METAIRIE - It is hard to believe.
Having been there at the beginning, in Indianapolis on April 8, 1993 when it took three days (due to rain) for the New Orleans Zephyrs, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate, to complete their first-ever game with a 4-2 win, seeing the franchise embark on its 20th season is truly remarkable.
Having called the play-by-play as the Zephyrs opened that inaugural season 5-0 on the road before heading home to a mediocre college facility in Privateer Park, a facility which cost the team an opening night victory at home due to not having an adjoining chain link fence finished, is amazing.
On that night, Matt Mieske was at first base in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 7-7 game when Larry Sheets doubled down the right field line. Running hard, Mieske would have scored with ease but the ball rolled under a temporary snow fence, resulting in a ground rule double. Mieske returned to first base. Buffalo went on to score a run in the 10th inning to win the game and spoil the home opener for Chris Bando's team.
It was not UNO's fault. There were delays in making improvements to the ballpark due to a fight over the facility for minor league baseball between John Dikeou and the Triple A Zephyrs and Tom Benson and his proposed Southern League (Double A) New Orleansw Pelicans. The ruling was won by the higher classification. The Zephyrs lost the game.
I was there in 1997 to call the game as the Zephyrs opened brand new Zephyr Field on April 11 with a convincing 8-3 victory before a sellout crowd of 10,366 for Matt Galante's team, a new Houston Astros affiliate. Galante was coaching his first game after Steve Swisher decided to step away following a season-opening road trip.
Nothing came easy to the Zephyrs in the early days. On opening night at Zephyr Field, there was a threat of a contractor not handing over the keys to ownership due to a dispute. Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed and the game was played.
Fast forward to 2012.
The Z's begin their 20th season Thursday night at home against long-time rival Nashville. Game time is 7 p.m.
The 2012 Zephyrs, a Miami Marlins affiliate, appear to be a well stocked team with local ties.
Former major league catcher Ron Hassey is the new manager, the 13th in franchise history, while Charlie Corbell is back as the team's pitching coach while Damon Minor returns as the hitting coach.
With the Marlins aggressively pursuing and signing big money free agents as they move into a beautiful new ballpark in Miami, their Triple A team has some veteran presence that otherwise may be in the big leagues.
No fewer than 11 players listed on the 27-man roster played in the majors at some point in 2011.
First, there are the local ties that bind.
Pitcher Wade LeBlanc is a Lake Charles native who pitched in 14 games for the Padres in their starting rotation last season. He went 5-6 with a 4.63 ERA for San Diego and was traded by the Padres to the Marlins for John Baker following the season.
The former Barbe left-hander went on to pitch at Alabama before being drafted in the second round of the 2006 amateur draft by the Padres. LeBlanc is 17-22 with a 4.54 ERA in four seasons with San Diego. LeBlanc was 9-1 with Triple A Tucson last season
Another left-handed pitcher, former Destrehan High star Beau Jones, is home again. The Metairie native was a first-round pick in the 2005 Major League Baseball draft. Jones reached Triple A in the Texas organization with the Rangers a year ago and returns to that level in pursuit of his major league dream in a familiar setting.
Jones pitched in the 2005 5A state tournament at Zephyr Field when Destrehan finished second in the state to Jesuit. Last year, Jones went 0-1 with a 3.53 ERA with one save in 39 appearances with the Express. In his seven year minor league career, Jones is 27-17 with a 3.98 ERA and 11 saves.
Catcher Luke Montz played for Double A Jacksonville in 2011, hitting .273 with 22 home runs and 78 RBI. The Lafayette native was drafted by the Montreal Expos in the 17th round of the 2003 draft. He reached the majors with the Washington Nationals in 2008, going 3-for-21 (.143) with a home run and three RBI. He has been trying to work his way back to the majors since then. Montz prepped at Acadiana High School before playing at Hill Junior College.
Among the pitchers, Rob Delaney pitched in four games with Tampa Bay a year ago and had 13 saves at Triple A Durham. Lefty Brad Hand pitched in 12 games with the Marlins, going 1-8 with a 4.20 ERA. He won 11 games with Double A Jacksonville. Chris Hatcher pitched in 11 games for the Marlins while Sandy Rosario and Elih Villaneuva logged time with Florida as well.
Rosario had four saves for the Zephyrs a year ago after saving 23 games for Jacksonville while Villanueva won seven games for New Orleans. Tom Koehler went 12-7 for the Zephyrs and he returns to bolster the staff. Alex Sanabia pitched in four games for New Orleans in 2011.
Catcher Clint Sammons played in nine games with the Zephyrs a year ago, hitting .321 with thee home runs and four RBI. Cole Armstrong hit.284 with nine home runs and 30 RBI for Triple A Salt Lake last year.
Among the infielders, Mat Dominguez returns to the Zephyrs. He hit .258 with 12 home runs and 55 RBI in 87 games with New Orleans last season and played in 17 games with the Marlins, batting .244 with two RBI. Veteran Gil Velazquez played in four games with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2011 and hit .328 with eight home runs, 58 RBI and 17 stolen bases for Triple A Salt Lake. Chase Lambin, Ben Lasater and Nick Green are experienced players who will figure prominently as well.
In the outfield, Chris Aguila returns after starring for New Orleans a year ago. Aguila hit .287 with 22 home runs and 72 RBI for the Z's in 2011. Scott Cousins played in 48 games with Florida last year, batting .135 with a home run and four RBI. Sergio Pedroza played in four games for the Zephyrs a year ago and had a home run. Kevin Mattison hit .260 with eight home runs and 49 RBI with Double A Jacksonville last year.
The player who just missed making the Marlins who is perhaps the person to watch for an early call-up is Bryan Peterson.
The 25-year old Peterson hit .265 with two home runs, 10 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 67 games for the Marlins last year. He was superb in New Orleans, hitting .351 with 11 home runs and 26 RBI.
While there are some prospects in New Orleans, this is a veteran team that should compete well. There are five players over the age of 30 and six others who are 28 years of age or older.
Donald Beaver remains the owner and president of the team and he remains the owner of the Hickory Crawdads (Class A) and Charlotte Knights (Triple A).General Manager Mike Schline is back for an 11th season while Ron Maestri is back as the Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer. Schline was the Executive of the Year in the Pacific Coast League in 2006 and does an excellent job. Maestri is a New Orleans baseball legend, a member of the Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame from his days as a brilliant baseball coach and athletic director at UNO.
Tim Grubbs and Ron Swoboda return to handle the call of the games in excellent fashion on WTMI, 106.1 FM and on Cox Sports Television.
The Zephyrs open with an eight-game home stand, facing Nashville Thursday through Sunday before Memphis comes to town Monday through Thursday.Experience dictates that you never really know how a Triple A team is going to do.
The 2011 Zephyrs went 69-74, finishing third in the PCL American Southern division.The Triple A level is volatile. Major league teams regularly call up players and send players down. Sometimes, there is help from Double A while on other occasions, free agents are brought in to replace departed players.
The key to success in Triple A is always to start fast with your roster virtually intact and hope to play .500 baseball the rest of the way in the hope of making the playoffs.
20 years later, the Zephyrs still provide affordable family fun in a safe, positive atmosphere. Fans get a chance to watch future and former major leaguers on an nightly basis. They are ingrained in the psyche of the New Orleans culture, thanks to the efforts of John Dikeou, Rob Couhig, Walter Leger, Jay Cicero, Jay Miller, Dan Hanrahan, Dan Rajkowski, Beaver, Schline and Maestri.Tickets are available by calling (504) 734-5155 or at www.zephyrsbaseball.com.
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