Ducks continue to "fit the bill" through milestone season on Long Island
When the shovels first began to break ground at the future home of the Long Island Ducks, team representatives, public officials and Long Island residents all were excited about the prospect of what was to come. Months later when the gates officially opened, the first pitch was thrown and the first fireworks exploded above the ballpark, those same people knew they had something special. Now, as the Ducks have completed their 20th season of baseball in that very same quaint home in Central Islip, it’s time to look back on the many great accomplishments and memories created since the inaugural 2000 season. From four Atlantic League championships and eight division titles to three ALPB All-Star Games and over 8 million fans, the Ducks have found success both on and off the field of play. Add in the hundreds of community appearances and thousands of donations made annually to organizations from the Nassau/Queens border to the Twin Forks, and it’s clear that the Ducks have become engrained in the fabric of Long Island. Let’s check out some of the most notable moments in Long Island Ducks history:
After years of planning and months of construction, the Ducks were finally ready to take flight on Long Island! The gates to what was then known as EAB Park opened on April 28, 2000, as the Ducks played host to the Nashua Pride. Founder/CEO Frank Boulton helped cut the ribbon with local officials to open the ballpark, and the first fans made their way through the gates to watch their hometown team. Led by fan favorite, Manager Bud Harrelson, the Ducks took the field before a sellout crowd of 6,096. Eddy Ramos threw the first pitch in franchise history, a strike to Milt Cuyler. Jose Olmeda recorded the first hit in team history, Keith Thomas drove in the franchise’s first run and Francisco Morales belted the team’s first home run all on that same night. Though the game ended with a 7-3 loss (their first win would come two days later), the night was one full of celebration. All of the hard work and dedication from so many involved had finally, officially, brought professional baseball to Long Island.
BATTLE IN BRIDGEPORT
The first 19 seasons of Long Island Ducks baseball have seen so many incredible games and clutch performances. No game, though, is more fondly remembered than that between the Ducks and cross-sound rival Bridgeport Bluefish on the night of August 9, 2004. The Ducks were still in search of their first-ever playoff appearance and had seen their game against the Bluefish on July 12th called due to rain when headed to extra innings with the score tied at three. The delay forced the teams to replay the game in its entirety nearly a month later, with the winner securing the first half North Division title and a spot in the postseason. A plethora of Ducks fans made their way across the Long Island Sound aboard the Port Jeff Ferry for the game but were quieted early when Bridgeport took the lead. The Ducks fought back though, tying the game on a home run by Kimera Bartee. Long Island then took the lead late when Kevin Baez flew out to right, Luis Rodriguez advanced to third on the play and then scored when Will Pennyfeather’s throw sailed into the stands. Bill Simas closed out the game in the ninth, and the Ducks were playoff bound for the first time.
THE RING’S THE THING
After securing their first postseason berth ever in 2004, the Ducks set out to make their Fifth Anniversary Season memorable with a run to the first Atlantic League Championship in team history. Things did not start so well though, as Long Island dropped its first playoff game with a 3-2 defeat to the Pride in Nashua. However, Long Island returned home and returned the favor with a 3-2 win to even the series. Another one-run victory in Game Three, this time 1-0, clinched the Ducks first-ever North Division Championship and propelled the Flock into the Atlantic League Championship Series. There, against the Camden Riversharks, Justin Davies would etch his name into the history books forever. The speedy outfielder lifted the Ducks to walk-off wins in both Game One and Game Two, earning an 11-inning 11- 10 victory in the opener before claiming a 5-4 win in the ninth inning one night later. The series then shifted to Campbell’s Field, and Long Island claimed its fifth consecutive one-run victory with a 4-3 decision. The Ducks had claimed their first Atlantic League championship with a 5-1 postseason run, sending their players, coaches, staff, fans and all of Long Island into celebratory mode.
It took seven more years before the Ducks would return to the Atlantic League Championship Series, but their magical 2011 came up just short of a title. One season later, the team was determined to finish the mission. After clinching a playoff spot with the first half Liberty Division title, Long Island jumped out to a 2-0 lead over the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs in the Liberty Division Championship Series with back-to-back road wins. However, the Blue Crabs answered with 7-5 and 4-3 victories on Long Island to force a decisive fifth game. A strong start by Bobby Blevins and a two-run homer in the eighth inning by Bryant Nelson sent the Ducks to the Atlantic League Championship Series with a 5-4 win. The finals saw the Ducks go up against the Lancaster Barnstormers, who had the best record in the league that year at 88-52. Lancaster took a 1-0 series lead, but a ninth inning rally in Game Two, highlighted by Dan Lyons’ two-out, three-run double, gave the Flock a 9-4 win to even the series. A Barnstormers blowout win on Long Island in Game Three pushed the Ducks to the brink of elimination, but that wasn’t in the cards in 2012. John Brownell’s brilliant start in Game Four and an offensive showcase by the Ducks tied the series at two games apiece. A winner-take-all Game Five would follow, and Long Island took a 4-2 lead into the ninth. However, Lancaster rallied to tie the game, thanks in part to a throwing error by Lyons that permitted Emerson Frostad to score the tying run. Lyons would go from goat to hero though in the bottom half of the inning, as his two-out bunt single up the third base line scored Matt Esquivel and sent Bethpage Ballpark into a frenzy. Long Island had won its second Atlantic League championship with a 5-4 victory.
2013 began with the Ducks hosting a championship ring and banner raising ceremony at Bethpage Ballpark to commemorate their magical run to the title one year prior. The season would end with yet another celebration. After a roller coaster season, the Ducks earned a playoff berth by claiming the second half Liberty Division title. That was clinched with a win over the Somerset Patriots at TD Bank Ballpark, but it would not be the only time Long Island would celebrate in the visitor’s clubhouse. Long Island earned a rematch date with the Patriots after they once again dispatched the Blue Crabs in the Liberty Division Championship Series, this time in a clean 3-0 sweep. The Ducks won both of their home games against Southern Maryland in the first round and did the same against Somerset in the Atlantic League Championship Series. Late-game homers by Josh Barfield in Game One and Lew Ford in Game Two gave the Ducks 4-3 and 3-2 wins, respectively. Somerset would rally at home to even the series with back-to-back extra inning wins, including a 16-inning thriller in Game Four. That would set up a winnertake- all Game Five for the title for a second year in a row. Brownell took the ball for Long Island and tossed a masterpiece, pitching into the ninth inning. Meanwhile, Ray Navarrete provided one of the most memorable homers in Ducks history, launching a three-run blast in the fourth inning to give the Ducks a 4-1 lead. Leo Rosales closed out the game in the ninth inning, as Jonny Tucker’s fly ball was caught by Adam Bailey to set off another dizzying celebration. The Ducks were back-to-back champions.
Six years later, the Ducks would culminate arguably the greatest season in franchise history with their fourth Atlantic League championship. Under the guidance of manager Wally Backman, who took over the reigns of the Ducks for the first time after managing in New Britain, Long Island won the first and second half titles in the Liberty Division during the same season for just the second time in team history (2011). The Ducks went 86-54 on the year, eclipsing the franchise record for wins in a single season (82, 2000), and the team also saw a team record 15 players have their contracts purchased by MLB organizations and foreign professional leagues. In the Liberty Division Championship Series, the Ducks steamrolled through the expansion High Point Rockers, sweeping the series in three games to earn their fourth consecutive division crown, the first team in league history to accomplish that feat. Long Island then met the Sugar Land Skeeters in the Atlantic League Championship Series for the second consecutive season and third time in four years. The Ducks took a 1-0 series lead with a big win in Game One, but Sugar Land responded with a shutout in Game Two to even the series. Down in Texas, the Skeeters held on for a win in Game Three that pushed the Ducks to the brink of elimination. However, the Flock would not fall to the Skeeters for a third time. The Ducks rallied for an extra-inning 3-2 win in Game Four on Deibinson Romero's sacrifice fly. Romero would then drive in five runs during the decisive Game Five, including a two-run homer in the ninth inning that was the essential "nail in the coffin." The infielder earned Championship Series MVP honors, as the Ducks won the game 8-4 and the series 3-2.
NIGHTS FOR THE STARS
The home of the Ducks has played host to the Atlantic League All-Star Game on three separate occasions since it opened in 2000. Many of the league’s top players first descended upon Long Island for the showcase event on July 10, 2002 at what was then known as Citibank Park. In what was the fifth edition of the ALPB’s All-Star Game, six members of their Ducks represented the North Division in their home ballpark: Catcher Francisco Morales, infielders Kevin Baez and Aaron Ledesma, outfielder P.J. Williams, designated hitter Patrick Lennon and pitcher Steven Falteisek. Despite the strong Ducks presence, the South Division claimed a 4-1 victory in the All-Star Game. Steve Hine of the Atlantic City Surf was named the game’s MVP after going 1-for-3 with two RBIs. A past-capacity crowd of 6,406 enjoyed the historic night.
Eight years later, the game returned to Long Island. Suffolk County Sports Park, as it was then called, welcomed the elite from the Liberty and Freedom Divisions on July 6, 2010. Prior to the game, fans were treated to an incredible Home Run Derby that saw Ducks all-time great Ray Navarrete battle Somerset Patriots slugger Josh Pressley for the title. Both players reached the championship round and slugged four home runs, setting up the need for a tiebreaker. It took two tiebreakers before Pressley eventually one, but it was clear the sellout crowd of 6,436 were in for a special night from the get-go. Six Ducks took part in the game: Navarrete, outfielder John Rodriguez, pitchers Randy Leek and Joe Esposito, catcher Brendan Monaghan and infielder Erick Monzon. Leek started the game and tossed two perfect innings, needing just 15 pitches to do so, as he helped set the tone for a 7-1 Liberty Division victory. Bridgeport’s Steve Moss claimed MVP honors after going 2-for-2 with a homer, two RBIs, two runs and a walk.
After another eight-year wait, the best from the Liberty and Freedom Divisions returned to Bethpage Ballpark on July 11, 2018. What would follow was one of the most exciting All-Star Games in league history. A total of seven Ducks were represented at the event: Catcher Ramon Cabrera, infielders Jordany Valdespin and David Washington, outfielder Lew Ford, and pitchers Bennett Parry, Jake Fisher and Wander Perez. The night started with two Ducks taking part in the Digmi Home Run Derby, but Ford and Washington were both bested in the championship round by New Britain’s Deibinson Romero. The game began shortly thereafter before a sellout crowd of 6,414, with the Liberty Division looking to claim its first All-Star victory since the last time the game was held on Long Island. Despite playing in his rival’s ballpark, Somerset Patriots shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez took center stage. He drew a walk and recorded three hits in the game, none bigger than his walk-off RBI double in the ninth inning that gave the Liberty Division a 4-3 victory. He was unsurprisingly the game’s Most Valuable Player.
One of the most prestigious honors any athlete can receive is having his or her jersey number retired by a team. It took until the Ducks 16th season of play in 2015 before the franchise retired its first jersey number, but the first to receive the honor was a no-brainer in the minds of the Ducks organization. Justin Davies, one of the original Ducks to don the black and orange during the team’s inaugural season, had his number 4 jersey officially retired on June 19, 2015 at Bethpage Ballpark. A sellout crowd of 6,063 enjoyed a pre-game ceremony to honor the all-time great, who spent six seasons with the team (2000-05) after growing up on Long Island and helped the team to its first-ever Atlantic League championship in 2004. Number 4 T-shirts were given out to the first 1,500 fans in attendance, Davies gave a speech in which he thanked the organization and fans for their support, highlights were played on the DuckVision, and his number 4 was revealed, permanently affixed next to the scoreboard in left-center field. The 2015 Ducks went on to defeat the Bridgeport Bluefish thanks to, fittingly, a four-run seventh inning.
Almost two months later, a second jersey number was retired by the organization. Another one of the legendary players to put on the Ducks uniform was bestowed the honor, as Ray Navarrete received a night to remember on August 16, 2015. The great number 16 was recognized during a pre-game ceremony for his eight memorable seasons on Long Island from 2006- 13, which ended with back-to-back Atlantic League championships. Some of his notable achievements were displayed on the DuckVision, including his setting of the franchise’s all-time records in hits, home runs, RBIs, runs scored, doubles and games played. Highlights were also shown, including his three-run homer in Game Five of the 2013 Atlantic League Championship Series in Somerset. His fist-raising celebration was immortalized in a bobblehead of Ray, given to the first 1,500 fans through the gates that night. Navarrete’s speech was one to remember as he detailed all of those who played important roles in his Ducks career. Finally, his number 16 was unveiled on the scoreboard in its permanent spot. The Ducks then defeated the Southern Maryland Blue Crabs 7-5 to complete a series sweep.
Long Island’s third jersey retirement came in 2018 when they honored their first manager in franchise history and baseball legend Buddy Harrelson. The man who helped bring professional baseball to Long Island received a pre-game ceremony which no one deserved more. A crowd of 5,907 packed Bethpage Ballpark to celebrate his many achievements, including leading the 2000 Ducks to an 82-58 record that still stands as the best in franchise history. Many spoke about Buddy’s impact on the Long Island community and their lives personally, including Founder/CEO Frank Boulton, his daughter, Cassie, players he coached and elected officials. The ceremony was capped off with Buddy’s famous number 3 being revealed next to the scoreboard in left-center field to a thunderous ovation from thousands of Ducks fans. Harrelson saluted the crowd on countless occasions, clearly overcome with emotion. The rest of the 2018 Ducks, all wearing number 3 jerseys that were colored purple to raise awareness for Alzheimer’s, which Buddy was recently diagnosed with, joined him on the field for one final photo before that evening’s game. Energized by the ceremony, the Ducks proceeded to rout the Road Warriors 9-3 before a Fireworks Spectacular lit the night sky.