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Baseball teams don't advance in minor league baseball. Individual baseball players do.


"More than the playoffs, the end of the season was a time to reflect on what we had learned and how we had improved in our first year in the minor leagues."
Bob Kipper,
former ML player, 8 seasons

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Now I Know How Casey Felt
Memories of a Minor League Season

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SEVEN: The Playoffs (September 3-September 4)

GAME ONE

Friday was dark and cloudy. Threatened to rain any minute as they gathered in the parking lot and waited for the bus. The pile of green bags was high and so were their spirits. After fighting the bronchitis plague that swept the team and the dog days attitude of the last two weeks, the Rojas grand slam and the good pitching for the past week had them fired up and ready to win.

Medford knew they'd face Kirk McCaskill (5-5, 4.29 ERA) and Rafael Lugo (7-3, 2.88 ERA), but they didn't know which one would go first. Anyway, Medford opener Eric Barry had won more games than those two combined.

"Here comes the bus," Goodie shouted. He stood where the bus usually stopped, pulled a whistle out of his pocket, and directed traffic. "Take your time. There's enough room for everyone," he teased. "First all the homies to the back of the bus. He personally escorted Vince Bailey, Mikki Jackson, and Elton Hooker down the aisle to the back of the bus where there was a lot more leg room. Then blew his whistle a few times as he returned to the front and let the rest of the team board.

As usual, Rogers was the last to get on the bus. "Well," he said as if starting another team meeting, "it looks like Goodie's practicing for his off season job. Crossing guard. Seriously, or should I say 'series-ly' do you want to stay at the motel in Salem and come back here tomorrow morning or come back after the game tonight?"

"Tonight!" they all shouted.

The ride was fairly quiet. They were all caught up in their own thoughts and memories of the season, not to mention the final challenge ahead of them.

Actually, Jim Good must have been saving a huge tantrum. Dennis pulled him aside and told him Tom Colburn would catch the playoffs because Rogers was afraid Good's finger injury could interfere with his peg to second. He wanted to stop Salem's running game.

As much as they all liked Goodie and knew he wanted to play, they also knew Dennis Rogers was being logical. Colburn was a good catcher.

"Are you thinking about tonight's game?" Kaiser asked Gorman.

"Yeah. That and tomorrow's game," Mike smiled.

"I'm thinking about that third game. I finished with an 8-1 record and my ERA of 5.49, the highest of my life, had been coming down steadily since July. This shot, this chance to showcase, will show Dennis' confidence in me."

"It's common knowledge that they like you and have included you in their future plans. Besides," Gorman kidded, "you're a southpaw. You'll get a nice long look."

It seemed like the big bats were up tight already. Bathe, Rojas, Good, Strom, Laurenzi, Eppard, Thoma, and Graham went over Salem's lineup in their heads as Rogers suggested. "Their team speed could cause us to make a lot of defensive mistakes. The only way we can compensate for that is to outscore 'em," Bathe said. "Let's approach it that way and put the pressure on them."

The papers all over the league agreed that the underdog Angels were taking on the "bad boys of Medford." They had everything to lose and the Salem Angels had everything to gain. It seemed a unanimous conclusion among the entire team that when the chips were down, when there's something on the line, they could play for pride and win. Period. But, because of his health, Mikki Jackson and his lucky Spiderman button were left behind in Medford.

The true fact that gnawed at all of them was what they had done to themselves. They had been doggin' it for two weeks while Joe Maddon's young players had to fight to win their division and they had all the momentum going their way.

They stopped for hamburgers, then got to the park by four o'clock. The place was already crawling with fans and the game wouldn't start until half-past seven.

"Remember, Chemeketa is just another ballpark," Rogers began as the bus pulled to a stop. "Forget what's happened before, and stay in the present. Remember who you are. You're the Medford A's!" He clapped his hands and started to exit the bus.

They clapped back. "Yeah, we're the bad boys from Medford," Strom shouted.

"C'mon beeeeeeeg guys. We can doooooo eeeeeeet!" Godwin added once again flashing his grin.

"Loose hands. Loose feet," Rogers said as they ran out for BP and infield. It was noticeable that Salem was loose and Medford was tense. Medford players felt the pressure. They looked rigid in the batting cage.

They felt better when a large group of fans from Medford arrived. They brought every noisemaker they could gather and used them with gusto. The brass from the entire league was there as well as several players who decided to watch the games before heading home.

A few minutes before the first pitch they gathered in a tight circle and shook hands to wish each other a good game.

Barry was confident after he warmed up. "Don't worry, guys, I feel great. On top. Ready to go out there and put 'em out of business. All you have to do is get me a run or two. Think you can handle that?"

He joked the way he always did to keep himself pumped up. They were used to it and didn't pay much attention.

By the time the game finally started the park was packed to the brim. Many more Medford fans were mixed with the Salem fans. It was electric.

The game wasn't very long. Salem drew first blood in the bottom of the first. They scored an unearned run on an error and a wild pitch. Colburn gave the ultimate trying to keep a glove on Barry's pitch and block the runner at the plate. But it was hopeless. The ball sailed and bounced off the screen.

When they came in at the end of the inning, Colburn felt awful. It showed. Barry was mad. That showed, too. Barry shut out Salem for the rest of the game, but it wasn't enough.

That one play put one run on the scoreboard. But what really decided the outcome was pitcher Kirk McCaskill himself. All by himself. He pitched the kind of game all pitchers dream about. He only faced 29 batters, gave up two singles, and struck out thirteen. Final score: Salem 1 - Medford 0.

The ride back to Medford was so quiet they could practically hear each other breathe. They were stunned. Their worst fear had happened. They froze. They couldn't hit. The only one who did perform up to expectations was Eric Barry.

As they got off the bus at Miles Field somebody said, "Well, that's baseball."

"Yeah. Baseball's a funny game."

GAME TWO

When they arrived at Miles Field at 3:30 for the 7:00 game, they were pleased to find green and gold streamers everywhere. Rock music blasted. It was a carnival atmosphere. Someone made and hung a twenty foot banner behind the A's dugout that said "SALEM - SEE YA!" in huge green letters.

Everyone was ready for fun, but the team knew this game could be the last of their season. It was the first time they felt the "must-win game" pressure. They didn't like it.

Jeff Kaiser and Mike Gorman sat in the bullpen area away from the others. Mike inserted some dip.

"Yeah, I know. You're gonna quit tomorrow," Kaiser laughed.

Gorman knew that in a couple of hours he'd warm up out there for the last time. "Sure, I'd like to win this one and have some kind of fantastic game they'd talk about for years. But let's face it. This is rookie ball. Nobody talks about what goes on here very long. But I just want to make a good showing and hopefully the team'll get me a few runs to work with."

"I understand, Mike. Hell, you've already made your mark for this season. I read in the paper you've done a hundred twenty-two innings pitched, five complete games, and over a hundred strikeouts. That should count for something down the road, huh?"

Gorman winked and interrupted. "Uh, it's a hundred three strikeouts, but who's counting? Are you worried about your game tomorrow?"

"Not worried about the game per se, just concerned that there will be a game. Frankly, though, my victory came when Rogers offered it to me. That confidence meant everything as far as this season goes. Now we'll both go to Instruction League and meet more people there who can teach us and help our progress. You know. Besides, Dennis told me to turn negatives into positives, so if I don't get the final game, I can't lose it!"

"Well, take my advice and don't put any undue stress on that arm tonight because I have a feeling you're gonna need it tomorrow, at least if I have anything to say about it."

As the A's finished BP a little after five the crowd from Salem arrived. They made sure the Medford players heard all their chatter about the champagne party they had planned at the motel after the game.

"What the hell are they so excited about?" Graham shrugged. "You'd think it was the first time they'd ever beaten us." He sat down in the dugout and leaned his head back against the wall.

Mikki Jackson flitted all over the place with a little side show of his own. "Hey, Man, lighten up. I got ALL my Spiderman buttons on. All sixteen of 'em. See." With both hands, he pulled his uniform jersey up over his face and there they were. Sixteen Spiderman pins in two neat rows across his chest. "Everything's cool. How can we miss now?"

"Who said Ringling Brothers had the greatest show on earth?" Thoma laughed.

Jackson continued, "C'mon, get out them rally caps! He grabbed several player's caps right off their heads, turned them inside out and shook them over their heads. He'd done that before, but tonight they really needed it.

Rogers called them inside the clubhouse a few minutes before game time.

"I assume you all saw that banner just outside the door? Remember it. We're the better team. Gorman finished 11-3 with a 3.11 ERA. Lugo was 7-3 with a 2.88 ERA. We out hit them. We out scored them. And tonight we're gonna out play them. We're gonna do all that right here in our own field in Medford."

His usual pause was followed by silence.

"Don't let me hear any more talk about plane reservations and going home. Don't think about last night. Don't dream about next week. We still have two more games to win here. Stay in the present."

He walked away.

"Hey you guys," Graham stood up. "Before we go out there, I'd like you to autograph this ball for me. It's for Bert Stancliffe."

They hurriedly signed it and Brian ran into the stands and gave it to the 97-year-old gentleman who had gone to every home game of the season.

The game finally began. Once again Salem got off to a fast start. They scored four in the first. In the bottom of the inning, Eppard singled to right. Strom and Bathe walked to load the bases. Graham stepped into the batter's box slowly. He looked intimidating as he stared at Lugo. He hit the first pitch and bounced out second to first. Medford left the bases loaded without scoring.

Gorman retired the side one-two-three in the second. Then Lugo struck out the side: Peterson, Rojas, Good.

When they took the field in the top of the third, Ray Thoma waited until the batter was positioned in the box, then called time. He signaled for the infielders to join him at the mound.

"Look like we're having a serious conference out here till the ump comes out to ask us what's gong on. It'll mess up that kid's timing. Oh, and I have some advice for you, Mike. Know what to do with an elephant with three balls? Walk him and pitch to the rhino."

"Here comes the ump," Bathe whispered.

"And not a moment too soon," Gorman winked at Thoma.

They all slapped hands and returned to their own positions.

You know what they say about best-laid plans. Salem got two singles in the top of the third which converted to another run. In the bottom Thoma was out on a long fly to right. Laurenzi copied. Eppard grounded out second to first.

The Medford fans, always lively, went crazy. They stomped their feet, clapped their hands, and yelled "Let's go A's! Let's go A's!" That overflow crowd was always thought of by the team as the tenth man. The team welcomed their support in this game.

Gorman had a routine fourth. The A's went to the plate ready to rally. Pete led off, but was called out on strikes on a very low pitch. It was the first time he'd argued all season. Rojas walked, then got caught stealing second. Colburn, pinch-hitting for Good, struck out swinging.

After giving up two hits to the first two batters in the sixth, Mike Gorman left the game to thunderous applause. He was a favorite in Medford and the fans eagerly showed their appreciation. Awesome Ed Myers went in and retired the side.

Things heated up when Medford went to bat. Thoma grounded out third to first. Laurenzi beat out an infield single. With Eppard at the plate, Laurenzi was called out stealing second on a very close play. This was the last straw! Medford players felt sure that these umps had given every close call last night and in this game to Salem. Tempers flared. Gary Wiencek, son of Scouting Director Dick Wiencek, was the first base coach for this game. He was ejected along with a player in the dugout who threw folding chairs out on the field from the dugout in protest. After that ejection, helmets, bats and gloves were tossed all over the infield.

The umpires went over to the Medford dugout and issued a warning to Dennis Rogers. When they turned and walked away the team gave them the royal salute.

Fans were irate. They stomped, shouted, and threw debris all over the field. Nobody was going to mistreat their Mighty Medford A's and get away with it!

When the dust settled, Medford had two out, nobody on. Jim Eppard took his slow, sweet time getting back into the box. He eventually grounded out second to first.

The top of the seventh was well under control thanks to the Myers curveball. After a long, raucous seventh inning stretch, the team went to bat. They were determined to get some of those runs back!

"Let's go A's! Let's go A's!" That chant followed every pitch. Every play. On a full count Bathe hit a lazy fly to right. Graham took a called third strike. Peterson flew out to deep right.

Silence. Disbelief.

Salem added more insurance in the eighth. One unearned run. God. Behind by six.

"Come on boys, don't wait till the ninth. Get hose runs NOW! Let's go A's! Let's go A's!" The foot stomping, yelling, and clapping had become frenzied.

When Rojas led off with a bouncing single to right, the noise level doubled. Colburn's grounder to short was a double play ball for sure. WAIT! Mark McLemore booted it. All hands were safe. Two on with nobody out. Everyone in the dugout stood at the edge of the rail. The pitchers in the pen ran into the dugout. This was it. They just knew it.

The fans knew it, too. "LET'S GO A'S!" roared from the stands. Thoma approached the plate. He crossed himself. He looked determined to turn the game around. He hit the first pitch. A long fly to deep right. Everyone gasped. Caught. Runners were unable to advance. When Tony Laurenzi stepped up to the plate the players in the dugout yelled "Come on ICE!" The team felt that if anybody could pop one out of the park, ICE was their man. And they needed him to do it immediately.

After seven foul balls on a full count, he went down swinging. Two out. Two on.

Jim Eppard, the league leading hitter, wiped down his bat and slowly stepped into the box. They knew he'd only hit one homer, but he could get them started. One lucky double off the wall to get them on the scoreboard would be perfect. The hope was short lived. Eppard hit a long foul ball to left. It was caught for the third out.

At the end of eight Medford still needed six runs to tie. A quiet hush settled over Miles Field. It remained quiet as Ed Myers retired the side quickly in the top of the ninth.

Then came the explosion. "LET'S GO A'S!" The fans pleaded with them to pull it out and take this playoff series to the third game.

They knew they were the dream team. But they saw panic and disbelief in each other's faces. Their frustration already surfaced with the name-calling-chair throwing fiasco. Now they needed to end it with their bats. They needed at least six runs this inning for that to happen.

"Okay Harmon," Good called to Phil Strom as he prepared his bat. "This is it. No big deal. All we need is six to say alive." They exchanged high fives and Strom hopped out of the dugout.

While he fiddled in the on deck circle, "C'mon beeeeeeg guy, you can dooooo eeeeeeet!"

He was psyched. He stepped up to the plate ready to kill the ball. Determination and tension showed on his face. He really wanted to start that rally. Instead he grounded out third to first. One out.

Bob Bathe approached the plate slowly, shaking his head. How could this be? All goose eggs on the scoreboard. Shit. Two pitches later he was out, second to first. Two outs.

Down to the final out without scoring a single run. The crowd was quiet. Even the streamers seemed to go limp. Brian Graham hit several foul balls, then singled to right. Rogers called Dave Peterson back and sent out Vince Bailey. SWAK! Another hit to right. Bailey on first, Graham on third, two outs. They only needed six to tie. There was hope.

The crowd came back to life and refused to let the team give up. Luis Rojas came to the plate. They remembered his grand slam of two nights ago. "LET'S GO A'S!" was chanted the loudest yet. Three pitches later he was out swinging. He just stood there with the bat dangling from his hand. Nobody moved. For just an instant one could have heard a pin drop. All the air was sucked out of Miles Field.

I was dumbfounded, too. The first thought that came to mind was
"Now I know how Casey felt."

On September 4, 1982, the Salem Angels under the guidance of Joe Maddon, one of the nicest people in all of pro baseball, had won the Northwest League Championship. They did themselves proud. They were the underdogs with momentum in their favor. Three days earlier they won their division by one game with a 34-36 record, a .486 winning percentage. They played well against high odds. Their pitching was better than outstanding. It was magnificent. They pitched eighteen innings against the dreaded "bad boys from Medford." Kirk McCaskill and Rafael Lugo combined efforts to shut them down and shut them out.
 
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