On a September night last season, when the Myrtle Beach Pelicans had already been eliminated from the playoffs and local fans had turned their attention to football, Rocket Wheeler led his team to an otherwise meaningless victory that made him the winningest manager in franchise history with 272 wins.
But it was a low-key celebration. The Pelicans were two days away from finishing the season at 53-84, the worst record in all of minor-league baseball.
But the mixed bag has brought mixed blessings into the 2010 campaign. The good news is the Pelicans should be better in 2010. The bad news is it would be difficult for them to be worse than they were in 2009, when injuries, trades and call-ups forced Wheeler to write his lineups in pencil rather than pen.
The 2009 team saw a club record 114 roster moves over the course of its 137-game schedule - not exactly the best way to build a unified team. Even the team's mascot, Dinger the Home Run Dog, died last season and will be honored by the team tonight. His replacement Deuce was pressed into duty.
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But the revolving clubhouse door left a silver lining. Fifteen of the 25 players starting this season in Myrtle Beach were here at some point last year, giving Wheeler and his staff a leg up in the familiarity that was sorely lacking last season and the confidence that some of those players who were promoted too early are now ready for the rigors of Class A ball.
"We're very excited about this season," Wheeler said. "We've got a lot of very good young arms and a lot of guys coming back, which is good for us. In the past we move them up and start over the next season. It's great to already know the people you're working with. It makes our jobs a lot easier."
In keeping with the mixed-bag theme, this year's Pelicans should have a little bit of everything in their arsenal. The pitching staff looks promising with a pair of top-10 Braves' prospects in the starting rotation - righthanders Zeke Spruill (No. 8) and Randall Delgado (No. 7) - tonight's Opening Day starter.
"I know I can pitch good so I just have to concentrate," said Delgado, a 20-year-old Venezuelan who went 5-10 with a 4.35 ERA last season in Low Class A Rome (Ga.). "Last year I started out so-so. I don't want to do that again. I need to concentrate and focus. I feel excited, but hopefully not too much."
Balancing out the rotation are a pair of strong southpaws in Jose Ortegano and Cole Rohrbough, who went 6-8 with a 5.77 ERA last year in Myrtle Beach. The Pelicans also bring in a new pitching coach in Kent Willis, who is in his 15th season in the Braves' organization, the last four as minor league pitching coordinator.
"He's new to Myrtle Beach but not new to me," said Wheeler, who welcomes back hitting coach Rick Albert for a fourth season. "Kent and I worked together on the 2003 Rome team that won the championship. We worked together in '03 and '04 and we work well together. He knows all these pitchers."
There will be familiar names in the field as well, including No. 10 Braves prospect Adam Milligan, who ended up in Myrtle Beach after stints in Danville (Va.) and Rome. He combined to hit .344 with 13 home runs and 49 RBIs, making him one of the many Pelicans to keep an eye on this season.
The rest of the roster brings good balance to the lineup, and not just between those who have and haven't been here before. Unlike last season, Wheeler feels he has the right combination of speed and power and offense and defense to put his players in a better position to win.
"We've got some contact hitters, some guys that can run, we've got some guys that can hit for power," Wheeler said. "We've got a mixture which is a good thing. As a manager you love that because you can hit and run, squeeze, steal bases and that's what I like to do - keep the pressure on the other team."
Like any team, the 2010 Pelicans will see their share of wins and losses. But with more stability and balance this season, they hope to see a better mixture of wins and losses this season too.