Opening day and hope springs eternal.
The Winnipeg Goldeyes open the 2011 baseball season -- and a brand new era in franchise history -- tonight at Shaw Park as the Fish kick off their inaugural season in the American Association with a home opener against an old familiar rival, the Fargo Moorhead RedHawks.
No one's missed a sign, bunted into a double play or been picked off at second base. At least not yet.
All that -- and more -- will come eventually, of course. As a wise man once observed: 'Sooner or later, they always show you why they're in independent baseball.'
But in the meantime, Fish manager Rick Forney likes what he sees in a club that looks to be -- on paper, at least -- vastly improved over the sad-sack outfit that set a franchise record for futility last season.
"Camp was as good as it's been in years," Forney said in his office Tuesday afternoon. "The effort, the energy, the number of guys showing up ready to play -- it was as good this year as I've seen."
That includes Fish second baseman Kody Kaiser, who impressed in pre-season and is looking at 2011 as a chance to do something for his team and himself. "The goal is to play well for the team and the fans," said Kaiser. "But everyone here also has a personal goal to get back to organized ball.
"And the best way to do that is to get off to a strong start."
After a lightning-quick 12-day training camp, that time is now. Here's a look at the 2011 Fish:
THUMBNAIL: The Goldeyes have gotten much leaner and more athletic this season, but they've also probably lost some home runs and RBI's along with all those pounds they shed in the off-season.
An offensive approach that was typified the past couple seasons by 300-pound one-dimensional DH Juan Diaz has been replaced this season with a bunch of guys who can get on base, steal bags and move the runner. They'll have some swat -- outfielder Justin Bass hit 19 homers in single-A ball Greensboro last season -- but mostly they will play small ball.
The top of the Fish order will send four proven .300 hitters to the plate. Centre fielder Jonathan Wyatt leads off, followed by third baseman Amos Ramon, Kaiser -- who has impressed in the pre-season -- and then former big leaguer Brian Myrow in the cleanup position.
PROGNOSIS: Wait and see
THUMBNAIL: Championships in independent baseball, perhaps even more than at any other level of the sport, are won and lost on pitching. In a league driven by reclamation projects on the mound, the manager most adept at fashioning silk purses from all those sows' ears generally wins.
Fish manager Rick Forney will make his case to be that man this year with a proven staff of starters and what looks like it could be a dominating bullpen.
Starters Ace Walker, Chris Salamida and Dustin Glant are all proven stars at the independent league level, while opening night starter Isaac Hess is here only because the big leagues look the other way at pitchers with artificial hips.
In the bullpen, Forney has Aaron Hartsock -- who was pitching at the triple-A level when he blew out his ACL in 2009 -- as his set-up man and former Toronto Blue Jay Jamie Vermilyea as his closer.
THUMBNAIL: The Goldeyes were slow and fat last season and they paid for it dearly in the field. That should change dramatically this season with a club that is faster, stronger and lighter and appears to be improved at every position in the field.
On the left side of the infield, third baseman Amos Ramon is rock solid and so is shortstop Wes Long, who has been perhaps the best shortstop in independent baseball the past two seasons when he was healthy. Long starts the season injured yet again, but Price Kendall showed himself to be a capable backup last year. On the right side of the infield, a legitimate former big-leaguer in Brian Myrow will anchor first base and get relief from catchers Luis Alen and Alan Rick, while Kody Kaiser -- who played double-A ball in Erie last season -- will mostly play second.
In the outfield, Jonathan Wyatt has great range in centre field, while Forney has enough faith in right-fielder Victor Ferrante and left-fielder Justin Bass that he cut Aharon Eggleston -- one of the premier hitters in the Northern League the past couple seasons -- in the pre-season to make room for them.
Behind the plate, Forney has Alen -- maybe the best catcher in the Northern League last season -- and Rick -- who held that designation in previous years.
THUMBNAIL: Rick Forney is in his sixth year as Fish manager -- but also the final year of his current contract.
Fish management are loyal to their employees -- some might even say to a fault -- but the general consensus is Forney will need to improve dramatically from last season's franchise-worst regular-season record if he's going to keep his job for 2012.
The good news is Forney has assembled what looks like a much improved team to play for him and has some much-needed coaching help with the addition this season of pitching coach Brendan Sagara, who comes highly recommended for his work ethic and rapport with pitchers.
OUTLOOK: On the bubble
Winnipeg Goldeyes (0-0) vs. Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks (0-0)
May 12-15, Shaw Park
THUMBNAIL: The Goldeyes and RedHawks had a ferocious rivalry for 15 seasons in the Northern League and there's no reason to think that will not transfer over now that both teams are in the American Association. Fargo skipper Doug Simunic owned the Northern League, winning six league championships since 1994 -- including the last two in a row -- and the big question heading into this season is whether that dominance will continue in the AA.
FAST FACTS: Fargo has a 117-98 edge on Winnipeg historically and went 9-5 against the Fish last season. The two clubs meet 19 times this season -- 11 of those at Shaw Park.
FUN FACTS: The Goldeyes will shoot off fireworks after the games tonight and Friday night, dress in Tuxedo-style uniforms for 'Wedding Night' on Saturday and honour Dancin' Gabe on Sunday.