Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Happy campers

Goldeyes, fans in high spirits as spring training begins

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Through wind, and snow, and eight long months fans waited for the day, and when it finally came the skies didn't disappoint.

The Winnipeg Goldeyes opened training camp on Saturday, putting 26 players -- including many fresh faces -- through their paces in front of 1,500 fans who flocked to the team's annual open house. The trees beyond Shaw Park are still bare of leaves, but the sun beamed down on the stands, and kids wiggled in their seats as the Fish took the field.

It was, in short, a good-omen sort of day to launch the Goldeyes' 20th anniversary season, and kick off their American Association championship repeat chase. "I was itching to get started when the last season ended," said season-ticket holder Stan Larsen, decked out in Goldeyes duds and watching batting practice from the shade of the concourse.

"The chance at a repeat is all the more reason to come back, but I come to these games regardless of what happens, and regardless of the weather. I guess that's why they call us 'diehards.'"

These diehards are the fans that most players on the team are eager to meet. Of the 26 men on the training-camp roster, only six are back from the championship team, though jovial outfielder Fehlandt Lentini is familiar to Goldeyes faithful after setting runs, triples and stolen bases records here 2006-08 and in 2011.

Lentini was eager to come back to Winnipeg in part because of the crowds. Now, the newcomers get to see the fan support that Fish regulars say is among the best in minor ball. "To be on the field, and see the fans, I think guys didn't understand how important the Goldeyes are to the fans," said infielder Amos Ramon, the Goldeyes' 2012 playoff MVP who lives in Winnipeg year-round. "They got to feel that, how much the fans love us, and we can't wait to be on the field on Monday."

About Monday: The Fish will play their first exhibition game against the rival Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks. There are cuts manager Rick Forney will need to make -- he has to get the roster down to 22 for the bulk of the season -- and what happens at the game will shape those decisions.

But after two brisk hours of cracking bats and flying balls on Saturday, Forney was openly pleased with his options. "Great first day," he said. "Some nice little surprises out there. I'm always a little hesitant to get too far ahead of myself when I'm watching and evaluating this early, but everybody looked real good today... like they spent a lot of time preparing, and came to camp in good shape."

So that, too, is a good omen on the season. To get a crack at a championship repeat, the Goldeyes will need those nice surprises to step up, and their returning rocks to shoulder much of the load: Several fans said they hoped to see big things from outfielder Josh Mazzola, who led the team with 18 homers last season, and Luis Alen, who Forney called the best catcher in the league.

Now, fans are hoping to get to know the new guys the same way -- the Fish built a winner last year, and there's plenty of buzz about the chance to do it again. "It makes it all that much more special to see them try again this year," longtime season-ticket holder Dwayne Marling said, as he watched six-year-old son Dominic -- a baseball fanatic who dreams of playing ball -- toss pitches into a practice net.

While young ears were listening, he emphasized that word -- "try."

"That's one of the things we talk with him about all the time," Marling said, nodding at his son. "You show up every day, you try your best and work hard, but there's no guarantees. Goldeyes teams have always had that lunch-pail work ethic, and that's one of the things we really like about this team."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 5, 2013 B12

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