By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
What better way to start the summer than baseball. However, in Bluefield, that summer fun usually begins with bowling.
More than 50 area children — many from area little league programs and some dressed in uniform — were able to interact with the newly-arrived Bluefield Orioles during the annual “Bowling with the Baby Birds” on Monday at Mountaineer Lanes.
“We have probably done this for seven or eight years or so,” Mountaineer Lanes manager Loretta Hammond said. “What we do we try to invite little league players and try to get information out to the little league teams.
“You will see a few of them out here with their uniforms on. When they come I try to pair up the Orioles on the lanes with the kids...
“We like having people out here, it starts the summer off right.”
In addition to the bowling, food and door prizes, the 35-member Bluefield Orioles’ roster was introduced, along with the coaching staff — led by manager Einar Diaz — and even the Baby Bird mascot tried his wings at the sport.
It’s just one of the reasons why Diaz is glad to be back in Bluefield for his second consecutive season. He led the Orioles to a 33-35 record in 2009.
“I like it, I enjoy coming over here, I played in this league,” said Diaz, who played for the Burlington Indians from 1992-93, and spent 11 seasons with five teams in the major leagues. “I played over there and it was one of the good leagues.
“They have a good system over here too and that is what I like about it here.”
Diaz said these events are important for the Orioles’ players, enabling them to blend in as part of a community that will be watching them compete in the Appalachian League, at least until the end of August, and possibly longer, if they’re able to qualify for the new expanded playoff system.
“We have to know a little bit about each player and what they do and where they come from,” Diaz said. “That is good, that is good for them and good for us because every year they are going to meet different people, different teammates and different coach, it is good for them.”
Autographs were also a popular commodity on this day, even from Jim Pettus, the first-year general manager of the Orioles. Pettus said it was the first time his signature has been so popular since he was a standout on the basketball court at Princeton and Concord.
“It’s been real exciting to see a lot of the kids come out and getting to meet some of these players and have an opportunity to get up close and personal with them,” said Pettus, who scored 1,393 points in three seasons at Princeton from 1986-89, and played on two national tournament teams at Concord in the early 1990s.
“From what I understand from some of the folks that have come here year in and year out, it is a good turnout,” Pettus said. “We’ve had some good door prizes for the kids, everyone here has had a chance to some pizza and nachos and cake. It’s a good time and I am real excited.”
The roster, which has been slow to be released, has finally begun to come together, but Pettus said waiting for that information is part of baseball at the rookie level. The Orioles’ top pick in the amateur draft — high schooler Manny Machado — still hasn’t signed a contract.
“It’s just because there is so much uncertainty about some of the players, and whether or not they were going to come to Bluefield,” Pettus said. “The number one pick is still unsigned and there is still some uncertainty about him.
“Right now we’re just getting to know each other. The players are getting to know the coaches and each other because they come from so many different parts of the country and the world even.”
Diaz welcomes a large collection of players, including seven returnees that saw action from last season, along with several foreign imports and at least 13 players taken in the draft held earlier this month.
“We have a very good group of guys over here right now, they are ready to get it started, “ Diaz said. “We were in extended spring and we were waiting to come up here.
“We have a lot of new players from the draft this year. We are just going to mix them together and see how they are doing. We’re looking to have a good season again.”
Among the returnees are catcher Dashenko Ricardo (.243, 17 RBI), infielders Corey Thomas (.233, 5 HR, 21 RBI), Javier Santana (.242) and outfielder Luis Ramirez (.220, 3 HR, 32 RBI), along with a trio of pitchers, including Andrew Huebner (0-1. 4.50 ERA), Pat McCrory (1-1, 9.00 ERA) and Sam Taveras (2-1, 2.66 ERA, 5 saves).
While Diaz is familiar with the returnees, and many of the players that spent the past several months at the Orioles’ extended spring training site in Sarasota, Fla., there isn’t as much knowledge about the newcomers
Among the unknown is 12th round pick Riley Hornback, an outfielder from San Jacinto Junior College (Texas), Michael Mosby, a third baseman from Wabash Valley in Illinois selected in the 14th round, and pitcher Steven Mazur, a 33rd round pick from Notre Dame.
“Some of those guys are from last year and some of the guys we saw in extended and they did really good on that,” Diaz said. “The new guys, we don’t know how they play, we’ll have to see what they can do in the games.
“It will be a good challenge, but I like it.”
Another newcomer is Travis Strong, a 39th round draft pick, who is a pitcher from California. He was enjoying his Monday, but was also careful not to cause any injuries to an arm more used to throwing baseballs than bowling balls.
“I am enjoying it, but just trying to keep myself from getting hurt,” Strong said. “I’m just having fun with all the little kids and having a good time.”
While Bluefield will start the campaign on the road with a three-game series in Pulaski, Pettus doesn’t mind waiting three more days until the home opener on Friday against Danville.
“Them being on the road may be a blessing for us just to have a little more time to get it ready for that homestand this weekend, but we are excited and can’t wait,” Pettus said. “Hopefully they will have a good time, get some wins on the road and come back and we’ll take it from there.”
—Contact Brian Woodson