Friday, March 17, 2017

Early Season Preview: 2017 Bridgeport Bluefish

The 2016 campaign saw my Bridgeport Bluefish get off to a decidedly slow start before bouncing back with one of the stronger showings in the Atlantic League in the season’s second half.  This was not quite enough to get them out of the AL’s Liberty Division basement, but it made going to games a Hell of a lot more interesting.  I’m no baseball expert, but signing Mets’ legend Endy Chavez certainly seemed to help, and for whatever it’s worth, I thought Chavez was the club’s best player whenever I saw him on the field.  He clearly had the team’s best statistics—.345 average with 55 runs and 39 RBIs on 132 hits.  But 2017 is a new year, and the Fish have a new General Manager, Paul Herrmann, who was promoted up from his previous position as assistant general manager and director of baseball operations.  
What does this mean for the coming season?
The 2017 season of Atlantic League baseball starts for the Fish on April 20th with a seven-game road trip to Sugarland (Houston), Texas, to take on the Sugarland Skeeters.  Last year’s Skeeters finished 2nd in the Freedom division, 8 games ahead of the Fish and only 2 behind the York Revolution.  The Bluefish then return home on April 28th to kick off their 20th anniversary season at the Ballpark at Harbor Yards with a three-game home-stand against the Maryland Blue Crabs, the only team to finish 2016 with an Atlantic League record worse than the Fish.  

It’s hard to say what to expect from this year’s team.  I’m a Bluefish fan, but for better or worse, I’m a casual fan.  Add in that Atlantic League teams like the Fish, unaffiliated with the MLB, have to treat each campaign as a wholly new entity, and it makes predictions fraught.  The Fish have made a few moves of late, re-signing players off of last year’s squad—notably left-handed pitcher Chris Rearick (1.89 ERA with 29 strikeouts in 33 innings last season) and slugger Jose Cuevas (.286 avg. with 65 RBIs, 65 runs scored, and 4 stolen bases)—and bringing in a few young pitchers along with infielder Tony Abreu from the San Francisco Giants’ championship team.  How will these compare to the moves the rest of the Atlantic League is making?  And what does it mean that the Fish are still holding Open Tryouts early next month?
I’ve found myself wondering recently how some of the recent changes to America’s immigration enforcement might affect the Bluefish.  Most of the team’s players spend the winters playing in Leagues in Central and South America, and I would imagine that quite a few come to Bridgeport on temporary work visas.  If visas are suddenly that much harder to come by, does that hurt the team?  Might it also hurt the quality of play in the Atlantic League in general?  At best, local tryouts are a chance for the Bluefish to reach out to their fan base, to give talented amateurs a day of dreaming about playing pro in front of paying fans.  This hurts no one, and it’s always possible that the team will find an unexpected gem in the audience.  At worst, though, the Bluefish might actually need a couple of players.  Expecting to find professional-caliber baseball players in open tryouts, well…  
That would be bad.
I’ll admit that when I go to Bluefish games, I tend to spend as much time in the beer garden as I do in my seat rooting for the team.  In fact, one of the big reasons I go to Bluefish games is because the stadium sells two different brands of local craft beer, from Veracious and Two Roads breweries.  Once they bring in Black Hog as well, the Ballpark at Harbor Yard will be Connecticut’s singular location for local craft beer with sports.  
That said, I don’t know a lot about baseball itself beyond the obvious.  I’ve never played organized baseball and can’t tell a fastball from a slider without an announcer’s help.  In trying to size up the coming season, this is a substantial concern.  Still, I know that not all games are created equal and that the Fish would much rather win games against foes from their own Liberty Division because those are the teams they need to beat to get into the playoffs.  A casual look at the schedule therefore shows that the first few games are less important, presumably allowing the team to gel as the season commences.  The season’s firstimportant game is on May 9th, against the Sommerset Patriots, who finished 1st last year in the division.  My buddy Chris and I will be at that one, after which we’re headed to West Point to watch nationally ranked Army Men’s Lacrosse take on Notre Dame.  
Bluefish mascot BB at the Ballpark.
I expect this will be a good weekend of sports.  With any luck, we’ll see Rearick come in and close out a victorious outing from the mound,[1] preferably from the beer garden, and then we’ll see Army Lax close out a top ten finish with a win against the Irish.  That’s the goal, at least.
* * *
It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the Bluefish’s future in Bridgeport isn’t quite as secure as we all might hope.  Though it’s unclear what other organizations might make use of the Ballpark at Harbor Yards, reality is that the team’s lease was up with the city at the end of last season.  The Fish are playing their 20th anniversary season on a one-year extension, but the city itself recently issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) for the Ballpark’s future.  
Is there another sports team that might come in and make better use of that stadium?  This seems extremely unlikely, but there’s no deal in place, and the City of Bridgeport itself has made no commitment to the Fish themselves that they don’t seem equally willing to make to, say, the Connecticut Tigers or a team from Major League Lacrosse.  
The Ballpark at Harbor Yards.
I’d love to see pro Lax in Bridgeport,[2] for whatever that’s worth, but it defies logic to imagine that a whole new franchise is going to come in and havemore success than the Fish have had, especially since the area around the Ballpark is finally starting to see something like an urban rebirth.  What’s worse, overlapping seasons make the sharing of stadiums impossible, alas.  It would be an obviously a good idea otherwise, at least in terms of capital asset utilization.  
I’m not at all sure what Bridgeport’s options are beyond the Bluefish, and in fact, I suspect Mayor Ganim is merely looking for a little leverage in future negotiations.  However, teams in the Atlantic League have tough finances.  Eventually, I think the city itself is going to have to choose to either support the team at some level or risk letting them fold.  Given the city’s other development objectives, especially in that neighborhood, issuing an RFP here strikes me as a somewhat risky move.  We’ll see how it plays out.

[1] With that stat-line, he’s got to be a closer, right?  1.89 ERA in 33 innings sounds like a late-season addition who closed out maybe 15 games.  I don’t remember seeing Rearick on the field, but that’s got to be his role, right?

[2] Half the kids we know play lacrosse, include nearly all of the girls.  If the Sound Tigers (hockey) can make a go of it in Bridgeport, I can’t imagine that pro lacrosse would struggle.

No comments:

Post a Comment