Shark Attack

BY Skip Maloney

Baseball is about hope. Always has been.

Beginning with the hope that its arrival signals an end to cold weather hope can be seen in almost every aspect of the game and in the people who enjoy watching and playing. The owners hope they can increase attendance. The head coaches hope that they will make the right decisions that give their teams the best possible chance to win. The pitcher hopes to strike out the batter. The batter hopes to make solid contact and get on base. Hometown fans hope their team wins more games than it loses gets into the playoffs and wins a championship preferably in the bottom of the ninth with a walk-off home run.

The Wilmington Sharks opened their season at Buck Hardy Field last week (May 27) and all concerned are hoping that the team can improve on its 2008 record of 24-31. The record left them in the lower third of the 14-team three-division Coastal Plains League (CPL) and kept them out of the 2008 Petit Cup Tournament the CPLs equivalent of playoff baseball a contest which theyve won only twice in their 12-year history.

The Sharks are fortunate this year in that three players are scheduled to return from last year including one of the teams key players its catcher. Kolby Epley a sophomore with the College of Charleston Cougars will be returning as will pitchers Chris Kennedy a southpaw junior from Davidson College and Wilmington resident Chris Powell a right-hander attending Presbyterian College in South Carolina.

The Sharks will inherit four players from the current UNCW Seahawks including shortstop Mike Rooney who as we went to press was batting .318 for the Seahawks with a .959 fielding percentage.

Another Seahawks acquisition will be Wilmington resident and outfielder Allen King wholl bring childhood memories of the Sharks with him to the ballpark. “I remember them from when I was in T-ball ” King says. “We always stood with (the Sharks) for the playing of the National Anthem.”

Also joining the team from the Seahawks will be outfielder/first baseman Alex Hill from Charlotte and pitcher Daniel Cropper from Snow Hill Maryland.

For these and all 27 players on the 2009 Sharks roster hope has layers. On the playing field hope centers on a desire to improve their skills theyll play almost every day all summer for no pay other than the courtesy room and board being provided by a group of host families in the area.

Rooney will work on his defensive consistency at shortstop while at the plate hell make the adjustment from the aluminum bats used in college ball to the wooden bats used in the CPL. With a wry grin he acknowledges that hes among the top five Seahawks in a variety of offensive categories (batting average hits RBI/runs batted in on-base percentage triples and walks). But he also acknowledges that hes second in strikeouts. “I gotta work on that strike zone ” he says.

Pitcher Daniel Cropper wants to improve his approach on the mound. “Being aggressive ” he says. “Getting ahead in the count.”

Outfielder King has hoped-for goals on both sides of the ball. “Getting better at seeing the field [as an outfielder] ” he says. “And as a hitter I need to work on patience. Im an early count swinger and I want to work on seeing the ball better.”

Collectively like every other player from Little League on members of the Sharks hope for a shot at “The Show” Major League Baseball.

“Every college player has those aspirations ” says Rooney.

“Definitely ” says King. “I want to play as long as I can.”

“Id love to make a career of it ” adds Cropper. “Every 8-year-old who ever puts a glove on and takes a bat in his hands has a dream of becoming a professional athlete.”

Hopes extend to the Sharks front office as well. Like the players the current owners and new head coach of the Wilmington Sharks want to see the team improve but those hopes are intertwined with other concerns best described as putting fannies in the seats at whats known as the “Shark Tank.”

“Its our job ” says first year co-owner and director of operations Conor Caloia “to give people a reason to come to the park. Baseballs at the heart of it but its only one of about five things going on at the park during a game. We really are an entertainment company.”

A life-long Chicago Cubs fan (the ultimate expression of eternal hope) Caloias arrival from Madison Wisconsin where he was the director of operations for the North Woods Leagues Madison Mallards marks the first time since the creation of the Wilmington Sharks (12 years ago) that the team will have a local owner.

The team was acquired by brothers Lew and Darrell Handelsman (who also own and manage Fayettevilles Swamp Dawgs) in 2007. Previously Darrell was the all-time winning manager of the Madison Mallards where he met and worked with Caloia which led to his coming aboard as the Sharks co-owner and director of operations last May. Like Caloia Handelsman is heavily invested in both the on-field success of his team(s) and the service that these teams provide to the community. Hes also in agreement with Caloia that the community service part of the job is about more than the game.

“The reality is that 20 percent of our fan base is not purist about baseball (attending the game just to watch the game). It really is a show and most of the normal fan base will remember the promotions and were fine with that. We pride ourselves on the entertainment value we provide. Its a great affordable family experience.”

By the same token Caloia and Handelsman approach that entertainment perspective with a fundamental hope that the team will improve providing a strong incentive for locals and tourists alike to come to Buck Hardy Field and come often.

In furthering this hope the Sharks hired a new head coach Jake Tenhouse the winningest coach in the New York Collegiate League (NYCL) who last year led the Hornell Dodgers to the regular season championship and won the leagues Coach of the Year award.

While acknowledging his experience as a factor in his success Tenhouse notes that when it comes to collegiate league teams where a head coach generally gets only one shot with a particular roster theres no substitute for good players.

“You look especially with position players for guys whove played a considerable amount for their college in the previous season ” says Tenhouse of the recruitment process which begins with a look at between 100 and 150 collegiate players and is eventually whittled down to 27. “We want them to have a fair amount of experience and this goes for pitchers too.”

According to Handelsman there are additional hopes in play with the Sharks. Head Coach Tenhouse is building his resume in the hope that success with the team might catapult him into a larger program perhaps to a team affiliated with a major league ball club. Even the announcers who broadcast Sharks games over the summer are honing their skills in the hope of advancement. “Everybody thats associated with these organizations hopes to move on ” Handelsman says.

For now though this summer in this town the Sharks are concentrating on the job immediately in front of them. For the players its about staying at peak performance level. For the head coach its managing the team to keep them there. For Caloia its about providing local residents with products (baseball and other entertainment options) that will increase attendance (which was up 30 percent to an average of 1 650 per game last year).

Historically when the nations economy is not doing well attendance at minor league ball games increases. The Wilmington Sharks sincerely hope that the trend continues as they pursue a CPL championship.

“We see ourselves entrusted with a civic treasure ” says Caloia. “We are the caretakers of summer baseball in Wilmington. Its a quality of life issue for us to put out a good product that makes us an asset to the community. Its our job to be good stewards of that responsibility.”

Heres hoping. Play ball.