2009 Bats: Pitching could be forte
Open tonight vs. visiting Columbus
By Michael Grant • email@example.com • April 9, 2009
When Louisville Bats manager Rick Sweet was a minor leaguer, he would occasionally worry about getting home — and we're not talking about home plate.
In 1976, while playing in Amarillo, Texas, a cash-strapped Sweet desperately needed new tires to make the 1,669-mile trip back to Portland, Ore. Fortunately, he hit a couple of home runs in the playoffs to solve the financial emergency, and Sweet and his wife left town in their Pinto station wagon.
"I didn't know how we were going to get home," the 56-year-old said. "That was back when they used to give us money for hitting home runs. I collected $300, $400 and was able to buy new tires. ... The game has totally changed. What is important is that (the players) know how good they have it here — which they do. That they continue to get better to get to the next level."
Sweet will be kicking the tires on a new season tonight against the Columbus Clippers at Louisville Slugger Field, and the Bats will sport a revamped roster. Only six players remain from last year's opener: Kevin Barker, Adam Rosales, Homer Bailey, Bill Bray, Matt Maloney and Adam Pettyjohn. Eight will be new to Louisville.
Change is a constant in the minors. The parent Cincinnati Reds used 10 rookies last year, which played havoc with the Bats' roster. Sweet still steered Louisville to an 88-56 record and the International League West championship.
He'll try to mold another contender behind a pitching staff that should be among the league's best and some young offensive players.
This will be Sweet's fifth year here — his longest managerial stint in 21 years.
"You always have that excitement," he said. "The excitement of opening day, the excitement of starting another season, because they are all different. It's always fun. The biggest thing is to see how the team comes together. We have a lot of good parts. My job is to put all the parts together and make it hum."
The parts might change, depending on what happens with the Reds. They suffered their eighth straight losing season last year, going 74-88. Cincinnati's current youth movement might mean more stability on the Triple-A level — if the Reds win. If not, more Bats could get the call.
That's a happy moment for Sweet, whose priority is to get his players ready for the majors.
Sweet also has to be ready for all the comings and goings. It's not unusual for him to be on the phone 15 times during a game. When there are changes, Sweet wants to know what his options are, especially if there is player movement.
Players such as Bailey, Rosales, Danny Richar, Ramon Ramirez and Josh Roenicke could be recalled to Cincinnati at a moment's notice.
"I'm always looking to have that backup plan," said Sweet, who has had three straight winning seasons at Louisville. "In NASCAR they have backup cars. Well, I have backup plans."
It helps to have a veteran like the 33-year-old Barker to shepherd some of the youngsters. Barker, who has been with six organizations, played here in the late 1990s and returned last year. He will help tutor Reds prospects such as Drew Stubbs, Chris Valaika, Danny Dorn, Craig Tatum and Rosales.
Stubbs and Valaika are rated Nos. 3 and 4, respectively, in the Reds' organization by Baseball America.
Thirteen players will be 25 years old or younger on opening day.
"We're pretty young," Barker said. "I just try to bring some leadership and show them how to go about their everyday business. ... We're going to have a good time. I think we're going to have a really good team. It makes it easier when we're winning. Guys can learn better when we're winning."
The challenge will be making sure the young Bats grow while winning. You get the feeling that Sweet, who once found a way to get new tires when he absolutely had to, will come through again.
"Sometimes you don't have good parts and you can only get so much horsepower out of it," he said. "But sometimes you have the ability to put together a machine that really works. We've got the components. It's up to us to get it done."
Michael Grant can be reached at (502) 582-4069.