ST. GEORGE — Road trips north and south of the border? An 18-year-old female knuckleball pitcher from Japan? Something called the Na Koa Ikaika Maui?
It's just another year in the Golden Baseball League.
"The GBL is always exciting," said Rick Berry, general manger for the St. George RoadRunners. "You never know what you're going to get."
St. George dropped a thrilling 15-14 game to the Orange County Flyers on Friday night at Dixie State's Bruce Hurst Field. It was the opening night for the RoadRunners' fourth season — a season very much in doubt when the team's previous owners announced that the team was folding in December.
But that's when a group spearheaded by Will Joyce stepped in.
"We think (St. George) is a great area for professional baseball," Joyce said.
Joyce first heard of the RoadRunners when his son Michael signed with the team in 2007. Injuries forced Michael's career to be cut short (he only lasted six weeks with the team), but the family's passion for baseball hasn't been.
Joyce, a part-time scout for the San Diego Padres, had been looking to buy a team for a few years, and St. George was a good fit.
"It's not that far from Southern California, where we live," he said. "There's a lot of intangibles, a lot of positives (about the team)."
And a lot of challenges.
By the time the paperwork came through for buying the team on Feb. 19, the RoadRunners' staff had two and a half months to do the work that normally takes five or six months.
Despite the time crunch, the team opened play in the 10-team GBL, with 1,762 fans watching (about 700 short of a sellout).
"I'm pleased with the response from the community," said Joyce, who said they are shooting for a season average around 1,300.
Those fans will watch a team made of a mix of young players and veterans of Double-A, Triple-A and even former major leaguers. (The Flyers signed Byung-Hyun Kim in May.)
Independent of Major League Baseball and its farm system, Golden League Baseball teams are free sign any free agents, mostly players looking to prove themselves and get to "The Show."
The level of play is similar to Double-A, Berry said. The hitting tends to be better than the pitching, and the RoadRunners were no exception in recent years.
However, Berry said a focus of the team this year is to improve its pitching.
The team brings back a nucleus of Eude Brito, Raymar Diaz and closer Bartolomoe Fortunato. Both Brito and Fortunato were not in uniform due to visa issues, so that might explain Friday's offensive derby.
Fortunato's fastball can reach the upper 90s.
"He's the best closer in the league," Berry said.
The team was also missing leadoff hitter Ruddy Yan, but the heart of the order, Henry Calderon, Jermy Acey and Yosvanny Almario, all produced on Friday, combining for eight hits.
"We have some good pop and some good speed," Berry said.
New manager Darrell Evans knows a little about pop. In his 21-year career with the Atlanta Braves, San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers, Evans hit 414 home runs — No. 43 on the all-time MLB list, sandwiched between Vladimir Guerrero and Jason Giambi.
Joyce is glad to have him on the staff — and not just because he brings big-league experience.
"He's trying to give players an opportunity to fulfil their dreams," he said. "He does this for the passion of the game and his passion for the players."
The RoadRunners have a lot to look forward to this season, including trips to Canada, Tijuana, Mexico, a possible matchup against Chico starting pitcher 18-year-old Eri Yoshida — who is expected to be the first female pro baseball player in 13 years — and a six-game series in Maui, Hawaii.
Berry is especially interested in those games, because the St. George G.M. is also president of the expansion team Na Koa Ikaika Maui (The Strong Warriors of Maui).
On the business side for St. George, Maui and all the teams in the GBL, the goal is the same.
"We've got to have people in the seats," Berry said. "The baseball and entertainment sells itself. We just got to get them to the park."
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