METAIRIE, La. – You knew it was coming.
With a host of local media gathered on the playing field of a stadium without a name, the team occupying the Shrine on Airline, formerly known as Zephyr Field, dealt with the question immediately.
“What do you think of the new name, of playing for a team called Baby Cakes?”
Second-year manager Arnie Beyeler did not mince words about the name change.
“That’s what we get asked about, Beyeler said. “Nobody cares about the guys or the baseball. They just care about the name. It is a good name, as far as that goes. It has gotten a lot of attention, and that’s what it was designed for. Kinda’ like I said the other day. If, all the people who complained about it, came out to the games, they probably wouldn’t have changed it.”
A year ago, the Zephyrs drew 339,400 fans, the fifth fewest in 25-year history of the franchise.
Of course, New Orleans has been affiliated with the Marlins since the 2009 season and in eight seasons with Miami, the Marlins have produced one winning season and no playoff appearances with the Zephyrs.
Fans like winners and will support teams that are successful, though it is not as easy to do as it was prior to the NBA franchise moving here in 2002, giving New Orleans two major league franchises, along with the Saints.
New Orleans was 69-70 and finished tied for second in the American Southern Division of the Pacific Coast League a year ago.
“Somewhere along the way, you’ve got to win and what it takes to play winning baseball,” Beyeler said. “Usually, when your winning, guys are having successful seasons. That goes hand-in-hand. I started at the Rookie League level and I don’t think there’s a problem expecting guys to win because if you’re playing the game right and you have good players, you’re going to win some games.”
Beyeler likes his experienced pitching staff.
“We’ve got a little bit more depth on our pitching staff here this year,” Beyeler said. “We’ve got a couple of guys here that spent September and more here this year that were in Miami. Those guys are back here and need to continue to work on the things that got them there and be more consistent.”
Beyeler knows what it will take for the Cakes to be successful this season.
“Pitching is always the key,” Beyeler said. “If you pitch, you give yourself a chance. We were last in the league in hitting last year and we were still a competitive team. We have to catch the ball and play baseball. Our guys will produce some runs because we’ve got some speed. You have to pitch and play defense. If you do that, you give yourself a chance every night.”
Outfielder Destin Hood of Mobile, Ala. returns after splitting the 2016 season between New Orleans and Miami. He was positive, perhaps politically correct about the name.
“It’s minor league baseball, that’s what it’s all about,” Hood said. “It’s a change, and it’s a good change. I like the uniform and I think it’s good for the city. In the offseason, it was something to talk about. Now, it’s just time to play baseball. Other than that, I don’t see anybody complaining about the uniforms. We’ve got some nice ones.”
Hood expects some needling from fans and opposing players on the road over Baby Cakes.
“They’re definitely going to give us some ribbing around the league about the name but that’s what they do,” Hood said. “We don’t choose the name, we don’t choose the team, we just play for them. I like our memorabilia, I like the new colors, I like it all.”
Pitcher Justin Nicolino returns for a third season with New Orleans after some time with the Marlins a year ago. He embraces the new identity.
“It’s awesome, it’s different,” Nicolino said. “We had an inkling toward the end of last season that there would be a name change. We didn’t really know. It was kind of cool. Our Double A team (Jumbo Shrimp) made the name change as well. I like the new uniforms. I’m the kind of person who likes loud colors. It just represents New Orleans.”
On the field, Beyeler will manage a team with eight 40-man roster players of the Miami Marlins to start the 2017 season.
They include pitchers Brian Ellington, Severino Gonzalez, Justin Nicolino and Drew Steckenrider, catcher Thomas Telis, infielder J.T. Riddle and outfielder Destin Hood.
Other notable players to watch include infielder Steve Lombardozzi, who was once a starter with the Washington Nationals and has extensive experience in the major leagues, along with pitcher Vance Worley, who spent time in Baltimore a year ago.
Other players on the opening day New Orleans roster with major league experience include pitchers Hunter Cervenka, Brandon Cunniff, Severino Gonzalez, Javy Guerra, Kelvin Marte, catcher Ramon Cabrera and outfielders Brandon Barnes, Matt den Dekker and Moises Sierra.
In all, 12 players who spent time in New Orleans a year ago return, including pitchers Cervenka, Ellington, Raudel Lazo, Greg Nappo, Nicolino and Steckenrider, along with Telis, infielders Matt Juengel, Peter Mooney and outfielders Hood and Isaac Galloway.
Hood was a Pacific Coast League All-Star for New Orleans a year ago, batting .267 with 29 doubles, 15 home runs and 80 RBI, along with 11 stolen bases. Hood played in 13 games for the Marlins a year ago, hitting .240 with a home run and two RBI. He has a simple approach about getting back to Miami.
“I will probably just be working on trying to see more pitches, to be more consistent, drive in runs and do my job,” Hood said. “What I learned in the big leagues is that no one is going to hold your hand. You’ve got to get the job done, yourself.”
To get back to the majors, Hood will look to become more versatile.
“In spring training, I played some at first base so hopefully, I can just get better at that because I can help the team out here and I think I can help the team in Miami, too! I’m just going to try to get as good as I can playing first and we’ll just see what happens after that.”
The Shrine on Airline is and always has been a pitcher’s park.
“This park is tough to hit at but it’s a new challenge,” Hood said. “I feel like if it’s going to be a tough park to play at, you just have to figure out how to play at it. We do have 70 games here, at least. At the end of the day, you just have to strap it on and do the best you can and figure out how to play here. You have to stay within yourself. The air is heavy air. I grew up right down the street.”
Nicolino has split time between New Orleans and Miami the last two seasons, going 8-10 with the Marlins in 30 appearances. With the Zephyrs, Nicolino is 14-13 over the two season. He will draw the opening night assignment for New Orleans for a third consecutive season.
“Anytime you get to take the ball the first time of the year is an honor and for me, I’ve been fortunate to do it three years in a row here,” Nicolino said. “For me, I like to establish and set the tone for what it’s going to be. We’ve got clubhouse in there with those guys. For me to take the ball on the first night, get the tone set, is always something I look forward to.”
Nicolino likes pitching at the facility formerly known as Zephyr Field.
“It’s a great ballpark to pitch in, to say the least,” Nicolino said. “Big outfield, and the ball doesn’t fly very well. Some days it does, some days it doesn’t. It makes you appreciate pitching at home because when you go on the road, some of those ballparks on the road are very, very tough, especially with the weather. Wind gets going, weather changes, the ball flies must differently.”
Nicolino may like the name and uniforms but he is clueless as to the origin.
“I still don’t know what it (Baby Cake) is,” Nicolino said. “I just kind of know it’s a Baby Cake and see a little face but I don’t know what it is.”
Hood maintained a good attitude regarding one phase of the name.
“We should get some King Cake going in the lockerroom after a game,” Hood said.
Names aside, the team now known as Baby Cakes opens its season Thursday at home against Memphis at 7 p.m. as the team plays a five-game series with the Redbirds, running through next Tuesday.