The Weird, The Wild, and The Wonderful

Now that the World Series has ended, the baseball off-season is truly here. But whether it’s working for a team, following winter leagues, or keeping tabs on free agency and player/coach movement, things don’t really ever stop.

After taking a look at some of the more memorable, traditional on-field moments in the last post, this time we’ll crack open a six-pack of the more of the uniquely eventful moments the team encountered both on and off the field in 2013.  Some of you may know I regularly contribute to Benjamin Hill’s monthly “Crooked Numbers” feature on Needless to say, I’m a big fan of the out of the ordinary.

6) Balk-Off Loss

We’re not too far removed from  a World Series that had two games–on back-to-back nights, nonetheless–end in unusual fashion. The RedHawks’ loss in Omaha on June 6 ended in a way you don’t exactly expect to see.

Leading 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth, the Storm Chasers had runners at first and second with one out after back-to-back walks. Omaha catcher Adam Moore came up next and sent a ground ball to third base, which off the bat appeared to have high potential for a game-ending double play. Brandon Laird fielded the ball and threw to second base to get the force out, but Jake Elmore’s throw to first was errant, allowing the tying run to score. When Elmore played with the RedHawks, I don’t think there was much debate he was the best defensive second baseman in the league. Even though the runner moving to second was not all that close, causing no need for a rushed throw, it was just one that unfortunately got away from Elmore.

After an infield single put runners at the corners, pitcher Jose Valdez did the now illegal fake-to-third, look-to-first move. All three umpires immediately called a balk, allowing the winning run to score as the RedHawks sustained a 2-1 defeat.

Closing out games in Omaha the past two seasons has been a major bugaboo for the RedHawks. Of their nine losses during regular season play at Werner Park, four have occurred after they led in the game’s final inning. And that’s not counting Game 3 of this year’s playoff series, which saw the Storm Chasers overcome an eighth-inning deficit en route to ending the RedHawks’ season.

Now the RedHawks aren’t alone in this regard. Ever since Werner Park opened in 2011, the Storm Chasers have performed extremely well there and have won the American Conference each year. Beginning next season these two teams will be in the same division, so wins at that place will be more crucial…and losses like the one they’ve endured will be more heartbreaking.

5) Role Reversal

It’s not all that unusual for a team to use a position player to pitch late in a game that’s out of reach, or if the game lasts several extra innings. But it’s extremely rare to see two position players pitch for the same team in the same game.

Well it happened on June 14 against Round Rock. Down 11-2 in the eighth inning, manager Tony DeFrancesco decided to have do-it-all utility man Andy Simunic pitch in order to save some bullpen arms. Simunic tossed a scoreless eighth, but with one out in the ninth, he hurt his elbow. Outfielder Che-Hsuan Lin replaced him and retired both batters he faced to end the inning.

It was the first time the RedHawks had two position players pitch in one game since Aug. 2, 2006 when Tom Gregorio and Adam Morrissey combined to throw three shutout innings in an 11-inning win over Las Vegas. (Morrissey got the win. Here’s the box score.)

Although it was a fun little novelty to see in a blowout loss, it did not have a happy ending. Simunic’s elbow injury turned out to be worse than originally thought, and he did not play the rest of the season.

4) Snow Day…In May

Weather issues were a theme all throughout the season. The RedHawks had 13 games affected by inclement weather: nine postponements, two delayed starts, one game completed early, and one suspended. (I nominated this to serve as the unofficial theme song of the season.)

After playing a chilly home game against Nashville on May 2, the team boarded the bus due north to Des Moines.  I woke up around 7 a.m. and everything around me was white. We knew there was a possibility there would be snow up there, but you still don’t expect to see it on May 3.

The game was postponed very early in the day, and the I-Cubs posted a photo gallery of scene at the stadium. While walking around downtown Des Moines that afternoon, I felt like I was back in college in Chicago on a late January day. Even though I’m not usually affected by weather one way or the other, even I’ll admit it was just miserable. Although most of the snow melted by the next day, it continued to rain and that game had to be postponed at as well. Now faced with having to eventually play two doubleheaders, the two teams completed one of them on May 5 and scheduled the other for May 26, setting the stage for…

3) Out of Order

During Game 1 of that doubleheader on the 26th, Brandon Laird was a late scratch from the lineup, forcing the RedHawks to make some last-minute changes. In the new lineup, Jason Jaramillo was batting seventh and Andy Simunic was batting eighth.

However, when the seventh spot in the lineup came up in the second inning, Simunic was at the plate. He ended up with an RBI groundout. Jaramillo followed and drew a walk, but would not score. At this point, Iowa did not appeal or mention anything to the umpiring crew.

When the seven spot in the lineup came up next time in the fourth inning, Jaramillo went to the plate and drew another walk. It was then Iowa’s manager went to speak with the home plate umpire. As rule 6.07 essentially states, the lineup submitted at the beginning of the game is the final lineup, so Jaramillo was batting in his correct spot. Simunic came up next and struck out.

Had Iowa appealed in the second inning after Simunic batted out of order, Jaramillo would have been called out, no run would have scored, and Simunic would have gone back to the plate to hit in his correct spot.

It caused mass confusion all over the stadium, especially in the press box. It’s just about the worst case scenario for that game’s data stringer–the person responsible for inputting all the computer code in real time which eventually results in this. An event like that sets up an ultimate battle of man vs. machine, which can take a long time to settle.

2) Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Travel in the Minors, especially the PCL, can be…interesting.  In case you’re unfamiliar, teams will travel by either charter bus or commercial flight, depending on the distance. Due to the tight timelines of playing 144 games in 152 days, if one little thing goes wrong or gets off-schedule, it can lead to quite the chain reaction.

Everyone has their travel horror stories throughout the Minors, but what occurred between May 15-16 while traveling to Sacramento will be an all-timer.

The league does a good job at planning off/travel days when teams make their longest trips. May 15 was a travel day for us, and the plan was fairly simple: fly out of OKC around 6 p.m. to Dallas and then catch a connecting flight to Sacramento. By gaining two hours in the process, we would get in at a reasonable time and give everyone an opportunity to be well-rested for the next day.

Our flight was delayed by about an hour due to some rainy weather. No big deal. Our plane arrives, we board, and everything seems fine. The plane was literally at the front of the taxi line, ready to take off when the captain announced that since there were some extremely heavy storms in Dallas, all traffic in and out of DFW had been halted.

We went back to the gate and waited for some kind of news. About an hour goes by before they make the announcement that not only had our flight been cancelled, but there were no available flights in the morning. When you’re traveling with a group of about 30 people, this is not an easy problem to solve, to say the least.

After some tireless work by Athletic Trainer Jamey Snodgrass and Baseball Operations Manager Mitch Stubenhofer, the new plan was in place: The team would reconvene at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark around 3 a.m. in order to bus to DFW and be placed on flights to Sacramento interspersed throughout the day.

Fortunately, Tony D and a couple of the players who live on the west coast had gone home after our day game a couple days prior and were able to travel to Sacramento on their own. But the overwhelming majority of players and coaches still had to make their way halfway across the country.

I was about one of 10 people to be placed on a direct flight relatively early. (*I would like the record to reflect that several times I volunteered to take a later flight. It’s not that I wanted to miss the game, but I understand what my role is. The game has to go on whether I’m there or not. Apparently it was relatively complicated to switch me to a later one, so off I went.)

I was sitting at the gate with pitching coach Steve Webber when former NBA player and current Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson sat down near us. We would later find out he was at a meeting in Dallas that ensured the NBA’s Kings would stay in Sacramento and not move to Seattle. (When we arrived in Sacramento there was a huge horde of media/fans waiting for him, although we joked they were really there for us.)

Since our group reached Sacramento with no further issues, we knew we would be able to play that night. However, most of the others weren’t so lucky. Almost everyone else was placed on a flight out of DFW to Los Angeles with a connection to Sacramento. The flight to LAX was delayed, and as a result, the group missed the connecting flight. This resulted in further chaos. Guys were sent all over the place, with even some flying to San Francisco and busing to Sacramento. Certain players did not arrive at the stadium that night until the game was almost over.

As I pointed out, though, we had enough to play. And not only did they play, they somehow won despite all the travel hurdles. The key play was a two-out, bases-clearing bloop double by Andy Simunic in the seventh inning. (Knowing Andy, it’s not surprising he’s prominently featured in many of these goofy occurrences.)

I’m sure there will be some travel maladies again next year because there always are, but it’s going to be hard to top that.

1) Helping Hands

There was nothing weird or strange about this one, but it was the best off-field moment of the season and I wanted to include it. When the devastating tornado struck Moore on May 20, the team was 1,500 miles away in Fresno. Although the team was eager to help, there was one problem: over the next 21 days, the team would be on the road for 17 of them.

There was a small window during a home series against Omaha, and on May 29, a group of about 12 players and some of their significant others went to assist with the cleanup efforts. Keep in mind this was not something directed or required by the RedHawks or the Astros. This was all initiated by the players, even though their schedule didn’t exactly make it “convenient” to do so.

RedHawks 01

The RedHawks contingent that helped with tornado cleanup in Moore.

Rubble Hat

A hat found in the rubble during cleanup. It hung in the clubhouse for the rest of the season.

But they weren’t the only ones. A group of Omaha players helped out as well, led by pitcher Everett Teaford. The day after the tornado struck, he called the RedHawks front office to see how he could get involved, knowing the team was scheduled to go to OKC soon thereafter.

Members of the Omaha Storm Chasers in Moore.

Members of the Omaha Storm Chasers in Moore.

The general sentiment among those who went was that it was a heartbreaking experience, but one they were proud to be a part of and only wished there was a way they could do more.

The Storm Chasers’ willing to help was symbolic of how the baseball community responded on the whole. I can’t even begin to tell you how many calls/texts/emails we received in wake of the tragedy. Both Iowa and Omaha also went out of their way to put on fundraisers when the RedHawks were in town to aid the cause. It was remarkable and uplifting to receive support from all over the country.

Hope you enjoyed taking a look back at moments. Thanks for reading.


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