With just days left before the American Association baseball regular season opens, the Winnipeg Goldeyes are going, going... and they're gone.
The Fish were set to leave Winnipeg at the stroke of midnight this morning, rumbling down the highway for their annual season-opening road trip. Over the next 18 days, they'll trek some 6,200 kilometres and cross through eight states as they travel from Winnipeg to Laredo, Texas (and points between) and back up north again.
Yeah, it's a long one. In that time, the Goldeyes will knock out four exhibition and 10 regular-season games. It starts and ends in Lincoln, Neb., where the Fish will play a pair of pre-season tilts at Haymarket Park on May 9 and 10, and a three-game regular-season stand starting May 23. Then they'll hustle back to Winnipeg in time to greet their fans in the May 26 home opener at Shaw Park, against the visiting Sioux City Explorers.
The lengthy road swing is a new American Association tradition for the Fish, launched in part to get them out of Manitoba during the province's unpredictable spring weather. Last year, that trip proved a boon, as the Fish ran through Texas towns Grand Prairie and Amarillo to open the season with a record-smashing eight-game win streak.
So, is that a high bar to have set? Outfielder Josh Mazzola shrugged.
"Look at it last year, we started out 8-0 but didn't make the playoffs," he said. "We have to be consistent throughout the season. We're looking to win series. You can't look at it as something disappointing if we come back with two losses. I'd much rather have four losses on this road trip than not make the playoffs. But I don't think that's gonna happen. I think we have a good group of guys and we're gonna play hard."
They'll get to know each other well in these next couple of weeks -- and what is more key, manager Rick Forney will get to know his troops a little better. Of the 25 players remaining on the training camp roster, 12 are new to this team. They lost one chance to impress on Wednesday night when rain forced the Fish to cancel their planned exhibition game against the Sioux Falls Canaries.
No worries. There's still time for pitchers to get their arm strength up, and batters to nail down their timing, Mazzola said.
"It happens pretty quick and then we're in the regular season," he said. "We'll probably get 10 more at-bats before the season and make the most out of 'em."
As for the long hours on the bus, well, that's just part of the job. Baseball players are full of tales about long hauls on the road, the occasional breakdowns and assorted perils. Last year, the Fish landed in Texas in the middle of a tornado alley. Many players have seen worse. In the first roadie of his rookie year, incoming pitcher Ethan Hollingsworth and the rest of the Casper Ghosts were dozing late one night when a wheel flew off the bus in the middle of the Teton National Forest.
The team ended up stranded there until almost 8 a.m., with a game looming at night in Casper, still a six-hour drive away. They made the most of it.
"The outside wheel was gone," Hollingsworth recalled of the ruckus. "People at the back of the bus started yelling, the back of the bus was dragging on the ground. So we stopped. We were in the Teton National Forest for six hours, waiting for a new bus to come.
"There were a couple of fences that we probably shouldn't have hopped, and walked out and got to see some country that I'd never seen before. And then we got on the bus and went straight to the park (to play a game)."
So, did they win? "You know what? I think we did," said Hollingsworth with a laugh. "But I think we definitely lost the next day."
Meanwhile, the Fish made their first move of training camp on Thursday, sending rookie catcher Matt Albaugh to the Frontier League. Albaugh was fresh off his college career at Kutztown University and arrived in Winnipeg to battle returning rookie Jordan Guida for the chance to back up Luis Alen.
On Thursday, Fish manager Rick Forney traded him to the Florence Freedom of the Frontier League in exchange for future considerations.
The move leaves 25 players on the training-camp roster, 14 of them pitchers. The Fish must get down to 23 by the time the season opens next week. Then have a little bit more time before they have to pare the active roster down to 22 names, the number of players they are allowed to carry through the bulk of the season.