PIO preview: Chukars still revel as champs

Manager Ramirez seeking repeat as five other clubs switch skippers

Home of the Chukars since 2007, Melaleuca Field welcomed 96,367 fans through its gates last year, second most in club history.

By Greg Rachac / Special to MiLB.com | June 13, 2014 10:00 AM ET

Winning a championship can feel every bit as good to a Minor League general manager in the front office as it does to the players and coaching staff on the field -- especially when it takes 13 years to climb back on top.

"It's very satisfying," said Idaho Falls GM Kevin Greene, whose club captured the Pioneer League title in three games over Helena last September. "You're in this because you love the game, and I'm a fan as much as I'm into handling the day-to-day business operations.

"I root as hard as anyone. I get awful nervous, but when you come out on top, it's something you savor the entire offseason."

It was Idaho Falls' first Pioneer League title since 2000.

Greene is entering his 22nd season as the Chukars' general manager, but professional baseball has been a fixture in Idaho Falls since 1940 when it formed a club in the fledgling Pioneer League. Home plate hasn't moved ever since, though its haunts have changed. The beautiful Melaleuca Field now encompasses the plate, having been built before the 2007 season.

Last season's title run was important for the people of Idaho Falls, who have supported their team as much as any city in the league. Last year the Chukars finished third in total attendance with 96,367 fans, an average of more than 2,500 per game and the second highest total in team history. It was a great showing for what is, even in Pioneer League circles, a small-market club.

Through the years, Idaho Falls has produced stars such as Billy Martin, Jose Canseco and Jake Peavy. But the 2013 team earned a place in 75 years of history, too.

"Our fans truly appreciated the quality of last year's team, both on and off the field," said Greene, who was named the league's top executive after last season.

"We've got a lot to be grateful for, and we've got beautiful championship rings to show for it. We'll enjoy raising that championship banner on Opening Night and flying it all season."

The 2014 season opens Monday night. The Chukars begin at home against South Division foe Orem.

New faces: Of the league's eight teams, five have new managers. That includes 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell, who takes over in Ogden for former manager Damon Berryhill. Berryhill was promoted to Triple-A Albuquerque, also in the Dodgers organization.

Dick Schofield, who had a 14-year Major League career, is the new man in Billings after pervious manager Pat Kelly was assigned to the Reds' Class A Advanced affiliate in Bakersfield, California.

Of Schofield, Mustangs GM Gary Roller said: "He brings an awful lot of baseball experience to us. We're going on reputation, and he's very highly thought of in the Reds organization. We're pretty confident in him giving us what we need."

Charlie Poe is the new manager in Great Falls, replacing Pete Rose Jr., who left to manage the White Sox' Class A affiliate in Kannapolis, North Carolina. In Missoula, Audo Vicente assumes the Osprey's managerial role for Robby Hammock. Hammock was elevated to Class A Advanced Visalia in the California League with the Diamondbacks. Vicente previously managed the Osprey in 2008 and 2009.

Dave Stapleton is now in charge in Orem, replacing Bill Richardson, who moved on to Class A Burlington in the Angels' system.

Helena's Tony Diggs, Grand Junction's Anthony Sanders and Idaho Falls' Ramirez are the league's only returning managers.

'Black Jack' gets called: McDowell's path to a Minor League managerial post was an intriguing one.

After a 12-year career in which he won 127 games with the White Sox, Yankees, Indians and Angels, McDowell wanted to get back into baseball, be it as a pitching coach or even as a broadcaster. Lee Tinsley was named Ogden's manager in December but then chose to become an assistant hitting coach in the Majors with the Reds.

The Dodgers then offered the job to the 48-year-old McDowell, who told the Chicago Tribune, "The fact that it was a managerial job and not a pitching [coach] job was a big difference for me. [You're] still actually teaching the game a lot more than you would if you had gone up. I think it will be a lot of fun."

Not to be outdone: McDowell isn't the only former Cy Young winner in the Pioneer League this season.

Mark Davis, who won the award in the National League with the Padres in 1989 when he made a league-high 44 saves, is the new pitching coach in Idaho Falls.

Early opening: With permission from Major League Baseball, the Pioneer League is getting an earlier start to its season.

Officially, short-season Rookie ball doesn't begin until two weeks after the Draft. But in an effort to begin and end the year sooner to accommodate players headed to instructional leagues, the Pioneer League petitioned for -- and was granted -- a waiver to open its season three days before its originally scheduled start day of June 19.

Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Pioneer League.

Last season's championship: Idaho Falls over Helena in three games
Last season's attendance leader: Ogden Raptors, 124,687
Last back-to-back champion: Orem Owlz, 2004-05
Last no-hitter: Scott Snodgress, Blake Drake and Joe Dvorsky, Great Falls vs. Casper, Aug. 18, 2011
Last perfect game: Jason Robbins, Billings vs. Medicine Hat, Aug. 1, 1994
Last 100-strikeout pitcher: Greg Smith, Missoula, 2005
Last .400 season: Travis Vetters, Ogden, and Roberto Lopez, Orem, 2008
Last 20-home run hitter: Brandon Waring, Billings, 2007
Last three-homer game: Jose Briceno, Grand Junction vs. Orem, June 28, 2013
Last cycle: Jose Queliz, Missoula vs. Helena, July 31, 2013
Last triple play: Jake Lamb, Daniel Pulfer, Tyler Bream, Missoula vs. Billings, Aug. 11, 2012
Last alum to win NL MVP: Ryan Braun 2011 (Helena '05)
Last alum to win AL MVP: Jose Canseco 1988 (Idaho Falls '82)

Greg Rachac is a contributor to MiLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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