The California Sharks are gearing up for big things in the postseason. They’ve had a comfortable lead in the West for most of the year, and are almost certainly headed for the playoffs. With that in mind, the Sharks came into Wednesday’s trade deadline looking to bolster their few weaknesses and prepare for a deep run. Their lineup is producing the most runs in the league, so there’s no need for upgrades on that score. Their rotation also looks postseason-ready, especially once knuckleballer Todd Warrant returns from injury. But their bullpen was a reliable arm short; closer Eugene Grace has been inconsistent, and long man Kerry Lopez has struggled badly.
The Sharks addressed that weakness on Wednesday, acquiring veteran left-handed reliever Olen Abernathy from the Milwaukee Bear Claws in exchange for lefty prospect Luke Bond.
“We’ve got one goal this season, and that’s to win a title,” said California owner/GM Colin Mills. “We don’t have a lot of weak spots, but we needed one more good relief arm to strengthen our pen. Olen Abernathy is the guy we wanted, and I couldn’t be happier that we got him.”
Abernathy has postseason experience, as he was a key part of the bullpen that led the Bear Claws to the PBL title in 2015. “Last season, whenever we played Milwaukee I knew we needed to score early,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, “because I knew that Almon, Abernathy, and Buenaventura would shut the door right in our faces.”
The southpaw has been reliable again this season, going 3-5 with a 3.29 ERA. Milwaukee, however, hasn’t been able to repeat its success from last season. With the team struggling, they were willing to make deals to retool for the future. “We ain’t giving up on the season,” said Bear Claws skipper Poss Horton, “but we’re looking at making our team stronger for the long haul.”
Bond is a hard-throwing arm with considerable potential. The 20-year-old southpaw has a fastball that lights up the gun in the upper 90s and a developing curveball. His biggest issue is control; he walks a lot of batters and is prone to firing wild pitches. Last season, Bond was 3-3 with a 5.84 ERA in 22 appearances with the Sharks. This season, he’s been in the minors for California.
“A guy like Luke has the kind of arm you can dream on,” said Horton. “I’m excited to see what [pitching coach] Zane [Stafford] can do with him.”
On Thursday, Butler called a press conference to announce that his team had struck a pair of trades. Thus far, the Heads have completed four swaps before the season has even season. Butler chose to commemorate the occasion in his trademark style, adding another to his self-designated list of titles.
“From now on, you can call me the Sultan of Swap,” said the Jackson majordomo. “Nobody out-deals this whiz kid!”
Both of the most recent deals are meant to fix chinks in the Hammerheads’ armor that were exposed last year. One such area was starting pitching depth. Jackson’s rotation was suspect throughout last season, and wound up being exposed due to injuries. With that in mind, the Heads acquired veteran starter Tony Harris from the Jacksonville Dragons in exchange for the rights to RF Dustin Gonzalez.
Harris, a 37-year-old righty, put up less-than-impressive numbers for the Dragons last season, going 2-6 with a 6.26 ERA in 13 games. He was the target of a particularly vicious rant from since-fired manager Harlan Davidson, who called him “washed up” and told him to “pack his little hobo bindle and hit the road.” But Harris was later diagnosed with a partially torn elbow ligament, which has reportedly healed over the offseason.
“Last year was kind of a lost season for me,” said Harris. “But I’m feeling a lot better and I’m ready to show what I can do. I feel like I’ve still got gas left in the tank.”
Harris is considered a long shot to make Jackson’s rotation, but the Heads hope that he can step in as a veteran innings-eater if injury issues crop up again. “Tony’s exactly the kind of guy we need to have around,” said Jackson manager Bob Henley. “He’s a real pack mule, a guy who can come in and put up steady numbers. Guys like that may seem like a dime a dozen, but when you don’t got one, you sure wish you did.”
Gonzalez, who was picked by Jackson in the seventh round of this year’s draft, is a 23-year-old power-hitting prospect out of Southern California. In his senior season at Cal State-San Gorgonzola, he established himself as an all-or-nothing type of player: he hit .243 with 35 homers and 98 RBI, but also racked up an eye-popping 205 strikeouts.
Gonzalez was unlikely to stick with the Hammerheads, who play in the cavernous Cash Carter Downs and feature a contact-based offense. However, Dragons owner Eric Stetson’s affinity for raw power is well known, and the rookie has a good shot to break camp as a fourth or fifth outfielder.
“Dustin seems like the kind of kid who can put on a show,” said new Dragons skipper Steve Califano. “He hits the kind of bombs that make your neck snap trying to follow them.”
“The Dragons organization has two goals: to win a championship, and to become the premier power organization in the Patriot League,” said Stetson. “Dustin Gonzalez helps us in both of those areas. We wish Tony well.”
“That’s how I operate,” said Butler. “I get a guy in, and if there’s no room for him, I’ll turn right around and ship him back out. That’s why I’m the Sultan of Swap.”
The 36-year-old Ortiz was delighted to be heading back to California. “Back to my adopted home!” said the veteran infielder. “I am very happy to be going back to this team and this city. I was sad when I learned I had been traded away, so to come back is a dream come true for me. I wasn’t even gone long enough to sell my house.”
Ortiz, who hit .383 in a limited run with California last season, is expected to platoon at first base with Jamal Gerke. “I am beyond thrilled to have Max back,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte. “He is a strong and capable player, and I expect that he will do great things with us this season.”
While Ortiz’s reunion with California is a happy occasion, Suarez’s departure from the Sharks brings an end to an unhappy tenure marked with unfulfilled potential. The 23-year-old Mexican native was expected to be a star for California, combining a great glove with blazing speed and a strong batting stroke. However, Suarez’s numbers didn’t match the hype.
While his fielding was as excellent as expected, he proved to be only average as a base stealer (swiping 27 bags in 40 attempted) and a weak hitter, he hit only .236 with a .630 OPS. He was dropped from second to eighth in the order during the season, and became a frequent target of boos.
Suarez lost his starting spot when the Sharks picked CF Justin Canales in this year’s draft, and he was considered a 50-50 shot to make the major-league roster this season. Despite the fact that the writing was clearly on the wall, Suarez was reportedly shocked and devastated by the trade. He packed up his locker at Blue Note Stadium and left without speaking to reporters or saying goodbye to his teammates.
“This can be a difficult business sometimes,” said Aponte. “I was very sorry that things did not work out for him here. He is a sensitive young man, and I believe there was too much pressure for him to succeed here. Perhaps this fresh start will be what he needs.”
For the Hammerheads, Suarez’s glove is a tremendous asset. Jackson had serious problems with outfield defense last season, given the enormous dimensions of their park and the fact that many of their outfielders were below-average fielders. CF Damian “Black Hammer” Deason put up an appallingly bad .944 fielding percentage last year.
“Boy, do we need a guy like Santiago,” said Henley. “Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, and he can cover the other third. Whatever he can give us with the bat is just gravy. But I think a park this big, he’ll be able to hit it into the gaps and just run all day. His speed and this park were made for each other.”
Butler promised to do his best to make Suarez feel appreciated in his new home. He indicated that he planned a “hero’s welcome” for Suarez, to be held before the Hammerheads’ first home game against Knoxville. While the whiz-kid GM was tight-lipped on the details, he promised that it was a ceremony the Smokies “would never forget.”
Asked for a response, Smokies owner Jeremy Mills said, “The 2015 PBL Eastern Division Champions have no comment. Mr. Butler can give himself all the titles he wants, but we have the one that counts.”
On the eve of this season’s entry draft, the Jackson Hammerheads and California Sharks made a swap that filled holes for both sides. California acquired right-handed starter Todd Warrant from their fellow cartilage-based club in exchange for 3B Max Ortiz and long reliever Jason Richter.
Both teams were dealing from areas of relative strength in order to shore up weaknesses on the roster. The Hammerheads had a vacancy at the hot corner after losing Kim Fleitas in the expansion draft in a controversial move. In the 36-year-old Ortiz, Jackson landed a veteran player who is regarded as defensively challenged, but packs a potent bat. The Sharks acquired him at the trading deadline last season and saw him go on a tear, batting .383 with 6 doubles and 6 RBI over 20 games.
“Hot dog!” exclaimed new Heads manager Bob Henley. “We got a howitzer brigade in this lineup, and Max only makes us that much deeper. Our lineup should be rated R with all the violence we’re gonna do to that poor ball.”
Ortiz, who projected to platoon on the corners for California this season, had mixed feelings about the trade. “I hate to leave California,” he told reporters. “Even though I was not here long, I made a lot of friends. And I love the culture and the weather here as well. But I also want to be playing every day, and I will be doing that in Jackson, which is very good.”
Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte wished Ortiz well in his new home. “Max is a fine player and a true gentleman,” said the California skipper. “I know the fans here and his teammates alike will miss him.”
The Sharks, meanwhile, were thin in their rotation after losing starters Deke Slater and Brian Goreman in the expansion draft. They picked up a quality starter in Warrant, a 26-year-old knuckleballer who posted a 13-7 record and a 3.05 ERA. Like Ortiz, Warrant was a late-season pickup, as Jackson acquired him from the Knoxville Smokies on the eve of the deadline.
“To me, I feel that Todd is the perfect addition to our team,” said Aponte. “His pitching style is a great contrast to our other hard throwers, and he gives us a fourth high-quality starter. Our rotation holds great promise this year.”
While some around the league consider the deal a clear win for the Sharks, others point out the inherent unreliability of knuckleballers and point out that two different organizations soured on him over the course of last season.
“Yeah, I’ve dealt with that kind of crap my whole career,” said Warrant. “Because we don’t throw hard and we look goofy doing it, people don’t trust the knuckler. I may not be the most impressive-looking player out there, but I’ll get you results. Now I get to prove everybody wrong, and I get to do it while enjoying good sushi and year-round sunshine. I’ll take it!”
The 31-year-old Richter spent all of last season in the minors, and is considered a long shot to make Jackson’s Opening Day bullpen. But relief pitching is always in short supply around the PBL, and Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler considers Richter a lottery ticket.
“If I learned one thing last season, it’s that you can’t have too many relievers,” said Butler. “Richter’s got a live arm, and who knows?”
In a funny coincidence, both principals in the deal (Ortiz and Warrant) spent most of last year with Knoxville. Smokies owner Jeremiah Mills called the deal “interesting” and likened it to seeing a couple of ex-girlfriends become friends. “Been there, done that,” said Mills.”
It was a topsy-turvy year for the Western division’s second-place team. Before the season, most observers expected the Sharks to be a team with strong pitching and mediocre hitting. As it happened, they wound up being extremely potent on offense, while their pitching was merely average.
“We didn’t have the team we thought we had,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, who predicted a title before the season. “We were a strong team as we expected, but not at all in the way we expected.”
The statistics tell the story of California’s strange season. The Sharks led the league in home runs with 200 and in OPS with an .820 mark. SS Rubin Smyth came out of nowhere to lead the league in hitting with a .356 average, backing it up with 27-homer power. LF Kenneth Mader hit .325 and went deep 29 times. Eddie Nix, who began the season in a platoon DH arrangement, finished with a .336 average and 21 longballs. The other half of that platoon, Johnie Oller, wound up leading the team in homers with 36 while bouncing between four different positions. RF Jessie Corona led the league in triples with 25.
“I thought I’d put together a pretty good lineup, but I didn’t know it was that good,” said Sharks owner/GM Colin Mills.
With offensive numbers like that, you might figure California ran away with the title. But although they claimed the highly prestigious Chum Bucket by winning their season series against the Jackson Hammerheads, they didn’t even win their division, thanks largely to their supposed strength: the pitching staff. The team’s 4.36 ERA and .741 OPS against were both only good for fourth in the league.
What went wrong? The Sharks’ rotation was solid but unspectacular. They had a pair of starters (righty Pierre LaRue and lefty Stu Palmeiro) in the top 10 in ERA, and young righty Kevin Conner bounced back from a rough first half to post a 15-8 record and a 4.21 ERA. The back end of the rotation was a mess, though. Righty Deke Slater, expected to be a star for the team, stumbled to a 10-12 record with a 4.92 ERA. Fifth starter Brian Goreman was a pleasant surprise early in the season but crumbled later on, finishing with a 7-13 record and a 5.12 ERA.
By far the Sharks’ biggest hole, though, was the bullpen. Righty Jan Arzola was sensational, posting a 1.53 ERA in 47 appearances. Unfortunately, he was California’s only lockdown arm. The team was particularly lacking in long relief. Their most durable arm, lefty Eugene Grace, was also the team’s closer, forcing Aponte to juggle him between both roles. The Sharks also struggled to find quality left-handed setup men. Veteran Boss Walker, acquired in a midseason trade with Salt Lake, posted a respectable 4.59 ERA. But much-hyped rookie Luke Bond flopped, posting a 5.84 mark and missing a big chunk of time with injury. Other flameouts included long man Ty Shive (5.63), righty Herman Moret (6.57), and expected 8th-inning man Milan Constant (8.05).
“Any time our starters couldn’t get into the 8th, I’d start chugging antacid,” admitted Mills. “It wasn’t fun for me, and I know it wasn’t fun for our fans either.”
Despite the so-so pitching, California might still have had a shot at a title if not for the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the Milwaukee Bear Claws. The Claws seized control of the division in early May and never looked back, romping to a 98-win season and leaving the Sharks in the dust, 12 games behind. “Our challenge isn’t just getting better,” said Mills. “It’s getting better enough to be better than Milwaukee. Talk about a tall order.”
How to get better? That’s a difficult question. Do the Sharks try to fix the pitching staff and hope that the offense doesn’t come back to earth next season? Or do they count on the pitching to revert to form and focus on keeping the offense elite?
“We’re keeping our options open,” said Mills. He did say, however, that fans shouldn’t expect big changes. “We’re not going to make moves just for the sake of making moves,” the owner cautioned. “I believe in continuity and building from within. That said, I know standing still isn’t going to let us catch the Bear Claws. We’re definitely open to upgrades.”
One potential positive for the Sharks: the strong showing of their late additions. California shook things up at the trading deadline, and in doing so unearthed several potential gems. Right-hander Kerry Lopez, called up from the minors, posted a 2.37 ERA; he may be able to plug the team’s long relief hole, or slot into the rotation. Veteran corner infielder Max Ortiz came in a deal with Knoxville and batted .383, bolstering a weak spot for California. Young lefty Hal Gilreath, acquired from Jackson, made a couple promising scoreless appearances.
“I was most pleased with our reinforcements,” said Aponte. “I very much hope we can rely on them for a return performance next season.”
But what will the Sharks do about their disappointments, like Slater and CF Santiago Suarez (who batted a paltry .236)? Will the team seek “upgrades,” as Mills said, or will they count on those players bouncing back next season? The answer to those questions might determine whether California breaks through next year, or if they remain an also-ran.
But then the Hammerheads struck a deal with the California Sharks, one that threatened to make Jackson owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler the king of the deadline. But Smokies boss Jeremy Mills wasn’t about to let Butler steal his crown without a fight. In the final hours before the deadline passed, Mills made a pair of deals that may or may not have made the Smokies the team to beat in the East, but definitely ensured that Mills remained the top trader.
“We’re always looking for ways to make the team better,” said Mills, still visibly twitching from the adrenaline that trading always gives him.
The first deal that Knoxville struck was with the East’s last-place team, the Orlando Calrissians. The Smokies acquired a pair of left-handed pitchers, Rick Tomblin and Tom Trane, from Orlando in exchange for LF Titus Maben, lefty reliever Oliver Jones, and a 3rd-round draft pick.
The Smokies have the best team ERA in the league (3.47), so it might seem odd that they were looking to add pitching. But they opened a hole in their rotation when they traded knuckleballer Todd Warrant to Jackson in their earlier deal. In Tomblin and Trane, they get a pair of possible replacements, although both had a rough ride with the Calrissians.
Both Tomblin and Trane began the season in Orlando’s rotation, but both were bounced out after the Calrissians suffered through a disappointing April. The 22-year-old Tomblin compiled an 0-1 record and a 15.26 ERA in three starts before being banished to the minors. The 29-year-old Trane was sent to the bullpen after being bumped from the rotation, but he struggled in that role as well before going down with an oblique strain, then winding up in the minors on his return. Overall, Trane compiled an 0-2 record with a 9.82 ERA in nine appearances with Orlando.
“Tom and Rick are both solid hurlers,” said Smokies manager Snuff Wallace. “They ran out of chances with Orlando, but I’m sure they’ll both be ready to help us lift that championship trophy. Rub a little of the Snuff magic dust on ‘em, and they’ll be good.”
According to team sources, it is likely that Trane will work out of the bullpen for Knoxville, giving the Smokies another long-relief arm to supplement Jerry Tile. As for Tomblin, he seems destined to bump the recently-acquired Nico Library out of the rotation. Although Knoxville insists that Library will get a start against Jackson, his unimpressive minor-league numbers suggest that he is not destined to remain with the big club for long.
Meanwhile, the Calrissians have made no secret of their desire to rebuild around young players. While they did make the somewhat curious decision to part with a young arm in Tomblin, the Calrissians received several promising pieces in return. The 23-year-old Maben headlines the package coming to Orlando. Although he scuffled in limited action with Knoxville, compiling a .125 average in 32 at-bats, Maben profiles as a quality corner outfielder and potential top-of-the-order bat. The Calrissians have had major struggles in the outfield, and now they have another prospect to join teenage slugger Bart Law in their stable.
In the 19-year-old Jones, the Calrissians land a capable, hard-throwing young arm that might bring some stability to their wobbly bullpen. The young southpaw began the season in Salt Lake, where his numbers suffered from overuse. He was dealt to Knoxville in June, and was slotted into a lower-usage role that allowed him to thrive. He compiled a 1-1 record with a 3.71 ERA in 16 appearances with the Smokies. Like a lot of young pitchers, Jones struggles with his control – he has allowed 48 walks this season while recording only 26 strikeouts – but he is considered a highly promising prospect in an area where Orlando is sorely lacking.
“We really wanted a look at a young outfielder, and we liked Maben,” said Calrissians owner Brian Aufmuth. “But it was the draft pick that pushed us over the edge. This gives us a real shot to build for the future.”
After completing the deal with Orlando, Mills turned around and struck a bargain with the California Sharks, acquiring LF Rucky Virella in exchange for 3B Max Ortiz.
The Smokies were looking to add a young player after dealing away several prospects in recent deals, and Virella fits the bill. The 24-year-old is a versatile young player with decent pop. After a brief stint with California at the start of the season, he has spent most of the year with the minors, where he compiled a .234 average with 6 homers. He is capable of playing all three outfield positions and first base, although he does not have a reputation as a good fielder.
Meanwhile, the Sharks were looking to strengthen their infield, and Ortiz provides what they were looking for. The veteran can play either corner infield position, and he is known for a solid power bat. He was relegated to pinch-hit duty with the Smokies, putting up a .208 average in 48 at bats, but he should get much more opportunity with California. The team plans to start him out in a platoon with Johnie Oller at first, and if he thrives, he may also split time with struggling 3B Karl Mote.
“I am delighted to have Max on our team,” said Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte, who was teammates with Ortiz in the Mexican League several years ago. “He is a delightful storyteller, a dangerous bat, and he will be a good mentor for our younger players.”
With the deadline now past, Mills and the Smokies are officially done dealing for the season. Now they’ll just have to wait and see if these tweaks were what the team needed to stay on top, or if the revolving clubhouse door will wind up dooming them.
The Jackson Hammerheads and California Sharks have a lot in common, apart from their cartilage-based mascots. Each team is in second place in its division, trailing the first-place team by 5 games. With the trading deadline at hand, both teams had one last shot to strengthen their teams for the stretch run. They wound up making a deal with each other, with California sending 1B John Lassen to Jackson in exchange for left-handed reliever Hal Gilreath.
Unsurprisingly, the trade was proposed by Hammerheads owner/whiz-kid GM Steven Butler, one of the league’s most active wheeler-dealers. When Sharks owner/GM Colin Mills indicated that he was seeking help for his team’s struggling bullpen, Butler swung into action. After a brief negotiation, the deal was struck.
For California, the deal is as much about the future as the present. The Sharks have struggled to establish a reliable relief corps behind right-hander Jan Arzola and rubber-armed closer Eugene Grace. Veteran David Watts flamed out early and spent much of the season in the minors, pitching to an 11.13 ERA on the season. 19-year-old Luke Bond has proven gopher ball-prone, and he is currently injured. Long man Ty Shive has struggled with control. Righty Milan Constant became rusty from erratic use before being demoted. 30-year-old rookie Herman Moret was a pleasant surprise at first, but his numbers drooped as hitters figured him out. Southpaw Boss Walker, acquired from Salt Lake in a midseason swap, has been decent, but is less than durable.
The acquisition of Gilreath, a 23-year-old slider specialist, comes as part of a larger shakeup of California’s bullpen, as the team has demoted Moret, Watts, and Shive and called up Constant and journeyman Kerry Lopez to join Gilreath.
“We need a bridge to get us to the end of games,” said Mills. “We’ve seen too many games slip away late.”
Gilreath struggled in limited action with the Hammerheads, posting a 9.72 ERA and allowing 10 hits and 9 walks over 8 1/3 innings. But Sharks manager Eduardo Aponte likes the lefty’s growth potential.
“Like a lot of young pitchers, Hal has not yet mastered command and the art of pitching to situations,” said Aponte. “But if we can get his mechanics sorted, he could be a cornerstone for us for many years.”
The 32-year-old Lassen represents Jackson’s latest attempt to make up for their foolhardy decision to trade away popular first sacker Eddie Battin to Knoxville in late May. Lacy Wilczynski, who has spent the majority of the time at first since Battin’s departure, has batted .247 with virtually zero power, and the Hammerheads are desperate to get more production from the position.
Whether Lassen will be the answer remains to be seen. The LA native put up a .310 average with 13 homers last year in the independent American Association, but he was an utter flop with the Sharks. The team benched up after a month of dismal numbers, and ultimately sent him to the minors in June. In 43 games with California, Lassen batted an astounding .160 with 2 home runs, contributing nothing from an offensive standpoint other than a decent batting eye (drawing 14 walks in 103 at-bats). Lassen does have a reputation as an excellent glove man, however, a key consideration for the fielding-challenged Hammerheads.
“We bought low on John Lassen,” said Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes. “We think he’s gonna turn it around for us, and be a solid contributor with the bat and save us runs with his glove too.”
On one level, this is a minor deal, a swap of struggling players in search of a fresh start. (“What harm could it do to roll the dice?” mused Mills.) But the deal has significant upside potential for both sides. If Lassen’s numbers can rebound toward last year’s form, it could fill a major hole in Jackson’s lineup and allow them to chase down the first-place Smokies. If Gilreath can straighten himself out and start throwing strikes, on the other hand, the Sharks might benefit from this trade for years to come.
Some have called it the most important trophy in all of sports. Some have called it a throwback to the days when sports weren’t a big business, and athletes played for the thrill of competition and victory, rather than big bucks and endorsements. Some have called it a bait bucket plated in an undisclosed but extremely shiny metal. But whatever you call it, the highly prestigious Chum Bucket is one of the Patriot League’s most distinctive and talked-about features.
The highly prestigious Chum Bucket is awarded to the winner of the season series between the Jackson Hammerheads and the California Sharks, the two Patriot League teams with cartilaginous fish for mascots. With the two teams now having finished their head-to-head matchup (at least for the regular season), it’s official: the trophy now belongs to the boys from Long Beach. The Sharks won 9 of the 15 games between the teams to claim the title.
“Gosh, it’s almost like winning an Oscar,” said Sharks ace Pierre LaRue. “It’s just so prestigious and so, so shiny. I can see my face in it!”
The Sharks celebrated their victory by taking laps around their locker room while holding up the highly prestigious Chum Bucket, while “Paradise City” by Guns ‘n’ Roses played in the background. “There was a lot of emotion in the locker room, no question,” said Sharks C Thaddeus Lockley. “I think I even saw some guys tearing up. It might have been because the hot wings were really spicy, but I think it was emotion.”
Meanwhile, in the Jackson locker room, the emotions were markedly different. “I’d say ‘devastated’ isn’t too strong a word,” said Hammerheads 2B Homer Righter of the mood among his teammates. “Devastated. Crushed. Borderline suicidal. Take your pick.”
The highly prestigious Chum Bucket was originally conceived by Jackson Hammerheads owner Steven Butler, an avid fisherman. “Basically, I got drunk one night and came up with the idea of a bait-bucket trophy,” said Butler.
Both the Hammerheads and Sharks contested fiercely for it. Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes called the highly prestigious Chum Bucket a “must-win trophy” as recently as this week, while California manager Eduardo Aponte said he was unsure whether he’d rather win the highly prestigious Chum Bucket or the championship trophy.
“Frankly, it was a little creepy how fixated guys got on it sometimes,” said Jackson C Clarence Doyle. “Every time we were playing California, it was all Chum Bucket this, Chum Bucket that, highly prestigious, more important than life itself, blah blah blah.”
Early on in the season, it looked as though the competition was going to be thoroughly one-sided. California won 6 of the first 7 times the teams played, and the Sharks all but declared victory right there. “You know those guys in the other dugout there?” said Sharks pitcher Stu Palmeiro after he stifled the Hammerheads 4-1 to complete a mid-June three-game sweep in Long Beach. “Well, none of ‘em are gonna get out of the harbor alive.”
But the Hammerheads bounced back to sweep a two-game set at Cash Carter Downs in late June, then took two of three in California in early August to put themselves back in striking distance. In the rubber match of the series, a 10-1 Jackson rout, DH Alex Jaramillo went 4-for-5 and clubbed a pair of homers, and crowed, “Bring on the highly prestigious Chum Bucket! The tide has turned in our favor.”
It all came down to this week’s three-game showdown in Jackson. If the Hammerheads could sweep the series, the highly prestigious Chum Bucket would belong to them. Otherwise, California would claim it. “Everyone here is on a singular mission,” said Jackson CF Damian Deason before the series began. “This is out damn trophy. It belongs to us, and we’re going to fight like hell to keep it.”
Deason’s “fight” metaphor became literal in the opening game of the series, as the intense emotion on both sides boiled over in a wild contest. The teams engaged in a bench-clearing brawl after Hammerheads starter Luke Danton plunked Sharks CF Santiago Suarez, and Suarez charged the mound in response. The donnybrook seemed to fire up the Californians, as they stormed back from a 5-1 9th-inning deficit to tie the game. But the Hammerheads walked off the visitors with a game-winning single in the 10th, keeping their hopes alive. “Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey echoed off the clubhouse walls as the boys in baby blue whooped it up. “I don’t think they’d celebrate this vigorously if they actually won the championship,” commented an outside observer of the scene.
The next night, it was the Sharks who got in front early, taking a 7-3 lead to bring themselves to the brink of clinching. But the Hammerheads refused to yield, storming back furiously with a late rally. Trailing 8-6 in the 9th, Jackson loaded the bases against star California reliever Jan Arzola. Hammerheads 1B Lacy Wilczynski then smacked a single that seemed likely to tie the game. But Suarez – the same man who’s touched off the fracas of the previous night – snagged the ball and fired a perfect missile to the plate, gunning down pinch runner Henry Jones to win the game and the highly prestigious Chum Bucket.
“I feel so much right now,” said Suarez, who is notoriously shy around the press. “This is everything. The Chum Bucket is ours.”
Over on the losing side, Hammerheads manager Lou Hayes contemplated the closeness of the series, the anguished disappointment of defeat, the pride of his team’s stirring comeback, and summed it up as follows: “This sucks.”
Meanwhile, the victorious Aponte, who’s always ready for a quip or a quote, seemed at a rare loss for words. “I got no spit,” he said when he first arrived at the podium for his postgame press conference.
Perhaps it was LaRue who summed things up best. “You don’t suppose it would be disrespectful to drink beer out of the highly prestigious Chum Bucket, do you?” the California ace pondered. “Hell, I don’t care, I’m gonna do it anyway. I’ll drink to your leg!”
The following transactions occurred in the Patriot League over the last week:
California Sharks: Signed free agents 1B Jamal Gerke, SS Grant Knepper, CF Conrad Mojica, SP Kerry Lopez, and RPs Osvaldo Barret and Jason Richter.
Jackson Hammerheads: Signed free agents C Carlos Asperzol, 3B Elmo Milliner, LF Monty Walcott, DH Dexter Jester, SP Nico Library, and RF Cortez Petrik. Waived 1B Coy Tighe. Activated 1B Pete Ciancarulo from the 15-day disabled list. Placed DH Alex Jaramillo on the 15-day disabled list. Called up LF Monty Walcott.
Jacksonville Dragons: Signed free agents 1B Neal B. Thomas, CF Rondei Isua, DH Isaias Miguel, SP Juan Pascos, and RPs Lauren Gilpatrick and Jamel Janke.
Knoxville Smokies: Signed free agents 2B Danny Kurland, CF Arnold Carranza, DH Jerome Arch, and RPs Rodolfo Darville, Oscar Madison, and Norman Sater. Claimed 1B Coy Tighe off waivers. Called up CF Arnold Carranza. Demoted SS Lorenzo Arias and RP Edgar Provenza.
Milwaukee Bear Claws: Signed free agents 2B Quirico Rodriguez, RF Bruce Rew, DH Hans Coghill, and RPs Rodolfo Elmonte, Mike Manigault, and Antonio Schieber.
Orlando Calrissians: Signed free agents 2B Jeffrey Matter, LF Sang LeLeux, DH Casey Helmers, SP Ali Godari, and RPs Shab Mickolas and Courtney Vanepps. Activated CF Glen Madden from the 15-day disabled list.
Salt Lake Samurai: Signed free agents 1B Lawrence Briski, 2B Gabriel Montalvo, SS Dario Rickard, DH Lazaro Matherne, and RPs Jose Mariata and Bryce Sereno. Traded RPs Rick Wilkins, Oliver Jones, and Jose Mariata to Knoxville for SP Grant Fore, DH Matthew Weigel, and RP Norman Sater. (See story here.) Placed C DeAndre Turnbull on the 15-day disabled list. Called up RPs Jimmy Okamura and Norman Sater.
Silver City Outlaws: Signed free agents 3B Narciso Rodriguez, CF Sebastian Melora, DH Charley Ingraham, and RPs Irving Godlewski, Duke Newlin, and Ron Wall.