With opening day for the second season of the Mavericks League less than three weeks away, the KeizerTimes sat down with the managers from all four teams to discuss independent league baseball and the Mavericks League.
What is it about independent league baseball that’s different or that draws you to it?
Dave Wong (Salem Senators): It’s baseball. I don’t think there’s anything different whether it’s minor league, independent league, little league or college. It’s baseball and that’s what we love to do and that’s why we’re here. We’re looking forward to kicking off the season again, season number two, hopefully making this league as good as it can get.
Tony Torcato (Salem-Keizer Volcanoes): I feel you, Dave, on that one. It’s a good place to play, a great stadium. It’s basically a chance for these guys to get a second look, get some exposure. Because that’s our goal to get these guys into affiliated ball or a higher independent league. Last year was a success, it was fun.
Alex Alvarado (Campesinos de Salem-Keizer): There was really good turnover last year from guys that moved on after this league that went on to some affiliated leagues. So I think if we just continue to provide the opportunity for them to do so. This’ll be a fun year.
Scott Binder (Portland Mavericks): I think everybody has a goal of winning and continuing to play the game they love. Some of the guys aren’t ready to hang up the spikes and some of the guys want to continue playing at a high level so I think it’s a great opportunity. I wish this opportunity was around when I was their age. We went straight to mens league. It was fun, but it wasn’t getting me to where I needed to be growing up, and that was playing professional baseball. So having these guys in an environment where they can continue playing a game they love until somebody tells them it’s time to hang it up, they should continue playing the game they love and reach the highest level they can achieve.
Do your season goals lean towards player development or wins?
DW: Obviously everybody here is competitive so everybody wants to win. But I’ve got players ranging from 40 to 18. Those older guys are here because they love to play and they have an opportunity to play at a high level. The younger guys obviously want to develop and hopefully get a chance to move to another independent league or get picked up by an affiliated team, and that’s the ultimate goal. But our goal is to just make the baseball as high quality as possible here and draw some people and put on some entertainment and hopefully these young guys can move on.
TT: My goal is to put a quality product on the field for the fans. Obviously we all want to win, but I want these guys to have fun and live out their dream that they want to keep playing ball. That’s basically what I’m here for. Like Alex said, we had eight to 10 guys get picked up so that’s a good chance for them to get exposure. We’re just here to help them.
AA: The age difference between the players is going to be good for both sides, younger and older. The older guys can pass down some things and the young guys can learn from the older guys. As far as development, we’re going to provide them with opportunities to practice to get better and hopefully the older guys take it upon themselves to help out the younger guys. And hopefully the younger guys are open minded enough to listen to the older guys that have been there and seen it and been through it.
SB: All the managers so far have said they want to have a competitive team and I’m right there with them. Last year when we would bring in a player I would ask them what are their goals, what are their expectations, what do they want to see happen at the end of their summer? And I’d try to help them through that process. If somebody tells me they want to play the highest level of baseball they can, then I’m going to try and work with them on the mental side of the game. A lot of these guys at this level aren’t going to have too many physical issues in the sense of flaws or mechanical issues. So a lot of it can be on the mental side of the game and playing the game the right way and being in the right mind space and thinking a pitch ahead or a play ahead. If it helps them enjoy the game more, that’s great. If it helps them sign on like some of the guys did last year then that’s great too.
What struggles do you encounter building a roster?
DW: The biggest problem is getting high quality talent. When you’re playing in a league that’s not going to pay you and they’re charging you a registration fee and an equipment fee and obviously there’s some other out-of-pocket costs where these guys may not have jobs. It’s tough to find enough quality players. There’s only so many people, and so many leagues, and so many players. There’s lots of guys that can play the game but only so many leagues to fit into so we’ll get the guys, it’s just a matter of time. It’s like coaching at the Division I level or the NAIA, which I coached at both. I can’t go recruit a guy that’s going to go to Oregon State or a guy that’s going to go to Texas. But I can recruit a guy that’s a really good high school player that’s going to be a good college player, he just can’t play at that level.
TT: That pretty much nailed it. We’re just trying to find the best talent. There’s other tryouts for other leagues so after they get done trying out there and don’t make a squad they’ll hopefully try out here for our league and we can pick them up. But I recruit guys too, word of mouth from guys who have buddies that played. So we do it like that also through our contacts. I know some scouts. I know other coaches too, so I pick their brain and go that route also. By opening night we’ll have a hell of a squad out there.
AA: I have four or five guys that I coached when they were younger. Local guys, guys that are in college that are coming back. Yes, it is very hard to get a guy that is a very high quality player to come out and play for us here with everything. But if you can get a guy here and he can perform, that’s all we need is for someone to come out and perform. I think whether we’re paying them or not that we’re providing them an opportunity to continue to play. I’ve never been to a mens league game where they announce your name before your at-bat, you have your own walk up music. So that feeling of still being in an environment where you’re appreciated as a ball player I think is important.
SB: The toughest part for me is maybe separating my expectations from what their expectations are. Because they’re not getting paid I try to put myself in their shoes and take a look at what other opportunities are out there and players that are getting paid. I’ve had pretty good success I think when I’ve come across somebody, whether it’s somebody that I personally talked to or somebody that’s referred to me, being able to lay out the process of what this league is about, what we want to do for them during the season. The money, I think, has been a little bit of a struggle for some of the players as far as coming up with the deposit on the uniform right now. We’re helping with host families. They’re going to have to have some money while they’re out here or be working a part-time job. It’s unknown for them too. A lot of them haven’t been to this area. I have quite a few players coming in from Venezuela so there’s a lot of unknowns for them.
TT: Another thing for me, I’m lucky to have an assistant coach that’s local and I have six or seven guys that are local that can play from last year. I built good relationships with them, so that helps also.
Does the roster building this late take focus away from other parts?
DW: That’s about the only focus right now, getting that roster filled out and seeing where we stand. The start of the season is always the toughest because you’ve have some guys coming in that are college guys or I’ve got a guy that’s coaching high school and he’s not getting out until June. So we’ll be missing some guys early on, just trying to get enough numbers to get it going and hopefully keep it together for the first month of the season.
TT: We’re trying to get the roster filled out, but the highest quality at the same time. It’s not easy, but it can be done. I think by opening night all the teams will have their guys, so I’m not too worried, even though I have a couple roster spots to fill. It’ll be fine.
AA: The whole recruiting process has been about a three or four month process. We all started in early January figuring out who’s who and who can come out. I think we’re all picking at the same local guys right now. There’s only a handful of local guys that can play at this level. I’ve made calls where these guys already made calls. One thing I think we can do, I think more host families would make the league a little bit better quality wise so that we can get a whole team of guys from other states, maybe even other countries.
SB: I would say maybe I’m at a little bit of an advantage versus you three because you three are down in that area, I’m an hour north. I’ve been able to sign some guys from up in this area which help us with those local signings you guys talked about. At the same time I’ve got a player coming in from Venezuela, and his cousin just got released last week from the Royals. Right now I have 11 players that need host families. If I sign him, I have 12 players and we’re supposed to be at 10. My hands are tied a little bit, I told him I have to figure out if I can create a roster spot for him.
DW: You’ve got a big house, Scott. Put him up in your house.
SB: Yeah, he can sleep with my labradoodle. Get the labradoodle off my bed. Right now the goal is just to make sure we have enough bodies so we can produce a pretty good product for the first weeks of the season when we bring a couple more players in. The last thing I want to do is add somebody for the short term and then turn around and tell them “Sorry, we’re going to have to release you.”
TT: Some guys don’t deserve to be released, but it does happen.
DW: That’s the unfortunate side of the business, and it’s at every level. If you’re in high school you have to cut guys, in college you have to let guys go, in pro ball you release guys. The game comes to an end for everybody sooner or later and everybody that thinks it doesn’t is totally messed up because we’ve all been there and done that. Played the game and been released or whatnot. There’s a time and when the time’s the time it’s the time.
TT: I’ve been released twice, designated for assignment, signed late in the year. I’ve done it all so I feel what we have to do. It’s not an easy job to tell somebody that. That’s probably the hardest part for any of us.
Heading into the second season of the league, what did you take away from last year?
DW: I don’t know if there’s any more lessons to be learned. The progress of the league and how things are run, obviously we had some hiccups last year but we have them ironed out before this year. It’s an ongoing process that’ll never end, there’s always better things you can do, better ideas that come up. We just have to find the best way to do it and make this league the best we can. Like Alex said, success wise if you look at the guys that are now playing in different independent leagues, paying leagues, it’s a pretty high percentage ratio. I think we’re on the right track.
AA: I wasn’t part of the league last year, but what I hope for this year is a good competitive game from inning one to inning nine. I think that’s all we can ask for. It is hard getting a roster you want to continue with for the entire year because releasing guys is tough and having new guys show up is even harder. I think what has been hard, at least for me personally, is trying to get a roster that I can be committed to until the last game.
SB: I think last year if you look at the Campesinos, they had the least turnover, I believe. If you can create a network of men that are getting to know each other and they become comfortable with each other and know what to expect from each other then it’s no different than any level. The team that is in it at the end and wins it, the chances are they’ve been the healthiest through the season as well. We hope that we can create a network of guys that at the end of our season, all four of us, that we can look back and say we kept a very strong nucleus of players together and there wasn’t a whole lot of turnover. But the fact is there will be turnover. There’s guys we’re bringing in that aren’t going to be who we thought they’d be and you can’t help them become a better baseball player going forward. But hopefully the community will support what we’re trying to put out there for them and come out to a baseball game.
Who has the best uniforms in the Mavericks League?
DW: Campesinos, bar none.
AA: No, definitely not the Campesinos. I think the classic Volcanoes got it.
DW: Yeah, I think the Volcanoes’ Fourth of July uniform is the best uniform we’ve seen all year.
TT: I know, I wish we could wear those every game. Those are pretty sweet and the players really enjoyed those. They were like “Thank you so much for letting us wear those.” If we wear those a few more than just one game that’d be great.
DW: I think if everyone had two sets of uniforms that would be more even, but.
SB: I’d like to put a request in that we create a different uniform for the Mavericks.
DW: I love those red pants, man.
TT: You guys were on Netflix for crying out loud.
SB: If you don’t ask you don’t get. But the problem for us when it was 115 degrees last year and you’re out there playing in those thick uniforms.
TT: I like the baggy old school. I love them. Some character, right?