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JC Cards: Business as usual with cautious optimism

Joe Avento • Mar 24, 2020 at 12:00 PM

Johnson City Cardinals General Manager Zac Clark says he’s optimistic his team will get the chance to defend its Appalachian League championship despite the fact that the sports world is currently shut down.

“Our season hasn’t been delayed or affected just yet,” Clark said. “We’re completely business as usual, still trying to sell tickets and everything. We’re planning our promotional calendar like we normally would. It’s hard. We say ‘business as usual,’ but we’re trying to make sure we get it done doing it from home.”

Clark said if — that’s a word being used more and more these days — the season gets underway, he expects fans to flock to TVA Credit Union Ballpark.

“I think the folks would be really excited,” he said. “Our fan base is so strong anyway, but I think people would love to get out and get some fresh air and be entertained. We might be able to provide those folks a little bit of normalcy. We’re going to put on a show. If everybody pitches in and does their part to take care of this virus — social distancing and washing their hands — hopefully we’ll be OK.”

The Cardinals won their fifth title since 2010 last season. Robert Espinoza will be back for his fourth year as manager and will be joined by a new coaching staff consisting of hitting coach Daniel Nicolaisen and pitching coach Renee Cortez.

The Appalachian League season is scheduled to begin June 22.

Clark said all activities scheduled for TVA Credit Union Ballpark before May 16 have been postponed. That includes high school games, travel baseball tournaments and the Tri-Cities Otters FC’s opening game.

The Otters, the area’s soccer team in USL Two, are scheduled to move to the Cardinals’ home field this year. As of now, only their May 4 preseason home game has been affected. The team opens the season May 15 and its first five games are on the road. The home opener is set for June 9.

Over in Kingsport, Mets General Manager Brian Paupeck says the team is doing what it can in preparation of this summer’s Appy League season, even if nobody is certain if and when it will start.

“We’re getting ready for the season like any other year,” Paupeck said. “I think we have to be cautious of what’s going on in the country. But as far as getting ready for the season, you don’t want to not be ready when the time comes.”

Paupeck is hoping that time does, indeed, come. While spring training was brought to a halt and the start of the major league and minor league seasons have been pushed back indefinitely, the Appy League has a little more time. Since games aren’t scheduled to start until mid-June, there’s hope in some circles that the season might start on time.

“We’re getting ready with operations,” Paupeck said. “We do everything at the ballpark, from tickets to merchandise to concessions. “We’re just catching up.”

Paupeck spent most of February in Florida at spring training, helping with clubhouse operations, and was there for “nine or 10 games.” Shortly after he returned, the baseball world came to a stop.

Should the Appalachian League season go on as scheduled, or even modified, it would provide an entertainment outlet at a time when local people, baseball fans or not, might need it the most.

“Each and every year we look forward to the local aspect of it and and having fans and the people that have come out for years to support us,” Paupeck said. “There are a lot of unknowns, but maybe this season, even more than others, we’re looking forward to having everybody come out to the ballpark this summer.”

The Mets went 34-34 last year under Rich Donnely, narrowly missing the Appy League playoffs.

This year, the team will be managed by Chris Newell, a former independent league manager who previously served as a scout for the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. Newell will have an entirely new coaching staff with him in Kingsport. Glenn Abbott will serve as pitching coach, while Trey Hannam will be the hitting coach and Gilbert Gomez will be the bench coach.

Meanwhile, the Elizabethton Twins have experience on their side. If the season gets going, it will be Ray Smith’s 27 year as manager and his 42nd with the Twins organization as a player, coach or manager. His managerial record is 1,048-701 and his teams have finished in first place 14 times.

Jeff Reed will be back for his 19th season as hitting coach, while Richard Salazar returns for his second season as pitching coach. Jimmy Alvarez will be on the Elizabethton coaching staff for the first time.

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