After two months in the Arizona heat, Aaron Nieckula is more than happy to be back in Burlington for his second season as manager of the Vermont Lake Monsters, the short-season Class A team that serves as the Oakland Athletics' team in the New York-Penn League.
"Every time I step outside my hotel and look to the right, I enjoy the view of Lake Champlain and the mountains," he said. "The weather's fantastic, the people are great and it's just a gorgeous part of the country to be in.
"I love going downtown by the water, just kind of hanging out. It's kind of the calm before the storm. Then I come to the field and go to work."
That work began Friday when Vermont opened its 2016 season at Lowell, Mass. And these Lake Monsters will very much be a work in progress as they look to improve on a string of four consecutive 33-win seasons that left them under .500 and out of the league playoffs.
"We need to find a level of consistency," Nieckula said. "Last year at times we really didn't perform the way we could have."
While wins and losses matter, Nieckula knows his first priority is creating the best possible environment for an ever-changing group of 19- and 20-year-olds to develop as players.
"For most of these guys, this is their first experience with professional baseball," he said. "This is Professionalism 101. As a staff we try to show them how to prepare themselves on the field, how to handle themselves off the field. And most importantly, to just get better from Day One to the end of the season."
Nieckula, who is also Oakland's minor league field coordinator, is in his 11th season as a manager, a path he chose after a five-year minor league career. Coming back to Burlington has its advantages.
"It's always nice to have some familiarity with the town, the field, the front office," he said. "The community really supports the team. The fans are engaged and pro-active. What I will tell our players is this is going to be a lot of fun, so come out and enjoy your time here."
This year's major league draft ended just two weeks ago and many of the 41 players Oakland selected are still working out contract specifics and/or going through initial processing at the A's minor league complex in Arizona. Nineteen of that group is pitchers, including A.J. Puk, taken with the sixth overall pick, and Logan Shore, who was chosen early in the second round. They are both still playing for the University of Florida in the College World Series.
Among the new players who might wind up with the Lake Monsters are pitcher Daulton Jefferies (taken 37th overall) and third baseman and fifth round selection JaVon Shelby, the son of former major league outfielder John Shelby.
But Nieckula made the point that he has no idea of who the front office is going to send to Burlington, or when. Last year, a total of 27 pitchers and 20 position players put on the Lake Monster uniform for at least one game.
"In seven to 10 days we may have a completely different roster," he said. "It happens every year. The roster you start with is very rarely the roster you end with. That's just the nature of the business and I think (the players) understand that. Just because you're here now doesn't mean you'll be here in two weeks."
One player who will have a short stay is catcher Carson Blair. He is a rarity in that he has already made his major league debut, playing in 11 games last season after being called up in September by the A's. He is on an injury rehabilitation assignment for a pulled oblique muscle.
Blair, 26, remembers Centennial Field from when he was in Boston's organization and playing for Lowell.
"I think it was our first game when we opened up here in 2010," he said. "I remember it being sold out and it being a good atmosphere. I actually wound up breaking my thumb in the fifth inning, so it wasn't a great memory, but the atmosphere was fun."
Nieckula believes Blair's experience will be invaluable in terms of the leadership he can provide his new teammates and that's a role Blair welcomes, for as long as he's in Burlington.
"At this level you have guys with that youthful exuberance," he said. "For me, it would helpful if I could direct them in how to use that. I know when I was 20 years old in this league, I really wanted to direct that energy somewhere and I really didn't know how to do that."
The Lake Monsters began the season with six players returning from 2015, including pitcher Heath Bowers, who drew the opening night assignment. He was 3-1 with a 2.52 earned run average in 15 games last summer. Pitchers Dustin Driver, Tyler Painton, Jordan Schwartz and Tyler Willman along with outfielder Steven Pallares are the other Vermont veterans.
The current player with the highest draft status is pitcher Dakota Chalmers, a third round selection in 2015.
"I'm the last draft pick from our class to be out of Arizona (where the A's have their rookie short season affiliate) so I'm excited to be here," Chalmers said. "Everything is different and the green grass and cool weather is a nice change, for sure."