New look Spikes prepare for campaign

Sentinel photo by Jeff Fishbein
State College Spikes’ infielder Martin Figueroa, left mugs for the camera with catcher Matt Duce while pitcher Jacob Schlesener looks on during the team’s media day Wednesday. Opening day is Friday in Williamsport with the home debut the next night.

STATE COLLEGE — When the State College Spikes hit the field running for the season opener on Friday, as is the case with most years. there will be some of the old and a whole lot of the new.

“We are happy to welcome Jose Leon and Cody Gabella to the Spikes family and can’t wait to see Adrian, Joey and Don back in Happy Valley for what will be a great 2019 season,” Spikes General Manager Scott Walker said.

As the season progresses, one of the most familiar new faces will be that of Leon. For Leon, the 2019 season will be his second in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and his first as a manager. Joe Kruzel, who managed the Spikes for the past two seasons, is currently handling the duties as manager of the Double-A Springfield Cardinals.

A former 22nd-round draft choice of the Cardinals in 1994, Leon played in the St. Louis system until 2000 before joining the Orioles organization. Following his stint with the Baltimore organization, Leon played in the Pirates and Reds minor league systems. After that he began his trip around the baseball world that took him to playing in the Mexican League, the Atlantic League and the Chinese Professional Baseball League.

Leon realizes that it will be a challenge to mold athletes from so many different backgrounds, but having dealt with some of it previously as a coach, he is ready to accept the challenge.

“A lot kids have come from the Dominican (Republic) and I will be by their sides every day to hopefully develop them into solid players at the professional level,” Leon said. “I am going to do everything I can to develop them, whether it be with the language barrier or just learning to play the game at this level. That is the biggest thing I am looking for.”

As is the case with many of the rookie and spring training games, many of the athletes play a lot of games in Florida where they play all day games and in crowds, if you will, of maybe 10 or 12 people.

“Those (playing in front of crowds of several thousand fans, under the lights and long bus rides) will be some of the biggest adjustments they will have to make,” Leon said of his players.

When Leon was asked what might be his biggest challenge he expects managing for the first time in his career, he was quick to put his finger on making mistakes and learning from them.

“I am going to make a lot of mistakes, guys,” Leon said. “You guys know that in your first year of doing anything you make a lot of mistakes. But as I said, having kids who never played under the lights, getting used to the long bus rides, playing a late game and having to get up the next day and start it all over again. Right now, I think those are the biggest challenges I am going to face with these young kids.”

Pitching coach Adrian Martin will return to the same role for his second season in 2019, while hitting coach Cody Gabella will make his Spikes debut this year. Completing the Spikes’ 2019 coaching staff will be two more returnees to Happy Valley as athletic trainer Joey Olsiewicz and strength and conditioning coach Don Trapp both return for the 2019 campaign.

“As for me coming back here, I think that goes through (Director of Player Development) Gary LaRocque, and our pitching coordinator,” said Martin. “They probably look at coaching experience, playing experience and the analytics of what needs to be done according to the organization.”

Now beginning his second year as a pitching coach, Martin said, “Being a coach at this level is very beneficial for me to be able to launch the careers of the guys, dealing with them on a day-to-day basis. You face a lot of different personalities coming from a lot of different backgrounds and different countries. But for me, it was time management because as a pitching coach for the first time I had a lot on my plate as well. It just really beneficial to both the players and myself because we were able to bounce things off each other.”

Martin will begin his second season as a professional pitching coach in 2019. The Tampa, Florida, resident is also familiar with the New York-Penn League, having gone 1-1 with a 3.05 ERA over 22 appearances for the Auburn Doubledays in 2005. Martin and his wife Emmie celebrated the birth of their first son, Maddux, in August of 2018.

“We grew from two to three and now we have a real family as you might call it,” Martin said with a big smile on his face. “We had a little boy in August and it was an eye-opening experience in that everything you feel that accomplished for yourself you are now living for someone else. It is just an unbelievable experience and I can’t put into words to describe it, but my wife and I couldn’t be any happier than we are with the little boy now as a part of our family.”

While many of the 2018 Spikes have moved on to other aspects of their life, there are a number players who return for another season in Happy Valley. That group includes pitchers Michael Baird and Hector Villalobos, catchers Matt Duce and Cameron Knight, infielder Imeldo Diaz, and outfielders Stanley Espinal and Kevin Woodall Jr.

The Spikes will open the season at Historic Bowman Field to battle the Williamsport Crosscutters. The 2019 home schedule begins on Saturday when the Crosscutters (Philadelphia Phillies) return the favor by visiting Medlar Field.

First pitch for both games is slated for 7:05 p.m.

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