TROY — The game was dragging, and the school buses started to pull out of the parking lot and move on to the next thing.
Inside a nearly empty Joseph L. Bruno Stadium that had been filled with kids, the Tri-City ValleyCats lost 10-4 in an exhibition game against the Albany Dutchmen of the Perfect Game Collegiate League.
It was the first step for the ValleyCats to move on in their own way.
Tri-City won the New York-Penn League championship last summer, but they have a mostly new roster and a new manager, neither of which is an unusual development on a Class A Short Season team designed to develop players. Through all the fresh faces, there was a note of familiarity when the manager stepped out of the dugout wearing a No. 13 jersey with “Guillen” printed on the back.
That was the number worn by former Chicago White Sox great Ozzie Guillen, and now his son, Ozney, is wearing for the ValleyCats, taking over for Jason Bell, who is now the fundamentals coordinator up and down the Astros organization. Before the 2019 season moves too far forward — the ValleyCats will open on the road at Vermont Friday — they’ll tip their caps to last season during the home opener 6 p.m. Sunday, when a championship trophy presentation will be held.
“The players [can enjoy the trophy], yeah; I’m not going to touch it,” Guillen said with a grin. “My job is to develop these guys. Championships are cool, but at the end of the day, my job is to move these guys forward.
“I think winning helps players develop. When you get used to losing, your development just holds up. I want to build a winning environment, and if that trophy helps them, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
In Bell’s only season managing the ValleyCats, Tri-City won its third championship, sweeping Mahoning Valley and Hudson Valley in the playoffs after a 42-33 regular season.
Most of the players on that team have scattered, but in his new role, Bell will continue to work with them, traveling to minor league teams throughout the Astros organization.
“I’ve already been to Quad Cities twice, so I’ve gotten to see a lot of those guys, and, to be honest, quite a few of them are already in Fayetteville and higher, which is a good sign,” he said, referring to the Astros’ Class A Advanced and Class A affiliates.
“We have a lot of good memories of how it ended, and it makes me feel a little proud when we see those guys have success because, in the end, we want them to be Houston Astros, and winning a championship here really helps them progress.”
In attendance this weekend will be Guillen’s parents, mom Ibis and Ozzie Sr., who won the 2005 World Series as manager of the White Sox in a sweep of the Astros.
“Awesome. I’m very excited for it, especially my mom,” Ozney said. “Everybody talks about my dad, but I think she’s more excited. She’s seen more baseball than any parent or wife should.
“This is the first time I’ve had ‘Guillen’ on the back of my shirt. I think I was more excited about that than the 13. But I’m just trying to represent the family, passing the torch. It’s a learning experience every day.”
The 27-year-old, who was a bat boy for the White Sox’s World Series championship, is making his managerial debut with the ValleyCats.
Guillen spent five seasons playing in the independent league minors before calling it quits due to injuries, then started beating the bushes for a managing job.
The Tri-City job was open after Bell moved into the position vacated by Josh Bonifay, who left to work for the Philadelphia Phillies as director of player development.
“We sat down throughout extended spring training and through the scrimmages down there,” Bell said. “I just talked about the league, how to mesh new players into the organization.”
One built-in advantage Guillen has is that he speaks Spanish, so communication will be smoother between the manager and a roster that, while still waiting for some of the Astros’ 2019 draft picks to get into town, is comprised of players from Mexico, Venezuela, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Panama.
One of them, third baseman Juan Pineda, played for Tri-City last year and believes that they’ll be able to threaten for another NY-P title.
“It’s the same philosophy of the Houston Astros,” he said. “We’ll keep the same stuff from last year, so we should have success.”
“Pretty cool guy,” pitcher Jayson Schroeder said of Guillen. “Pretty laid-back. He’ll get on you when he needs to get on you.”
“He’s helped me out a lot, especially with all the [defensive] shifts and all that stuff,” Guillen said of Bell. “I think he was excited to be back, and I’m happy for him. He deserves it. He won a championship last year, and hopefully we’ll win another one this year.
“I know we’re going to be very good defensively. We’re going to have really good [pitching] approaches. Our guys throw a lot of strikes and pound the zone. We’re going to attack hitters and attack catchers with how we run.”
That wasn’t quite the case in the exhibition game, as the Dutchmen took advantage of shaky pitching early and jumped on the ValleyCats for a 6-0 lead in the second inning.
The ValleyCats settled down and banged out three home runs later.
“Playing outside of Florida for the first time, I’m sure the guys enjoyed it,” Guillen said. “A little bit of butterflies, with the crowd, coming from such a quiet extended [spring training]. That’s why we have these games.
“Stay consistent. If you take the first half of that game out, I think we would’ve had a really good game. Keep learning day by day. Don’t rush. I think we rushed a little bit in the beginning.”
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or mikema[email protected]om. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.
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