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Desert Rats building around local talent
New Yuma independent baseball team owner Tim Ferguson uses the words “community” and “local” frequently in his public appearances.
Last week, the Desert Rats owner made a pair of roster moves to back up those words.
Ferguson announced almost half a dozen signings last week — including new manager Hal Lanier, who was the 1986 National League Manager of the Year in his first of three seasons coaching the Houston Astros. But two of them have a strong local impact — hitting coach Jake Thrower, who is a member of the Yuma High Hall of Fame and who played in Triple-A as recently as 2005; and pitcher James Kuzniak, who pitched for Cibola and played some with the Golden Baseball League in 2008 and 2010 with the Yuma franchise.
The Scorpions had a history of instability, something Ferguson said he's been trying to change since he bought the team from Godfather Media — now Embark Holdings. Embark also owns of the American West Baseball League, which will start play in summer 2013, and Ferguson is expected to have a winter league in Yuma in January.
“He seems like a straight shooter,” Kuzniak said. “I kind of reached out to him. I told him the things I knew about the past owners, and his ideas seemed a little different. In the past, it seemed more about money. He came in, say, kids and camps and things like that. He sounds like a good guy.”
Kuzniak has been playing both in Mexicali and in the Freedom League for the Prescott franchise. In 2011, he thought he was going to be a Scorpion again after string showings in both the Arizona Winter League and Arizona Summer League — he was the winning pitcher in the championship game of both instructional leagues. But when Jose Canseco came in to manage the team, he brought his own players, Kuzniak said.
“I've done everything you can do with the winter league, it's not anything that important,” Kuzniak said. “That second with (Darryl) Brinkley (the Scorpions manager at the time), got me really pumped. Then the Canseco thing happened. But I'm very fortunate that I get aid to play the game. Anytime you can represent Yuma — and being a schoolteacher, I can show those kids there is a future here. Heck, I get that chance. ... I'm blessed I get to put ‘Yuma' on my chest.”
The lefty said he's excited that Thrower will be on the team as well. Both were assistant coaches at Arizona Western during the late part of last decade.
“Jake just has a great resume. He is a baseball guy,” Kuzniak said. “When you mention Yuma baseball, Jake Thrower is the first name you think of. It's a good thing they are getting local. They've never really had that before. I was really the only local they've had, except for maybe Henry Calderon — he played here so much he moved here. But I couldn't really name any others.”
Just as Kuzniak said he wants to set an example for children coming from the same position as he did, Thrower feels the same way.
“I hope to give back to community,” Thrower said. “I was raised here, played baseball here, and now I'm hoping to establish baseball here in Yuma and give the kids a dream, a goal to achieve baseball at the highest level.”
Thrower said he's not concerned about the mistakes of the past when it comes to the franchise.
“I don't want to look at why things haven't worked in the past,” Thrower said. “I want to look forward and be positive about the situation, and not think about ‘Hey, what if it doesn't work?' We're going to give it our best shot and we need help from everybody in Yuma ... to make this work and be a community thing.”
And having two recognizable local faces is a good move, Thrower said.
“I think it can do nothing but help out and bring people who know us into the ballpark,” Thrower said. “It never hurts to have local talent out there, and James is an excellent left-handed pitcher. We're both excited to be a part of this.”
He'll be coaching under Lanier, who has spent the last 16 years in independent baseball, the first 10 in Winnipeg. After not coaching in 2012, he's back in the dugout.
“Tim and I are on the right page together in bringing baseball back to Yuma,” Lanier said.
Lanier said for “one reason or another” he didn't get a second shot at managing in the major leagues after his three-year stint ended in Houston. He found his way to Winnipeg during the late-90s resurgence of independent ball.
“It's just different being in independent baseball,” Lanier said. “It's been a learning process. You have to recruit. In the major leagues, you walk on the field and you have 30 players, and it's your job to pick the best 22. Here, you have tryout camps, you have to look at releases — it's not an easy job putting a team together if you don't have a draft. But it's going to be good time for me to find players and put a competitive ballclub on the field again.”
He said he's aware of Yuma's recent past when it comes to independent baseball. And he said he's ready to change it.
“Tim is headed in the right direction with the fans and the community,” Lanier said. “I've spent 16 years in independent baseball. I've worked well with the community and getting them involved. What really interested me was he started talking about something along that line. That's what his commitment is. It's about starting up a new team and getting the bad taste away from residents of Yuma.”