TROY, N.Y. (AP) — Patrick Scalabrini shouted to his players to gather round before a late-morning practice at Joseph L. Bruno Stadium, just to make sure they knew the plan.
“We’re leaving at 6 a.m. tomorrow, so you’ve got to be at the bus at 5:30,” said Scalabrini, manager of Équipe Québec, a one-year experiment in the Frontier League, an independent circuit in this new era of minor league baseball.
When you haven’t played a competitive game of professional baseball in months because of COVID-19 and you’re hitting the road with the opener looming in Illinois in less than two weeks, getting up at the crack of dawn on a beautiful summer day ain’t so bad — even if this trip is like few others. There’s a chance the team could play its entire 96-game schedule away from home depending on what happens with the border between the United States and Canada.
“It’s a special time, right? So far, only smiles from everyone,” said the 44-year-old Scalabrini, a former minor league player who will be apart from his wife and two young children back in Quebec City. “We’re all looking forward to playing, seeing professional baseball again after 18 months of the pandemic situation.
“It’s not perfect, being on the road all that time. Everybody was just anxious to get going, no matter the situation. Everybody just wanted to get out there and get to play again.”
Équipe Québec consists of players from the league’s two Quebec franchises — the Quebec Capitales and Trois-Rivieres Aigles. It was formed because of uncertainty over the reopening of the US-Canadian border, and it allowed the league to create a workable schedule with an even number of teams (14).
While unusual, a season on the road is not unprecedented. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the Yankees’ Triple-A farm team, played all 144 games on the road in 2012 while PNC Field was renovated,
“We know it’s a big challenge,” Scalabrini said. “We’re all making sacrifices, obviously, but they’re all passionate about baseball and so am I. I missed it. I couldn’t wait to get back on the field. It’s good to be on the field with these guys again.”
The camaraderie was evident as soon as the players hit the field on Tuesday to stretch. Pitchers later took turns fielding grounders to the mound, and some slick glove work elicited oohs and ahs.
“We’ve already started some really good team building in the hotels and going out to dinner with each other, stuff like that,” said Matt Rusch, an assistant coach. “The guys are really coming together really quick, actually a lot quicker than I’ve seen in the past. The guys just appreciate being on the field. Being happy on the field leads to friendships, and that’s what we’re seeing here.”
The players knew what they signed up for and right now are all-in.
“Everyone kind of knew coming in,” said Lachlan Fontaine, a 25-year-old pitcher from North Vancouver, British Columbia. “We were most likely going to be on the road for the first couple of months.
“I think maybe it will get hard, but I think it’s going to be good for the team because we’re going to be together all the time,” Fontaine said. “It’ll be a good bonding experience. You’ll get to know the guys a lot more than if you’re just living in an apartment somewhere. It’s the best of both worlds, I think.”
Fresh from a couple of exhibition games against the hometown Tri-City ValleyCats with fans in the stands, Miguel Cienfuegos couldn’t mask his glee.
“We’re excited. We’re there, we’re here. I’m here. We’re ready to roll,” he said, beaming. “I was actually very excited just to be on the baseball field again. Being on a mound, facing batters, not throwing against a net or anything like that, it feels good. To be here in the states and see some people in the stands, it definitely feels good.”
The team opens against the Gateway Grizzlies in Sauget, Illinois, on May 27, then it’s back and forth to Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey.
“It gives you that little feel it’s us against everyone else,” pitcher Nick Economos said. “Everyone’s at their home stadiums and we’re just kind of bouncing around. I think it’s definitely something that can bring the team together, for sure.”
This is a trip that 31-year-old player-coach Gift Ngoepe, the first African-born player to play in the major leagues (with the Pirates and Blue Jays) won’t forget — he’s traveling with his wife and their 19-month-old child in the family SUV.
For bus driver Eric Desdiens, it’s a chance to make some extra cash on the longest trip in his three decades behind the wheel, each day punctuated by a call to his wife back home in Canada.
For Nick Horvath, soon to be 25, it’s another chance after being released last year by the Orioles, and he’s psyched.
“I’ll kind of like it,” Horvath said. “I don’t have a car, I don’t have anything. I got my clothes, I got my baseball stuff. It’s just like a big long vacation, on a road trip playing baseball.
“I don’t think playing will ever get old. Just going out on a baseball field doesn’t get old, but maybe traveling, yeah. But at the same time this is what all of us wanted — to play ball.”
The season ends Sept. 12. If, or when Équipe Québec makes it back home to play before its fans is anybody’s guess. In the end, it doesn’t really seem to matter.
“We all missed a year, right?” Scalabrini said. “Most guys, you skip two years of your career professionally, you’re dead. I think we’ll have to remind each other that when it’s rough, when it’s the dog days of summer, potentially earlier than normal, remember what were you doing last year. You could be on your couch right now.
“The goal, and that’s what we’re kind of pushing, is let’s compete, let’s try to be in a position good enough to push for a potential playoff so when we get home it’ll be exciting for our fans.”
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