Braxton Ashcraft

West Virginia Black Bears pitcher Braxton Ashcraft speaks with reporters at the team’s Media Day on Tuesday at Monongalia County Ballpark in Morgantown. Ashcraft was a second round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2018. 

MORGANTOWN — As the bus rolled into Monongalia County Ballpark on Tuesday, the melting pot of baseball talents aboard arrived at their summertime home, unraveling a carpet down memory lane to the old stomping grounds for some and serving as an introduction to a completely foreign land for others.

“We’re in God’s country,” said Alec Rennard, a 23-year-old right-handed pitcher from Michigan University, who spent last summer in Morgantown as well. “It’s beautiful everyday rain or shine. I couldn’t picture a better place to play than here.”

“It’s very green, it’s very mountainy,” said 23-year-old infielder Dean Lockery, a graduate from Central Connecticut State University making his first trip to West Virginia. “I’m from the coast, I’m used to the water, so I’m not really the outdoorsman. But I guess I’m gonna have to get used to it.”

The contrasting realities between re-acquainting with the rolling mountains versus discovering them for the first time among a group of 19-24-year-old young men consumed by the same craft and eyeing the same ambitions is a strange, annual tradition. But, that’s the method to the madness of minor league baseball. That’s the life of playing for the West Virginia Black Bears, the Short-Season A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates which debuted as a member of the New York Penn League in 2015.

Stretching from the West Coast to the East Coast, hailing from inner cities and small towns, the tentative roster of the Black Bears arrived in Morgantown on Tuesday with their 2019 season set to begin Friday at 7 p.m. when they’ll host Mahoning Valley at Mon County Ballpark for Opening Day.

“Everyone who has played here in Morgantown, especially at this ballpark, says the fandom is tremendous. The support that the town and the community give us is just incredible,” said new Black Bears manager Drew Saylor, who was the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Class A affiliate the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes of Rancho Cucamonga, California last season.

Saylor, who was officially announced as the Black Bears’ new head man in January to replace former manager Kieran Mattison, was named Baseball America’s Minor League Baseball Manager of the Year last season with the Quakes. Saylor, who grew up in Akron, Ohio and is a graduate of Kent State University, will have a dual role with the Black Bears this season as he’ll also be the team’s Assistant Hitting Coordinator in addition to his managerial duties.

“I’ve been around this area my entire life. It’s been great,” Saylor said Tuesday at the team’s Media Day. “Getting back to a little bit more of my mid-western roots in certain regards has been a lot of fun.”

Saylor comes to Morgantown as a burgeoning baseball mind, an avant-gardist in the analytical side of the sport with a keen understanding of sabermetrics, the utilization of data in regards to player performance. Multiple players termed Saylor as “a genius” in their introductory press conferences with the media on Tuesday, saying it’s not Saylor’s grasp of sabermetrics but also his ability to convey them to players for personal development.

Yet, Saylor’s background in data if melded with a compassionate human side, players said, one that’s big on community outreach and appreciation.

“Seeing the regionals that were hosted here with Coach (Randy) Mazey and West Virginia University, it’s going to be awesome,” Saylor said of Mon County Ballpark, where the WVU baseball team hosted the NCAA Regional. “It shows just how much baseball is interwoven into the fabric of the community here and I’m excited to see everyone come out and support us.”

Even for those who set foot on the artificial turf field at Mon County Ballpark for the first time on Tuesday, as a squad made up of pro prospects and baseball junkies, the park serving as the host site of an NCAA Regional shed light on the atmosphere of the fan base and the spectacle of the stadium.

“I don’t know a lot about West Virginia,” said 19-year-old right-handed pitcher Michael Burrows, who played for the Pirates’ rookie-league affiliate in the Gulf Coast League in 2018. “I’m excited to expand my fan base outside of my hometown. I mean, this place was packed (at the NCAA Regional). It looks incredible. I can’t wait.”

“I watched the regional and this place was a packed house,” echoed 23-year-old pitcher Cody Smith who threw 27.2 innings in 17 games for the Black Bears last season, “so I’m looking forward to being in that environment.”

“Morgantown is a cool city and this is a really nice stadium,” said Brett Kinneman, a 22-year-old outfielder from NC State who played for the Black Bears last season and played 44 games with the Pirates’ Class A Full Season affiliate, the Greensboro Grasshoppers earlier this year. “So I’m just really excited to get going.”

“This is my first time in the mountains,” said Braxton Ashcraft, a native of Waco, Texas, who is perhaps the most heralded player on the Black Bears roster at just 19 years old after being selected by the Pirates in the second round in 2018. “I’ve heard that the fan base is really great, really royal, and that’s super exciting. Coming from the GCL (Gulf Coast League) last year into something like this, it’s super exciting because it’s been since high school pretty much that I played in front of fans. It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to for a while.”

“I love West Virginia. It was an awesome experience here last year,” said right-handed pitcher Michael LoPresti, who attended St. Johns University and threw 49 innings for the Black Bears last season.

LoPresti, who was awarded the Pirates’ Community Commitment Program award — given to a member of each minor league affiliate — for the Black Bears last season, has already forged a connection with the Morgantown community through his giving nature, which he said derives from his mother and growing up in a Catholic community.

“The relationships are the most important part, both with my teammates and the fans,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of fun playing here.”

Email Bradley Heltzel at bheltzel@timeswv.com or follow him on Twitter @bradheltzTWV.