By Josh Vitale, SunCoast Sports
PORT CHARLOTTE — Some minor league managers and coaches don’t necessarily look forward to having to work the All-Star game.
Being in Fort Myers on Saturday night means not being at home with your family or out to dinner with friends. It means your longest break of a seven-month baseball slog gets shortened from four days to two.
But Stone Crabs skipper Michael Johns doesn’t see it that way. The fact that he, pitching coach Steve “Doc” Watson and hitting coach Joe Szekely will be at the helm of the South Division All-Stars means Charlotte is coming off a successful season.
Such as one that ended with the organization’s first-ever Florida State League championship.
“It’s a unique experience, and not a lot of people get to do it,” Johns said. “I think we’re lucky to do it.”
Johns, Watson and Szekely make up six of the nine Stone Crabs honored with invites to Fort Myers. Catcher Mac James, reliever Brian Miller and infielder Riley Unroe will be active for the game, and starter Brent Honeywell, catcher Nick Ciuffo (injury) and outfielder Cade Gotta (promoted) were voted in but will not play.
The second-year Charlotte manager and first-time All-Star participant is looking forward to watching it all unfold.
I think it’ll be a great experience,” Johns said. “And then it’s fun for the players, because they obviously deserve it.”
Here’s a look at the three who will represent the Stone Crabs:
James is looking forward to his first All-Star experience for the same main reason his manager is: The people.
As a catcher and part-time first baseman, James interacts with opposing players more than most, either when they step up to the plate or reach first base. And there is a lot that can be gleaned from those interactions, however small.
“I think learning from guys on other teams is a big deal. Just about their approach,” James said. “There are a lot of good players in this league, so to be able to be around those guys in good company, you can just get a different point of view.
This weekend will provide James his best opportunity to date. Instead of seeing the Florida State League’s best for a few seconds between the lines, the 23-year-old will get to spend a whole weekend with them in the dugout, on the field and at the player events surrounding the game at Hammond Stadium.
Asked who he is most looking forward to spending time with, James mentioned St. Lucie’s “professional hitter” Amed Rosario and Dunedin’s Ryan McBroom, who hit two home runs against Charlotte earlier this week and played in the Big 12 with James in college.
“What’s their approach? How are they trying to attack guys? Why do they do different things?” said James, who is hitting .270 with 18 RBIs so far this season.
“Just try to gain as much knowledge as you can.”
Miller is another Stone Crab who has never played on a professional All-Star team. But in a way, he played on one for three years in college.
The Rays’ 15th-round draft pick in 2014 is a product of baseball factory Vanderbilt, a traditional collegiate power which put eight alums on opening day MLB rosters this season — including David Price, Sonny Gray and Pedro Alvarez — and has countless more scattered through the minor leagues.
And while Miller might have the name recognition of one of those big-leaguers, last year’s No. 1 overall pick Dansby Swanson or Rays catcher Curt Casali, he comes with the same baseball pedigree.
In 2013, the right-hander set a school record with 16 saves in a single season. In 2014, he capped off the Commodores’ national-championship victory by proposing to girlfriend Megan Bonds on the field.
“You definitely rise to the level of the people around you,” said Miller, who has an 0.71 ERA and eight saves in nine chances this season. “It was a good experience to go there and be around really high-caliber players.”
Unroe was there when the Stone Crabs won their 2015 FSL title on Sept. 13.
The second baseman didn’t appear in any of the seven games Charlotte played after he was promoted from Bowling Green on Sept. 5, but he experienced the run right alongside the players that did, postgame revelry and all.
For a lot of players, that would be as close to a championship as they ever got. For Unroe, it was just the beginning of a nine-month stretch he called “my best in pro ball so far.”
On Jan. 6, after a stellar winter season in the Australian Baseball League in which he hit .318 with 25 RBIs and 14 stolen bases, Unroe — along with Stone Crabs teammates Ciuffo, Bralin Jackson and Justin Williams — hoisted the Claxton Shield after his Brisbane Bandits won the league championship.
On June 3, in the midst of a fine first half of his first High-A season in which he hit .256 with four home runs and a team-high 28 runs scored out of the leadoff spot, Unroe found out he had been voted to the first All-Star team of his professional career.
“Any time you’re a part of special squads like I have been lucky to be a part of, it definitely helps the road to the big leagues,” Unroe said. “And you really get to enjoy the process, too.”