Monday, September 19, 2005

2005 Northern League Champions

Photographs By Niki Paton / Baseball Notions

"In the world there are believers and then there are non-believers. For all of you non-believers out there, I have something to say to you . . . never underestimate the heart of a champion. "
- Rudy Tomjohnavich

GARY, Ind. - The Northern League 2005 season has officially come to an end. The Gary RailCats, who were down two games to the RedHawks at the beginning of the championship series, began a three-game winning streak Friday night at home in the U.S. Steel Yard.

The RailCats worked for the 7-3 win in game three staying alive in the series. In game four, the RailCats proved they were after the championship with a 12-4 win over the RedHawks to even the series. In game five on Sunday, the RailCats went head-to-head against the RedHawks in the final battle for the 2005 Northern League Championship. RedHawks pitcher Brandon Culp threw an incredible game against the RailCats but the damage accomplished in the first inning would be their downfall.

Culp kept the RailCats to a one-run lead while RailCats pitchers Jamie Bennett, Travis Kerber and Derek Lopez combined along with the RailCats defense to keep the RedHawks from gaining any momentum. The only RedHawks player to score on the RailCats was infielder Bryon Jeffcoat with a bases empty home run in the sixth. By the ninth 2,496 fans were on their feet screaming with every pitch as RailCats closer Derek Lopez took over control of the mound.

Ultimately, the RailCats beat the RedHawks with a score of 2-1 in nine innings taking game five and the 2005 Northern League Championship. After four years in the Northern League the Gary SouthShore RailCats, under the guidance of Manager Greg Tagert, Coaches Gates, Haines and Sagara have brought the first Northern League Championship to the U.S. Steel Yard against the RedHawks who had a 68-27 record this season.

This year there have been many accomplishments in the Northern League but in Gary, these achievements were firsts for the team and many of its members. The RailCats thought of as one of the worst teams in the Northern League in 2004 began the 2005 season with new life. Under Manager Greg Tagert, the RailCats found a fresh start, remarkable camaraderie and built momentum for an astonishing winning season with a 54-42 record.

The RailCats players and veterans put the past behind them this year with an attitude that everything was fresh and new. Before an exhibition game against the Joliet JackHammers on May 16, 2005, I spoke with RailCats pitcher Travis Kerber who said he had a, “good feeling,” and was really looking forward to, “a fresh new season.” That fresh new start and attitude would take the RailCats into the playoffs and September baseball.

The RailCats strength in 2005 came in many forms but one of the most impressive places was in its pitching. RailCats pitchers, challenged by changing rolls when starters became relief pitchers and vice versa adapted well. Understanding the RailCats strengths, Tagert challenged his team to excel and the outcome kept player transactions to a minimum during the season.

When placed into the bullpen in July, an unfamiliar but fresh roll after a few rough starts, the aggressive pitching style of Greg Bruso was tested. He had been a starting pitcher for most of his career, but was, “up to the new challenge,” set before him and proved himself in that position this season.Relief pitcher Cody Fisher faced a new challenge as well when making his debut on August 9, 2005 in a new role for the RailCats as a starting pitcher, which is a position he has held with other teams in his career. He would prove to be an incredible asset as a starter for the RailCats shutting out the Saint Paul Saints in game four of the semi-final series at the U.S. Steel Yard.

There was an air of sadness with the team at the retirement of pitcher Dominic Woody in June and the major transactions some fans questioned which sent starting pitcher Quinton Oldenburg and infielder Jason Colson to Calgary in August for outfielder Fehlandt Lentini. The trade became necessary after outfielder Anthony Iapoce suffered a broken thumb at Schaumburg with the injury thought to keep him out for the rest of the season.

Outfielder Scott Samuels also suffered a hamstring injury placing him on the DL while a string of other illnesses and injuries affected the team toward the end of this season. The RailCats remained contenders in the race for the Northern League 2005 Championship while Greg Tagert, Sagara, Haines and Gates worked with the team to keep the dream alive.

Lentini went on to prove himself to the RailCats and after working through the rough patch the drive remained to end with a winning season. One approach the RailCats took with them to the playoffs- focus, take it a game at a time but keep the goal in mind while treating each game as if it was a regular season game. What ever the key to this season was the RailCats were reborn taking a team with a terrible record, and turning it around in one season.

As a baseball fan and someone who had witnessed previous seasons, you could feel the renewed energy as the 2005 season began at the U.S. Steel Yard. It was a different place to see a game compared to prior seasons. Fans seemed to bring a more boisterous outlook and vigor to the game. The Steel Yard attendance increased as the team’s new reputation spread. The 2005 All Star Game hosted at the U.S. Steel Yard in Gary helped solidify the Steel Yard as an incredible place to see and play baseball.

The payoff to fans this season for their undying support began as the team won games finishing near the top during the Northern League first half. By the second half, they continued to prove contenders in the league working to stay ahead of Saint Paul, Lincoln and Calgary aiming for a playoff spot. The best possible reward for fans came when the RailCats achieved a playoff spot creating the first of three trademark, “dogpiles,” and the first for the U.S. Steel Yard.

After clinching the playoff spot, they achieved another record tying for the Southern Division second half with Saint Paul. Their next feat occurred when they competed against the 2004 Northern League Champion Saint Paul Saints for a spot in the championship series.

The playoff semi-final series began at Saint Paul with Saint Paul taking game one and Gary winning game two. Next, it was onto the U.S. Steel Yard for the rest of the semi-final series where Saint Paul and Gary kept dueling until it came down to a game five. In final playoff game five the RailCats kept the Saints at bay while the Steel Yard crowd could be heard chanting in the ninth inning, "We’re going to Fargo!" The RailCats won game five sending them to the final championship series against the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks at Fargo, North Dakota.

The RedHawks proved their strength at home in Fargo when they won games one and two at Newman Outdoor Field but the last three games of the championship series at the Steel Yard were phenomenal exhibiting the change that's come to baseball and its fan base in Gary, Indiana. The crowds were into every moment of the championship series holding signs exclaiming their undying support for the team and individual players as they came up to bat for Gary.

The RailCats management supplied double-sided signs for the fans during the final games with two previous photographed, “dogpile,” shots from the prior playoff wins with the words, "One More Dogpile." Fans waved them feverishly as if they were Minnesota Twins Homer Hankies cheering so loud you would have thought you were at a big league ballpark watching the Boston Red Sox play the World Series.

There were die-hard fans such as the John Schmitz fan club that stood in the top row, behind home plate at Sunday afternoon’s game who held up huge white signs when Schmitz came up to bat. Fans of Scott Samuels and Anthony Iapoce behind home plate held signs when they were up to bat as well.

There was Vinnie a.k.a “SuperFan” and fellow RailCats followers all decked out to support the RailCats. Super Fan wore his team signed, trademark jersey while three of the newest diehards began on Friday with other adornments.

One man wore black and white face paint with a black RailCats home jersey while two other men began game three with partially showing body paint showing their support. Pumping up fans around the ballpark Sunday afternoon the two men had graduated to covering their bodies from head to waste in baseball, RailCats themed graffiti. In the end, the RailCats championship dreams brought droves of die-hard baseball fans to witness the first championship win in RailCats history.

Photographs By Niki Paton / Baseball Notions

On behalf of Northern League baseball fans, thank you to all the Northern League teams for a spectacular season. I would also like to express my immense gratitude to the Gary SouthShore RailCats for the kindness you have shown to me throughout the season. It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to follow you from the beginning and witness history. You achieved what to some was the unthinkable with the hearts of champions!


Anonymous said...

Our family follows the team from quite a distance and we would just like to thank you for your recaps and photos during the season. What a great way to end the season, great blog!

Niki said...

Thank you for your kind words! This year was a spectacular one for the Northern League and especially for the 2005 champion RailCats. I'm looking forward to the 2006 season and the surprises it has in store.