Life in the Minors
Controversial call, ejection spark Thunderbolts
I can always tell when baseball season is in full swing, because I never know what day of the week it is.
During the season, I organize my schedule by what town we're in, who we're playing, or who we play next. During the season, my week shrinks from seven days to five, since I consider the first day of the week to be the day our No. 1 starter Eric Fussell's spot comes up in our five-man rotation.
With 96 games in something like 103 days, the season is a lot like riding a roller coaster -- at first, the ride just can't seem to go fast enough. After a little while, everything just kind of goes whizzing by.
Now 30 games into our season I think it's safe to say that we are at the point in the season when everything is steadily turning into one big blur, a very pleasant and happy blur. Just about a third of the way into the schedule, we have been fortunate enough to post a record of 23-7, currently staking claim to the best record in the Frontier League, and a five-game lead in the Central Division.
The past week, though, has been quite memorable.
Just back from a three-city, eight-game road trip through Kalamazoo, Mich., Florence, Ky., and Chillicothe, Ohio, we were pretty happy to get back home this past Monday morning. The road was kind to us this time around, as we went 5-3 on the trip to retain our top spot in the league rankings.
Ever since we got back home, I have to admit that there has been an exciting buzz around our stadium each day. For starters, the Daily Southtown, the local paper that covers the Windy City Thunderbolts, has been working on a feature about the inner workings of a minor league ballclub. Over the past few days, the Southtown's reporters and cameramen have been all over our stadium taking pictures and conducting interviews with our players, staff and front office and baseball operations people and taking pictures of everything from our grounds crew lining the field for a game to our clubbie Tim Brasic sorting our laundry to the goings on in our dugout during games.
The extra bodies and activity have added some commotion to our everyday lives some, but nothing can match the excitement that has been happening on the field lately. For the past week or so, our speedy left fielder Mike Coles has been riding an extended hitting streak. With each at-bat, we were all very aware of what was happening when Mike was at the plate. In all, Mike pushed his hitting streak, which began on opening night, to 25 games before an 0-for-4 performance against the Florence Freedom snapped his run at history just five games short of the league-high 30-game hit streak, which was established in 2000.
But the real excitement happened in the opener of our current six-game homestand against the Freedom. Fresh off a frustrating series in Ohio against the Chillicothe Paints, we couldn't wait to get home and resume playing our brand of baseball. The artificial turf surface at the Paints' stadium played strange and made for a strange series, so getting back onto natural grass at our own park was highly anticipated.
Under usual circumstances, getting off of the bus at 5 a.m. and returning just a few hours later to play another game isn't exactly grounds for motivation. But having played less-than-inspired baseball during this past series, we all couldn't wait to get back to the yard and return to our winning ways. After all, we had won each of our six series until dropping two of three against the Paints.
For the first seven innings, it appeared as though we had left our offense back on the bus, as we were held scoreless. Fortunately, Fussell was on fire. In fact, Eric had a no-hitter until the top of the seventh, when he allowed a base hit with two outs.
We ended the scoreless deadlock in the bottom of the eighth when our second baseman Josh Horn scored on a two-out error by the Florence shortstop on a routine ground ball. Florence evened the score in the top of the ninth to send the game to extra innings and set the stage for the real drama that night.
The Freedom were quickly able to get runners to second and third with no outs in the top of the 10th inning against our hard-throwing right-hander Jeff Mault. With the game seemingly hanging in the balance and momentum not exactly on our side, it seemed as though the tide was turning when Mault was able to pick off the runner at third.
With the runner breaking early on a seeming attempted squeeze play, Jeff calmly picked up his left leg and stepped toward third base to begin the sequence that initially led to the runner being tagged out in a brief rundown.
Florence, of course, went nuts on the umpiring crew, begging for a balk call. Shortly after, the two-man crew got together just behind the pitcher's mound and decided to reverse the call -- resulting in the go-ahead run for Florence.
As expected, our manager Andy Haines sprinted out of the dugout to look for clarification on how the umpires could overturn a call on a play that would in effect give our opponents the lead in the 10th inning. Well, things got heated, and let's just say that Andy got his money's worth from his ejection, complete with the burying of home plate under a pile of dirt, two hat tosses, a Gatorade cooler throw, and the release of several of our bats onto the strip of grass between our dugout and the third-base line. It was definitely worthy of an ESPN mention and the sold-out stadium went absolutely bonkers. Andy received a standing ovation from the 3,000-plus in attendance, and our dugout was going wild as well.
With Andy gone from the game, I took over as acting manager -- the second time I had to take over this season. And then something miraculous happened, in what has been a year of come-from-behind victories and late-inning rallies.
With Twisted Sister's "We're Not Gonna Take it" blaring from the stadium's sound system, our guys got angry. And then they got even.
Horn led off with a walk. Our right-fielder John McCarthy followed with a sacrifice bunt that was mishandled, giving us runners at first and second with no outs. After pinch hitter J.P. Lowen lined out to left field, Rob Marconi singled through the left side of the infield to score Horn and tie the game. McCarthy stole third base soon after, setting the stage for our shortstop Wes Long, who promptly stepped to the plate and drilled a line drive into the gap in left center to win the game, 3-2.
It seems the late-inning adversity was just the remedy for the Thunderbolts, as we have now won five straight games to extend our lead in the Central Division. If things continue to go well for us throughout the rest of the season, we may look back upon that win as one of the defining moments of our season.
It was the game we awoke from our funk, the night we overcame some tough odds. It was the night we decided we were not going to take it anymore.