JAMESTOWN, N.Y. - The Pittsburgh Pirates Winter Caravan made a stop in Jamestown on Thursday night because their new New York-Penn League affiliate in 2013 will be the Jamestown Jammers.
The members of the caravan which visited Jamestown Community College were Pirates general manager Neal Huntington; manager Clint Hurdle; players Gaby Sanchez, Alex Presley and Josh Harrison; and broadcaster Tim Neverett.
When the Pirates and the Jammers came to an agreement this fall, it's the third time Pittsburgh has been affiliated with Jamestown and first time since 1957. That was more than 50 years ago, but there were some Jamestown tie-ins with the Pirates' personnel traveling with the caravan.
P-J photo by Jim Riggs
Alex Kemery, 10, of Scandia, gets an autograph from Alex Presley of the Pittsburgh Pirates during the Pirates Winter Caravan stop in Jamestown, N.Y. on Thursday at Jamestown Community College.
Sanchez was traded to Pittsburgh from the Miami Marlins in July. He was the Marlins' fourth-round draft pick in 2005 and started his pro career that summer playing for the Jammers and rather successfully. He won the Post-Journal's most valuable player award after he hit .355, which also led the NY-P League, and had five home runs and 42 RBIs. He was also the most valuable player of the first-ever NY-P League All-Star Game.
"Whenever you go into a season those are the goals you want to accomplish, so going into the season I had high expectations," Sanchez said. "It was just going out there and trying to be consistent and that year everything just kind of worked out that way."
When asked about a key to his success that season, Sanchez said, "I think one of the biggest actually was Mike Mordecai was the manager that year and it was his only year managing. He was always very positive and he always helped guys out."
The players listened because it was just the previous season Mordecai was playing in the major leagues for the Marlins and he returned in September when the Jammers' season was over.
"He had just finished coming off playing and everything was fresh to him," Sanchez said. "He was never really that every-day starter, he was basically a role player and being a role player you're studying the game a lot. You're basically another coach on the bench because you're looking at what's going on and you start understanding a lot more of the game. I think that's what helped out because he understood everything that had to do with baseball."
That dream season came after a dream come true in the draft for Sanchez.
"When I was growing up I always said I wanted to play for the Marlins, I wanted to be drafted by the Marlins," said Sanchez, a Miami native who went played baseball at the University of Miami. "But there's 30 teams out there and for that one team you grew up watching and going to the stadium and wanting to play for and then drafts you, it was definitely a dream come true."
Last season he was hitting only .202 when he was traded to the Pirates.
"Some of it was bad luck, I hit balls hard and they were right at people," Sanchez said. "I had good at-bats making good contact and just not getting lucky."
So he welcomed a change of scenery.
"The biggest thing was getting that trade and coming to the Pirates and getting that new start," Sanchez said. "The Pirates definitely believed in me and helped out, too. I knew that Pirates had wanted to get me from years before."
He ended up hitting .241 while playing first base in Pittsburgh.
Another person familiar with Jamestown is Huntington, who was the assistant general manager of the Jamestown Expos of the NY-P League in 1991. So he had a bit of input when the decision was being made to change the Pirates' NY-P League affiliate from State College, Pa., to Jamestown.
"Part of it was familiarity with the area, having spent that summer here and feeling it would be a good spot for our short-season team," Huntington said. "We just felt like it was a great match. We felt like it was a good opportunity for us to expand and to get into a little bit of a different situation. We left a really good situation in State College, but we felt like it was a good alignment for us for a number of reasons."
Huntington's pro baseball career began when he interned in Montreal's scouting department in January of 1991 and that led to an internship with the Jamestown Expos in the summer under general manager Tom O'Reilly.
"It had a fancy title, I got the assistant general manager title very quickly," he said. "It was a great opportunity."
And it was an opportunity to experience all phases off minor league baseball. Things such as pulling the tarp with the ground crew to selling tickets to working in the souvenir stand to folding programs and just about anything else that needed to be done.
"I did a little bit of everything," Huntington said. "Tom was the only full-time employee. It was a very enjoyable, but educational summer."
Back in 1991, the NY-P League was still made up of mainly small cities, such as Jamestown, instead of like now with teams in place such as Brooklyn and Staten Island. And Huntington thinks a place such as a Jamestown is a good environment for first-year pro players.
"What we're tying to do is to learn how to focus on baseball and avoid the distractions and there's potential distractions everywhere if players want to find them," he said. "We think it's great to get into a community that loves its baseball team. We want our guys to get involved in the community and it's easier to get our guys engaged in the smaller communities."
Outfielder Alex Presley played 104 games for the Pirates last season and hit .237 with 10 home runs and 25 RBIs.
He is familiar with Jamestown because he played here in 2006 when he was a member of the Williamsport Crosscutters of the NY-P League after being Pittsburgh's eighth-round draft pick that year.
"I think I played here maybe once (in a series)," Presley said. "I think you got an A-Bat if you hit a home run here. But I never hit one, so I didn't get one."
Like Jamestown's Diethrick Park, Williamsport had an old stadium. They were quite different from some of the state-of-the-art stadiums Presley saw in the Southeast Conference when he played for the University of Mississippi.
"It was a lot different," Presley said. "It was a little adjustment, but you have to learn how to play on any surface and I think it helped out a lot."
He added, "I learned a lot in this league. You learn quickly about playing everyday, riding buses, so it's definitely a learning experience."
Presley's manager, Hurdle, was Kansas City's No. 1 draft pick in 1975 and played 10 seasons in the major leagues with the Royals, Reds, Mets and Cardinals. Then he managed the Colorado Rockies into the their first World Series in 2007 before taking over that position for the Pirates in 2011. And in his time with the Rockies he experienced a slight tie-in with Jamestown because a former Jamestown Expos manager in the 1970s and 1980s, Pat Daugherty, was in the Colorado front office.
"Pat Daugherty is a special guy," Hurdle said. "Great scouting director, good scout, old-school baseball guy."
The only experience Hurdle had with Pittsburgh was playing there and he hit his last major league home run at Three Rivers Stadium. When became the manager in 2011, the Pirates had recorded 18 straight losing seasons and now it has reached 20, the longest streak among the four North American professional sports leagues.
But Hurdle had no hesitation about taking the managing job after listening to Huntington, owner Bob Nutting and president Frank Connelly.
"They assured me they had a plan and they had a vision and they told the way they were going to go about it and basically everything they've told me they were going to do they've done," Hurdle said. "Hopefully, I've held up my end of the bargain."
For the past two seasons under Hurdle, things have been looking up for the Pirates. In 2011 the team was above .500 at all-star break for first time since 1992 and later were in first place in the NL Central. Then came 10-game losing streak which led to another below-.500 season. This past season, Pittsburgh was in first place at all-star break before again fading for another losing season.
"We're getting close, we're getting closer," Hurdle said. "Things that have great value don't come easy. Our guys have been in two challenging seasons, they've learned a lot of lessons. They've experienced success, they've experience disappointment."
He added, "What's interesting to me is the expectation of the city and our fan base now. When I first came in I said we're going to win, they laughed. Now they're mad that we didn't win more. And that's the way it should be."
The past two seasons have revived baseball in the city, which thrived on it in the 1970s.
"I've been in some good places where it gets loud," Hurdle said. "It doesn't get as loud at any place as our park. They might just be the greatest fans in sports for what they've endured for the last 20 seasons."
Hurdle sees things continuing to improve.
"We're going to re-bond the city with its baseball team," Hurdle said. "That's our goal and to obviously to win a World Series."
It might sound like a tough task, but Hurdle might be the manager to do it.
When he was in charge of the Rockies in 2007, they were eight games out of first place in September, six games out with two weeks to play and ended up tying for first place. They won a play-in game in the bottom of the 13th inning after being down two runs. Then Colorado swept Philadelphia and Arizona in the playoffs before getting swept by Boston in the World Series.
So when he talks to his Pirates about overcoming adversity, he speaks from experience.
In the pressbox, Neverett becoming the Pirates broadcaster is a sort of a homecoming. When he was 19 and still playing baseball for Emerson College in Boston, Mass., he began his broadcasting career. That was thanks to his father, who knew some people at a local radio station.
"The Nassau (N.H.) Pirates were in the Eastern League and they were in my hometown," Neverett said. "I ended up doing one inning, they asked me back a couple of nights later and I did three innings and then I did three innings here and there. Then the guys doing the games wanted to take nights off because they had other jobs, so on the Fourth of July I'm doing both ends of a doubleheader by myself. I ended up doing about 40 games and I just caught the bug."
He added, "As I started I didn't know anything about what I was doing. When I look back, it was a total coincidence and it happened to be the Pirates."
Looking back includes a stint as the play-by-play man for the Rockies and broadcasting plenty of other sports, including four Olympics.
"This is a job I've wanted," Neverett said about landing the Pittsburgh position. "Having had prior experience with the Pirates organization, it makes it much more special to be in it now. It's really strange how it happened."
He took over after Lanny Frattare retired following the 2008 season.
"There's a guy who had the job for 33 years and that's a long time to have any job, never mind a baseball job," said Neverett, who is starting his fifth season in Pirates' booth. "Coming in behind Lanny, and it was Bob Prince before him (for 29 years) and Rosey Roswell (21 years). That whole lineage of guys that have been there, I consider myself extremely lucky to be that in that group. Just to sit in what, figuratively speaking, is the same chair and doing the same job, I pinch myself sometimes."
And he hopes to continue the trend.
"I look at this to be a long-term thing," Neverett said. "When I interviewed I told them, 'I don't want this to be my next job, I want this to be my last job and that's what I hope it is."