Former RiverHawks land with big-league systems
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February 20, 2008 - LOVES PARK, Ill. – When major-league organizations open their minor-league camps over the next couple of weeks, five former Rockford RiverHawks will be on the field.

It’s not rare for Rockford to be a stop on the way to Arizona or Florida. Over the RiverHawks’ six seasons in Rockford, major-league teams have signed a current or former RiverHawk on nearly two dozen occasions. They include a former Baseball America Independent Leagues Player of the Year, two other members of the magazine’s annual all-indy first team, a former Frontier League Player of the Year and a former major leaguer.

“Our program, being recognized as one of the top in independent baseball, gives players the opportunity to be showcased in a professional environment in a situation where we’re not just playing nine innings and going home,” said Dave Ciarrachi, the team’s director of baseball operations. “There is a format set for them to improve and Major League Baseball teams recognize that. For that reason, we don’t just get players signed, but we get players referred to us.”

Eight players who will report to the RiverHawks in May for spring training have played affiliated ball.

“They recognize that it can be the quickest way (back) to the next level,” Ciarrachi said.

The five alumni currently in affiliated ball will be in Arizona for spring training, two in Mesa with the Chicago Cubs.

Former RiverHawks staff ace Tanner Watson, the team’s all-time wins leader, signed with the Cubs after an 11-victory season for Rockford in 2007. Baseball America made him the only FL player on the all-indy first team. Watson, a former Seattle farmhand, won 23 games in 2½ years as he battled his way back to affiliated ball.

Fellow Cubs farmhand Derrick Ellison made it all the way from the league tryout camp, where the RiverHawks drafted him in 2004, to Mesa. Ellison spent parts of two years with the RiverHawks – during the latter season, the Mariners picked him up – and later pitched in the independent Northern League.

Late-season pickup Reed Dickert made just a few appearances last year for the RiverHawks, but among them was a 14-strikeout start in a crucial final-series start against Kalamazoo. Milwaukee signed the right-hander last month.

The other two former RiverHawks were picked up shortly after the end of dominating seasons in other independent leagues. Olmo Rosario was picked up by San Francisco after hitting .362 last year and winning the Can-Am League Player of the Year Award. The shortstop spent 2004-05 with the RiverHawks, where he was the Most Valuable Player of the RiverHawks’ 2004 Frontier League Championship Series victory and a 2005 Frontier League All-Star, when he hit a team-record .373. Lefty Justin Dowdy set a United League record by recording 24 saves last season. When he was with the RiverHawks for two seasons, each time he didn’t make it back from the Frontier League All-Star Game. Seattle picked him up in 2003. Anaheim signed him in 2004. Oakland inked Dowdy last fall and the A’s put him in the Arizona Fall League, the end-of-season destination for the game’s top prospects.

The other former RiverHawks signed by major-league organizations since 2002 are: corner infielder Jayson Drobiak (signed in 2002 by the New York Yankees); pitcher Justin Olson (2003, Minnesota Twins); pitcher Jason Shelley (2003, Brewers); pitcher Scott Sobkowiak (2003, Cincinnati Reds); right fielder Rich Austin (2004, Kansas City Royals); catcher Mike Landry (2005, Chicago White Sox); catcher Kevin Ciarrachi (2007, Cubs), pitcher Mike Marksbury (2007, Brewers), pitcher Luke Hagerty (2008, White Sox).

In addition, catcher Ben Blumenthal, who had signed with the RiverHawks to play this season, was picked up by the Brewers.

While Sobkowiak had previously appeared in the major leagues with Atlanta, players such as Shelley and Austin built their reputation in Rockford. Shelley set the Frontier League’s strikeout record in 2002, shattered the ERA mark in 2003, and was BA’s Indy Player of the Year. Austin was the 2004 league POY, honored by BA, and had broken many of the team’s hitting records by the time the player known as “The Franchise” signed with the Royals. He has since played professionally in the Triple-A Mexican League, played winter ball in Mexico, and won a Northern League pennant in Fargo-Moorhead. Olson, picked up just a couple of weeks after signing out of the University of Illinois, spent two seasons in Class AA.

In addition, 10 members of the RiverHawks’ front-office, coaching, training, clubhouse, grounds-crew and intern personnel have also landed positions in major-league organizations. Five of them are or have been at the major-league level, including former second baseman and infield coach Jake Ciarrachi, now an assistant to the scouting and farm directors with the Cubs. Four former front-office members and interns went on to work in group sales at the major-league level in baseball, football and hockey, including P.J. Keene, a former intern and sales rep who now works for the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Kristan Dolan, the team’s original assistant general manager and a former co-GM, who is now with the Cleveland Indians.

“We’ve done it from every area,” Dave Ciarrachi said.

The RiverHawks are members of the Frontier League, a 12-team independent professional baseball league that will play its 16th season this summer. Advertising and season-ticket information is available by calling the box office at (815) 885-2255. Most games are broadcast live on WNTA (1330 AM) and the internet. Fans can also visit the RiverHawks online at www.rockfordriverhawks.com.


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