When Willie Ambos takes the mound Monday night in Idaho Falls, it will be his third season opener as a Salt Lake Trapper. He started the last two and was beaten out for the No. 1 spot on opening day when he was a rookie in 1988 by Terence Glover.
"That's probably a record," says Trapper Manager Nick Belmonte about the three opening days in the Pioneer League.It is, after all, a rookie league, and Ambos is in his fourth professional season (He spent the second year with San Bernardino in the Class A California League).
Ambos actually retired after leading the Trappers to the Southern Division title last season with the league's best ERA, 2.57, because he had no more eligibility with the Trappers.
An offseason rule change, however, gave him new life. In December it was announced that independent clubs were exempt from some rookie-league rules. The Traps could now have players with more than three years' pro experience, and they were no longer held to having five players deemed veterans by the league.
Ambos read that in the paper and wondered if Trapper personnel boss Van Schley would call. The next day, Schley called.
Schley offered a player/coach designation to Ambos. "That's important to me," he says. "I'm starting to build a coaching resume." With expansion coming, more coaching jobs will be available.
Ambos spent the past school year teaching and coaching at Rowland Hall-St. Mark's in Salt Lake City, and he and wife Susan are settled in as Utahns. They had their first child - Kyle - 10 days ago. He's known as "Bull Jr." to Trapper personnel.
Kyle was born on a Friday. "Saturday was the first time in my life I didn't feel like being at the ballpark," says Ambos. He soon learned the ballpark was a respite from Kyle's crying.
Largely because of his experience, Ambos is the logical choice to start the season opener with 1990 returnee Geno Mirabella slated for Tuesday. The Traps are in Idaho Falls until Thursday, when they move to Butte for two games. If pitching coach Mark Brewer sticks to his five-man rotation, Ambos would start the home opener on Saturday, too.
"The way I looked at it, it was my job to lose," says Ambos about being No. 1. He says he worked harder to get in shape this season than last because of the "coach" before his name. "As player/coach, I've got to get the job done," he says.