The Salt Lake Trappers begin their sixth season of rookie-class, Pioneer League baseball Wednesday in Derks Field at 7 p.m. against Idaho Falls. It's the first time the Traps have ever opened a season at home.
Starting on the road in the past wasn't that bad. The Trappers haven't lost a season opener since the very first game they ever played - a 10-7 loss in Pocatello June 20, 1985.And they've had only one losing season: last year, 33-36.
New Manager Nick Belmonte is keenly aware. "The job description here is real easy. You have to win," Belmonte says. "When a manager takes a job in Salt Lake, he knows he has to win the league or else it's not a successful season."
That's getting tougher because the draft goes more rounds each year, snapping up players the Trappers used to sign as free agents.
The Trappers will have, however, at least three 1990 draftees in pitcher Rod Nettnin, outfielder Mike Czarnetski and shortstop John Urcioli, plus nine men with pro experience including five returning Trappers.
They also have what all earlier Trapper teams had - that shoulder chip from being overlooked or rejected. "Any time someone tells you you're not good enough," says veteran pitcher Willie Ambos, who is to start Wednesday, "if you're any kind of competitor, you want to come back and stick it to them in some way."
Adds Belmonte, "That `29' written on everything is a great reminder of what you can accomplish." The 29 on the team logo refers to 1987's 29-game win streak, longest in pro-ball history.
For all the talk of winning, though, nobody knows what to expect in 1990.
Personnel boss Van Schley says, "We have the basis of a good team."
Pitching, he says, will be stronger than last year's team, which had the league's highest earned-run average. Last year in finding pitchers, Schley says, "We got some bad advice and took some chances; we went away from our usual process." And learned a lesson.
Ambos is No. 1 on the pitching staff because of two seasons' experience, in 1988 with the Trappers (9-2, 4.58 ERA) and 1989 with San Bernadino (6-1, 2.89) in the Class A California League. Dave Alexander (3-1, 6.21) and Mike Steinkamp (3-3, 5.61) return from '89.
Pitching coach Mark Brewer has 11 to work with, 12 if Ken Whitworth signs. He was among the Miami Miracle's 15 draft choices; four were loaned to Salt Lake. Czarnetski, Nettnin (perhaps the No. 2 starter) and Urcioli were the others.
Like Salt Lake, Miami is independent. Full-season Class A indies participate in the draft's fourth through 19th rounds. The two teams have some mutual owners and a symbiotic relationship. Trappers Alexander, Ed Garczyk and Dennis Kidd spent the early season on loan to Miami, Kidd playing regularly.
Brewer's pitching staff has promise. Gino Mirabella impresses with hard pitches. He was drafted by Cleveland and played in the Gulf Coast League but was cut loose. "He's got the makings; I don't see how they released the kid," Brewer says.
Tracy Jobes, 22, was bypassed in the draft despite a winning College World Series appearance for Mississippi State, where he had a 3.75 ERA. "They thought he was too old," Brewer speculates. He likes Jobes' "big-game experience."
Lefties Gary Boone and Ron Gerstein were undrafted because of old injuries.
Belmonte expects strength through speed on the grass, planning to start Kidd, Jim Doyle and Mike Moberg in one of the country's biggest outfields. Derks power alleys are 410 feet and lines are 365. Outfield play contributed to '89's high ERA as singles became doubles and triples, a fact Belmonte observed when he came to Salt Lake as a roving instructor in July '89. Catching those balls is top priority.
Third baseman Tom Duffin is a Belmonte favorite since he played for him in semi-pro ball in Miami. Duffin played with Ambos last year at San Bernadino. He is a few at-bats shy of taking up a veteran spot on the limited rookie-league roster. At Miami Dade-North Junior College, Duffin broke the school home-run record before going to South Alabama. Fans "are going to like watching him play," Belmonte says.
First base goes to Butch Harris, who at 5-foot-10 and 225 pounds crushes the ball when he hits. Catchers are Ken Briggs, who played in Kenosha, Wis., for Minnesota last season, and Steve Keighley. Both are said to be capable of gunning down runners at second base - a major headache in '89. "Foremost, you want a guy who can negate the running game of the other club," Belmonte says.