It’s almost time to brush off home plate, dig into the batter’s box and toe the rubber for a new season of Danville Otterbots baseball, the sophomore campaign of a club that’s made up, fittingly, of college freshmen and sophomores.
For General Manager Austin Scher, last season might have had a few growing pains, but he classified the 2021 Appalachian League campaign as a successful one, with an eye on even bigger things this year.
“Last year, there were some trials and tribulations, but when this league was reformed, it was pretty late in the process, and a lot of the big-name college guys had already ‘committed’ to summer leagues. But now, the ‘Bots are back with four returning players, and Scher is pleased with the roster the team has assembled.
The team has a “really, really solid group of returners,” he said. “Incredible kids from across the country.”
Thirty-two players from 26 colleges in 14 states, as well as British Columbia, are joining the club this year.
Righthander Tyler Judge, an Appalachian League All-Star last year, has returned for his second season as an Otterbot, as well as pitcher Eli Thurmond, shortstop Jevin Relaford (son of manager Desi Relaford) and outfielder Ryan Carr.
Scher said players are scouted and added to the roster from Major League Draft boards or through USA Baseball, the governing body of amateur baseball. What was once a minor league made up of professional rookies, the Appalachian League was re-imagined in 2020 as a summer league for rising college underclassmen.
“We had an amazing season under our belt, and lot coaches were impressed,” with the progression of the players, Scher said. “We’ve got incredible freshman talent. I’d be shocked if we didn’t have a terrific on-field product.”
After a slow start, the Otterbots won 11 of their last 13 games in 2021, and Scher believed had the season lasted two more weeks, they would have played for the Appalachian League championship.
Bots players benefit from the grind of an intense, 10-week, 58-game schedule, allowing first or second-year collegiate players to get important experience.
“They’re sitting behind upper classmen, (but) that doesn’t mean they can’t play,” Scher said. “It’s pretty valuable for these kids to get innings and at-bats.”
Scher said that while some summer leagues require the players to supply their own gear and find their own living arrangements during the season, Appalachian League teams provide those things now.
“We want them to focus on two things,” Scher said. “Playing their tail off and having a blast.”
Speaking of having a blast, that’s Scher’s job, along with Coordinator of Fun, Wyatt Sutton, a graduate of Dan River High School. For Scher, his role encompasses everything from business operations, community involvement, and more.
“It really is a focus on the fan experience,” he said. “I gauge my success on the amount of people leaving the ballpark happy.”
To help in that effort, the Bots have a full slate of promotions on tap for the team’s 29 home games, from giveaways, prizes, discounts on beer and concessions and on-field activities, which are so popular. Scher says, “Even fans of opposing teams ask to take part.”
This year, new wrinkles will be added, as American Legion Field will be the first park in the Appalachian League with a special sensory room designed to be a refuge from the lights and festivities during a game, especially for children on the autism spectrum. Scher wants to be sure the park is an “inclusive and entertaining place” for everyone, not just during the season, but year-round. The sensory room will be open during the offseason as well, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is presented by the Hughes Center.
The Otterbots are partnering with Goodyear for the new “Goodyear’s Good Seats Program,” which will provide 20 tickets to three home games to participating nonprofit organizations.
The Otterbots partner with Danville Public Schools, helping to teach the basics of baseball and softball to students hoping to get more kids involved with the game. The team features “STEM nights” where they promote the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
The Otterbots will host a summer reading program, the goal of which will be to get kids to read for at least 360 minutes (each minute representing the distance around the bases to hit a home run). Kids who round the bases will earn a special T-shirt.
Scher said the goal of the Otterbots is for American Legion Field to become a “community gathering location 365 days a year.”
“Players will begin to arrive on Memorial Day, and the team will hold a meet-and-greet for fans,” Scher said.
After all, it’s all about putting smiles on faces with the Bots.
“We spend the other 10 months of the year working for the season,” Scher said. “If we waited to plan the season until this time of year, we’d have baseball, and that’s it.”