There was no use asking many questions about goals for the Southern Illinois Miners’ upcoming season at their Media Day that opened spring training camp Wednesday. The team has one single purpose in mind — win the Frontier League championship. “One goal” is even the theme and motto for this sixth season of the franchise’s existence. “One goal,” said Miners manager Mike Pinto. “We’ve done a good job of getting in the playoffs three of the last four years. I want to get past that this year.” The Miners went 58-38 in the regular season last summer and earned a wild-card berth in the playoffs before falling in the first round to River City, which later lost to Joliet in the championship series.
“Our main goal from when we first get here is to win a championship,” said Miners first baseman Matt Fields. “When you don’t do that and get so close, it definitely leaves some expectations. I think we’re coming back stronger than ever and we’re really going to have fun, work hard and do everything we need to do to make that dream happen.”
Fields is one of 13 players in this year’s spring camp who were with the Miners last season. The versatile slugger hit 17 homers while playing in just 57 games with nagging injuries.
“I’m happy to be back,” Fields said. “It’s a great experience to play in front of this crowd and be in this environment. I’m very comfortable here. We’re like one big happy family.
“Right now I’m just looking to play a full season and be healthy and really show what I can do. I only got to show a little bit last year with me being hurt.”
Another familiar face back in the fold is second baseman Will Block, who also hit 17 home runs last season. This is Block’s fourth season with the Miners.
“Coming into my fourth year, I feel like I know the ways of the road,” Block said. “We just need to act how we’re supposed to act, show everyone how it’s supposed to be and go out and set a winning trend.”
Block, who was the Miners’ lone representative on the Frontier League’s postseason all-star team after last season, said this week marks the end of a long offseason.
“It doesn’t matter what time of the year it is, you’re always thinking about winning,” he said. “Now that we’re here, it’s more real now. Spring training is here. It’s not hanging over our heads like it was all winter. It’s time to start winning.”
Also back from last year are outfielders Sean Harrell and Ken Gregory, catcher Sean Coughlin, infielders Justin Randall and Cannon Lester and pitchers Brendon Malkowski, Ben Shivers, Gabriel Shaw, Ryan Quigley, Ian Campbell and all-star David Harden.
Page 2 of 3 - Malkowski, who suffered a shoulder injury at the end of the regular season in 2011, was nearly unrecognizable at Media Day if not for a name card in front of him.
“A new look,” he said. “I lost a couple pounds. I wanted to get in better shape in terms of endurance and stuff like that so I can go longer in games this year. And I cut down the mohawk. Hopefully that will grow back quick for the summer and be ready by the time the fans get here.”
But as with any new season, there are several players getting their first taste of Southern Illinois this week. Some of those will be household names among Miners fans a month from now; some might not make it through the first week of spring camp.
Such is the case with 16 days of preseason practices and a handful of exhibition games that will require major cuts to a roster before the May 18 opener against the expansion London Rippers at Rent One Park.
“It’s the toughest part,” Pinto said. “I’m going to release guys that can start for other teams. The problem is the bar is set so high. The standard of what we’ve had is so high. With classification rules, we’re going to make some mistakes and release some guys that we didn’t want to but don’t have a choice.”
Among the new faces is veteran pitcher Jimmy Albury, who was supposed to be with the Miners last season but needed elbow surgery. The tall Australian gives Pinto a major weapon in the starting rotation.
“He was an ace for the Sliders for two straight years and started the All-Star Game,” Pinto said. “He had Tommy John surgery but that was quite some time ago. He had his before Adam Wainwright’s so Albury has had a lot of time. We’ll be careful with him, but you’re adding a staff ace with someone like that.”
Other newcomers to keep in mind are infielder Carlos Mendez — already nicknamed ‘Stingray’ by his teammates for his smooth glovework — and lefthanded pitcher Daniel Calhoun, a Murray State product groomed by the Cardinals farm system.
Pinto is also thrilled to have Mike Hebert in camp, a “rookie” in the Frontier League even though he was drafted by the New York Mets out of high school and has five years of minor league experience.
And then there’s slugger Chad Maddox, who regularly stung the Miners as a member of the River City Rascals. He joins Southern Illinois after setting franchise records for at-bats, runs scored, hits, doubles and triples in River City.
But time will tell who will be on the field and bringing Rent One Park to life later this month. Pinto is hoping the same squad that starts the season finishes it.
Page 3 of 3 - “We evaluated and looked back and asked what can we do differently?” Pinto said. “How can we do our conditioning differently? How can we make sure that our guys are healthy at the end of the year and not start strong and fade in the second? We don’t want to do that any more.
“Our trainer Chris Stone and I sat down and he worked really hard at putting together a program that we think will do that for us. The guys are going to have to work harder away from the field to do that, but in the end, I think it will make all of us a lot happier.”
Pinto looked like a kid on Christmas morning Wednesday with the results from several months of work acquiring a team finally visible in the same room. Now the journey toward “one goal” is under way.
“Last year is over,” Pinto said. “This is a fun group and we’re trying to bring the new guys into what we had last year and hopefully celebrate in a bigger way this year.”