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!”