Team chemistry is difficult to define.
Because there’s no way to quantify how well a team gels with a statistic, it’s often cast aside by statisticians across baseball, far more than in any other sport.
However, one who follows the 2019 Wenatchee AppleSox can’t help but be impressed with this team’s chemistry. Whether it’s goofing off in pregame interviews or staying up all night on bus rides, this AppleSox team has gelled since Day 1.
“We’re on the road a lot together, so people need to get along,” pitcher Seth Kuykendall said. “We play games on the bus and I feel like that’s great for team chemistry. We’re very competitive. We’re not even happy losing games against each other.”
Make no mistake about it. The Sox are never happy with losing.
Don’t believe Kuykendall? Have a seat on the AppleSox team bus after Sunday’s 5-2 victory over the Bellingham Bells. It’s the final game of a six-games-in-six-days road trip and the Sox had to get up early for the 1:05 p.m. matinee. Despite playing on a warm summer afternoon and sweating out a narrow victory, the Sox are still eager to pick up more wins on the bus.
It’s almost become a ritual on road games. It doesn’t matter if it’s a five-minute drive back to the team hotel or a five-hour journey back to Wenatchee. No matter the length of time on the bus, the AppleSox players must get multiple games of ‘Mafia’ in.
It’s a game that doesn’t require anything other than at least six players. There are no cards nor any props needed. Participants are separated into two teams, roles are assigned and essentially, chaos ensues.
It’s a popular game at the college baseball level that is all about deception. Players are assigned different positions and when a nonpartisan moderator announces who has ‘died,’ the players debate among themselves who is in the mafia and eventually are asked to vote on their suspicions. The game does not end until the members of the mafia are discovered.
The Sox take Mafia very seriously. Accusations and expletives are hurled left and right quicker than infielders tossing the ball back-and-forth trying to catch a base-runner in a rundown.
Some players fare better than others, but all asked agreed on who usually wins.
“Johnny Sage is probably the best,” pitcher Gavin Gorrell said. “He’s the guy who tries to be everyone’s friend and then is always in the mafia.”
Don’t let the AppleSox outfielder’s smile fool you; he is a regular backstabber in the game, according to his teammates and himself.
“The key,” Sage said, “is to manipulate everyone and try to be their friend and then stab them in the back. Friendships are definitely lost.
Summer ball is full of turnover, but the Sox don’t mind adding new players into the mix. Just don’t ask them to remember who the guy is.
“They still call me ‘new kid,’” infielder Connor Kiffer said on July 13, just two days after joining the team.
Indeed, whether it’s on the bus or in the dugout, players can be heard hollering the phrase. Gorrell said it typically takes a week for the guys to remember a ‘new kid’s’ actual name.
Mafia isn’t the only way for a newcomer to bond with AppleSox players. Take a look at the bases the next time a player drives in a run and/or collects an extra-base hit. You’ll notice the AppleSox player look toward the dugout and rapidly sway his hands back-and-forth with his palms facing his teammates.
Team’s celebrating big base-hits is nothing new across various levels of baseball, but every team has a different celebration for a different reason. The Sox’ inspiration came from their do-it-all All-Star, Ryan Altenberger.
“It came from a game that Alty created,” Gorrell said, “where the queen always wins when it’s played. Every time a queen is drawn he says ‘all hail the queen.‘“
Altenberger isn’t much of a talker, but he’s been a rallying point for this team. When he does speak, be it jokingly or seriously, his teammates notice. When Altenberger goes deep and flips his bat, his teammates notice.
Leadership isn’t always about giving a rah-rah speech. It can just be about keeping team energy loose and stepping up wherever needed. Altenberger has played every position on the field except for center field, pitcher, first base and catcher. Soon, he’ll get to scratch one of those positions off his checklist.
“I owe him an inning at some point,” head coach Kyle Krustangel said. “Before the end of this season, you’ll see Ryan on the mound for one inning. I’ve lost a couple of bets this summer and I always pay up.”
Perhaps the most hilarious of instances in which Krustangel lost a bet came back on June 20. Pitcher Owen Leonard bet Coach Krustangel that if the Sox took a 10-run lead over the Port Angeles, that he would be allowed to go out to the mound for visit.
Wenatchee led 12-0 after seven innings and after allowing two runs in the ninth, Leonard came out to chat with pitcher Sam Wyatt. However, Leonard wasn’t in jersey and a ballcap. Instead, he donned sunglasses, an AppleSox coaching staff jacket and a coach’s batting helmet. Leonard played the part perfectly, motioning to home plate umpire Dustin Catron that he was visiting Wyatt and was granted time. Both umpires didn’t catch on, but Wyatt and the AppleSox defenders and dugout couldn’t help but crack up.
The fun isn’t only for the players. The Sox also have fun with their bat kids, both at home and on the road. At Paul Thomas Sr. Stadium, players and coaches make sure to alert both bat kids stationed in the respective dugouts to remember to race each other for foul balls behind home plate. The time in between pitches is no longer boring as visiting teams and the AppleSox cheer for their bat kid to return to his/her dugout with a prize.
On the road, if the Sox don’t have a bat kid, pitcher Jake Saum has usually filled the bill as the ball retriever. Last week in Kelowna, Saum and a sweatshirt-wearing Falcons player delighted fans by sliding for foul balls behind the spacious home plate at Elks Stadium.
Whether it’s playing Mafia on the bus, hailing the queen or chasing after foul balls, the AppleSox have bonded and endeared themselves to fans both in Wenatchee. The summer season might only last two-and-a-half months, but the players are making the most of it both on and off the field.