New Skipper in town... Princeton Rays manager Joe Szekely
speaks with P-Rays clubhouse manager Allen Fisher during a
meet and greet session at the Mercer County Technical and
Education Center in Princeton Saturday.
Szekely introduced to Princeton
By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
PRINCETON — If first impressions are any indication, Joe
Szekely is going to enjoy spending the summer in Mercer
What could be better than baseball season, and an infinite
variety of food?
“You hear about Princeton and it being a town of 6.000
people and in your head you form what it’s going to look
like and what the baseball field is going to look like,
along with the facilities and the town,” said Szekely, who
lives in Marion, Texas. “Then you come here and the first
thing I said to Jim (Holland) is, ‘This town is bigger than
“The town I live in has got 1,100 people and this looks like
it’s like 10 times as big as that. It’s amazing, you people
eat very, very well. You’ve got enough restaurants here for
a 100,000 people.”
Szekely was introduced Saturday as the new manager of the
Princeton Rays, taking the place of Jamie Nelson, who served
in the same capacity for five years, setting a mark for most
wins by a Princeton manager in what will be the 21st year of
the franchise since it was established in 1988.
During Nelson’s tenure, Princeton won the annual Mercer Cup
competition with the Bluefield Orioles in four of those
seasons, including the last three in a row. Szekely knows
the task ahead won’t be easy.
“Jamie was a popular guy, he had been here a long time and
he had taken care of the rivalry very well,” said Szekely,
entering his 24th year in professional baseball. “Those are
big shoes to follow, but hopefully we can continue the
Szekely arrived in Princeton for the first time on Friday,
and attended Saturday’s 6th Annual Media Appreciation
Luncheon sponsored by the P-Rays. Szekely, Rays’ General
Manager Jim Holland and Appalachian League President Lee
Landers met with the media and fans.
Holland can only hope that the 2008 season, which begins on
June 17 with a visit from the league’s newest team — the
Pulaski Mariners — is as successful as last year.
“I’m entering my 17th year here and 2007, as much as any
year since I’ve been here, I’ve never seen a year where so
much fell into place and went right,” Holland. “Those of you
who came to the ball park know the attendance was up, the
atmosphere at the park was up, and promotionally, everything
that we tried to do went really well.
“It was a great feeling and it was a great year.”
Szekely hopes it can be even better on the field. Princeton
last had a winning season in 2000 and won its lone league
title in 1994. Szekely knows his primary role is to produce
future Tampa Bay Rays, but he also wants to win games.
“You’re never going to let winning get in the way of
development, but I think they go hand in hand,” Szekely
said. “I think the kids need to have success and need to
understand and know what it takes to win.
“Obviously it depends a lot on the players. There’s never
been a nag that won the Kentucky Derby, but I think they
need to understand what the commitment is and what it’s like
and what you have to do to win.”
While Szekely won’t know who his players will be for a
while, he does like what he see at Hunnicutt Field, which
has undergone a much-needed facelift, from an invigorated
playing surface and draining system to the creation of an
indoor batting facility that can be used the Rays and the
Princeton Tigers baseball team.
“It’s been very, very good trip so far, we toured the
baseball field and I was surprised,” Szekely said. “I didn’t
know what to think, small town, half-season team and I saw
the field and it’s a lot better than some of the fields that
I have had at the higher levels and much, much bigger
“I was very surprised with not only the field, but the
workout facilities and I’ve already mentioned the eating
places. That’s unbelievable. Everything has been far more
than I expected from the town of Princeton.”
A second round draft choice by the Kansas City Royals in
1982, Szekely spent 11 seasons playing in the minor leagues
with the Royals, Dodgers and Blue Jays and Braves, batting
.263 in 815 games.
Once his time on the field came to an end, he didn’t want to
leave the game behind.
“I kind of grew up in it, my dad was a professional baseball
player, and I was always around it and I just kind of
gravitated towards it,” Szekely said. “I played it while I
was growing up and I guess the fact that I was around it so
much that it just kind of rubbed off on me.
“There’s nothing like it, it’s the one game I think that I
would say everybody can relate to because it just seems like
everybody you have talked to has played some kind of
The 46-year-old Szekely is entering his fourth season in the
Tampa Bay organization, managing Vero Beach to a 59-79
record last season.
His previous two clubs, the Visalia Oaks of the California
League and the Southwest Michigan Devil Rays of the Midwest
League each made the playoffs.
In seven minor league seasons with the Rays and Royals, he’s
posted a 351-401 mark. He’s also been a hitting and catching
instructor for both of those clubs, along with serving for
four years in the Atlanta Braves system.
“It’s good people you meet at the ball park and I know it’s
in my blood,” said Szekely, whose wife, Kim, and their two
teenage daughters will stay in Princeton this summer. “I
played for all those years, and I got through playing and I
knew I wanted to stay in the game.
“I didn’t know anything else and it’s just been that my life
has afforded me the opportunity to stay in the game and
we’ve just had a lot of fun.”
One of the quickest lessons a prospect learns when they
enter professional baseball is that it’s not just a game
anymore. It’s also a job. The task ahead isn’t easy, but
Szekely said the rewards are definitely worth the effort.
“A lot of these kids are not used to this, some of these
kids are coming from high school and college programs where
you don’t play every single day as well as work four or five
hours a day so it’s quite a change,” Szekely said. “If you
don’t absolutely love what you’re doing, it can be the worst
job you’ve ever had.
“If you love what you’re doing, it’s hard work, but it’s
very rewarding and very fun.”
The latter statement would describe Szekely. He leaves for
spring training in Florida on Feb. 29. He’ll return to West
Virginia in June accompanied by the 2008 edition of the
Princeton Rays. Is he excited?
“Absolutely,” Szekely said. “I’ve got my juices flowing
—Contact Brian Woodson