The 2017 Texas League Championship: The Best and the Worst of Times that Try Men’s Souls

The 2017 Texas League Championship Series. After taking the first two games on the road in Midland, the Tulsa Drillers returned home needing just one win in three games to capture their first title in 19 years. As a Drillers fan, I sensed something magical might happen. As a fan of Texas League baseball, I suspected something magical was bound to happen. As a Texas League historian, I knew historic, if not magical, had to happen. And I intended to be in Tulsa when it did.

Minor league baseball fans are a unique breed, and the 130 year history of the Texas League (TL) offers plenty of proof of what “kranks” will do to support their teams. In fact, fans particularly interested in Double-A baseball face the most gut-wrenching tests of loyalty in all sports. But thanks to the foresight of the TL’s founding fathers, fan loyalty less trying than in some leagues. The split-season format gives even first half tail-enders hope for redemption and a new beginning as the summer heats up. Still, in other ways TL fans face the same challenges found in the Southern and Eastern Leagues.

Double-A rosters change and players come and go faster than pre-school best friends. The first baseman you watch slam 30 home runs over the first 60 games is a distant memory when the playoffs approach. If your team runs away with the first half, expect it to plunge in the second as promotions to Triple-A and an unhealthy dose of complacency take their tolls.

Roster instability is one challenge Double-A baseball fans must learn to live with, but another creates greater difficulties. Even though a city may host a team continuously, few remain affiliated with the same major league club for eternity. Changing operating agreements often make as little sense geographically as they do in terms of building fan loyalty. The TL is no exception.

For years, the Arkansas Travelers were linked to the St. Louis Cardinals. The fit was natural; after all, Arkansas is filled with Cardinals fans. But in 2002, what Travelers fans saw as the perfect arrangement came to an end when St. Louis split ties and eventually affiliated with a new Texas League franchise in Springfield. In the meantime, Anaheim Angels hopefuls arrived in Little Rock each springs. I can attest that Arkansas holds a limited supply of Angels supporters. I can also attest that when the Travelers affiliation changed to the Seattle Mariners before the 2017 season, it meant that with the exception of a few immigrants, not a single Arkansas resident had emotional attachment with the Travelers major league club.

Yes, it takes a special breed of fan to follow minor league baseball on more than a casual basis. The ups and downs are not just season to season; they occur hour to hour. The minors test loyalties, complacency leads to indifference, and fan frustration is noted in the one spot a franchise can least afford it—at the turnstiles. It all makes for a wary existence. Then there are fans of the Tulsa Drillers.

Tulsa’s baseball tradition is as rich as any of the 43 cities to have hosted a TL franchise. Tulsa has fielded TL teams, either as the Drillers or Oilers, for 71 seasons since the 1930s. About 14.5 million fans have attended games over those 7 decades, and Tulsa has seen 53 playoff series for a total of 243 combined home and road contests. For perspective, San Antonio, an original TL member in 1888, has played a total of 118 seasons and appeared in 52 playoff series totaling 229 games. While San Antonio has played about 4,500 more TL contests and has a population nearly quadruple that of Tulsa, its teams have drawn just a half-million more spectators. Tulsa’s TL roots run deep, and aside from San Antonio, it is the longest–tenured city in the circuit.

Even though I hail from Texas and somehow endured growing up in New England, I connected with the Tulsa Drillers rather early in life. The Texas Rangers affiliated with the Drillers in 1977, and for 25 years the route to Arlington passed through Tulsa. My Ranger favorites like Pete O’Brien, Steve Buechele, George Wright, Curtis Wilkerson, Juan Gonzalez, and Ivan Rodriguez all arrived in the big leagues by way of the Drillers. When I moved from New England to Arkansas in 1986, I was in the next best thing to minor league heaven as I could see my Drillers play whenever they visited Little Rock.

When I had kids in the 1990s, we attended many Arkansas-Tulsa games, and my youngsters became ball-gathering magnets. We seldom left the ballpark without at least one ball tossed to us by the likes of Brad Arnsberg and Bobby Jones. The fact we were the only family wearing Drillers caps probably had something to do with it. But the ever-present cloud minor league fans burst in 2002 when the Rangers moved their Double-A team to Frisco and the Colorado Rockies adopted Tulsa. The Rockies? Did Colorado even exist when Tulsa first entered the TL? Nonetheless, I find it immoral to change sporting allegiances, and I stuck with Tulsa.

 

***

 

While minor league baseball fans are unique, overall, my youngest son, Kolton, is probably the most unique sports fan I have met. He follows all sports from English Premier League Soccer to the National Hockey League with equal ferocity. By the time he was 8-years old, Kolton could (and I’m not exaggerating) recite on cue the name, number, and position of any NFL player from the Cowboys starting quarterback to the Jaguars backup placeholder. I guess one acquires such skills when sleeping to the sounds of the NFL Network and measuring Madden PlayStation game time in months rather than hours. If only he had slept to voices of the Algebra Channel commentators. At 19, Kolton’s lifelong fascination with sports is beginning to pay off. The kid who can speak with authority on the disparity of salaries between members of the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams as knowledgably as he can defend every ad-lib error of Tony Romo’s career was named sports editor of his college newspaper—as a freshman.

When it comes to sports, I trust Kolton far more than any network pundit. But when he was born in late 1997, something sinister arrived with him. I call it the “Kurse of Kolton.” In tabulating the four major U.S. team sports and tossing-in the Texas League, English Premier League, and Major League Soccer, Kolton has lived through 142 sporting season. His success rate in terms of championships is 0.007%. That right; seven-tenths of one percent. Kolton has enjoyed just one championship season, coincidentally that of the 1998 Tulsa Drillers who claimed the TL championship when Kolton was 9 months old. Still, he was already a Drillers fan, and he has the bruises to prove it. Kolton is one of the relative few who can honestly claim to have seen the tragic Mike Coolbaugh incident in-person in 2007.  And he was behind home plate in 2014 when the Drillers clinched a trip to the TL Championship in a classic game of shifting momentum against the Travelers

A couple of weeks ago, it appeared the Kurse would be lifted, if only briefly. After winning the second half of the TL’s North Division in the regular season’s final weekend, the Drillers outlasted NW Arkansas in the playoffs’ opening round. In the meantime, the three-time defending champion Midland RockHounds qualified for the playoffs through a tie-breaker, earning the right to take on San Antonio, a rare winner of both the first and second half South Division title. Like Tulsa, Midland took five games to knock the Missions out of contention and earn the right to play for a fourth straight TL title. It would be a rematch of the 2014 championship series when the RockHounds began their spectacular run, besting the Drillers 3 games to 2. Regardless of what happened in 2017, one thing was certain. The final game would be played, and the Bobby Bragan Trophy awarded, at ONE OK Field in downtown Tulsa. Local fans had not seen their team clinch a championship on home turf since 1962, and when Tulsa defeated the RockHounds in Midland in Games 1 and 2, all signs pointed to something magical about to happen in Tulsa.

The Drillers fan in me sensed the magic about to take place; yet, my senses as a TL historian were hardly convinced of the direction the magic wand was pointed. Tulsa winning a championship on its home field and its first in nearly two decades would be historic, but if Midland rallied from three games down on the road to claim its fourth consecutive title, it would be an unprecedented feat, placing the RockHounds just two championship shy of Fort Worth’s six straight championships from 1920-1925. Regardless, when LA Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy was named the Game 3 starter for Tulsa in a rehab assignment, all signs suggested the magic finally rested with the Drillers. I purchased tickets directly behind home plate for the final games of the series, and Kolton and I made the four hour drive from Little Rock to Tulsa. If one of his teams was going to finally win a championship, he deserved to see it in person. I fully-expected a one-night stay.

Game 3 went as expected for Tulsa pitching. Brandon McCarthy threw six solid innings and allowed just two runs. Unfortunately, Tulsa’s powerful bats went silent. The team wrapping 26 hits in 2 games in Midland only managed to scatter 5 against the RockHounds Heath Fillmyer and three relievers. Likewise, the Midland defense, particularly the infield, was outstanding. Second baseman Max Schrock, all five feet, eight-inches of him, robbed Drillers hitters of line drive base hits in every possible scoring situation, and when he didn’t, shortstop Jorge Mateo did. Of course, Tulsa batters Peter O’Brien and Garrett Kennedy helped Midland’s cause when both left the bases loaded in the second and fourth innings. The result was a 2-0 Midland win that sent over 6,000 Tulsa fans home in disappointment. Even the two middle-aged ladies sitting a few rows behind us were silenced after their impressive nine-inning chorus of incessant baseball chants I hadn’t heard since Little League. “Nothing over; nothing through“ and “Home run, single; we don’t care. Hit it! Hit it, anywhere!” will echo in my ears the entire off-season.

The crowd for Game 4 dropped by about half, college football underway and the Oklahoma Sooners competing for fans’ attention. Still, the 3,000+ Drillers fans turning out remained enthusiastic, and the ladies of Section 109 could be heard throughout the ballpark. Unfortunately their efforts were often drowned by an increasingly raucous and frustrated group of Tulsa fans who took their angst out on home plate umpire Sean Allen with every pitch. But the true culprit, and the story of Game 4 from this fan’s point of view, was once again Max Schrock and Jorge Mateo. Schrock, displaying a vertical leap to rival Michael Jordan, again repeatedly robbed Tulsa hitters of line drive base hits. But in Game 4, it was Mateo who made the play of the night.

For the second straight game, Tulsa managed just five hits, but this time they manufactured three runs and entered the bottom of the ninth trailing 6-3.  Drew Jackson led off with a walk, and DJ Peters, in just his second game at the Double-A level, received a free pass on a catcher interference call mutually agreed upon after an umpires’ conference. The tying run came to the plate with no outs in catcher Keibert Ruiz. Ruiz was not only playing in his first game as a Driller and at the Double-A level, he was making just his second plate appearance. For a brief instant, Ruiz didn’t disappoint as he swatted a line drive with sights for the grass in left-center field.  But Jorge Mateo promptly plucked from Ruiz’ pending RBi single from the air and stepped on second base to double-up Drew Jackson who committed too early in his plans to cut the Midland lead to two runs. A batter later, Game 4 was in the books. For the second night in a row, Tulsa’s powerful offense was held to five hits. Through four games the team that hit 168 regular season home runs had not even come close to sending a pitch over the wall. The magician’s wand was at work, and no one leaving ONE OK Field had a clue how matters would be settled Sunday evening in the fifth and deciding game. As for me, I had my suspicions. After all, I couldn’t ignore my roommate and the Kurse he had carried from Little Rock.

With both first round playoff series going five games and the Championship Series set for a Game 5 of its own, it was only natural that rain would interrupt the agony of Drillers fans. After over an hour delay, the game got underway with Drillers pitcher Dennis Santana facing off against Midland’s James Naile. What set up for a fascinating finish to a fascinating series from the historian’s perspective, and a heart-thumping experience from that of a Drillers fan, was about to collapse in a heap of misplays and great memories never created.

Jorge Mateo led off the game for Midland, and he once again made his mark, this time with a ground ball to Tulsa third baseman Erick Mejia. What should probably have been an out ended with Mateo standing beside Mejia on third base after Matt Beaty couldn’t handle the wild throw. With two outs, Viosergy Rosa sent Mateo home with a single, and Midland was on the board with an unearned run. It looked like Tulsa might manufacture one of its own in the bottom of the inning when the leadoff batter was hit by a pitch. But for just the third time in the series, Tulsa attempted to steal a base, and the play at second wasn’t close. After a walk, a single, and a fielder’s choice, Tulsa had runners at the corners with two outs. Just like the previous two games, the runners were left stranded. Tulsa managed a couple of base runners in the second inning, but with the fourth attempted stolen base of the series, Drew Jackson was cut down.

While Santana held the RockHounds bats in check and scattered six hits, Tulsa desperately tried to pull out of a hitting slump that had struck the team at the worst possible moment in its 71-year history.  In the fourth, the Drillers led off the bottom half of the inning with two singles, but a double play silenced the momentum. It was lights out until the bottom of the ninth as Midland clung to its 1-0 lead.  Scott Finnegan came on to close out the game and for the first three batters he did just that, cutting Tulsa with a fly out, a soft line drive to third, and a strikeout to seemingly close the game. But strike three bounce away from catcher Sean Murphy, and Tulsa’s Mejia easily strolled to first base.

Could the magic I had expected really come in the form of a wild third strike followed with a series winning home run? Had any championship ever ended with such an odd twist of fate? I pondered the thought and felt my heart leap ever so slightly as the two middle-aged ladies behind us briefly began another of their incessant chants. Three pitches later Keibert Ruiz bounced a soft ground ball to my new nemesis Max Schrock at second base. The toss to first ended it. The Drillers had dropped 3 consecutive home games after losing just 3 of 23 to end the season. In the process, they managed a total of fifteen hits and three runs while being shut out twice.

The magic that had to happen did. Not only did the Midland RockHounds win their fourth consecutive Texas League title, they did so under almost impossible circumstances, dropping two home games before winning three straight elimination contests against the hard-hitting Drillers in Tulsa.

You may have heard the joke about the West Texas old man sitting on the porch with his 70-year-old son. A passerby mentions rain to be in the forecast. “I sure hope so,” the old man answers. “Not so much for me, but for my son here. After all, he’s never seen rain before.”

I glanced at Kolton who silently chewed his fingernails as we drove back to Little Rock in the wee hours of Monday morning.

He’ll be okay, I thought. After all, it’s his lot in life.

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