NWL Baseball: Hosts with the most

Tom Larson | Tribune Art and Annette Benson, middle, have been hosts to several Willmar Stingers players since the Northwoods League franchise arrived in town six years ago. Jacob Barnes, right, and Michael Suchy, second from right, are two of those former Stingers and they braved a Minnesota winter to travel from Florida last week to visit the Bensons and two of their children, son Alex and daughter Ashlee.

By Tom Larson on Dec 25, 2015 at 10:18 p.m

It takes something very compelling to get a couple of Florida boys to take time away from their busy careers during a busy holiday season to fly north to Minnesota in late December.

Former Willmar Stingers Jacob Barnes and Michael Suchy did just that last week, braving chilly temperatures, snow and biting winds to spend a few days in Willmar with their host family, Annette and Art Benson.

And both had pretty good news to share.

“They’re a great family,” said Barnes, a pitcher who played in town during the Stingers’ inaugural 2010 season. “As soon as you get here, they open up their home to you, make you feel comfortable. A lot of times, that’s all it takes. They’d talk with you but they also even it out and let you do your own thing. They’re great people to be with.”

Barnes, 25, also got to celebrate being signed to the Milwaukee Brewers’ 40-man Major League roster in November.

The Brewers picked the St. Petersburg native and former Florida Gulf Coast star in the 14th round of the 2011 draft and he pitched more than 340 innings as a starter and reliever for seven minor league teams over four seasons.

Last summer, he posted a 3.36 earned run average and struck out 84 in 75 innings, mostly in relief for Class AA Biloxi. He was one of seven Shuckers players invited to play in the vaunted Arizona Fall League. Barnes didn’t give up a run and struck out 17 in 11.2 innings over eight AFL games.

The Brewers obviously liked his body of work.

“I guess they ended up believing in me and put me on the 40-man,” Barnes said.

A spot on an MLB team’s 40-man roster comes with health insurance and a significant pay increase from the roughly $1,500 a month Class AA players receive. If Barnes makes the Brewers’ active roster, he’d be in line for a minimum annual salary of more than $500,000.

“Those two things (salary and insurance) are huge in life,” he said, “and, obviously, the opportunity to go to the majors, hopefully for multiple years, is big.”

Suchy, 22, another Florida Gulf Coast and Stingers standout, also had a promising 2015 season in his first full season with the Class A West Virginia Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate.

Suchy was drafted in the fifth round of the 2014 draft by the Pirates and hit .236 with a home run and 17 runs batted in in 66 games that first summer.

But this year, Suchy played in 124 games, got 447 at bats, hit .275 with 34 doubles, 10 homers and 76 RBIs.

“There’s just a huge difference between playing 125 games and playing 65 games,” said the 6-foot-3, 228-pound right fielder who made just two errors in 208 total chances. “It’s everyday. I wanted to be in the lineup everyday and obviously the competition gets better each level you go up. I feel like I’m improving along with it. I’m just trying to keep my improvements on pace to what’s going on around me.”

Both Barnes and Suchy credit the Stingers and the Northwoods League for preparing them for the rigors of minor league baseball.

“It’s the closest thing you get to pro ball,” said Barnes, a 6-2, 230-pound right-hander. “You get to play with a random bunch of guys. In college, you play with the same guys and you get used to them. Now, you get thrown in with a random bunch of guys and you have to learn how to mesh with them.”

In addition to long bus trips, wood bats and playing virtually everyday, the NWL gives college players the chance to focus on enhancing their talents.

“I had the tools but I wasn’t really developing them,” Suchy said. “I think the Northwoods League is important to development. Getting used to bus rides and getting used to the competition. I needed more at bats than I would have gotten in any other league.”

Suchy hit .329 with 11 home runs and 33 RBIs in 66 games with the Stingers in 2013. In 2012, he hit .349 with eight home runs and 62 RBIs, second-best in the NWL that season.

Those pro-ball experiences while still in college have paid off as both players encountered a more nuanced and difficult game in the minors.

“It’s more about recognizing what you need to work on,” Suchy said. “Anybody can go to the cage and hit, or go throw a bullpen. At each level — high school, college, Willmar — it’s about figuring out what out what you need to work on. Now that we’re at the pro level, you don’t just go work to work. You find the things you have to work on.”

The game for Barnes now is not about perfecting skills as much as it is about maximizing them.

“At the end of the day, you have to understand what kind of player you are,” he said. “You have to come to the realization of what you do well and what do you not. What is worth working at? ‘This is what I have and I’m going to learn how to play the game with it.’ As long as you’re improving every year, every day, ever game, every chance, at the end of the day you’ll end up getting where you want to be.”

The NWL experience also led them to friendships, most notably with the Bensons and each other.

Barnes’ and Suchy’s paths didn’t cross at FGC, with Barnes leaving the year Suchy arrived. They got acquainted when FGC alums returned to work out with the current team, and they traveled together to visit the Bensons, who have been host to nine Stingers, sometimes up to three a summer.

“They were at all our games,” Suchy said. “Even the close games — St. Cloud, Alexandria — they loved coming to those games, too, and cheering you on. It really made us feel part of the family. They’re the kind of people you want to come back and visit years later.”


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