By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
For the first time since last August, professional baseball will play out on the turf at Hunnicutt Field this evening.
The Princeton Rays, who started the season with three games in Danville, take the field for their home opener at 6:05 p.m. today against the Burlington (N.C.) Royals.
The team’s new manager, Danny Sheaffer, declared himself “always optimistic” when Princeton held its annual “Meet the Rays” preseason event with the public and the media.
He said then that actual game conditions would be a true test for the players, “but from what I’ve seen now, I really like. I like their character, I like their makeup, I really like their competitiveness.
“We’ll see how it shakes out after nine innings, but right now, we’re going to have fun!”
The first nine innings were not much fun in the Princeton dugout on Thursday at Dan Daniel Park. The Rays committed three errors and were limited to four singles and a solo homer from Travis Flores in a 9-1 loss.
On Friday, Princeton tied their second game at 1-1 and 2-2 before Danville ended the contest in the bottom of the ninth when a run scored from second base on a single up the middle, after the ball deflected off of the shortstop.
The Rays had six hits and were errorless on defense. Starting pitcher Nolan Gannon gave up one hit and no walks while striking out four in five innings for Princeton.
Danville, an always-competitive team, was the league runner-up in 2012 with a 36-28 record.
All of the Princeton “position players,” with the exception of one 19-year-old, are 20 years of age or older. Sheaffer said that calendar age alone does not make a difference in how they get along.
“I don’t think there’s a difference in that kind of camaraderie, whether you’re 18 or whether you’re 22,” he said. “These guys are all thrown into a situation where they have to lean on each other.
“They were good teammates together in extended spring training. The seven or eight guys that came in from the draft seemed to fit in real well. I think the hardest part of that was me, learning their names.”
He added that they had to get used to him as well.
“We’re enthusiastic about the group of people we have here,” he continued. “Our job, obviously, is to develop players to play at a higher level, and if you win a game because of that, that’s great.”
“We’re looking forward to it.”
Extended spring training means day games with no “hometown” fans. The Appalachian League is entirely different, but it’s not that big an adjustment, the manager said.
“Except for some of the young guys who came in from Latin America, all these kids have played night games before. All these kids have played in front of fans before,” Sheaffer said.
“The dynamic of travel ball, and the way it’s changed the culture of baseball, they’re used to that. What they’re not used to is playing in a seven-day-a-week schedule.”
“There will be a transition period. But I think as much of a routine as we can make it for them, it’s going to be better for them, so they’ll know what to expect on a 24/7, day-by-day basis.”
“I think that structure’s needed throughout baseball, regardless of (whether) it’s rookie ball here in the Appy League, or if it’s the major leagues.”
He was encouraged by his team’s performance leading up to their trip north from the Rays’ complex in Port Charlotte, Fla.
“We played the last two weeks in extended spring training pretty close to the intensity level and pretty close to the way we’re going to play the game during the season,” he said. “So we just hope there’s not a big transition. If we just play like we did in Florida, we should be OK.”
The Princeton team has had to deal with the unexpected since the end of extended spring training last Sunday, when the players and some of their coaches reported in at the team complex to start their trip to West Virginia.
The bus did not show up to take them to the airport.
Sheaffer said he was not part of the logistics scramble that followed, since he was driving from Florida to Princeton.
“I understand that there was a no-show with the bus, but we improvised, and we were flexible,” he said. “We got guys on three different flights. There was a flight delay with mechanical issues. There was baggage lost; baggage got here (Tuesday).”
As the Rays mingled with fans on the field for their preseason “Meet the Rays” event, he continued, “But as you can tell, we’re all here, we’re all dressed, and we’ll be ready to go on Thursday night.”
He termed the travel situation a “perfect example of minor-league baseball life. ... It kind of paints a picture of exactly how flexible you have to be. You have to bend, and you have to give.”
Princeton’s starting pitcher for tonight is Jacob Faria, who also pitched for the Rays last season. German Marquez had been slated to get the start, but the Rays’ were rained out on Saturday at Danville, which changed the rotation. Faria will be countered by Burlington’s Jake Newberry.
The Rays’ neighbor on Stafford Drive, Sheetz convenience store and restaurant, will provide prizes and giveaways as the opening-night promotion.
Marquez is now scheduled to get the start on Monday for the Rays, and D.J. Slaton is to be on the mound at the start of Tuesday’s game.
“Our pitching staff’s young,” Sheaffer said. “It’s probably one of the youngest in the Appy League, as far as the starting rotation (goes).”
The starters average slightly more than 20 years of age. The average age of the 15-man pitching corps is about 20 years, 6 months.
The new manager believes that his team will be supportive of each other throughout the 68-game season.
He said, “You depend on everybody else in this game. The Latins have to depend on the Americans, and, I think, vice versa ... . We’re a unit here, and we’re going to work together. We’ve got a good staff to work with. So I’m excited.”
— Contact Tom Bone at