Masters Reclimb the Mountain
The post '96/pre '97 Summer League offseason was an offseason of turmoil. As Keith Klein stated so Hemingway-esque in his '97 preview Summer League Journaltm, "the gray late-November skies seemed to reflect the state of the Summer League". Rumors had Keith moving to Oregon, and Greg struggled with demons as he approached a crossroads in life, with league members never fully understanding how close he came to severing all ties with the league. Charter member and perennial league participant Dan Casper was leaving the fold, and things looked bleak.
As Commissioner Ken Klein struggled in his ivory tower in Long Grove to piece the league back together, maverick owner Chris Klein once again came through. In a move to add some stability to an ever changing managerial set, Chris inked a deal with legendary APBA enthusiast Steve Swinea to join the league. Steve brings an enthusiasm to the table not previously seen outside of the Security Council of Klein, Klein, Klein, and Nims. When asked for his views on the deal, Nims stated "The Summer League is like a building. In the Big Four, we had the four corner posts to provide the basic structure. But last fall it was sagging badly in the middle. Steve provides that support we've needed." After the crucial signing of Swinea, things began to fall into place. Ken signed 3 time league member Jim Frank to a one year deal, and '96 rookie John Bryant hit the recruiting trail. John signed Joltin' Joe Hauser and came close to signing other young blood, but the second deal fell through. After the signing of Hauser, the Summer League had 8 franchises, and the outlook for the league was better than it had been in a long time.
The league opened slowly, with Frank disappearing into the Caribbean for a month, delaying a much anticipated draft. When Frank returned, the draft was run as best as possible, but Ken ended up drafting rounds 2 through 9 while in Kansas City on a religious retreat, perhaps soliciting the gods for advice and a kind bit of luck for the upcoming season. Once the season began, Keith's Mystic Rhythm jumped out to an early lead in the Taterka. In order to right his ship to make a run at Keith, Ken's South Syrinx Friars completed a much debated trade with John's Chico Walkers. John sent 2nd round draft pick Andres Galarraga and Jim Thome to South Syrinx for a bunch of scrubs. South Syrinx caught fire and played great ball over the rest of the season, taking a lead over Keith by 2 games going into a regular season closing 6 game set between the league's two most bitter rivals. Keith won 3 of the first 5, setting up game 162 with Keith trailing by one game. With Juan Guzman and Mike Grace going to the hill, Albert Belle, '96 league MVP and '97 RBI champ, answered the call like perhaps no other player in league history. Albert hit a solo shot in the first to give the Rhythm an early 1-0 lead. In the third, Albert tripled home Mark McLemore and shocked Guzman by stealing home on the next pitch for a 3-0 Rhythm lead as the hometown Mystic fans went nuts. Albert capped the day by adding a much needed insurance run in the 8th on a solo shot, giving the Rhythm an insurmountable 4-2 lead. Keith won his 3rd one game playoff in 4 tries the next day, capturing his 4th division title.
In the Molsen Division, Chris' St. Petersburg Apostles held an early lead on Greg's Mountain View Masters. At the 60 game mark, the Masters stood at 32-28, with Nims angrily questioning team leaders about what the hell was going on. The Masters responded well, winning their final fifteen 5-game series to roar past the Apostles and win the division, Nims' 5th, by 12 games, and in the process capturing Nims' 5th best record. Master Barry Bonds won the league MVP by sparking the Mountain View offense with 143 runs scored, 118 RBI, 51 HR and 77 steals. The Masters were bolstered on the mound by Jeff Fassero (16-6, 3.86), Tim Worrell (15-6), and Robb Nen (14-9, league leading 22 holds).
The Apostles had top run producer Gary Sheffield's 136 runs scored, 138 RBI, league leading 56 HR, league leading 181 hits, and also got big numbers from Juan Gonzalez (40 HR, 113 RBI). The problem area for the Apostles was pitching, last in the league in ERA and opponents hit .264 off the staff, 18 points over the league average.
Rookie Steve Swinea's Cicero Bohemians, Bohunks to their fans, completed a disappointing inaugural campaign in third place at 72-90, 23 games out of first. The Bohunks never got going on offense, finishing last in runs, 33 behind the 7th place squad. Surprisingly, the Bohunks finished 3rd in ERA behind fine bullpen handling of the rookie skipper.
John Bryant's Chico Walkers finished a disappointing season last in the Molsen. After a rookie year in which he battled eventual champ Evanston Vedders for a playoff spot until the final day of the regular season, optimism was high in Chico. Hopes started to dim when Bryant drafted Andres Galarraga in the 2nd round with the 15th pick of the draft. When the Walkers traded Le Gato along with Jim Thome and Benito Santiago for Rusty Greer, Mo Vaughn, and Dan Wilson, Walkers fans burned team paraphenalia in anger. Mo did have a good season for the Walkers, with 109 RBI and 101 runs scored. Dean Palmer had a fine one-dimensional season with 42 HR, and A-Rod hit .284 with 57 doubles to go with fine defensive play at short. Ken Hill (14-10, 3.45) anchored a staff that finished second in Complete Games (70 to South Syrinx's 71), but the sophomore slump took its toll.
The Masters and Apostles met in the semi-final round of the playoffs, and the Masters were on a mission. After a playoff collapse in '96 at the hands of the same franchise, the team was out for blood. The Masters mauled Apostle pitching and won the series 4-1, with Todd Hundley taking the LCS MVP award, hitting 5 taters to lead the way.
In the other bracket, the hated rivals Mystic and South Syrinx squared off. Offended by the Rush plagerism, the Rhythm looked to knock off the Friars and advance to the Series for an opportunity at their first title since '95b. The Rhythm were led by Belle, who followed his '96 MVP campaign with 47 HR, a league leading 148 RBI, and 107 runs scored. The Rhythm finished last in average, but were 4th in runs scored. Once again, Keith used his bullpen to perfection to finish second in ERA, behind the pitching-laden Friars.
The Friars were loaded. On draft day Ken constructed the most powerful rotation, and the trade with Bryant completed an imposing lineup. Critics complained that the trade upset the competitive balance of the league, collusion was uttered, and managers wondered if they could top what appeared to be the team to win Ken his first title. The Friars finished first in ERA behind Cy Young winner Kevin Brown (22-10, 2.21, 32 CG), Chuck Nagy (15-9), an abused Juan Guzman (15-17, 3.99, 23 CG), and Trevor Hoffman (league leading 23 saves). At the plate, the Friars finished second in the league in runs scored, using a league leading (surprise, surprise) 267 HR and league leading 641 walks, a team that would make Earl Weaver proud.
The Mobile Trailer Homers, led by league gigalo Jim Frank, left training camp on a mission. Their goal: the league stolen base record. Much to the joy of their fearless leader, the Homers acheived this record, with 263 steals, led by Kenny Lofton's league record 102 steals, with 31 CS. The offense was led by the Big Curse, Frank Thomas. The league's unlucky rabbits foot was in the top 10 in almost every ptg. category, BA (2nd), SLUG (6th), OBP (5th), TA (6th), Runs Created (6th) and Runs Contributed (6th), but conspicously absent from the top ten in runs or runs batted in. Ellis Burks supplied the real punch, driving in 125 runs, third best in the league. The Homers won the batting title by 6 points, but finished 5th in runs. Despite taking John Smoltz with the third pick in the draft, the Homers finished 7th in ERA. Smoltz did lead the league in strikeouts, and the pen included Mariano Rivera and John Wetteland, but their talents were wasted on this team.
Joltin' Joe Hauser's Shakopee Schlitz made a splash early in his rookie draft, acquiring big bashers Mark McGwire (league-leading 56 homers), Ken Griffey, Jr. (51 HR), and Terry Steinbach "and I'm outta here" (39 HR, 112 RBI). Despite this trio, the Schlitz finished 6th in runs. Perhaps having Lance Johnson second in the league in steal attempts while hitting in front of the bash brothers was not a good move. When they had the ball, the Schlitz gave up the second most runs in the league. Steve Trachsel (14-12, 3.80) overcame his L home run grade to have a fine season, and Troy Percival (16 saves, 2.58) was fine out of the pen, but there wasn't much after that.
In the semis, the Friars won another historic battle between the two franchises 4 games to 2. The Friars hit a SL playoff record 10 homers in game one and never looked back.
The Masters and the Friars were set to do battle, the second time the two franchises met for the title, with Greg's POMY topping the Worms in '95a. The Masters jumped to a 2-0 lead going into game 3, with Kevin Brown scheduled for the Friars. In the regular season, Nims conceded defeat to Brown twice, sitting all his stars who needed rest. Before the Series, Nims had pondered a 2-0 scenario and had decided he would probably send John Smiley to the hill out of turn to face Brown, and save season ace Jeff Fassero for game 4. On game day, Nims decided to go for the kill and sent Fassero to the mound. The Masters responded with a resounding victory and the franchise's 3rd league title seemed within reach. The Friars sent Chuck Finley to the mound in game 4, and the Master bats welcomed him with 7 runs in the first. The partying had begun in Mountain View.
A '96 collapse by the Zima at the hands of the Vedders was forgotten with 8-1 playoff run by the Masters, and all that awaited was the moment every Summer League manager dreams of, the awarding of the Spit Cup. When '96 champ Chris handed over the championship trophy to Greg and Keith topped it off with Leinie's, all those hours scribbling player stats and ratings into a notebook, day after day running Markov calculations, and all the league simulations run on an old 486 made it all worthwhile. A beer never tasted so good.