Getting in the game
The Chico Outlaws struggle to get ahead in a new league with a new roster and a grueling travel schedule
After starting this season with 19 away games on a taxing road trip that left them mentally and physically drained, a warm welcome at Nettleton Stadium was just the medicine Mike Marshall and his band of Chico Outlaws needed during their recent return home.
Marshall, the team’s new president and general manager, who is also a former standout player for the Los Angeles Dodgers, heads what is also a new Outlaws lineup in this season full of changes. The 2010 championship team of the Golden Baseball League’s Northern Division has had difficulty adjusting to its new roster during this first year of play in the newly formed North American Baseball League. The Outlaws were off to a slow start with the new structure of the league as well as a new schedule, but now have their eyes on postseason play.
“We are a little younger than last year, but this is a transition year,” said Marshall, who remains positive. “We started out on a [losing] 25-day road trip, and we’ve taken a chunk out of that with five wins [against the Lake County Fielders] in Chicago.”
Following the 2010 championship season and at the end of its contract, the Chico team was one of six from the former Golden Baseball League selected to join the NABL, which was formed last fall and combines the Golden, Northern and United baseball leagues. With three divisions, the NABL comprises 10 teams spread over vast distances, requiring extensive travel to faraway places, including Canada, Maui and Chicago.
Only two players from last year’s roster returned. The remainder of this year’s lineup is almost completely revamped with young players, who have fewer years of experience under their belts than the lineup that was stacked with experience in 2010.
Adapting to the combination of a new crew and the new league has been tough on the players. Yet veteran Outlaw second baseman Bobby Hill, who played four seasons with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburg Pirates from 2002 to 2005, is determined that the team’s game will come together.
“Once we gel as a team, we can finish strong and start playing baseball like we know we can,” he said during an interview before a recent game at Nettleton Stadium.
Hill and fellow returning Outlaw Demetrius Banks, a left-handed pitcher who currently holds a record of four wins and five losses with an earned-run average of 7.44 (more than double the number of runs per game he allowed last season), said chemistry varies in every team. In comparing the rosters of 2010 and 2011, Banks says this year the team just needs to put all the pieces together.
That’s been tough to do with the amount of travel in the beginning of the season.
“It impacted us to an extent with repetition, but not in a positive way,” said Banks of the month-long hotel-to-hotel road trip that was a hit to the team’s morale. “It takes a lot out of you mentally. It’s nice to travel, be away for a week, but then come home for a week to balance everything out.”
In the GBL, the Outlaws spent a majority of the season switching every weekend between home and away games. An eight-game road trip last season, taking them through Canada, was the longest stretch out of town.
A month on the road is draining on players and their families. Not having the comfort of sleeping in your own bed and missing time spent with family is one of the most negative things, Banks said. Traveling farther has cut down on travel time, though, as the Outlaws board a plane for road trips rather than busing across the West Coast, Hill and Banks agreed.
Marshall said that the distance between the teams changes the nature of the game in general.
“The history of minor-league baseball is small towns with small rivalries, and travel sure has changed that,” he said. “We don’t mind traveling to Canada or Maui, but when we expand we need to tighten up the district to create those rivalries.” The new league is looking to grow in the 2012 season and has already signed teams from Long Beach; Orange County; Tucson, Ariz.; and Omaha, Neb., bringing the total number of teams to 14.
“Having a team a couple hours away, having a rivalry, it’s something we would strive for. I think we need to get back to that,” Marshall said.
For now, the Outlaws are in the midst of a 96-game season with a little less than half still ahead of them. As of Tuesday (July 26), they had a record of 27 wins and 28 losses.
“That .500 mark is right there for the taking,” Marshall said.
Once there, the Outlaws will try to build on a winning record and earn a spot in the postseason.
The hope is that the team is settling into a routine that will allow it to solidify team chemistry. In Chicago earlier this month, the Outlaws clinched five wins and returned home to win four of six games against the Maui Na Koa Ikaika.
On Friday (July 22), during their last night before hitting the road again, they filed into Nettleton Stadium in front of a large home crowd. The Outlaws had just re-signed Japanese pitcher Eri Yoshida, who was making her 2011 debut (see page 11 for more on Yoshida). With the 8-4 win, the team was 3.5 games out of second place and only six games from first.
The very next evening, 1,400 miles from Chico, the Outlaws managed a win over the Edmonton Capitals in a series that lasted through Wednesday. The road trip will continue with a four-game series against the Calgary Vipers, followed by a 14-game series against the Yuma Scorpions, including 10 at Redding’s Shasta College and four at Nettleton Stadium.
They may have struggled early in the season, but the Outlaws are slowly watching the pieces fall into place. Don’t count the former champs out as they take wins and losses in stride.
“It’s baseball, so you can have a good year and then a bad year,” Banks summed up. “We’re just going to go out and try to win some ball games.”