BRISTOL - When Bristol Blues general manager Brian Rooney constructed the teamâs roster in the offseason, he took a step back to evaluate what he had created, looking at a team on paper that had him and the rest of the Blues brass in unanimous agreement.Â
Rooney, manager Ronnie Palmer, team co-owner Elliot Scheiner and several others all believed this was the best roster in the league and the most talented, complete team they had fielded in the organizationâs five years, one that could win its first FCBL championship.Â
Those predictions werenât off to a good start 15 games into the season during a 5-10 stretch that, even though the roster had not been filled out, was still far from acceptable and brought Palmer to label it âembarrassing.â
There were even a few moans and groans as players and administrators looked ahead to the last week of June, when the Blues were scheduled for a stretch of 12 games in 12 days, including seven straight road games.Â
But then, as relief pitcher Christian Seelhorst put it, âThe Blues got hot, baby,â and now, a week later, sit atop the league standings.
The club won its first five games of the road swing before falling in the sixth to their biggest rival, the Worcester Bravehearts, and headed back on the road on June 30 for the exhausting weekâs finale - the longest trek of the season, a 2-hour, 45-minute Sunday afternoon tour through the heart of Massachusetts at the North Shore Navigatorsâ Fraser Field in the city of Lynn.Â
âWhat a way to wrap up this road trip, right?â Palmer says to Scheiner.Â
The Blues co-owner has seen a lot of career success as a music producer/mixer and engineer, winning multiple Grammys and Emmys having worked with artists such as Beyonce, Van Morrison and the Eagles. But right now, just like the Blues coaching staff - which also features pitching coach Jordie Scheiner, Elliotâs youngest son, and assistant coach Nick Rascati - heâs the same as every other Blues fan, disgruntled with commissioner Joe Paoulucci and the rest of the FCBL administration for the whacky schedule that, while not quite daunting, has certainly been grueling for their players, who try to downplay the disadvantageous schedule.Â
âItâs a little tough, but if you love the game of baseball, you can do it every day,â center fielder Austin White says.
During this slate of games that has included trips to Westfield, Worcester and Lynn in Massachusetts, plus two visits to Nashua, New Hampshire, the itinerary is pretty routine for the players: wake up, eat breakfast, go get a workout in at the nearby L.A. Fitness in Bristol, arrive for a coach bus departure around 1 or 2 p.m., win again, arrive around 1, 2 or sometimes 3 a.m. at Muzzy.Â
There have been a few interesting moments. On just the second bus ride of the trip, the Blues were about 30 minutes outside of Nashua, pulling off the highway, when their driver ran over the foundation for a light pole.
The crash forced the bus out of commission, and the players had to wait by the side of the road for about an hour and a half - killing the time by playing two-ball and other drills - waiting for the arrival of a school bus to take them the rest of the way to Holman Stadium. The Blues finally arrive at 7 p.m. and nearly three and a half hours later, the Blues head home with a 7-2 win.Â
It hasnât mattered what adversity has struck that week, the Blues keep on winning. One of the reasons? This is a tight-knit group of players. It has been since they first arrived to Bristol collectively on May 26. But lately, that togetherness and chemistry has been manifesting itself at the perfect time.Â
Sure, itâs more fun and easier to be happy when the wins are piling up. But nearly every player in the clubhouse says the victories have been a product of the camaraderie, not the other way around.Â
âWhen youâve got the dugout behind you and the team behind you, itâs so much easier to hit, and itâs like weâre not even away,â says outfielder Brandon Miller, who leads the league in batting average, âbecause weâve got more dudes cheering for us in the dugout than they do for them [in the stands].â
This is a team full of engaging, maybe a little weird, personalities: players from Connecticut, Texas, Nebraska, New Jersey, Georgia, Illinois, even Canada, mixing together to find some cohesiveness.Â Comparing dugouts across the league, Blues players and coaches agree this group is near the top of the most vocal and lively. But that wasnât true to start the Navs game.Â
âWe need one in the gap, or a guy to lay out for a big play,â Palmer tells his assistants in the bottom of the third inning with the Navs ahead, 2-0. âWeâre not playing bad. We just need something to get âem going.âÂ
Then, it happens. Zeke Diamond drops down one of his signature bunts, reaching first on an error to spark a two-run fifth. The Blues arenât winning yet, but now theyâre a bit more at ease.Â
Kasey Bass, a native of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, pokes fun at his teammatesâ pronunciation of âWis-can-sin.â Kyle Maves, who wears jersey No. 1, slyly brags about a young Navs fan telling him, âYou wanna know why youâre the best? âCause youâre No. 1.â Someone mentions their love for moose track ice cream, and Miller counters with his love for peanut butter and cookies ân cream granola bars.Â
Thatâs just before Miller walks to the plate in the sixth and gets fooled by Jake Giliottiâs curveball, whiffing for strike three.Â
âThatâs the best curveball Iâve seen since I got here,â Miller says heading back to the dugout.
Giliotti gets the first laugh, but Miller gets the last.Â
In the seventh, the lefty delivers the penultimate hit of the road trip, a three-run double he smokes to right field for a 5-3 lead and sends the game to one of the leagueâs best closers.Â
Will Nowak is one of the few Bristol players scouts from the San Diego Padres and Cincinnati Reds - each stationed in the Muzzy stands at all six of the Bluesâ home games - have been coming to check out all summer.Â
As a teammate screams his customary, âNowak ... No-WAK!â after each of the right handerâs first pitches to each batter, Nowak closes out the game and the Blues get another victory that will help them ascend into an eventual first-place tie in the FCBL standings.
âWeâre having a great time. This has been unbelievable,â pitcher Matt Shane says. âItâs a great group of guys, and weâve molded together real quick. We have a lot of fun in the dugout and in the bullpen. We seem to have a good time when weâre playing, and thatâs what results in wins.â
Thatâs exactly what the Blues have done. They depart North Shoreâs home for a stretch of six home games of their own in the next seven days, a welcome reprieve as they leave Fraser Field and its playing of âCountry Roadsâ by John Denver that Palmer loves so much after he, his wife and their two kids spent eight years living in West Virginia.Â
âThatâs my jam, man,â Palmer says between sips of water, sitting in the front seat of the bus and looking toward Rascati and the Scheiners, relishing the chance to play a home game at Muzzy Field.
âA home game?â Elliot Scheiner asks. âWhatâs that?â
âExactly,â responds Rascati. âItâs gonna feel like a road game.â
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org