BY WAYNE PHILLIPS
Greeneville's "Boys of Summer," the Astros, are back in town, and a sizable crowd of supporters were on hand Sunday night at General Morgan Inn to get their first look at the 2010 Appalachian League team.
The Astros open the season Tuesday night on the road in Burlington. After a three-game set against the Royals, they return home on Friday night at 7 p.m. to take on the Johnson City Cardinals.
The team has a new skipper in long-time major leaguer Ed Romero, who likes what he sees in both his squad and the surroundings in Greeneville.
"We've worked out here only twice," Romero said amidst signing autographs Sunday night on the terrace at the downtown General Morgan. "Basically we have a group of guys that are hungry. Some have trained (in Florida) for three months. The majority have been down there. They are well-trained. Then we got some good talent from the draft."
The most noticable thing about this crop of Astros is that they are much older and much larger than last year's team. There are not as many teenagers on the roster. While few are returnees from the 2009 squad, 20 players have at least one year of professional experience.
"They've brought older guys to Greeneville this year," said returning catcher Bubby Williams, who was an 11th round draft choice in 2009 and played locally last season. "The (Danville) Braves and the (Elizabethton) Twins always bring older guys to this league. I think we're stronger. I know I hit the weight room hard and I've matured some."
An exception to the trend of older players is Mike Foltynewicz, Houston's first round draft choice this year who signed right out of high school in Minooka, Ill. The 6-5, 195 lb. right-handed pitcher, who was the 19th overall pick in the June draft, has had a whirlwind last few days.
He signed with Houston on Friday, then hopped a plane to arrive in Greeneville on Saturday. He seems ready to begin a professional career after an outstanding prep season.
"I was thinking maybe the supplemental draft, because that's where a lot of people were picking me to go," Foltynewicz said of his high draft pick. "But Houston's scout (Troy Hoerner) was at just about all of my starts (in high school this year), so I knew they were into me pretty good."
He said Minooka, Ill., "is a real small town," and he was looking forward to meeting people in Greeneville. His first glance at Pioneer Park was special.
"It's quite a place to play rookie ball ... quite a place to get my career started," he said.
Foltynewicz will be a member of what Romero thinks will be a solid pitching staff.
"This team will have a young starting rotation, but good arms," he said. "The bullpen is more mature. There's some guys out there who can throw strikes."
Getting a line-up ready for Tuesday's opener is not as difficult as one might think. Romero said a mini-camp held in Florida before the team came to Greeneville was a help.
"Some of the early signees were already in Kissimmee (Fla.)," he said. "They played in some games and they got some at-bats. We had a chance as a coaching staff to see them."
Romero will be joined on staff by Pete Rancont as the hitting coach and Dave Borkowski as pitching coach. Rancont has been in Greeneville before, so Romero said he will depend on Rancont "to fill me in on everything in Greeneville."
"I know it's a nice set-up for this level of baseball," Romero said when talking about Pioneer Park. "We're lucky to have a situation like this."
Outfielder Ryan Humphrey, a 15th-round draft choice in 2009 out of Blytheville, Ar., returns. He had to undergo hip surgery in March after suffering an injury in instructional ball.
"I'm not 100 percent yet, but I'm ready to get back out there," he said. "This team has good chemistry. There are more guys here out of college this year ... more maturity it seems."
Another returnee is pitcher Travis Smink out of Dalmatia, Pa., who was also a 2009 draft choice.
"I've been in Florida since March 5," he said. "The guys we brought back that I know from Greeneville ... everybody is bigger. They've made the transition from high school or college to pro ball. The maturity should help us. We were extremely young last year."
Smink said his arm feels stronger this season.
"Last year I came in from college after throwing 100 innings," he said. "I've thrown well this spring and I'm looking forward to getting our season going."
Romero takes over as skipper of the Appalachian League team after serving as bench coach for the Astros big league team in 2009. He was third base coach in Houston in 2008. Prior to joining the Astros organization, Romero was roving infield coordinator for the Florida Marlins for three years.
He played in the Major Leagues from 1977-1990 with four clubs: Milwaukee, Boston, Atlanta and Detroit.