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Baseball is Back in NKY

The Florence Freedom are primed and ready for a great season in the Frontier League as they welcome a new manager and a host of new players. The excitement among the team was palpable at UC Health Stadium in Florence on Tuesday night as the Freedom squeezed in one more practice before the bright lights of the regular season beginning on Thursday.

The Frontier League is an independent baseball league that is not affiliated with any Major League teams. It institutes an age limit of 27-years old for its players with one roster exception that allows for a player to be 28 or 29. It also has a salary cap. Players make between $600 and $1,200 a month to play baseball so teams cannot pay all of their players the maximum. Players live with host families that have to be within 10 miles of the stadium (unless they live locally, which only Freedom player does) and the team provides meals to the players to help with their cost of living.

It is also a very turbulent league that sees tremendous personnel turnover during the season and especially in the offseason. The dream for most of these guys—players and managers—is to be called up to a minor-league affiliated team and try to climb their way to the Majors. 

Manager Dennis Pelfrey is also part of the changing landscape for the Freedom and its personnel. This is Pelfrey’s first year in Florence after spending four years with the Gary SouthShore Rail Cats under veteran independent professional baseball manager Greg Tagert. Pelfrey is now in charge of not only managing his team from the dugout, but he also puts the roster together in the front office.

“It’s definitely unique in independent ball because of the age requirements and classifications, but I think if you put the team together the right way, you’re looking at having five or six new guys each year. That’s kind of the goal of what you’ve built. Here in our first year, we’re trying to build something that’s going to last from a successful standpoint. We have great ownership, we have a great fan base and from what we’ve seen so far in our exhibition games, we’re looking at putting a great team in front of them on the field,” Pelfrey said. “When we build the team, we try to project guys being here for a couple of years. Obviously, our goal is to get them picked up by affiliated baseball and move them forward in their careers.”

Plenty To Be Excited About

“I feel our rotation could be the best in the league,” Pelfrey said. 

Coleman Stephens followed Pelfrey from Gary, Indiana where he posted a good season last year. Pelfrey said he’s a quality starter in the front of his rotation and is a guy who the team expects to stay healthy and demonstrate longevity as the season wears on. 

Also in the rotation are two hold-overs from last year: Chuck Weaver and Casey Henn. Weaver was fifth in the Frontier League with a 2.65 ERA last season and named a mid-season All-Star, and Henn was right behind him with a 2.72 ERA.

Henn is a Cincinnati native and is the only player on the team that drives back to his home every night from the UC Health Stadium. Henn told a story of last year when he had a bad outing in a relief appearance that had him wondering if the club would keep him. He sent then manager Fran Riordan a text telling him that he had better not cut him. Riordan said that he appreciated the text and said that he would never cut a guy who could throw 95 miles per hour. Henn had never thrown that fast and was shocked to hear that he had reached that kind of velocity. That discovery really boosted his confidence and let him know that he belongs in professional baseball. 

“When you’re out here playing against these guys, you always want to be the alpha male and you want to prove that you’re better than the next guy hitting. A lot of times if you are the best guy, that’s the best way to get affiliated experience. Just knowing that I can get up there and that my arm is strong enough to hit something like that, it lets me know that I can compete at this level,” Henn said.

In the bullpen, the Freedom has three solid back-end guys but Pelfrey is hesitant to name any one of them a closer. The trio of Ed Kohout, Ethan Gibbons and Daniel DiSimone give the coaching staff some options late in games. The idea is to keep them fresh and rotate the relievers to close out games regardless of the score.

“We’ve never wanted to label a guy as a closer and obviously Ed Kohout is probably the main guy on the back end, but with Ethan Gibbons from Gary, and Daniel DiSimone is a unique and dynamic guy out of the bullpen where he gave us three yesterday and is guy who can close out some games, too,” Pelfrey said.

The lineup also has some intriguing parts. Pelfrey said that none of his hitters are likely to lead the league in home runs, but that the team wants to lead the league in doubles and use their good team speed on the base paths.

“Our main priority, main goal, is to find a way to get to first base. When we get to first base, we can do a lot of different things,” he said.

One interesting hitter is outfielder Jake Luce who spent spring training with the Baltimore Orioles earlier this year before being let go and picked up by the Freedom. Luce hit .341 last year with the Wichita Wingnuts. He isn’t the biggest guy, but he has quick wrists and was effortlessly sending the ball into the empty stands at batting practice Tuesday night. 

“When I got this job, one of my first calls was to Wichita asking if they would be willing to move Luce,” Pelfrey said. “So the day he got released by the Orioles, I was able to get a hold of his agent and let him know that he is a guy that I wanted. I told him that I want him to teach some of these younger guys because he’s been at the next level and he can teach them how to go about their business. I think from a team aspect, Jake Luce is a great fit for our club.

Luce is a left-handed hitter which is a theme for the Freedom this season. There could be up to seven lefties in the lineup for Florence this year and that is not by accident. 

“In Gary, we always had a left-handed heavy lineup where there is at least five lefties in there every night. From my experience, there is not many left-handers on the mound that get lefties out consistently and if those guys are around, they typically get picked up pretty quickly into affiliated baseball," Pelfrey said.

That being said, there are some righties of note still. One player that stands above the crowd is Ryan Solberg who is such a big, strong guy, his manager wonders if he's in the right sport.  

“Coming into camp, I was a little hesitant to say that Solberg would make the club, but the guy comes out on the first day and runs a 6.75 60-yard dash and for as big as he is, the first thing I asked him is why he isn’t playing tight end in the NFL. He’s very athletic, he has the best arm in our outfield, he’s got the ability from the right side to leave any ballpark and he’s gotten much better from the first day of camp.”

Yet with all the talent that is featured on the roster, one of the best features of the team is the chemistry the players have with one another. 

“I think in my six years of playing and four years of coaching, this is the best clubhouse that I have been around,” Pelfrey said. “Everybody is meshing very well. We’ve got a bunch of different personalities that go hand-in-hand together and that is by design as well. I told these guys from day one that this clubhouse is very important, if not the most important thing to me because if you’re not having fun coming to work every day, it’s tough to really focus in and get better if you’re miserable.”

The players can feel the camaraderie with each other as well.

“When you walk into the clubhouse, guys are loose and relaxed, but at the same time you can see the quiet intensity behind their eyes. These guys are fun to watch,” Henn said.

Opening night is tomorrow at 6:35 p.m. against Joliet Slammers at UC Health Stadium. 

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor/Photo by Toni Hanson