AVON — Jeff Isom has been waiting for this week for five months.
“Ever since I got hired back in December, I’ve been looking forward to Opening Day,” said Isom, who will make his debut as Lake Erie Crushers manager Friday in the season opener against the Gateway Grizzlies at All Pro Freight Stadium. “Friday can’t get here soon enough. I know the guys are looking forward to it, too.
“We’ve been working out since the beginning of this month, for almost two weeks right now. We had five exhibition games, but that’s not the same as Opening Day and getting a full house in here and playing in front of our fans. We’re all excited for Friday. Everyone starts out 0-0 and let’s see what everyone has. I think we’ve got the right pieces of the puzzle together here to have a successful season.”
Isom, or “Ice” as just about everyone calls him, and members of the 28-man roster gathered around the home dugout at The Freight on Monday afternoon for the team’s annual Media Day.
Most of the talk concerned the change in the manager’s office that took place after last season when John Massarelli, the only manager the team had known, was relieved of his duties.
“Jeff seems like a pretty cool guy,” said third baseman Andrew Davis, the only Crusher remaining from the inaugural 2009 championship season. “He’s obviously been around for awhile doing the managing stuff. So we’re ready to get started.
“There’s not a lot of difference (between the two), really. Some of the stuff we do (Isom) actually got from Mazz. Most of the stuff is pretty similar. There are not too many differences that I can think of. It’s not exactly the same, just different variations of the same stuff, with different terminology.”
Outfielder Robby Kuzdale, who is entering his third season with the Crushers after batting .230 with 38 RBIs and 17 stolen bases last season, said Massarelli taught him everything about being a professional ball player.
“I respected the heck out of that guy,” he said. “But having ‘Ice’ out here is great. He’s really involved with us in every aspect of the game. It’s really just learning his way of managing versus Mazz’s way. They’re both good managers, but they go about it a different way.”
Pitcher Trevor “Deeds” Longfellow, who led the Crushers with an 11-2 record and a 3.35 ERA while splitting time as a starter and reliever, was quickly tabbed by Isom to be his Opening Day starter.
“I’m happy just because I know that’s where I’m gonna be,” he said. “With going back and forth (from the rotation to the pen) last year, it’s harder to get yourself ready when you don’t really know what you’re gonna do. One day you might be in the pen, and the next you’re starting. Now, I know I’m starting from Day 1, and I can get myself ready for starting only.
“I like ‘Ice’ a lot. He’s an easy guy to be around. It’s helping everyone be relaxed and play the game hard. It’s been good. Both (Isom and new pitching coach Chris Mongiardo) have been helping us and I really like their approach. It’s been a big help so far.”
Just because the Crushers have a new manager doesn’t mean there has been a change in priorities. Like it has been since the franchise won the Frontier League title in 2009, Isom and his players set their sights on making the playoffs and winning another championship.
“Our other goal is helping to develop these young men,” Isom said. “A big reason that a lot of these players came here is because I told them ‘I’d do whatever I can to put you in a position to where, if a major league team comes calling, you’d be in a good position to get an opportunity move on.
“That’s the players’ No. 1 goal. Every single one of them would like to either get back or get to affiliated baseball and they’re using this as a stepping stone for that. So I’ll do whatever I can to get them that opportunity.”
Pitcher Matt Rein, who will start Saturday’s game, said he returned to the Crushers after joining the St. Louis Cardinals organization in 2011 specifically to win a championship.
“The main thing I took (from being with the Cardinals) was just to learn to be myself, not to impress anybody, not to overthrow, not try to be (Justin) Verlander on the mound, just be myself,” he said. “If that’s good enough, then so be it. If not, it won’t. But I’m here to win games, not try to impress people outside my team.”
Isom plans to play to the team’s strengths.
“As for my style of managing, I kind of have to take what our team does well and work with it,” Isom said. “With this club, what I’ve seen thus far, we’re going to be a strong offensive club. We’re going to put some runs on the board. We’re not going to sit back and wait for that home run. I don’t think that’s going to happen a lot at this park because it’s a big park. But we’ll get guys moving, running, stealing bags, hit-and-run … we want to put pressure on the defense.
“Another thing you’ll see with this club is you’re going to see a great defensive team. Pitching, we’ve got some question marks in the staff at this point. …
“Night in and night out, our guys are going to hustle. We’re going to have a competitive team. I can’t promise fans wins and losses, but I can promise them that they’re going to see players busting their tails out there on the field and a competitive team from start to finish. That’s one thing that you’ll see. “
In other news:
• The roster is down to 28 from 32 when training camp opened after infielders Chas Crane, Blake May, Aaron Glaum and T.J. McManus, pitcher Dylan Brammer and outfielder Greg Smith were released, and pitcher Mickey Jannis was traded for a player to be named. The roster has to be at 24 on Wednesday.
• The two biggest remaining position battles are in the outfield, where five players are vying for four spots, and at catcher, where incumbent Brian Erie and former Brewers farmhand Emmanuel Quilles are competing.
• Isom said he’ll stick with a four-man rotation most of the season and use a fifth starter when necessary. Longfellow, Rein and Fostoria native — and former Gateway Grizzly — Alex Kaminsky have nailed down the first three spots in the rotation.
• Outfielder Gauntlett Eldemire, a former Phillies prospect, is battling a stress fracture in his lower leg.
• Infielder Anderson Hidalgo is on the suspended list due to visa problems coming from Venezuela. Also, left-hander Del Howell will begin the season on the suspended list and the team hopes he’ll eventually report and join the staff.
• Stow native and University of Akron graduate Alex Loftin will begin the season on the 60-day disabled list.
Contact Dan Gilles at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• WHAT: Season opener
• WHO: Lake Erie Crushers vs. Gateway Grizzlies
• WHEN: Friday, 7:05 p.m.
• WHERE: All Pro Freight Stadium