By BRIAN JENNINGS
No team wants to end their regular season with a five-game losing streak and be bumped out of the postseason, but there were still a lot of positive aspects of the Bristol Blues’ second season in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League that could be carried in to next season.
General manager of the Blues, Rick Muntean said that the summer of 2016 was a very successful season at the gate, but a very frustrating one on the field.
“The pitching staff that we had when we opened up was nowhere near what we had at the end,” said Muntean. “It’s nothing against the guys that were here at the end. Everyone was in a role that they weren’t used to because of all the attrition.”
The Blues may have ended the regular season in third place of the West Division with a 23-32 record, but they finished third in the league in attendance behind the Worcester Bravehearts and Pittsfield Suns with a total of 41,013 fans out of 26 openings, averaging 1,577 people a home game. The Blues finished fourth (35,435) in attendance last year with 27 openings.
“It was a couple of hundreds a game ahead of last year,” the general manager said. “So I’m sure we’re going to move up in the national ranks, but our goal next year is for 2,000 a game.”
Jim Rice Night received a record-setting attendance of 3,331 for the franchise when the Blues hosted the Bravehearts on Thursday, July 14. The MLB hall of famer returned to Muzzy Field for the first time since 1973 when he debuted for the minor league affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, the Bristol Red Sox.
Rice signed autographs and spoke to fans before the game, but Muntean said that welcoming Rice back to Muzzy was the next step the Blues needed.
“It was time for us to get a promotion that could be recognized regionally,” said Muntean. “Due to the large part of Red Sox faithful around here and the fact that we retired a guy’s number who played in town got a lot of people’s attention. It got the Bristol Blues to be at the forefront of the baseball world, at least for that week.”
Before holding Jim Rice Night, Muntean said that there were a whole slew of people that didn’t realize what kind of a product they had at Muzzy. But honoring Rice legitimized the Blues, explained Muntean.
“We had a team that was that good in our first year, and people were genuinely excited about it,” the Bristol general manager said. “But this one got us into other markets that I think really got turned on by our product. We have to touch on the history of Bristol baseball because it’s so huge and is something that the fans want.”
Muntean said that the franchise is going to try and reproduce an event similar to Jim Rice Night year after year, and hosting the 2017 FCBL All-Star game next summer will be a start.
“We’re going to use the all-star game as the cornerstone as the season,” said Muntean. “Even though we have the all-star game, I still want to have another blockbuster-type promotion, and we’re still working on that.”
T-shirt tosses, raffle prizes, games for kids, and fireworks were just some of the promotions that the Blues offered to try and attract family fun at home games. But the Blues hope to hold more theme nights next summer, especially money-saving theme nights where general admission costs a dollar.
Some those theme nights that will be returning next summer include Polish Night, Bristol Blues Baseball Overnight, and College Night. Bristol Blues Baseball Overnight is a sleepover done by the Bristol Boy Scouts and Kids Club on the field after a game Next year’s campout will feature a portable movie screen, donated by the city.
The Blues implemented new promotions into the season that worked well in the long run, but one of the biggest of those was the reading program, which allows students to read books and earn tickets to Blues games.
“It was a smashing success,” the Blues general manager said. “We got cooperation from the boards of education in Bristol and Plymouth-Terryville. We’re going to branch out even further next year because we really want to be a part of the community forever.”
Other major changes that the Blues saw this season featured a new press box put in behind home plate during the offseason, which was fully functional for their staff and the media about halfway through the season. Muntean said that having a new press box was a huge upgrade, but the communication level is a lot easier now.
“The sound system seemed to be night and day from what it was before,” said Muntean. “I don’t know if it was because of the distance from the microphones to the press box, but it really helped our on-field presentation.”
The Blues also received another upgrade halfway through the season by bringing in a new hitting coach, Jim Deschaine, when the team ranked last in the league in batting average, hits, runs batted in, and runs scored. The Bristol native and Bristol Eastern High School graduate was a part of the 1994 Bristol American Legion baseball state championship team and went on to play for three years at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
After college, Deschaine was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 1999 MLB June Amateur Draft, playing seven years in the minor leagues for three different organizations. But when it came to the Blues, Muntean said that he thought the timing of Deschaine’s hiring was the shot in the arm that the Blues really needed.
“Jimmy played in professional baseball for a long time and hit well over .300 for quite a few years, but he’s also a student of the game,” the general manager said. “The things that he brought to the table were refreshing and all up to par with today’s baseball. I told him at the end of the year that I would love to have him back for a long time.”
Although they are done playing baseball for the summer, the Blues are still hosting one final show at Muzzy. On Sept. 4 at 7pm, Country artists Craig Morgan and Scott Stevens will perform in concert, rain or shine. The gates open at 5:30pm, and Morgan is scheduled to go on around 9 p.m.
Tickets are $35 for adults and $17.50 for children 12 and under. Tickets are available online at www.pointstreaksites.com/view/bristolblues/home-page-657 or at the Blues Office at 357 North Main Street in Bristol. You can also call the Blues office at 860-582-2583.
“We’ll have everything that you’re used to available at a Blues game, plus a little bit more,” said Muntean. “We live in this veteran-centric community, and Craig Morgan served nine years in the army. We would love for all veterans in Connecticut to show their support for what the guy went through by coming to the show that night.”
In his first season with Bristol, Mike Munson went 0-1 with an ERA of 1.82 in 17 games and 24.2 innings as a relief pitcher. Munson was one of five Blues to make an all-star appearance for the West Division, finishing with 39 strikeouts, 17 hits, 14 walks, and a pair of saves.
“He was huge for us in the back end of our bullpen,” said Pat Riley, manager of the Blues. “His strikeout ratio per inning was pretty unbelievable. He has a strong work ethic and was very deserving of the all-star game. This was the first time that he really focused in on pitching, and the numbers showed.”
Munson relied on the high velocity of his fastball pretty heavily at the beginning of the season until batters caught on to the timing of the pitch. So the development of his breaking curveball might have been his best progression throughout the season as it became a big part of his success.
“His best quality is his presence on the mound,” said Riley. “He really embraces the situation that he’s in. He’s got that bulldog mentality and is competitive. He works hard and gives you everything that he’s got, even if he’s not feeling good.”
Munson experienced a cycle of about 20 new pitchers brought in to the Blues clubhouse throughout the summer, but Riley said that whatever role they gave Munson, he took it and ran with it.
“Instead of pitching one inning, which is what we originally used him for, he pitched three to four innings,” the Bristol manager said. “He embraced that and adjusted really well. He was throwing the ball better at the end of the season than he was in the beginning of the year.”
In 2015, Michael Nocera went 2-0 on the mound with an ERA of 2.60 in 16 games and 27.2 innings as a relief pitcher, including 23 strikeouts, 19 walks, 18 hits, and three saves. This season, Nocera went 1-2 with an ERA of 5.70 in 19 games and 30 innings. He finished with 28 hits, 22 strikeouts, 20 walks, and a save.
“His numbers weren’t an indication of how good he is,” said Riley. “He was someone that we went to quite frequently.”
Although the Blues ended with a five-game losing streak, the way Nocera pitched in the last week of the season shouldn’t be overlooked.
“When we were hurting for everything pitching-wise, he really stepped up and threw the ball well in games that we needed to win,” the Blues manager said. “He was someone that we counted on in that last week, and he did really good job with that.”
In terms of Nocera’s mechanics on the mound, Riley said that he lost a little zip and control on his fastball, but he also battled through adversity to rebound and give the team some good outings.
“He could do a little bit of everything,” said Riley. “He could come in for middle relief or close a couple of games for us. We brought him out there for a lot of appearances. We didn’t give him a lot of days rest and brought him back out there the next day.”
Nocera may not have featured much of his best pitch, the slider, this summer. But if he can get that pitch back in his senior year, Riley said that he’s going to have a lot of success with it.