How do you judge the season that the Jackson Hammerheads had? On the one hand, the boys in baby blue were clearly in the upper echelon of PBL teams. They led the Eastern division for a decent chunk of the season, and remained squarely in the race until the season’s closing weeks. Powered by a strong contact-hitting offense, the Hammerheads scored the most runs of any team in the league. And the pitching staff, while not up to the same standards as the offense, put up decent numbers.
On the other hand, the Hammerheads made no secret of their title-winning aspirations, and on that score they fell short. As owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler put it, “Success is defined by winning championships. We failed. I failed.”
What thwarted Jackson’s title dreams this season? Most observers would point to two things: one trade that went disastrously wrong, and the ongoing struggles of the bullpen.
Butler was one of the league’s most prolific wheeler-dealers, and never shied away from making a trade. But there’s one deal he wishes he never made. At the end of May, with the Hammerheads leading the East by 5 games, Butler made a swap with the team chasing him, the Knoxville Smokies. Jackson sent 1B Eddie Battin and right-handed swingman Sylvester Lighty to Knoxville in exchange for DH Alex Jaramillo, lefty starter Yu Chen, and backup 1B Pete Cianciarulo. The deal was somewhat controversial at the time, as Battin was a hugely popular figure in the Hammerheads clubhouse, while Jaramillo had a reputation as aloof and moody. But on paper, it seemed like an even swap: Battin and Jaramillo were both sluggers having disappointing seasons, and Chen and Lighty were both decent but unexceptional hurlers.
As it turned out, though, the trade was far from even: it was a rout in favor of the Smokies. Jaramillo landed on the DL for more than a month shortly after arriving in Jackson, and wound up continuing his subpar performance after returning (.258 average, 16 HR, 56 RBI, .781 OPS). Chen, meanwhile, stumbled to a 4-3 record with a 5.23 ERA and was booted from the rotation down the stretch.
Battin, meanwhile, turned into Joe DiMaggio after arriving in Knoxville, hitting .324 with 23 HR, 78 RBI, and an incredible 1.024 OPS. Lighty went 8-9 with a 4.35 ERA and became a key part of the Smokies rotation. The trade not only weakened Jackson, opening up a huge hole at first base that they struggled to fill all season, but strengthened their top rival. After the deal was struck, the Smokies went 62-37 and ran away with the division, while the Hammerheads floundered to a 49-50 mark.
While the Battin deal was a self-inflicted wound, Jackson’s bullpen was a festering sore that plagued the team all season. “Our starters pitched well enough to win a majority of the time and we couldn’t hold on all too often,” said Butler. “The pen was a major disappointment, especially the closer role that was supposed to be a strength going in to the season.”
Closer Rick Sheen, the 21-year-old known as “Wild Thing,” was supposed to be a sure thing, the guy who turned late leads into victories. It didn’t work out that way. Sheen made headlines in spring training not for his performance, but for getting into a bar fight. The closer rankled his manager and teammates all season with his hard-partying ways, his fondness for alcohol, and his inconsistent performance. Sheen struggled to earn the trust of manager Lou Hayes, who yanked the lefty in and out of the closer’s role several times. Sheen’s final numbers were decent (3-6, 27 saves in 37 chances, 3.73 ERA, .734 OPS allowed), but well short of expectations.
Sheen admitted that he “had a problem” with excessive alcohol and nightlife, but also blamed his performance on overuse. The lefty had an eye-popping 81 appearances this year, and he complained of suffering from arm troubles down the stretch. “My arm feels like Jell-O right now,” said Sheen.
But Sheen was hardly the biggest problem among the relief corps. The Hammerheads had a couple reliable arms – notably lefty Hilton Sircy and righty Butch Turnbull – but the rest of the pen was full of washouts, malcontents, and basket cases. Jackson had 23 blown saves, the worst mark in the league, and fans at Cash Carter Downs got all too accustomed to seeing early leads go up in smoke.
Ultimately, the disappointing season was overshadowed by the loss of Hayes. The manager suffered a heart attack in August, and passed away shortly after the end of the regular season. Interim manager Eddie Harris, who guided the team to a 13-10 mark in Hayes’ absence, was dismissed.
Apart from finding a new manager, what does the future hold for the Hammerheads? According to the whiz-kid GM, more trades. “Y’all know me, how I make a living,” said Butler. “I’ll fix this team but it ain’t gonna be easy, bad bullpen.” Clearly, the Battin fiasco didn’t kill his enthusiasm for dealing.
What are the pieces the team needs? According to Butler, he’ll be looking to upgrade the offense as well as the pitching. “This team was built to score runs,” said the owner. “Score runs we did. Not enough.” With a wink, Butler said the team’s offseason priorities are “bolstering the bullpen, adding another solid starter, and getting on base.”
One more thing on Butler’s list: recapturing the spirit of the winning ways that put Jackson atop the division for a time early in the season. That early run we were on – epic,” said Butler. “However when we won, we had that eye of the tiger, now we gotta get it back. And the only way to get it back is to go back to the beginning.” If they can do that, the Hammerheads might just meet Butler’s goal and “win the whole f***in’ thing.”