Rick FORNEY took a big chance last winter. Maybe the biggest he's taken in his four seasons at the helm of the Winnipeg Goldeyes.
But a month into this 2009 Northern League season, it's a gamble that is starting to look like a jackpot for the Goldeyes manager.
The gamble, of course, was Forney's decision to replace longtime fan favourite Max Poulin at shortstop with newcomer Wes Long.
Baseball-wise, it was a decision that made perfect sense. Poulin simply could no longer justify the valuable veteran's spot he was tying up with his anemic bat.
But sometimes, baseball isn't just about baseball. And that's the part that made cutting Poulin so difficult.
Because let's face it -- independent baseball is ultimately all about putting fans in the seats. And Poulin, for eight seasons as the Goldeyes shortstop, did just that.
Poulin was a fan favourite on the field and was a Goldeyes rarity off of it -- a player who had planted roots in the community. In a league where players come and go weekly, Poulin was a rare and valuable commodity for the Goldeyes -- a recognizable name and face that people came to the park to see.
"From a baseball perspective," Forney recalled Friday, "it wasn't a tough decision at all. But obviously there were special circumstances with Max that did make it a very difficult decision."
You cut guys like that with great trepidation. But cut him Forney did -- and then took the gamble even further by replacing him with a name few in Winnipeg knew.
Long toiled the past two seasons for the Windy City Thunderbolts of the Frontier League. He led his team in hitting and Forney had actually tried unsuccessfully a season earlier to land Long.
Still, the Frontier League is considered a cut below the Northern League and in spring training this year, Forney himself conceded it was unlikely Long would hit the .331 he hit for Windy City last year.
Funny thing about that. A month into the season and Long isn't hitting .331, he's hitting .365 -- fourth in the Northern League -- and is coming off a sizzling May that saw him named the player of the month.
Forney says his wager that Long would make people quickly forget Poulin is paying dividends he never foresaw.
"I didn't anticipate him swinging the bat the way he's been swinging the bat," said Forney. And then he laughed. "And to be honest, I didn't need him to swing the bat the way he's been swinging the bat.
"I was just looking for him to become an everyday contributor."
Instead, Long has become the centrepiece of the Goldeyes offence. He started the season hitting eighth in the lineup, but has hit his way to the top of the order. Now hitting leadoff, Long has been getting on base and showing speed once he's there, generally recalling another great middle infielder for the Fish who hit leadoff -- not Poulin, but Brian Duva.
Long doesn't know the history of Duva -- whose number hangs in left field as the only player to have his number retired by the Fish. And he doesn't know much about Poulin, either, other than he'd been here a long time and was popular.
But what the former Oakland A's draft pick and all-time leader in five offensive categories at the University of Alabama-Huntsville does know is the Goldeyes are giving him a chance at age 26 to take what may very well prove to be his last shot at a big league dream.
"I want to give it my best here," says the Alabama native. "I don't want to have anything left when I finish my career, I don't want to have any regrets. I've been given an opportunity here and I want to take my best shot."
Rick Forney took a big chance by giving Wes Long maybe his last chance. A month into the season, they're both making the most of it.
Well aint that a fine kettle of Fish
Eight was, once again, more than enough.
For the third time in this young Northern League season, the high-octane Winnipeg Goldeyes offence exploded for eight runs in an inning, as the Fish pounded the Fargo RedHawks 13-6 Friday night to open a seven-game homestand at Canwest Park.
With the victory, the Fish remain in first place in the Northern League with a 13-5 season record. The Goldeyes also remain undefeated this season against the rival RedHawks and will carry a perfect 4-0 record against Fargo into tonight's second of a three-game series.
The Goldeyes torched Hawks ace Broc Coffman in the second inning, scoring eight runs off two homers, one triple, four doubles and a walk before Coffman had even recorded an out.
The Fish also scored eight runs in one inning twice last month -- in their season opener in Kansas City and in their home opener.
On a night of big numbers, Fish third baseman Brent Metheny had the biggest of the night, going 3-for-5 with a homer, double and 5 RBI.