By CHRIS DOBROWOLSKI
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — One season probably doesn't completely kill the opinion of Wuerfel Park.
But after last season's surge in power numbers, the Beach Bums are doing their best to change the notion that their home park isn't friendly to hitters.
Traverse City belted home runs at a level the franchise had never seen before, crushing 118 balls out of Frontier League parks in 2012. Those are power numbers that are going to be hard to duplicate, but at the very least they're helping to debunk the theory that it's difficult to hit the long ball in Traverse City.
"Before I signed (last year) people were saying it's a graveyard here. Balls don't go anywhere," said catcher Marcus Nidiffer, who had nine homers hitting out the eighth spot in the lineup. "I thought, 'great, at least our pitchers will do well.' I get here and balls are flying out. I think the winds helped us, but at the same time we had a lot of power and we got good pitches to hit. It would have been scary if that team had played at Gateway or some other park that was shorter in distance."
Traverse City raised the bar high in the home run department, but the roster remains stocked with players who have proven they can send pitches into the seats. Frontier League MVP Jose Vargas led the team with 29 homers in 2012 and he's back. Also returning are Chase Burch (17 homers), Sean Gusrang (15) and Nidiffer. The only major power loss is Jeff Flagg, who ripped 20 homers.
"Certainly a lot of the credit goes to Shannon Hunt, the hitting coach, and his ability to work with the players," said Beach Bums manager Greg Langbehn. "That's the bottom line. There's no secret as to what his philosophy is and that's to get the barrel of the bat to the baseball. Our motto is don't necessarily worry about situations and where to hit the baseball. Just hit the ball hard. That's all we try to preach to those guys and the numbers were pretty substantial."
Hunt deflects the praise and instead puts it on the shoulders of his players.
"I'm blessed with some guys who have some power," he said. "Not only that but they had a pretty good idea of the strike zone and what they wanted to hit. They went up there looking for something that was a good pitch to hit. They didn't get themselves in holes. They bought into it. It was fun to watch. When they didn't hit the home run they hit the double or the occasional triple. It was really a neat experience for all of us."
The Beach Bums shocked themselves in 2011 when they crushed 92 homers, but they managed to exceed that with relative ease in last year's division-winning campaign.
"We were wondering how we were going to replace all the home runs we lost from (2011) and we made those numbers look silly," said Burch. "When you have Jose go off and win the MVP, and Flagg, between those two that's almost 50 home runs. Luckily, we have Jose back, but losing those other 20 home runs is going to be tough. We can't try to hit those home runs. We've just got to let it happen.
"You have Jose, (Gusrang) and myself back. We have some power guys there. I don't think anyone can compete with Jose over there. He doubled just about everyone it seemed like."
Mother Nature can have a bit of an affect on the longball at Wuerfel Park. Players and coaches alike said wind direction can change from night to night and last year the Beach Bums were able to capitalize on the frequency with which the wind was blowing out.
"The wind here is kind of unpredictable," Vargas said. "Most of the time it blows from left to right, right across the field. But sometimes it will blow straight in and sometimes straight out. It just depends on the night. We had a lot of power last year. That has something to do with it, but just learning to hit your ballpark and knowing your strengths and weaknesses (was important)."
Even as the Beach Bums have altered the perception of their ballpark a little, nobody is going into the new season believing home runs will continue to sail out of Wuerfel Park at an unprecedented rate.
"No way," Langbehn said, matter-of-factly. "I hope we do break that (118 homers in a year), but to expect that year-in and year-out, I don't think so. Do we have guys who have the ability to do that? Yeah."
Power surge in pitchers’ park?
The Beach Bums had 10 players with four or more home runs last season, in a park not known for producing big power numbers:
3B Jose Vargas 29
OF/DH Jeff Flagg 20
1B Chase Burch 17
OF Sean Gusrang 15
C Marcus Nidiffer 9
OF Kyle Colligan 7
OF Brian Heere 5
SS Kyle Eveland 5
2B Ryan Still 4
C Chris Kay 4