IronBirds: Aberdeen squad set to kick off 2012 campaign with new skipper

As the 2012 Aberdeen IronBirds began working out Tuesday afternoon in preparation for their 10th anniversary season, which begins Monday at Hudson Valley, N.Y., there was a mix of familiar and new faces at Ripken Stadium. When the team returns for its home opener Wednesday, among the new faces will be the IronBirds' incoming skipper, Gary Allenson, who became the sixth manager in franchise history when he was assigned to Aberdeen earlier this year.

Allenson, a catcher who spent seven seasons in the big leagues with Boston and Toronto, comes to Aberdeen from Norfolk, where he served as manager of the Tides, Baltimore's Class AAA affiliate, from 2007 through last year, except for part of the 2010 season when he was the Orioles' third base coach under interim manager Juan Samuel.

Speaking from his office in the home clubhouse on Tuesday afternoon, Allenson gave an assessment of this year's team, which is coming off the worst season in its history, having gone 24-51 under manager Leo Gomez in 2011.

"I get asked about expectations before every season, and I have a tough time answering this early, because at this point I know what I have, but I don't really know what the other teams have," Allenson said. "All I can tell you is, we will play hard. When I played, I always went hard, there was no jogging things out, and that's what you're going to see from these guys. We will be fundamentally sound. Eleven of the position players on this team were with me in extended spring training, and a number of the pitchers were there as well, so we have seen a lot of these boys play. We have things to work on, obviously, because this is a lower level, so we're not going to be locked in and throwing strikes on every pitch, and people will be swinging at pitches they can't hit, but hopefully we can work on all of that and get everyone in shape."

Joining Allenson in Aberdeen are pitching coach Alan Mills and field coach Brad Komminsk, both of whom are serving their first stints with the IronBirds. Mills, a right-handed reliever who was a linchpin of the Orioles' bullpen for nine of his 12 years in the majors, is coming back to the Baltimore organization for the first time since the 2001 season, the last of his playing career. Komminsk spent eight years in the major leagues, including the 1990 season when he played 46 games as an outfielder and designated hitter with the Orioles.

The IronBirds' unofficial roster was handed out Tuesday, and on it were 18 pitchers, seven catchers, eight infielders and six outfielders, but those numbers will most likely change before the beginning of the season. The highest 2012 MLB draft picks visible on the roster were infielders Torsten Boss, eighth round, and Joel Hutter, 10th round, though neither was available for an interview on the first day of workouts.

Coming back from last year's team is Monkton's Joe Velleggia, a 6'7" slugger who led the IronBirds with seven homers and 35 RBIs in 2011.

"I was swinging the bat pretty good in extended spring training," Velleggia said. "I tweaked my right wrist a little bit and had to recover from that, but I'm feeling pretty good now. I think the key this season is just what I was working on last year, which is waiting on pitches a little longer, staying patient at the plate, getting a good pitch to hit, and cutting down on the strikeouts. I think this team has pretty good chemistry already, and we'll win some ballgames this season."

Also back for at least part of another season in Aberdeen is Austin Knight of Reisterstown, Baltimore's 37th round pick of the 2010 draft who has played 117 games with the IronBirds over the last two campaigns.

"I think my approach at the plate is the biggest thing for me to work on, as far as moving up and succeeding at a higher level," Knight said. "That's the main thing that separates you from other players, how you hit. I think this team is going to do really well. We won a lot of games in extended spring training, and hopefully we can continue that."

Catcher Sam Kimmel, selected out of Stetson University in the 18th round of this year's draft, said he's looking forward to transitioning to the rigors of pro ball.

"The biggest change will be playing just about every day, " Kimmel said. "In college you only have three games a week, right in a row, and here you're playing most of the week with maybe a day off here and there. I'm going to focus on seeing as many pitches as I can, to not get impatient."

Sander Beck, a Severna Park native who signed with the IronBirds as a free agent out of the University of Maryland, was at Ripken Stadium Tuesday. The 6'3" right-hander said, like Kimmel, that adjusting to the game at a higher level will be his main hurdle.

"Just getting used to the pace of the game is one of my big goals," Beck said. "That was the toughest part of transitioning to the college game, too. I'm going to try to get my bearings, throw strikes and let my defense do the work. I just want to get used to the professional game as opposed to the college game."

Allenson spoke of his own introduction to professional baseball, and of the challenges facing new players.

"I got signed out of college, and when I showed up at my first assignment, one of the coaches was smoking a cigarette, and our manager got ejected right away," Allenson said. "So, that was interesting. But, it's like moving to a new school district when you're a kid. You have to make new friends, but after a few weeks you're fine. At this level, a lot of the adjusting goes on mentally. I've done this job at the Class AAA level, and I was in Bluefield, which is lower than Aberdeen, where you get kids right out of high school. You might have some guy who hit .620 in high school, and you have to say, 'you're not going to hit like that up here.' They will ride the roller coaster a little bit when they struggle. They're going to have 1-for-24 streaks, and their batting average will dip below .200, and our job here is to keep them on an even keel."

The IronBirds 2012 campaign begins Monday, June 18, with a 6:35 p.m. road game against the Hudson Valley Renegades. Aberdeen returns to Ripken Stadium two days later for its home opener, which will pit the IronBirds against Hudson Valley in a 7:35 p.m. contest.

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