Life in the Minors
Championship memories set aside for some new goals
If returning to coach in the same town I played in nine years ago isn't enough for me to feel reminiscent, our opening weekend gave me plenty of reason to think about my baseball past.
Standing atop my perch on the top step of our home dugout here at Bosse Field for the past three days has been a little surreal. Looking out onto the field this week, I've seen two teams that look very familiar to me.
In our dugout, of course, has been my current team, the Evansville (Ill.) Otters. After two weeks of spring training, it was great to get out onto the field and open our season. Thankfully, we've pitched well and hit well in our first three games and are 3-0 heading into our first road trip.
The dugout across the diamond feels familiar to me as well. We have been playing against my ballclub from last season, the Windy City Thunderbolts. To say that what we had in Windy City was special would be an understatement. Last year, we set numerous Frontier League records -- including a standard for wins -- on the way to capturing the league championship.
During the regular season, we went 68-28, good for a .708 winning percentage. We opened the season 31-5 and had seven players selected to the league's all-star game.
We won our division by 15 1/2 games and swept through our league semifinal series against the Rockford Riverhawks. In the finals, we went down two games to none to the Washington Wild Things before rallying for three straight victories to bring home a championship to a franchise that had never even posted a winning campaign.
It was a dream season and one we won't likely experience again. Most amazing of all, we finished the season with 22 or 23 of the 24 players we ended spring training with. In other words, we had 22 or 23 of the same players with us from spring training until the end of the season -- unheard of in independent minor league baseball.
We were a close-knit group of players who enjoyed playing together, and the perfect blend of talent and chemistry. Our stars were gamers and our supporting cast accepted their roles.
I also won a championship ring with the Gary SouthShore RailCats in 2005. But the 2007 Thunderbolts' title was different. We were the best team in the league wire to wire and had a very fitting finish to such a fine season.
So of course, seeing my old Windy City teammates on the field here the last few days has been fun. Catching up with the boys I haven't spoken to since our championship celebration on the infield at Standard Bank Stadium was nice.
I have many fond memories of my time with Mike Kashirsky, Brock Hunton, Amos Ramon, Mike Coles, Phil Hawke, Scott Billak, Eric Fussell, and Gilberto Mejia. Being able to chat with them around the batting cage was great.
It was a real treat to finally see Anthony Rebyanski and Wes Long, whom I've stayed in close contact with over the offseason. During our pregame batting practice yesterday, I made plans with Anthony to have lunch today before our final game of the series.
When I pulled up at our visiting team hotel, the Executive Inn, at noon today, two things were certain -- lunch was going to be fun, and packing five fully grown professional baseball players into a two-door 1988 Toyota Tercel hatchback was going to be funny to watch.
All said and done, Anthony, Wes, Matt Petty, Isaac Hess and myself stuffed ourselves into my loaner car for the summer and made our way to the nearest Qdoba, a popular Mexican food chain. As we sputtered onto the Lloyd Expressway, Matt asked me if it was in our best interest to be driving the Tercel onto a freeway.
It was nice to catch up with the guys today as we shared stories of our offseasons and reminisced about the 2007 T-Bolts over burritos. That team will always be special to me, and so will the guys I shared the field with.
But now I hope to match last year's championship season with a happy ending of our own here in Evansville. At this early juncture of the season, I think we will be very competitive and may be able to make a run at the postseason if things fall into place for us. Over the past few seasons, I've quickly learned that each championship is unique. The opportunity to win one is so rare and I know how fortunate I've been to be a part of two winners.
The next time I see the Thunderbolts will be at the championship ring ceremony prior to our series opener in Windy City on Tuesday. I am very anxious to get my ring and see the guys again.
But for now, I am quite happy to be with the Otters, and the great group of guys we have assembled here. I'm hoping we can create some memorable moments of our own.