery. As long as he doesn’t suffer a setback in his recovery, Strasburg and his 98mph fastball could return to the minor leagues in July and make a pit stop in Syracuse in August before rejoining the Nationals.
No player in Syracuse history has ever matched Strasburg’s gate appeal. His debut last May drew a franchise-record crowd of 14,098, and his four starts at Alliance Bank Stadium attracted an average of 11,800 fans per game—more than 6,000 fans above the Chiefs’ average when Strasburg didn’t start.
2. Bryce As Nice. The Chiefs could really hit the jackpot if Strasburg is accompanied in late summer by outfielder Bryce Harper, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 draft who is expected to make a rapid ascent through the Nationals’ minor-league system. Baseball America magazine—the authority on minorleague baseball—ranks Harper as the No. 1 prospect in the minor leagues, even though he doesn’t turn 19 until October.
Harper has already hit the jackpot: His fiveyear, $9.9 million contract with the Nationals is the largest ever given to a position player in the draft. (Strasburg, the No.1 overall pick in 2009, set a record for pitchers with his $15.1 million deal.) Harper, who started this season at Single-A Hagerstown, has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “Baseball’s Chosen One” in June 2009.
3. Prospects To Watch. The Chiefs’ Opening Day roster includes two of the Nationals’ top nine prospects as ranked by Baseball America: relief pitcher Cole Kimball (No. 7) and slugging first baseman Chris Marrero (No. 9).
Kimball, 25, is being groomed as a future setup man in Washington for former Chiefs closer Drew Storen. Marrero, 22, was the Nationals’ No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft who recovered from a serious leg injury to belt 18 home runs with 82 RBIs last season at Double-A Harrisburg.
4. Familiar Faces. This is Syracuse’s third season with Washington, and about two-thirds of the players on the Chiefs’ Opening Day roster have spent time in the Salt City. Among the returnees are catcher Carlos Maldonado, second baseman Seth Bynum, outfielders Boomer Whiting and Roger Bernadina, and most of the pitching staff, including relievers Colin Balester, Matt Chico and Josh Wilkie.
5. New Man In Charge. Former Chief and major-league catcher Randy Knorr replaces last year’s skipper, Trent Jewett, who is now serving as a special assistant to Nationals’ manager Jim Riggleman.
Knorr, 42, has a career record of 318-306 in five years as a minor-league manager in the Nationals’ system. Last year, he guided Double-A Harrisburg to a 77-65 record and a berth in the Eastern League playoffs.
The Chiefs haven’t made the playoffs since 1998, and they haven’t won the International League championship series since 1976—the longest drought in the league. Knorr, who earned two World Series rings by playing for the champion Toronto Blue Jays in 1992- ’93, said he patterns his style after one of his former bosses, ex-Chiefs skipper Bob Bailor. Let’s hope Knorr can emulate Bailor, who was in charge when the Chiefs won their last division title in 1989.
6. Cooperstown Connection. It’s not often that a Hall of Fame player becomes a manager, and it’s even rarer when he manages in the minor leagues. But former Cubs second baseman and 2005 Hall of Fame inductee Ryne Sandberg is the new manager of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, the Philadelphia Phillies’ Triple-A affiliate in the International League.
Sandberg, 51, was named the Triple-A Pacific Coast League Manager of the Year in 2010 after guiding the Iowa Cubs to an 82-62 record. But after four years as a manager in Chicago’s system and not getting the Cubs’ major-league job that opened during last season, Sandberg bolted Chicago for the Phillies.
Lehigh Valley will visit Syracuse this Saturday and Sunday, and on July 9 and 10, July 16 and 17, and Sept. 4 and 5.
7. Opponent To Watch. The five-time defending International League North Division champion Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees are loaded with some of the parent New York Yankees’ top prospects, including catcher Jesus Montero and pitchers Andrew Brackman, Hector Noesi, David Phelps and Adam Warren.
Baseball America ranked Montero as the fourth-best prospect in the minors, and other Yankees farmhands on the magazine’s top 100 list (like pitchers Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances) are expected to join Scranton during the season.
Scranton will be in Syracuse June 11-14 and Aug. 12-15.
8. Fenway Frolics. On Aug. 20, the Chiefs will play in the shadow of the Green Monster at Boston’s historic Fenway Park. Syracuse will play the Red Sox’s Triple-A club, the Pawtucket Red Sox, in the second game of what’s billed as “Futures at Fenway.” The Double-A Binghamton Mets and Portland Sea Dogs will play in the first game of the sixth annual Futures doubleheader.
9. Double Your Fun. Don’t forget the Single-A Auburn Doubledays are now affiliated with the Nationals after a long, successful run with the Toronto Blue Jays. The Chiefs also had a long run with the Blue Jays, but it wasn’t nearly as successful.
The Doubledays’ first game is June 17, with the home opener at Falcon Park on June 18. For Chiefs’ fans, a visit to Auburn will give them a peek at some of the Nationals’ young players who’ll eventually make their way to Syracuse.
10. No Way, Jose. Whether he’s blowing the lid off baseball’s steroid era or appearing on The Celebrity Apprentice, former major league slugger Jose Canseco is always in the limelight, for better or worse. Canseco will sign autographs for fans at Alliance Bank Stadium at the team’s Aug. 19 game against the Gwinnett Braves.
Other autograph guests this season include former Chiefs and New York Yankees pitcher Jimmy Key (July 17), and Nic Robuck from the soap opera One Life to Live (July 16).
For Chiefs tickets, call 474-7833 or visit www.syracusechiefs.com.
The boy of summer: Pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg and his rifle arm will likely return to Syracuse in August.