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Midwest League set to sparkle in 2006
03/02/2006 8:00 AM ET
There will be more to do in South Bend this April than watch the Notre Dame football team's spring practice. Not only are the Silver Hawks the defending Midwest League champs, there's a good chance their roster will include the top pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft, Justin Upton, at least for the early part of the season.

Upton, who will be making his professional debut, figures to generate a buzz wherever he goes. His older brother, B.J., garnered similar attention when the Devil Rays selected him with the second pick in the 2004 draft. Now the younger brother is a member of the Diamondbacks, and folks in Phoenix are excited about his chances of becoming Minor League Baseball's new "it" guy.

"He got an invitation to Spring Training with the mindset that we want him to be around big league players," Arizona's Vice President of Scouting Mike Rizzo said. "He has a chance to be a super player in the near future, and we want him to be exposed to the likes of Jay Bell and rub elbows with Luis Gonzalez. He's going to be one of them in the near future."

While there is always the possibility that he could go directly to Lancaster of the Class A Advanced California League, it wouldn't be surprising for the Arizona brass to let Upton get his pro legs under him in the Midwest League before bumping him up to the tougher competition on the West Coast.

While Upton likely represents the most notable new face in the Midwest League this season, there are several other players on whom folks should be keeping an eye, including Dayton's Travis Wood, Southwest Michigan's Wade Davis and West Michigan's Cameron Maybin.

In addition, there will be seven new managers on the circuit: Jeff Smith (Beloit), Andy Fox (Clinton), Billy Gardner Jr. (Dayton), Aaron Nieckula (Kane County), Jody Davis (Peoria), Keith Mitchell (Swing of the Quad Cities) and Dave Howard (Southwest Michigan).

Davis and Fox are former Major Leaguers who will be making their managerial debuts, and their resumes and reputations should help as drawing cards in their respective cities. Mitchell also will be making his managerial debut after serving as the Quad Cities' hitting coach last season. Under his tutelage, the Swing set franchise records for hits (1,250), homers (113), slugging percentage (.402), total bases (1,841) and RBIs (663).

Nieckula will be making his managerial debut after serving as a coach with the Cougars in 2004. He finished up a five-year Minor League career with San Francisco in 2002 after spending four seasons in Oakland's system. Jeff Smith will also be taking his first turn as a manager, replacing Kevin Boles, who was promoted to Fort Myers.

Gardner, meanwhile, is a former Midwest League Manager of the Year, earning the honor with the Michigan Battle Cats in 1998, while Howard moves up from Hudson Valley of the Class A Short-Season New York-Penn League.

Dayton continues to be the place to be -- if being part of one of the feel-good stories in Minor League Baseball appeals to you. Fifth Third Field remains one of the most popular venues in all of baseball, drawing 3.5 million fans over the last six seasons and hosting 427 consecutive sellouts. The park will have some new features this year, with video boards adorning the first- and third-base facades. There also will be new LCD monitors positioned throughout the park, showing highlights from previous seasons and features on the Dragons.

Mark off July on your calendar because Dayton promotions that month include a Homer Bailey Brass Figurine Day (July 10) and a Roofman Bobblehead Day (July 26).

Alliant Field in Clinton will also have a fresh look after undergoing an extensive renovation. There is a new scoreboard and new box seats, replacing the ones originally installed in 1948. The scoreboard was designed by the same company that has installed scoreboards in Fenway Park, Minute Maid Park, Comerica Park and Safeco Field.

While John O'Donnell Stadium in Quad Cities hasn't undergone a facelift, it will host the league All-Star Game on June 20. It will mark the first time since 1990 that Quad Cities has hosted the event, which will be a two-day affair. Tickets are $12 and $10, and can be reserved or purchased at www.swingbaseball.com.

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.