BY CAROLYN LaWELL
VIERA, Florida | The last of the Washington Nationals staff and crew left the team’s spring training facility, Space Coast Stadium, around noon on Monday, April 2. The Brevard County Manatees, the High-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers who call the stadium home during the regular season, were expected to arrive from Phoenix at 4:45 p.m.
Kyle Smith, the general manager of the Manatees, had plans to greet the team at the airport like he does every year. After all, he coordinates the buses and hotel accommodations, and first impressions are important. That’s how the day was supposed to play out.
Until Smith’s wife, Nikki, called him at the ballpark and told him to get to the hospital. At 5:12 p.m., Smith’s first born, Sophie, arrived seven weeks early.
“It’s an amazing feeling that you have when there are certain things in the world that are just more important than baseball,” - Kyle Smith
The days between the end of spring training and the opening of the new season is hectic. The daily preparation and atmosphere shifts from fans coming to watch baseball to fans coming to be entertained. In a typical week leading up to the Manatees season opener, Smith would work 16-to-18 hour days.
Now, with less than three days before the first minor league game, he was sleeping in a hospital with his recovering wife and newborn baby girl. He did make it to the stadium for a few hours each of the two days before the season opener that Thursday, which attracted a crowd of 4,637 and a fireworks display.
“I was nervous, really nervous about opening night,” Smith says. “At the end of it, it was just a huge weight off the shoulders. Not only did everybody pull it off, but it just reaffirms the fact that we have a good group of people here.”
Smith’s staff had to step in and take on extra duties, from picking up the team, changing signage at the stadium, making sure the promotional giveaways arrived and were stored.
“The nice thing is I put a list together, right after the season, of a timeline of when we have deadlines and when we have to get this stuff done,” Smith says. “Every year we get better at getting things done in advance, which helps a lot. Still, I’m a Type A personality and the type of person that wants to be here and selfishly always thinks I can do it better than everybody else. It’s hard for me to delegate certain things, especially that time of the year when the team arrives; their first impression of this area, I want them to be good.”
Smith’s wife is home. Sophie is doing great but still in a local hospital until she gains more weight. And the Manatees just started a six-game home stand and have a 5-2 record.
The next few months will be a difficult adjustment, Smith predicts. He sought advice from Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida operations for the Bradenton Pirates and Joe Hart, president of the South Bend Silver Hawks, both fathers themselves. “They said don’t worry about it, it’s going to work itself out,” Smith says.
And it has. Smith’s perspective on the game, on his work, on his family has all changed. He didn’t really buy into the cliché that once your first child is born everything changes. But it does. It has.
“It’s an amazing feeling that you have when there are certain things in the world that are just more important than baseball,” he says. “It kind of puts everything into perspective, where now I feel a lot less stress than before because there is something else in the world that is more important.”
Time for minor league trivia. What type of animal was found nesting on top of the lights over right field during spring training at Space Coast Stadium? (Keep reading for the answer.)
After a 30-minute rain delay Thursday night, the game was called in the bottom of the eighth inning, giving the Dunedin Blue Jays a 2-0 win over the Manatees. It was a night of solid pitching by both teams. A fielding error by Manatees second baseman Shea Vucinich and a wild pitch by starting pitcher Jed Bradley helped the Blue Jays score a run in the sixth inning. In the top of the eighth, the Blue Jays’ Jack Murphy hit a solo home run off the wall in right field before the rain delay.
The Manatees catch phrase “Fear the sea cow” came to Smith while he was three Coronas deep on his couch one night. “I came to the office and everybody kind of liked it,” he says. “I hadn’t convinced myself yet, so we thought, OK, we’ll try it. We put it on some merchandise and we sold out of it in two games.” The team started using “Fear the sea cow” three years ago and merchandise with the catch phrase is still the most popular.
Space Coast Stadium is the only facility that plays host to a Major League spring training and a minor league team with different affiliations. The Manatees have played in the stadium since 1994, first as a Marlins team, then the Expos, then the Brewers. When the Expos moved to Washington, the Nationals decided to keep their minor league teams near Washington like other Major League teams have done, including Philadelphia and Atlanta.. Milwaukee was looking to exit the Pacific Coast League and picked up the Manatees in 2005.
Want the answer? A great horned owl received a lot of attention during spring training for making its home in the lights that shine on right field. A metal platform had been installed on top of the lights to coax ospreys away from the left-field lights where they built a nest last year. But the owl took over in late winter.
And in other statistical news, the game started one minute later than scheduled, the first pitch was a strike and the first batter flied out to right field. We heard a live rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” for the first time in five nights and it lasted 1 minute, 35.2 seconds. Also, we ate three hot dogs. Carolyn broke her vegetarian streak of more than 18 months by biting into her first frank. And it was our first rain delay of the season.
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