Monday morning at Aberdeen's Ripken Stadium, a large contingent of this season's IronBirds squad milled about the complex's club area, tossing baseballs barehanded back-and-forth to each other, chatting loudly, and generally looking they were not nervous about their upcoming season-opener, in which they host the Hudson Valley Renegades at 7:35 p.m. on Friday night.
Playing their 10th season in the 14-team Class A Short Season New York-Penn League, the IronBirds have 75 games in front of them.
The young athletes had gathered to chat with journalists about the 2011 campaign, one which they will be playing under a new manager. Taking over for departing skipper Gary Kendall, who was promoted to the manager's position at the Class AA Bowie Baysox club early this year after three seasons in Aberdeen, is Leo Gomez, a former big-leaguer who spent all but one of his seven years in the majors playing third base with the Baltimore Orioles. Gomez was present on Monday, and sat down with reporters before heading out to the clubhouse.
"I'm excited to be here," Gomez said. "We've got a pretty good team, with a lot of good young kids. We're going to take it one day at a time, and see what happens."
Gomez took charge of the IronBirds after serving as Kendall's coach last season.
"I learned a lot from Gary," Gomez said. "[He] is a great competitor, likes to play hard, is a very disciplined guy, and likes to take care of his players. I was very happy to come here with him as a coach last year."
Looking over his roster on Monday, the new Aberdeen skipper said he plans to try most of his players early in the season before settling into a solid lineup, and that he will employ a more aggressive running game that has been seen in previous seasons.
"For right now, I can play different guys, but everyone is going to [have to] earn their position," Gomez said. "I want to see everyone out there, but I want to win some games too. I'm going to put most of [the players] out there, see what they can do, then make my decisions. I don't see that we have a lot of power here this year, plus I like to run, steal bases and be aggressive. I like to get things done by running, and if you don't have power, you have to make some changes to win."
As of Tuesday, Gomez had a preliminary roster of 26 to work with, though players may be added or dropped before Friday's season-opener, and none of the 50 players the Orioles selected in last week's MLB Amateur Draft had yet been assigned to Aberdeen. The highest draft pick on the pre-season roster was third-baseman Connor Narron, who was Baltimore's fifth-round selection in 2010, and who played eight games with the IronBirds last year. Narron, whose father, Jerry, had an eight-year major-league career as a catcher, said he's looking forward to playing in Aberdeen after working on some skills in extended spring training.
"I'm excited to play in front of fans again," Narron said. "I'm excited to be here; it's a great place to play ball. [At spring training], I worked on everything: hitting, fielding, changing my stance a little bit. I'm swinging the bat pretty well, and seeing the ball great. I feel like spring went great, and I need to prove myself."
Returning to the IronBirds after spending last season in Aberdeen is Austin Knight, a shortstop from Reisterstown, Md., who was picked by Baltimore in the 37th round of last year's draft. Over 54 games last year, Knight collected 42 hits in 187 at-bats for a .225 average.
"I would say I've improved a lot at the plate," Knight said. "I worked really hard in the off-season, and I have a little bit of a different approach. I had a very good spring training, and extended spring, and I feel very confident right now."
Knight, who lives 35 minutes from his home ballpark, explained the pleasures of playing so close to home.
"There couldn't have been a better situation than to get drafted by the Orioles," Knight said. "It's good to look out some nights and see five or 10 of my buddies out in the stands. Of course, my immediate family comes out to every home game."
Starting for the IronBirds on Friday night will be hard-throwing, 19-year-old righty Parker Bridwell, the Orioles' ninth pick of the 2010 draft. Bridwell made two relief appearances with Aberdeen at the end of last season, and started this one off with the Class A Delmarva Shorebirds, where he started two games.
"I'm ready to get on the mound and start pitching," Bridwell said. "I was here at the end of last season, and they've got great fans. I feel honored to be starting [on opening night]."
Bridwell, whose fastball was clocking in the upper 90s on Saturday in his final appearance with Delmarva, said on Monday that he knows what he needs to do to succeed this season.
"I just need to fill the [strike] zone up," Bridwell said. "I need to throw my off-speed pitches for strikes when I need to is a big key, too. I think if I can do those things, I'll be alright."
Guiding Bridwell and the rest of the IronBirds' 15-man staff will be pitching coach Scott McGregor, who is with the IronBirds for a fourth straight season. McGregor, who won 138 games in a 13-season career with the Orioles, was not available on Monday. Also rejoining the team this year will be field coach Cesar Devarez, who has been with the IronBirds since 2005. New to the IronBirds' coaching staff is Moe Hill, a minor-league veteran who spent 15 seasons playing with affiliates of Baltimore, Minnesota and Kansas City. Hill previously served as a coach with the Frederick Keys and Bowie Baysox.
This season, the IronBirds will attempt to crack the .500 mark for the first time since 2006, when they finished 41-34. Last year, Aberdeen wrapped up its campaign with a 34-40 mark.