April 8 2009 12:00 AM

The Lugnuts announcer, coach and players bring A-game in hopes of moving up


Jesse Goldberg-Strassler didn’t have cable when he was growing up in Maryland, just outside of Washington. "I had to read the newspaper or listen to the radio to keep up on sports," he said. This baseball season, the 26-year-old broadcaster, who compares baseball to classical music — some listen intently, some tune it out, and some folks have it on as background noise — becomes the new voice of the Lansing Lugnuts. Like his counterparts on the field in the minor league system, he’s making the climb up the ladder; he was promoted to the Lansing job from another Toronto Blue Jays affiliate, the Biscuits in Montgomery, Ala.

Goldberg-Strassler said the ladder-like structure of the minors makes it difficult to predict what’s in store for any team in any season. Players who perform well will be promoted to the next level in the system, leaving the lineup subject to change on a daily basis.

"There are so many young guys with one or two years of professional experience," he said, and some players may be living away from their families for the first time.

Another man making the climb through the organization’s ranks is Clayton McCullough, the Lugnuts returning skipper for the 2009 campaign. McCullough played college ball at East Carolina University and spent four years in the minors with the Cleveland Indians before jumping into coaching. Last season, at the tender age of 28, McCullough was the youngest manager in the Midwest League.

On Monday, he was roaming the clubhouse amid the low-level chaos of bringing 25 young guys into a new city, securing their housing and fitting in meals and practices. With three days left until Opening Day, most of the time was already filled.

McCullough said his goal for the season is, of course, to win the Midwest League Championship. "We want to win, certainly thats why you play," he said.

But ultimately, at this level, the season is about the players and making them ready for the next level. "We hope all of em go to the Major Leagues," he said.

Last season the Lugnuts lost in the first round of the playoffs, but there were plenty of bright spots in getting there. The Lugs pitching staff led the league with the lowest team ERA, a number of players moved up to more competitive leagues, and McCullough said the position players (read: infielders and outfielders) showed improvement from the beginning of the season to the end.

One new prospect the team is excited about is 18-year-old outfielder Kenny Wilson, the 63rd overall pick in the 2008 draft. A native of the Tampa Bay, Fla., area, Wilson was excited to see his first snowfall when he arrived in Lansing this week, even if it meant practicing indoors on Tuesday. A Ken Griffey Jr. fan, Wilson grew up watching the Mariners and the Reds, even though his hometown of Tampa got its own club when he was a kid. Although he didn’t grow up attending minor league games, he’s excited to be part of the baseball scene here in Lansing. “I can tell the people really love their Lugnuts,” he said “We’ve got a great group of people helping us out, and I really think that’s special.”

As far as team weaknesses, McCullough said it’s basically the same every year: inexperience. Its typical at the Single-A level, he said, and something every team deals with, but isnt an issue as long as his players work hard and get better.

Just as teams have personalities — offensive powerhouses sending balls out of the park, the smallball model with lots of stealing and bunting — so do managers. So whats McCulloughs style? Will he wear spikes in the dugout, like Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland? "I should," McCullough said. "Anything to be like him."

When asked if fans could expect any Oldsmobile Park at dusk during the 2008 Lugnuts season. Lou Pinella-like blowouts with umpires, McCullough laughed and said he has to display professionalism to set an example for his players.

And those budding superstars aren’t shy. The first thing outfielder Brian Van Kirk tells this reporter is, "Im hitting in the three-hole." Van Kirk is flanked by Bryan Kervin, an infielder. Both were drafted by the Blue Jays out of college, both played summer ball for the Doubledays in Auburn, N.Y., and theyre roommates.

Theyre anxious for the season to begin. Theyve taken care of the less glamorous issues, like securing housing. At 23, (yes, theyre the same age) theyll be the elder statesmen of the team.

With housing, practice and team photos taken care of, theyre attending to some last minute details. For example, Kervin is planning to wear shorter pants, a la Brandon Inge, while Van Kirk will rock the Magglio Ordonez-style long and loose pants. Van Kirk has already selected his entrance music for the season: Timbalands "Bounce." Kervin hasnt decided yet, but will hopefully stick with this reporters suggestion, the old Hulk Hogan theme song "Real American."

More important, theyll both see some playing time, so fans will get to hear their names called over whatever music they settle on. Van Kirk, a 21st round pick and former 1st team All-American at Oral Roberts University, will be part of a four-man outfield rotation. Kervin will play every two to three days, and his attitude seems to embody and reflect the Lugnuts mantra for the season. "I’ve just got to come to the field and work hard,” he said. “Its not where you start, its where you finish." (Eric Gallippo contributed to this story.)