The Winter Garden Squeeze will take the field Friday, June 4, to begin the 2021 season.
It’s that time of the year when some of the best local — and out-of-state — baseball talent makes its way to Orange County for summer baseball, as the Winter Garden Squeeze starts off its eighth season this week.
And once again, it’s veteran Terry Abbott leading the Squeeze into another Florida Collegiate Summer League season with a team filled with both new and old faces.
“We’re always optimistic,” Abbott said. “Of course, are you going to be able to replace some of the guys we had last year? That would be a very tall order when you’re sitting here with Parker Messick — he’s the Cy Young award winner — and Marcus Dunn, who was the MVP of the league. But at the same time, we’re optimistic that we have some good, young players coming in (who) seem enthused about getting the season started.”
This year’s team is young, especially at the pitcher position where 10 of 13 are underclassmen at their respective universities. And just as with the rest of the team, several in the Squeeze’s rotation are local guys — including Windermere’s Noah Janney, Judson Hershiser and Carson Crossley.
“We have a blend — we have a few older guys that are returning, like Edgar Alvarez, Dale Thomas, Bryce Jackson — with some experience, but where we’re really young is pitching,” Abbott said. “Outside of (Ethan) Brown, a lot of our pitchers are really young.”
Looking for local talent to join the Squeeze is a big deal for Abbott and the organization, especially in the sense that it helps when players have a place to stay, Abbott said.
Last year, the host family program the Squeeze normally has — which includes local families taking in a player during the season — was shut down because of COVID-19. Luckily, this season, the program is back on, and folks such as Squeeze General Manager Adam Bates are happy to see it return.
“We have some people coming back who are excited about it,” Bates said. “I had a young man who was a youngster when we started all of this, and he said, ‘I’m getting my summer brother back,’ so that’s always cute, and it’s a big motivator and driver for us when you get statements like that.”
With the host program now open — and with stadiums back at full capacity — the Squeeze once again find themselves as the league’s nomads.
Two seasons ago, the Squeeze were forced to play their home games at Lake Minneola High School because of new lights being installed at their usual home at West Orange High School. Then, last year, because of OCPS’ COVID-19 protocol, the team was forced to be the perpetual away team with no place to call home.
Despite the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions in the county and around the state, the Squeeze once again are being asked to play the road team all season — again because of OCPS’ restrictions and a change in guard with the Warriors baseball program.
However, Abbott believes the lack of a home field won’t affect team play.
“Last year, we were the road warriors, and we’re road warriors this year, which is fine — we get to play in good parks,” Abbott said. “What does it matter if we’re the home team or the visiting team at Sanford Stadium? … That doesn’t matter to us, we’re perfectly fine — the kids still get to play, they still get the same work in, so there’s no downside. We made the playoffs last year doing it, so it didn’t kill us.”
As the Squeeze ready for the new season — practice started Wednesday, June 2 — Abbott hopes the guys in the organization can get a lot out of these next two busy months and go back to their schools in better shape.
“It’s a form of player development, as well, for me,” Abbott said, “When I was in pro ball, I was in player development — this is an extension of their college play. If they elevate their game and they go win a job at their college in the fall for the next spring, and they’ve had a great experience here and they feel like they’re a better ballplayer leaving than when they came in, then hey, we’re doing our job.”