When the Pacific Coast League season kicks off next week, there will be some great stories and individuals to follow. The potential for powerhouse teams in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City will have many eyes focused on those two cities for much of the season.
But the biggest story will take place a few thousand miles to the southeast when New Orleans kicks off its season by hosting Round Rock on April 6. The idea that they would be playing baseball again in New Orleans, let alone being able to start the season there, seemed remote after Hurricane Katrina tore through the region last year.
While New Orleans continues to rebuild as a city, the Zephyrs and the Pacific Coast League have done their part to ensure that normalcy returns as quickly as possible. It took a league-wide effort and commitment to keep the New Orleans franchise up and running, and the club will say thanks on Opening Day.
"We're very, very proud of the New Orleans ownership and management and the steadfastness with which they have gone about getting ready for the season in the aftermath of a terrible disaster," said PCL president Branch B. Rickey, who will be at Zephyr Field for the opener. "And I am very proud of the Pacific Coast League supporting the franchise staying in that market. Baseball has a special influence on a community.
"Our markets are smaller than the Major Leagues, but within our markets, the influence of 72 Minor League [home] games is a very positive thing. It represents a sense of return to normalcy, and we're anxious to participate. It should be quite an Opening Day. The management there is dedicated to making it quite special."
Zephyr Field is in a suburb of New Orleans and served as the home of the Tulane University baseball team this spring as repairs continue to be made. Roof work is continuing and a new scoreboard will be installed. The lighting at the park has also been reconfigured to once again conform to PCL standards.
"We're doing very well," Zephyrs media relations director Kevin Maney said. "The population here is actually greater now than it was before the hurricane. It was one of the first areas that started to improve, and a lot of businesses are back and improving. We're hoping it translates to people coming out to the park."
Maney added that it was too soon to make any predictions about ticket sales for the first week of the season but said that many group sales have already been made.
There will be plenty of people and places to see outside of New Orleans this season in the PCL. There will be three new skippers with Brian Harper (Salt Lake), Tom Runnells (Colorado Springs) and Tim Ireland (Oklahoma) taking over in their respective cities. Harper was a longtime utility man in the Major Leagues, playing 16 seasons and enjoying his greatest success with the Twins during the late '80s and early '90s. He helped Minnesota win the World Series in 1991.
A Greeley, Colo., native, Runnells moves up from the club's Double-A Tulsa affiliate and brings with him 149 games of Major League managerial experience. He piloted the Expos for parts of the 1991 and '92 seasons and guided the Drillers to the Texas League playoffs last year. Ireland, meanwhile, spent eight years in the Minor Leagues after the Expos selected him in the 25th round of the 1973 draft. He wound up appearing in 11 games for the Royals during the 1981 and '82 seasons before hanging up his spikes.
There are some big doings involving the PCL this season aside from baseball's return to New Orleans. Memphis will help open St. Louis' new Busch Stadium on April 4 when it plays Springfield, the Cardinals' affiliate in the Double-A Texas League. It will be the first pro game played at the new Busch.
"They opened AutoZone Park, so it's only fair we get to open their park," joked Dave Chase, Memphis' general manager.
The ballpark in Oklahoma has been renamed AT&T Bricktown Ballpark, and the club will help celebrate the new name by giving away bronze statues this season of famous Oklahomans who have played baseball, including Pepper Martin (May 13), Jim Thorpe (June 3), Joe Carter (July 8) and Carl Hubbell (July 22). The series began last year. Portland has a figurine night to mark on your calendar, as well, when it gives away a likeness of Tony Gwynn on April 9.
And, after Sacramento and the PCL hosted the Triple-A All-Star Game last season, the event moves cross-country in 2006. The International League champion Toledo Mud Hens will host the event July 12.
As for the postseason, while nothing has been officially announced, it appears as if the Triple-A World Series will make its return this season. Rickey and IL president Randy Mobley have given every indication for the better part of six months that minor details just have to be ironed out before an announcement is made. Speculation is that the one-game playoff, which will take place in the days following both league finals, will be played in Oklahoma City.