Life in the Minors

By Brendan Sagara

Walk-off home run
gives Dragons early exit
from playoffs

Sitting here in my hotel room at the Salbasgeon Suites in Corvallis, Ore., I am simply trying to catch my breath. Since our team was eliminated from the Frontier League playoffs a couple of days ago, my mind has been going a thousand miles per minute.

Besides having to sell my wonderful $400 car, and packing, and calling United Airlines to change my reservations to meet up with the Hawaii Wahine soccer team in my return to reality and my "off-season" job, I had to make sense of all that has happened over the summer.

The past few days, the past few months have been a blur. After 87 games, 783 innings, 52 wins, 43 road games and what seemed to have been about 3,000 bus hours, the 2002 Frontier League season has come to a crashing halt for the Dubois County Dragons.

With one swing of the bat league Most Valuable Player Phil Willingham ended what seemed to be a pre-destined journey that had us helping our manager, Greg Tagert, capture his first championship ring in seven consecutive playoff appearances.

Having enjoyed one of the most successful seasons in the history of the Frontier League was quite the enjoyable ride. Having won our second consecutive West Division title by seven games, we were the first to capture a divisional pennant this year.

Our 52 wins were the most ever by a Dragons team, and the most by a West Division club, even. We had a strong, well-rounded ball club that had the second-best team batting average in the league, and the third-best team ERA in the division. At times this year we had run teams off the field, scoring 10 or more runs on numerous occasions, and throwing up zero after zero on others.

Needless to say we entered the playoffs quite confident, but never over-confident. We were sure but not cocky. So after we dropped the first game of the best-of-three series on the road at the Richmond Roosters, we were stirred but not shaken. We knew that with two more chances at home, we had a pretty good shot at advancing to the Frontier League Championship Series.

So with a 3-1 lead in Game 3, and our closer Derek Lopez dispensing 93 mph heat toward home plate, it seemed as though victory was in hand. After a lead-off strikeout of pinch-hitter Leroy Dunn in the top of the ninth, we cheered. Following a flyout to left field by Roosters catcher Jeremiah Klosterman, we got excited. The front office staff had already placed a rather large cooler of beer in the clubhouse. The stadium was rocking and our hearts were thumping. All the long bus rides, the months away from home, the motels, were all of a sudden worth it all.

But then there was a hit-by-pitch, and then a single to right field, and then the 3-2 fastball to Mr. Willingham that ended it all. It all materialized so quickly that none of us in the dugout had enough time to gather a response. We were awe struck. Amazed. Disheartened.

And there it all went. The championship drive, the season, the fantasy. The fat lady had sung. Ball game.

So as we all scooped our hearts up off the floor of the home dugout at League Stadium in Huntingburg, Ind., and started to pack up for the offseason, we all felt cheated. With all that had happened this season, we all felt that things were just falling into place as we made our way to the title. But it was not to be.

For our manager, it was back to Vacaville, Calif. to his wife and four children. For our all-star third baseman and resident exhibitionist Dennis Pelfrey, it was back to Dallas to help coach his alma mater, Northwood University. For Cody Fisher, our rascal southpaw who overcame his slump to lead the team with a 9-3 record, it was back to the sleepy town of Olney, Ill., where he will be driving the fork lift at the Wal-Mart distribution center once again. Offseason for veteran reliever Brent Kelley means job hunting. After signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks and then with a couple of teams in the Frontier League, "BK" finally got his degree this past spring. Now it is time to move on.

The good-byes are always a little tough. This season's unexpected early exit made my exit even more rough. Saying good-bye to my host mom, Viola Scherry, was tough. Over the past two years she has made me feel like a part of her family.

Saying goodbye to our batboy, Luke Vogt, was tough as well. We kept trying to walk away from each other after our year-end team meeting at our stadium, but we just couldn't do it. So I just tried to give him about 15 years of life advice in 15 minutes. Who knows if I will ever see either of them again.

The one friend I didn't really have to say goodbye to was my pal Rick Kuwahara, who joined me in southern Indiana as a Dragons front office intern for the season. I will be seeing him everyday as we carpool to and from UH each day, battling the kind of gridlock you just don't see in a town of 5,000 people like Huntingburg.

With all of the experiences I was able to enjoy this summer, one of my highlights was being able to share my thoughts with all of the faithful readers of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

Thanks for enjoying the ride with me.

Brendan Sagara, a former University of Hawaii-Hilo
pitcher, is in his second year as pitching coach for
the Dubois County (Ind.) Dragons.

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