Life in the Minors
Brush with a
Hall-of-Famer fires up
The atmosphere around the Dubois County Dragons this past week was a rare blend of elation, relaxation and realization. As the first team in the Frontier League to claim a division pennant, we were able to undo our top buttons, exhale and slump down in our chairs just a bit. The pressure was off. We had secured another West Division crown and with it one of the four precious spots in the league playoffs.
With an 84-game regular season sprint to the finish, we had our money foot on the gas pedal ever since we broke camp in mid-May. After stumbling out of the gates to the tune of a 5-10 record, we regrouped and rebounded to go 47-22 over the remainder of the season, setting a franchise and FL West Division record for wins.
Although we won our division last year, this season's pennant clinching seemed a bit more gratifying. I'm sure that a part of the reason is that we knew we had won it right when the final out was recorded. Last year when we captured our divisional crown we had to wait for the final score rom the River City Rascals-Evansville Otters game in the clubhouse in Springfield, Ill., before we could celebrate.
Perhaps the fact that we clinched by taking two of three from our division rival Rockford on their field made it a little more enjoyable. With four regular-season contests remaining after we had clinched, our guys had a little time to have some fun. For our last game at Rockford, we were able to save our No. 1 starter some pitches. Instead of starting him, we just let him pitch from the fourth inning to the seventh.
In our regular-season ending series at River City, we mixed-up the lineup to let the players relax a bit after all of the stress of the first 81 games.
While virtually all of the position players were asking for an inning on the mound, half of our pitching staff asked for at-bats. We gave in to neither request.
The most fun came in our final game, when our manager, Greg Tagert, literally pulled his batting order out of a hat. With catcher Joe Kalczynski batting leadoff, our usual clean-up guy Josh Tranum hitting second, our all-star third baseman Dennis Pelfrey in centerfield and our 5-foot-8 shortstop J.D. Vidal batting fourth, we played very loose, to say the least...and won.
But with all of the smiles and high-fives going around on the field and in the dugout, the actual highlight of the week came at a restaurant during our final series against the Rascals. With all of the activity and anticipation surrounding the world of baseball during the month of August -- the possibility of a Major League Baseball strike, our Frontier League pennant race, and of course, the Little League World Series, complete with an appearance by the boys and girls of Team Waipio -- all involved with the Dubois County Dragons had baseball on their minds, 24 hours a day.
As if our "baseball high" wasn't already buzzing strong enough, well, we also had a brush with baseball royalty. While eating a booster club-funded lunch at Ozzie Smith's restaurant near St. Louis, we all received the shock of our day when the "Wizard of Oz" himself was spotted strolling ever so gracefully through the eatery.
While, yes, we were eating at his restaurant, we had no idea that Ozzie himself would be there. As he sauntered from the kitchen to one of the eatery's back rooms, where we later discovered he was having a business meeting, he flashed a quick wave, as 27 grown men reverted back to the 6th grade and quietly chanted "Ozzie ... Ozzie ..."
All of sudden I was that little 12-year-old shortstop for the Wahiawa Blue Jays again, trying to imitate Ozzie making one of his quick-release, on-the-run, catch-and-throws of high-choppers off the Busch Stadium AstroTurf. Sure I was in a time warp, but I had company.
As soon as Ozzie left the room, the buzz began: 27 grown men who had rapidly been reduced to pre-adolescence, whispering and oohing and ahhing over baseball's most recent Hall of Fame inductee. Half of the guys rushed over toward the glass case near the entrance of the restaurant where each of Ozzie's Gold Gloves were on display. The other half punched up their cell phones, to tell ... well ... somebody what they had just witnessed.
Never one to be star struck, even I could not help but be impressed. How many times in your life are you in the presence of someone who is the best at their profession? Probably not often.
We had all seen him make history: 13 consecutive Gold Gloves, 15 All-Star Game elections, over 2,000 hits and 500 stolen bases over 19 years with the San Diego Padres and, of course, the St. Louis Cardinals. We were all inspired.
So while my brush with Ozzie Smith was actually quite fleeting, looking back on it now, it was still, for lack of a better word, just plain cool. Through our brush with Ozzie, we were all inspired. An undersized athlete, he used his courage, his intelligence, and his strength to overcome all odds to become a Hall-of-Famer.
The Dubois County Dragons were now ready for the playoffs. After all, we had just visited the "Wizard of Oz."