It didn’t take long for Jose Leger to notice the big difference in his surroundings this season.
Leger was the manager for the Savannah Sand Gnats last season, which played their home games in historic Grayson Stadium built in 1926. This year, the Mets’ Class A affiliate in the South Atlantic League, now known as the Columbia Fireflies, have relocated to South Carolina and will play their games in the lavish, new 8,500-seat Spirit Communications Park.
“I feel a little overwhelmed, to be honest with you. You look at this stadium and, coming from Savannah, this is a big change,” Leger said Tuesday during the team’s media day. “The support we received has been great. On our first day of practice, a lot of fans came to check us out. That was only practice, so I can’t imagine the first night we play here.”
The Fireflies held their second workout in preparation for Thursday’s opener at Charleston. Columbia’s homer opener is against Greenville on April 14.
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Leger said the players spent Monday finding places to live and getting used to the city where they’ll live for the next six months.
First baseman Dash Willingham spent some of the past two days catching up with South Carolina catcher John Jones, who he played travel ball with in Florida when they were growing up.
Willingham said Jones raved about Columbia and their support of the baseball.
“The city did a great job doing this, and we are excited to play on this field in a great atmosphere like Columbia,” Willingham said. “From what I hear, they tell me this city it is full of excitement for baseball.”
Willingham is part of a talented Fireflies roster, which returns just six players from last year’s division-winning club. Willingham hit 12 homers and drove in 51 runs last year at advanced-rookie league Kingsport, and Baseball America ranks him as the 29th-ranked prospect in the Mets organization. Columbia’s roster has four players ranked in top 30 of the Mets’ organization by Baseball America or MLB.com.
Shortstop Milton Ramos is the highest of those and was taken in the third round of the 2014 Major League Baseball draft, coming out of American Heritage High in Florida.
“Walking through that tunnel, to see a brand new stadium and facility, it is overwhelming,” the 20-year-old Ramos said. “Such a beautiful field to play in. I heard they have great fans here, so it is going to be a great year just to play ball and enjoy every second of it.”
Both Ramos and Willingham helped Kingsport to a division title last year, and want to do the same in the first year for the Fireflies. The majority of the roster played together either in Kingsport or Brooklyn, another of the Mets’ rookie league teams.
With many players already knowing each other, Leger said the team was able to gel quicker in spring training over the last month.
“This has been the easiest year, as far as getting the guys to know each other work with each other,” Leger said. “We have a good group of guys. I think we are a very talented team and are excited to get started.”
What: Columbia at Charleston
When: Thursday, 7:05 p.m.
Radio: 620 AM and 105.1 FM